Monday, August 23, 2021

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

William Shatner as Robert Wilson

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
Season Five, Episode 123
Original Air Date: October 11, 1963

Robert (Bob) Wilson: William Shatner 
Julia Wilson: Christine White 
Flight Engineer: Edward Kemmer 
Stewardess (Betty Crosby): Asa Maynor 
Gremlin: Nick Cravat  
Police Officer: David Armstrong 
Passengers: Slim Bergman, Estelle Etterre, Madeline Finochio, Ed Haskett, Hath Howard, Robert McCord, Beryl McCutcheon, Jean Olson

Writer: Richard Matheson (based on his story) 
Director: Richard Donner 
Producer: Bert Granet
Director of Photography: Robert W. Pittack 
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Walter Holscher 
Film Editor: Thomas W. Scott
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Robert R. Benton
Assistant Director: Charles Bonniwell, Jr. 
Casting: Patricia Rose
Music: stock 
Sound: Franklin Milton & Philip N. Mitchell 
Gremlin makeup designed by William Tuttle and applied by Grant Keate
Mr. Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios 

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“On The Twilight Zone next comes more exciting work from the typewriter of Richard Matheson. Our show is called ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.’ William Shatner and Christine White share performing honors in an aircraft, but it’s the kind of flight none of us have ever experienced, and, I might add, I hope none of us ever will. ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,’ next time out on The Twilight Zone.” 

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home – the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s travelling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of The Twilight Zone.”


            Bob Wilson boards a passenger airplane with his wife, Julia. Wilson is noticeably nervous. He is uncomfortable with his seat being next to the emergency exit. He is startled when the cabin door slams closed. This is not simply a fear of flying, but rather that Wilson has spent the last six months in a sanitarium recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which occurred on an airplane. Released by his doctor, Wilson is determined to begin living again, feeling guilt for having left Julia alone to take care of their children while he was institutionalized. Julia does her best to calm him and assure him that he is cured. 

            Julia falls asleep shortly after takeoff but Wilson is too nervous to sleep. He looks out the window at the gathering storm. Then Wilson sees something else. On the wing of the airplane is a figure resembling a man but grotesque in form. The figure moves across the wing and pokes at a propeller. Wilson panics and calls the stewardess. “There’s a man out there,” Wilson tells her. The stewardess looks at him incredulously. “Look!” Wilson turns to the window. There is no one to be seen. Wilson understands the madness of what he is saying and admits to having made a mistake. Julia awakens but the stewardess assures her that everything is alright.

            Wilson reassures Julia and she falls asleep again. Wilson closes the curtain on his window and tries to read a newspaper. He cannot ignore the window for long, however, and soon throws open the curtain. There, pressed close to the glass, is a hideous face regarding him. Wilson looks away, repeating over and again: “It isn’t there!” Wilson again calls the stewardess but the creature flies away from the window before the stewardess arrives. Wilson, fearful of being thought unwell, instead asks about the storm.

            Shortly thereafter, Wilson again sees the creature on the wing of the airplane. The creature begins tampering with the housing on an engine, prying it up and meddling with the mechanism. Wilson is now convinced that he is not imagining what he is seeing. He is fearful, as well, for this creature may damage the plane and send it careening to the ground. 

            Wilson wakes Julia. He tries to calmly explain what he has seen. He tells her that he is sure it is real. At first he thought perhaps a mechanic had been forgotten during takeoff. Now he believes it may be a gremlin like those described by pilots during WWII. The creature jumps away whenever anyone other than Wilson looks out the window. Now, however, it is threatening the safety of the plane. This is why Wilson has decided to tell her. He knows it looks as though he is suffering another breakdown but he assures her that this time is different.

            Julia cannot disguise the look of shock on her face, and this enrages Wilson. Still, he tries to remain calm. He tells her to alert the pilots, have them observe the wing. If they see nothing, he’ll commit himself when they land. But if they do see something . . .

            Julia hurriedly agrees. She gets up and walks to the cockpit door. The stewardess cuts her off and Julia states that her husband wishes to see the flight engineer. The stewardess reluctantly agrees. Wilson looks out the window again to see the creature reappear and continue tampering with the airplane’s engine. Wilson hollers for them to hurry. Julia and the flight engineer rush over. Wilson repeats his story about something on the wing of the plane. He urges the flight engineer to look out the window. Again, there is nothing unusual to be seen. 

            The flight engineer tells Wilson to remain calm, that they have also seen it but wish not to alarm the other passengers. At first, Wilson is elated that someone else has seen the creature, but he quickly realizes that the flight engineer is only validating his story in order to calm him down.

            Insulted, Wilson declares he’ll say nothing more, willing to let the plane crash before being thought insane. The flight engineer gives Julia a sleeping tablet to give to Wilson, who dutifully takes it. Julia falls asleep again. Wilson removes the sleeping tablet held in his mouth and throws it to the floor. The creature returns, taunting Wilson. Wilson looks over his shoulder and finds the solution to his quandary.

            A sleeping police officer is seated a few rows behind. At the police officer’s hip is a service revolver. Wilson stands up, careful not to wake Julia, and walks toward the officer. Wilson makes a pretense of dropping something to the floor. He kneels down to retrieve it, gently removing the officer’s revolver in the process. Wilson puts the gun in his coat and returns to his seat. 

            Wilson eyes the emergency exit and buckles his seatbelt. He wakes Julia and asks her to get him a glass of water. Dazed, she gets up and walks to the back of the cabin.

            Wilson removes the gun from his coat and opens the emergency exit. In a whoosh, cabin pressure is lost and Wilson is nearly pulled from the airplane. Only his seatbelt holds him in. The other passengers erupt into a screaming panic. Wilson takes aim and fires at the creature on the wing, wounding it and knocking it from the airplane.

            Later. The plane has landed and Wilson is being removed on a stretcher. “It’s okay now,” Julia comforts him. Wilson knows this to be true. He’s made sure of it. Right now, however, he is the only one who knows. As we move along the airplane’s wing, we see that the housing on an engine is partially torn away and wrenched upwards. 

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration: 

“The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from Point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer, though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as The Twilight Zone.”



“Suddenly, his stomach muscles jerked in violently and he felt his eyes strain forward. There was something crawling on the wing.”

            -Richard Matheson, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”  

Cover illustration
by Richard Powers

            In 1962, a year before its appearance on The Twilight Zone, the creature on the wing of the airplane first frightened readers when Richard Matheson’s short story, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” appeared in the paperback horror anthology Alone by Night, edited by Michael and Don Congdon and published by Ballantine Books. Alone by Night was one in a loose series of paperback books published from 1958-1962 and advertised under the umbrella title: Ballantine’s Chamber of Horrors. Perhaps the first paperback horror line in U.S. publishing, and now highly collectible for the distinctive cover art of American artist Richard Powers, Ballantine’s Chamber of Horrors was an eclectic series that included single-author collections from Gerald Kersh, Fritz Leiber, H. Russell Wakefield, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan, John Keir Cross, and Ray Russell, as well as anthologies compiled by television horror host Zacherley (John Zacherle), magazine publisher Calvin Thomas Beck (Castle of Frankenstein), literary critic Basil Davenport, SF anthologist Groff Conklin, and The Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. Beaumont’s 1962 anthology, The Fiend in You, compiled with an uncredited William F. Nolan, included stories by The Twilight Zone writers George Clayton Johnson and Henry Slesar, as well as selections from Beaumont and Richard Matheson, “Perchance to Dream” and “Mute,” respectively, that were adapted for The Twilight Zone. 

Don Congdon

            Another anthologist associated with Ballantine’s Chamber of Horrors was literary agent Don Congdon (1918-2009). A native of Pennsylvania, Congdon moved to New York immediately after high school. There, he began a long and successful career in publishing as a mail clerk for the Lurton Blassingame Literary Agency. Blassingame (1904-1988) is chiefly remembered as the longtime literary agent for such notable SF authors as Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and William F. Nolan. As Congdon’s role with the agency increased, his name on a number of excellent story submissions drew the attention of the editors at Collier’s, who hired him away and installed him as an associate fiction editor with the magazine. Eighteen months later, Congdon was hired away again, this time by Simon & Schuster, who placed Congdon as an editor on their Venture Press, a new imprint designed to showcase emerging literary talent.  

As an editor, Congdon gravitated toward a distinctly modern type of fantasy fiction exemplified by the writings of John Collier, Jack Finney, and, especially, Ray Bradbury. Congdon left his position at Venture Press and transitioned to a fulltime literary agent with the Harold Matson Company in 1947. In 1983, Congdon established Don Congdon Associates with his son Michael, co-editor of Alone by Night. Possessing a keen eye for talent, Congdon’s early triumphs as a literary agent included securing Ray Bradbury as a client, as well as Bradbury protégés Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. Congdon was also the literary agent of writer Earl Hamner Jr., author of eight episodes of The Twilight Zone, whose contributions to the series remain underappreciated. Hamner scripted five episodes for the fifth season of the series, more than any writer not named Serling, including the fan-favorite episode, "Stopover in a Quiet Town," and the final broadcast episode, "The Bewitchin' Pool." 

 Congdon was instrumental in realizing the full potential of Ray Bradbury’s 1951 novella, “The Fireman,” from Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. When Bradbury revised and expanded the novella, it was published two years later by Ballantine Books as Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s dedication read: “This one, with gratitude, is for Don Congdon.” Toward the end of his career, Bradbury again showed his gratitude by co-dedicating his long-gestating fix-up novel, From the Dust Returned (2001), to Congdon. 

            Although he compiled a number of books over the course of his career, predominantly in the area of military history, Congdon first showed a discerning eye as a horror anthologist with Stories for the Dead of Night, published by Dell in 1957 with a cover illustration by Jeanette Cissman. This anthology featured the first appearance of Charles Beaumont’s harrowing autobiographical story, “Miss Gentilbelle,” adapted in 1968 as “Miss Belle” for the UK television anthology series Journey to the Unknown. Written several years before its eventual publication, Beaumont’s story was a difficult sale for Beaumont’s then-agent Forrest J. Ackerman, and it was not until Congdon secured Beaumont as a client that the story appeared, a year before it was collected in Beaumont’s The Hunger and Other Stories. Stories for the Dead of Night also included John Collier’s “The Chaser,” later adapted for The Twilight Zone, and Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” 

Cover illustration
by Richard Powers

Congdon followed this with a well-reviewed anthology, Tales of Love and Horror (1961), his first effort for Ballantine’s Chamber of Horrors. This pioneering erotic horror anthology featured Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Woman” and Richard Matheson’s “No Such Thing as a Vampire.” Matheson adapted his story for television in 1977 for director Dan Curtis and the anthology film, Dead of Night.

            Alone by Night (1962), Congdon’s final horror anthology, is highlighted by two stories from Robert Bloch, “Sweets to the Sweet” and “Enoch,” stories Bloch adapted for the Amicus horror anthology films Torture Garden (1967) and The House that Dripped Blood (1971), respectively, and two new stories from Richard Matheson, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and, under the pseudonym Logan Swanson, “The Likeness of Julie.” Matheson typically used the Swanson pseudonym when other hands edited, censored, or tampered with his works, such as on the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, or the first edition of his 1982 novel Earthbound. Here, however, Matheson simply avoided having his name attached to two stories in the same anthology. “The Likeness of Julie” also made the transition to television, if less memorably so than that of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” William F. Nolan adapted the story for the Dan Curtis-directed anthology film, Trilogy of Terror (1975). The segment, “Julie,” was effective but overshadowed by Matheson’s own adaptation of his 1969 story, “Prey,” which closed out the film in a segment entitled “Amelia.” This segment, featuring actress Karen Black being terrorized by an evil Zuni fetish doll, is widely considered one of the most memorable and frightening in television history.

            The preceding is simply an effort to pay tribute to Don Congdon, who served as a literary agent, friend, and correspondent to four foundational writers for The Twilight Zone: Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Earl Hamner Jr.


WWII-era illustration of gremlins

            The germinal idea for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” arrived when Richard Matheson looked out the window next to his seat while on an airplane travelling at cruising altitude. Matheson observed the clouds below the airplane. He imagined a man suddenly appearing above the clouds, skiing across them as though the clouds were snowbanks. This somewhat humorous image reminded Matheson of the legend of the gremlins, impish sprites that damaged and disrupted aircrafts. What would he do, Matheson wondered, if this imaginary man landed on the wing of the airplane and began tampering with one of the engines? 

In Matheson’s mind, gremlins were connected with tales told by RAF pilots during WWII, the most famous example being “The Gremlins” (1942) by Roald Dahl, first published under the pen name “Pegasus” in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Matheson inserted this notion into his story: “Wilson thought about war, about the newspaper stories which recounted the alleged existence of creatures in the sky who plagued the Allied pilots in their duties. They called them gremlins, he remembered. Were there, actually, such beings?” Matheson was certainly not the first writer to tackle a tale of gremlins but he was perhaps the first to give the story a truly sinister tone, as gremlins were more often portrayed in writings and illustrations as silly and mischievous.

            The unfortunate individual who encounters the gremlin in Matheson’s story is Arthur Jeffrey Wilson, a frightened flier and businessman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. A family man, Wilson is nevertheless alone on his flight of terror, buried under poisonous thoughts of suicide and death. Wilson imagines himself accidently killed in a scene foreshadowing the climax of the story: “And, naturally, his seat was next to the emergency door. He thought about it opening accidentally; about himself sucked from the plane, falling, screaming.”

Wilson is also plagued by suicidal thoughts represented in the form of a handgun he has carried on the plane in his briefcase: “He sat staring at the oil-glossed symmetry of the pistol. He’d carried it around with him for almost a year now. Originally, when he’d thought about it, it was in terms of money carried, protection from holdup, safety from teenage gangs in the cities he had to attend. Yet, far beneath, he’d always known there was no valid reason except one. A reason he thought more of every day.” This handgun eventually becomes a symbol not of Wilson’s destruction but of his liberation, as he finds renewed purpose in his battle with the fantastic creature. Wilson’s acquisition of the handgun is changed for the story’s television adaptation, where it is not carried in Wilson’s briefcase but rather pilfered from a sleeping police officer on the plane. A similar construction was maintained for the story’s adaptation for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), where Valentine (changed from Wilson) acquires the gun during a physical struggle with an FAA officer.  

            Matheson provided only partial glimpses of the gremlin’s appearance in the original story, describing the creature as troll-like, hairy, with short arms and clawed hands. The best view of the creature, as in the television episode, is when it presses its face against the glass of the window: “Its skin was grimy, of a wide-pored coarseness; its nose a squat, discolored lump; its lips misshapen, cracked, forced apart by teeth of a grotesque size and crookedness; its eyes recessed and small – unblinking. All framed by shaggy, tangled hair which sprouted, too, in furry tufts from the man’s ears and nose, birdlike, down across his cheeks.” 

Nick Cravat as the Gremlin

In many ways, these descriptions were faithfully achieved by makeup designer William Tuttle for The Twilight Zone. Still, Matheson was ultimately unhappy with the appearance of the gremlin, writing in the June, 1984 issue of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine: “I thought the monster on the wing was somewhat ludicrous. It looked rather like a surly teddy bear.” Matheson’s vision for the episode was to hire director Jacques Tourneur, whose design for the gremlin was conceived as a man in a black suit covered in reflective dust, giving only a hint of the creature’s form. Matheson teamed with Tourneur for the excellent fifth season episode, “Night Call,” produced immediately before “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” but not broadcast on the series for several months after. 

Time and budgetary restraints prevented William Tuttle from developing a complete suit for the monster, resulting in an off-the-rack selection from the MGM costume department for the monster’s body. Tuttle created a similar design the following year for MGM’s 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), in which Tony Randall is made to appear as a domesticated Yeti (pictured). Tuttle won a special achievement Academy Award for his work on the film, the first such award given to a makeup artist. The film was scripted by Charles Beaumont from the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935) by Charles G. Finney. Tuttle also previously created a similar makeup for George Pal’s production of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1960), in the form of the frightening Morlocks.

Beneath the gremlin costume was actor and acrobat Nick Cravat (1912-1994). Cravat was born in Manhattan as Nicholas Cuccia and got his start in show business as one half of an acrobatic team with Burt Lancaster. The duo toured throughout the 1930s as “Lang and Cravat.” Cravat secured small roles in films before Lancaster made it big in the industry, but he is chiefly remembered today for his supporting roles in Lancaster’s films. His final film role was alongside Landcaster’s Dr. Moreau in the 1977 film version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was directed by Don Taylor, director of the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery segments, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” and “The Messiah on Mott Street.”

Cravat was selected for the role of the gremlin due to his athletic and acrobatic prowess, and the gremlin suit was equipped with special soles on the feet to allow Cravat to maintain his balance on the slippery wing of the airplane while being buffeted with wind, rain, and smoke machines. Cravat was connected to wires which not only achieved the effect of the gremlin flying in and out of frame, but also protected the actor from tumbling from the suspended set. According to director Richard Donner, wires were also used to achieve the convincing effect of the emergency door whipping away after Wilson opens the lock.  

William Tuttle’s makeup design was applied to Nick Cravat by makeup artist Grant Keate (pictured with Cravat), in his only work on The Twilight Zone. Keate arrived at CBS in the early 1960s with work on The Jack Benny Show. He began a long stretch as makeup artist on My Three Sons when that series moved to CBS in 1965, and he is also credited with work on several episodes of Family Affair.

Despite Matheson’s reservations, the gremlin has become an iconic image from the series, perhaps as representative as any other in the minds of general viewers. Tuttle’s design for the gremlin has appeared on virtually every type of merchandising associated with the series, from book and magazine covers, to trading cards and T-shirts, to posters and toys. The gremlin even made an appearance, in the form of a child’s toy, in the 2019 The Twilight Zone series for the Matheson inspired episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”

The gremlin remains a memorable monster from the series, although time has somewhat blunted its effectiveness. Nevertheless, for Halloween, 2016, when I compiled what I felt were the thirty-one most frightening moments from the series, I rated the moment that William Shatner (as Bob Wilson) opens the window curtain to find the gremlin staring closely back at him as the top scary moment from the series. A year later, when I compiled what I felt were the greatest performances on the series, I rated Shatner’s performance as third-best on the series, illustrating that an engaging story, a capable director, a memorable monster, and a great lead performance can immortalize a segment of television. 

William Shatner's (b. 1931) career is likely familiar to readers in the Vortex, particularly after Shatner assumed the role of Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the USS starship Enterprise, on Star Trek (1966-1969), a series which reunited Shatner with writer Richard Matheson for the episode, "The Enemy Within." Shatner previously appeared on the second season of The Twilight Zone in Richard Matheson's "Nick of Time," an episode that remains among the finest produced on the series. See our review of "Nick of Time" here.

Shatner in "The Glass Eye,"
with Rosemary Harris

Shatner's performance in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" continues to be one of his most memorable and discussed roles, a controlled, sustained, frenzied performance that cemented Shatner as one of the performers most readily associated with the series, placing him in the company of such actors as Burgess Meredith and Jack Klugman. Shatner enjoyed a busy television career before Captain Kirk catapulted him to international exposure. Shatner fine-tuned his craft on several anthology programs, including an appearance in 1958 on Playhouse 90 in Rod Serling's "A Town Has Turned to Dust," a script Serling later reworked for the second season The Twilight Zone episode, "Dust." Shatner also appeared on several genre programs, often in a signature episode of the series. Shatner appeared in the unforgettable third season episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents titled "The Glass Eye" (1957), based on the story by John Keir Cross. Shatner appeared again on the series in 1960 for the episode, "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?" Shatner also appeared in two of the finest episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller, "The Hungry Glass" (1961) and "The Grim Reaper" (1961), the former scripted and directed by The Twilight Zone director Douglas Heyes, from a story ("The Hungry House") by Robert Bloch, and the latter scripted by Robert Bloch from a story by Harold Lawlor. Shatner also appeared on One Step Beyond in "The Promise" (1960), and on The Outer Limits for "Cold Hands, Warm Heart" (1964). 

A year before his appearance in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Shatner portrayed the hate-mongering Adam Cramer, who stirs up racism in a southern town in The Intruder (1962). The film was scripted by Charles Beaumont from his 1959 novel and directed by Roger Corman. Beaumont appeared in the film, as a tolerant school principal, and the film also featured appearances from Beaumont's friends, the writers William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and OCee Ritch, the latter of whom documented the making of the film for the December, 1961 issue of Rogue. The film is also known by the exploitation titles Shame and I Hate Your Guts!

Shatner remained a busy performer after Star Trek left the air. Appearances of interest here include an episode of The Sixth Sense (1972), a television horror film titled The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973), in which Shatner plays an ex-priest battling evil Druidic spirits alongside the other passengers on an airplane, and a memorable episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, "The Playground" (1985), based on Bradbury's 1952 tale from The Illustrated Man. 

Events in Richard Matheson’s original story are faithfully echoed in the television adaptation. As Wilson battles the disbelief of the airplane’s crew, he comes to the conclusion that the only solution is to take matters into his own hands. Wilson opens the emergency exit in order to kill the dangerous creature: “Wilson flung his arm up, fired. The explosion was like a popping in the roaring violence of the air. The man staggered, lashed out and Wilson felt a streak of pain across his head. He fired again at immediate range and saw the man go flailing backward – then, suddenly, disappear with no more solidity than a paper doll swept in a gale.”

            The epilogue of the story is essentially the same as in the television adaptation, as well. Wilson is forcibly removed from the grounded plane on his way (one assumes) to an involuntary committal. Wilson is allowed his moment of clarity and hope, however: “As would be established soon enough when the engine was examined and they checked his wound more closely. Then they’d realize that he’d saved them all.”

            Arthur Jeffery Wilson, businessman, becomes Robert Wilson, businessman, in the television episode, and becomes John Valentine, author, in the film version. Wilson is travelling alone in the original story, and the reader is given intimate insight into his mental processes. Realizing that this was difficult to achieve onscreen, except perhaps by including a voiceover narration (a device used effectively on the series in such episodes as “The Hitch-Hiker” and “To Serve Man”) or an exaggerated performance like the one given by John Lithgow in Twilight Zone: The Movie, Matheson chose to include a spouse travelling alongside Wilson. In this way, Wilson’s thoughts could be spoken aloud. We learn in the story that Wilson’s spouse is named Jacqueline. She becomes Julia in the episode. Director George Miller, when adapting the story for Twilight Zone: The Movie, removed the spouse again.

            Other differences between the story and its television adaptation are more significant, the most important of which is that in the story Wilson is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. By contrast, Matheson chose to have Wilson recovering from a nervous breakdown in the television adaptation, creating a character who must battle not only disbelief in others, a fundamental trope on The Twilight Zone, but also his own questionable mental state. If there is a standard Twilight Zone story, it is one in which seemingly rational people are confronted with the unfathomable, presenting the character(s) with the challenge of convincing others of the existence of the inexplicable. Matheson’s defining effort in this mode is perhaps his first season episode, “A World of Difference.” By creating a character that others already view as irrational, Matheson cleverly inverts the expectations of the viewer.

            “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” continued a relatively recent development concerning Matheson’s contributions to the series. Matheson began as a writer on the series determined to create original content for the show. He’d previously sold two early, slight stories to the series that were adapted and greatly expanded and embellished by Rod Serling: “And When the Sky was Opened,” nominally adapted from Matheson’s “Disappearing Act,” and “Third from the Sun.” It was not until relatively late in the third season, with “Little Girl Lost,” that Matheson adapted one of his previously published short stories. Although Matheson continued to create new material for the series, he became more reliant on previous material for his teleplays, resulting in such memorable episodes as “Death Ship,” “Steel,” and “Night Call.”  

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was the final Matheson episode filmed for the series but the second of four Matheson episodes to air during the fifth season. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” also marked the final episode produced by Bert Granet for the series. Another Matheson episode, “The Doll,” was slated by Granet for production but was shelved by the show’s final producer, William Froug, due to a perceived similarity of Matheson’s story to Charles Beaumont’s and Jerry Sohl’s “Living Doll.” Matheson’s “The Doll” was eventually produced in 1986 on Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories. Ironically, “The Doll” starred John Lithgow, who was awarded an Emmy for his performance. Lithgow, of course, starred in George Miller’s remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” for Twilight Zone: The Movie.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is also an entry in the small but interesting subset of episodes concerning uncanny air travel. Matheson’s first effort on the series, and in this regard, was the first season time travel tale of redemption, “The Last Flight.” Other episodes on the subject, especially those written by Rod Serling, featured variations on the Flying Dutchman legend, as in “King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” and “The Arrival.” Matheson presented his own variation on the Flying Dutchman legend with the fourth season episode, “Death Ship.”      

Matheson told author Matthew R. Bradley that he cut around five thousand words from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” before the story’s publication, having initially begun the tale well before Wilson boarded the plane. Matheson felt this amounted to unnecessary exposition in order to establish Wilson’s fragile mental state, and he was able to avoid this altogether by adding a traveling companion for Wilson in the television adaptation. In this regard, Matheson hoped to rekindle some of the magic from an earlier episode of The Twilight Zone, stating in the June, 1984 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine: “I still wish, though, that Pat Breslin had played his wife (as she did in the Twilight Zone segment ‘The [sic] Nick of Time’).” Although William Shatner and Patricia Breslin were wonderful in “Nick of Time,” a thematically related episode, the relationship between Bob and Julia Wilson required a different approach in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and Christine White was more than capable in the role. 

Christine White (L) with Asa Maynor

            Christine White (1926-2013) previously appeared on The Twilight Zone in the second season episode, “The Prime Mover,” and knew Rod Serling from Serling’s guest appearance in 1962 on the CBS comedy series Ichabod and Me, on which White had a recurring role. White was also known to director Richard Donner, who received a recommendation from Loretta Young to cast White in one of Donner’s many television assignments. Both Donner and Young worked several times on The Loretta Young Show, though never on the same episode.

            Richard Donner (1930-2021) is arguably the most notable director to helm an episode of The Twilight Zone, having gone on to a lucrative career filled with hugely successful films beginning with The Omen (1976) and including Superman (1978), The Goonies (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), Scrooged (1988), and many more. Donner retired from directing after the 2006 action film 16 Blocks. Sadly, Donner passed away on July 5, 2021, as I was beginning work on this review of his first episode of The Twilight Zone. He was 91. His death provoked an outpouring of grief from members of the entertainment industry, including William Shatner, who retweeted an image from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and replied: “I am sorry to learn of his passing. He was a wonderful director. I don’t really have many memories of the shoot. It was chaotic; it was supposed to be a 4 day shoot & they cut it in half. They kept us there all night on the 2nd day to finish it. We were all sleep deprived.” 

            “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was scheduled for production between July 12 and July 16, 1963, with two days of rehearsal and three days of filming. Filming at MGM could be a double-edged sword, however. It was arguably the finest film studio in the world but this also meant that the feature film department took precedent over any television production using the facilities. Shatner, Donner, and company experienced this firsthand while filming “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

Besides a brief epilogue and even briefer footage of model work for the exterior of the flying airplane, the episode predominately takes place in a single setting. This set consisted of a complete passenger airplane cabin with a fixed external wing suspended above a large water tank to contain the rain effects used in the episode. The airplane wing, incidentally, was brought to the set from an out-of-service aircraft at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, a facility where both Richard Matheson and fellow The Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson previously worked.

            This setup proved extremely challenging for Donner and company, especially considering the compressed time allowed for completing an episode. In addition to the rain effects and the suspended set, the latter of which made movement on the set problematic, the effects included wind machines, smoke machines (to simulate the rapid passage of clouds), and the bright flashes of lightning effects. As a result, much of the dialogue in the episode needed to be looped, despite the efforts of the crew to use an electric rotor, as well as electric wind and rain machines, when louder, gas-powered machines were the industry standard at the time. The effects on the episode were so challenging, in fact, that MGM technicians were hired to assist with the logistics of the special effects.  

            As Donner and the cast and crew were filming in this difficult environment, Donner was approached by MGM during the second day of shooting and informed that the feature film department required the use of the rain machine and the rain tank on the following day. This meant that Donner would not have use of the set for the following day of scheduled shooting. The only solution was to delay the cast and crew and continue shooting throughout the night. Filming on the episode eventually wrapped at dawn of the following day. Despite the challenging conditions under which the episode was filmed, Richard Matheson repeatedly praised Richard Donner’s direction, as well as the performance of William Shatner.   

Richard Donner told interviewer Robert Martin in the July, 1981 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine: “I was doing a lot of MGM shows at the time. The script they approached me with was called ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.’ It was the most adventurous Twilight Zone they’d ever done, and probably the most adventurous show they’d done at Metro. It had unbelievable special effects – a gremlin on a wing, airplane engines going, with lightning, wind, and rain. It was a major thing, and it went half a day over. We couldn’t go straight to the half day, because the set wasn’t available; we had to shoot straight through the following night. Because of that delay, I almost lost my job at MGM forever. But when it came out, it was a very well-received program, much talked about, and that turned the situation around for me. I was able to stay on at MGM, and a very talented writer-producer named Bill Froug came in and hired me for four more Twilight Zones.”

In fact, Froug hired Donner for five additional episodes of the series, although none approached the quality of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” except perhaps for Rod Serling’s claustrophobic spy thriller, “The Jeopardy Room.”

Although he worked almost exclusively in film after the success of The Omen, Donner got his start directing television. A native New Yorker, Donner briefly chased the dream of becoming an actor, finding roles on the New York stage, notably in productions directed by Martin Ritt. It was Ritt who suggested that Donner try his hand at directing. When the opportunity to move to Los Angeles presented itself, Donner moved across the country and found inroads in the burgeoning television industry, first through advertising and then on series productions. It was through the machinations of Ritt that Donner was installed as assistant director on Somerset Maugham TV Theatre and Robert Montgomery Presents. Donner’s breakthrough as a television director came when he directed a television ad for Westinghouse Electric with the cast of I Love Lucy. Television producer Ed Adamson was impressed with Donner’s direction of the show’s cast and recruited Donner to direct Steve McQueen, an old friend of Donner’s from their time in New York, in Wanted: Dead or Alive.

Lots of television work followed, including prior work with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” actress Asa Maynor on Wagon Train in 1961. Donner directed an episode of the ABC series The Sixth Sense (1972), a series that was merged in syndication with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and which included newly filmed introductions by Serling, and an episode of Circle of Fear (1972), a rebranded and reformatted continuation of the NBC anthology series Ghost Story, a series developed from a pilot by Richard Matheson. Donner’s return to television arrived in 1989 for the HBO series Tales from the Crypt, based on the E.C. Comics from the 1950s, a series on which Donner served as an executive producer. Donner directed three episodes of the series, including the fan-favorites, “Dig that Cat – He’s Real Gone” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.”

Despite difficult conditions when filming “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the cast and crew kept the mood light and playful during and after the production, and pranks were a regular occurrence. Richard Donner related to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1981: “On that last night of shooting, he [William Shatner] was visited on the set by Edd Byrnes, ‘Kookie’ from 77 Sunset Strip. We were all exhausted – it was quite late – and when my back was turned, Shatner and Byrnes decided to stage a fight. I happened to look up at the wing of the airplane and saw this fight going on. I started running over, of course, and just when I got there I saw Byrnes hit Shatner, who went over the wing of the airplane, down forty feet to the tank below! What I didn’t know was that they had dressed a dummy in Shatner’s clothes. All I could think at the time was, screw Shatner, now I have to reshoot this whole thing! But Shatner is a wonderful guy. I enjoyed working with him tremendously.”

Rod Serling also attempted a prank, the target this time being writer Richard Matheson. Serling related the tale during a 1975 lecture at Sherman Oaks College and is quoted by author Marc Scott Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion: “Matheson and I were going to fly to San Francisco. It was like three or four weeks after the show was on the air, and I had spent three weeks in constant daily communication with Western Airlines preparing a given seat for him, having the stewardess close the [curtains] when he sat down, and I was going to say, ‘Dick, open it up.’ I had this huge, blownup poster stuck on the [outside of the window] so that when he opened it there would be this gremlin staring at him. So what happened was we get on the plane, there was the seat, he sits down, the curtains are closed, I lean over and say, ‘Dick –’  at which point they start the engines and it blows the thing away. It was an old prop airplane . . . He never saw it. And I had spent hours in the planning of it. I would lie in bed thinking how we could do this.”


            “What you’re looking at could be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn’t – it’s the beginning. Introducing Mr. John Valentine, air traveler. His destination: The Twilight Zone.”

            -Narration by Burgess Meredith for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) 

Larry Cedar as the Gremlin
in Twilight Zone: The Movie

            “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was memorably resurrected in 1983 for Twilight Zone: The Movie, a feature film anthology with four different directors tackling remakes of original series episodes, with the exceptions of the film’s prologue, epilogue, and opening segment, which were written specifically for the film. The opening segment was filmed from an original script by director John Landis, and this segment has made Twilight Zone: The Movie an infamous film due to the negligent and horrific deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two young children during filming. For those unfamiliar with this tragedy, the Vortex Library lists several books covering the deaths and the subsequent trial of director John Landis.

Richard Matheson was tasked with adapting “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” for the film’s final segment, and he was also involved in adapting and updating two additional segments from the original series: “Kick the Can,” directed by Steven Spielberg from the episode written by George Clayton Johnson, and “It’s a Good Life,” directed by Joe Dante from the episode written by Rod Serling and adapted from the story by Jerome Bixby.

Matheson was initially told that “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (titled simply “Segment Four” or “Valentine,” as in Robert Bloch’s novelization) would be a “filler,” a short segment of only ten to twelve minutes in length. Matheson was also told that Gregory Peck was being considered for the role originally performed by William Shatner. Matheson fashioned his script according to these specifications, writing in the June, 1984 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine: “I was told, at the start, that Gregory Peck was being considered for the movie version. Accordingly, my script portrayed Wilson, the hero, as a character like the one Peck played in Twelve O’Clock High, a former bomber pilot who had already been exposed to the idea of ‘gremlins.’ He had no mental problems; he was merely reacting to the gremlin’s destructive behavior and – with mounting frustration and fury – to the crew’s disbelief in what he said, resulting in his ultimate decision to take things into his own hands.” 

George Miller (L) with John Lithgow

            Matheson’s condensed, Gregory Peck version of the script was essentially scrapped with the arrival of director George Miller on the project. Not only was Peck not cast in the central role, but it eventually ballooned from a “filler” into a twenty-one-minute long segment. Miller, the Australian director best-known for the Mad Max series of films, arrived on the project with definite ideas about the story. Chief among these ideas was to take the original episode and exaggerate everything about it. Miller told Starburst Magazine in 1983: “Everything is heightened – every sound is louder and more significant.” The exaggerated elements went beyond sound, however. Miller’s roving, energetic camerawork was matched by John Lithgow’s manic, though enormously entertaining, performance as terrified air passenger John Valentine. Lithgow, a Tony Award-winner and an Academy Award nominee, portrayed Valentine in a way which made William Shatner appear highly restrained. One sequence, in which Valentine views the gremlin close against the window glass, is exaggerated to the point that Valentine’s eyes grotesquely bulge from their sockets in a blink-and-miss-it special effects shot. 

Lithgow may have exaggerated the role of the frightened air passenger, but he was not directly reacting to Shatner’s performance in the original episode. Lithgow told Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine (October, 1983) that, although he was aware of The Twilight Zone, he was not a regular viewer of the series and had not seen the original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” prior to filming Twilight Zone: The Movie.

The storm outside the airplane was intensified, as well, with the set rumbling and rolling in a way that Richard Donner and company could not achieve in 1963. The film segment also contains a broader strain of comedy, highlighted by a precocious and persistent little girl (Christina Nigra), equipped with a sarcastic ventriloquist’s dummy (perhaps a nod to the original series episode, "The Dummy"), a stone-faced FAA officer (Charles Knapp), and a snooping elderly couple (Eduard Franz and Margaret Wheeler).

The film segment contains a number of interesting changes from or additions to the original episode, exemplified by the final sequence of events. Valentine attempts to take a photograph of the gremlin using a Polaroid instant camera forcibly taken from the little girl. He succeeds only in capturing his own reflection in the window glass. Valentine decides instead to knock out the window glass using a medical canister. When an FAA officer attempts to restrain Valentine, the panicked air passenger manages to get his hands on the officer’s gun, taking it from the officer’s ankle holster and shooting out the window. Valentine is nearly pulled completely out of the plane if not for the effort of the FAA officer to hang on to him. Unlike Wilson in the original episode, who is given the satisfaction of shooting and (presumably) killing the gremlin, Valentine manages only to attract its unwanted attention. The gremlin charges at Valentine and bites the barrel of the gun clean off the handle. Then the gremlin grips Valentine’s face as though it intends to harm him. The gremlin releases Valentine, however, and humorously gives Valentine a wag of its finger. As the gremlin spots the lights of the approaching city below, it simply flies away, spiraling up into the stormy sky and vanishing above the dark clouds.

The epilogue of the segment, which eventually ties in to the epilogue of the film, plays out much the same way as the original episode, with the notable difference that evidence of the gremlin’s destruction is immediately found by a mechanical crew. 

Makeup artist Craig Reardon, who created the memorable ghoul makeup for the film’s prologue, was tasked with creating a new version of the gremlin, both in appearance and behavior. Assisted by makeup artist Michael McCracken, with additional assistance from animators David Allen and Jim Danforth, and visual effects artist Peter Kuran, they decided to start from scratch and did not take into account any elements from William Tuttle’s original design. The result was a more frightening, if less visually memorable, monster.

Reardon designed and sculpted a full suit for the creature, complete with a head and face whose expression could be changed with the use of cables. If the original monster was a “surly teddy bear,” then the gremlin for Twilight Zone: The Movie resembled a gargoyle come to life, with a shock of long hair streaming from its otherwise bald head. Allen and Danforth assisted with the gremlin’s movements and with the effect of the gremlin spiraling upwards into the night sky. Kuran created the impressive lightning effects for the sequence, where there were not merely flashes of lightning, but the impression that the gremlin could actually direct lightning to strike the airplane’s engine.

Inside the gremlin suit was prolific character actor Larry Cedar. Cedar, who described himself as “a song-and-dance man,” had no prior experience playing a creature in a suit or under heavy makeup. Cedar’s agent suggested he audition for the role because the role was described as needing an actor who could move well. Cedar got the job when, during his audition, he “ran across the table and threw things.” Cedar described shooting the sequence in the October, 1983 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine: “We had a lot of special effects: water, smoke, wind . . . I can remember being out there on the wing to shoot. We were practically under atmospheric conditions.” Cedar went on to describe the set as being blacked out with the airplane wing on hydraulics in order to give it the appearance of being lifted. Like Nick Cravat in the original episode, Cedar was also connected to wires, so that he would not fall off the wing. Cedar apparently worked well with makeup artist Craig Reardon, as the two immediately went on to work together on the 1984 horror/fantasy film Dreamscape.  

The impressive set upon which the drama plays out was constructed on a closed set on Stage 15 of the Warner Bros. lot, where the entire sequence was filmed. Here, art director James Spencer and his crew created the fuselage of a passenger jet complete with an 82-foot long fixed external wing.

            Jerry Goldsmith, a veteran of The Twilight Zone who composed several memorable scores for the original series, provided the intense, strings-heavy music for the segment which recalled his score for Richard Matheson’s original series episode, “The Invaders.”        

George Miller wrote a first draft script which Matheson greatly disliked. “He then wrote a second draft which I liked better,” Matheson wrote in the June, 1984 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine. “So although I have a solo credit as screenwriter for the segment, most of the dialogue is Miller’s.” Matheson ultimately enjoyed the segment, stating: “Fortunately, he’s [Miller’s] a consummate director, and John Lithgow is a consummate actor. I thought Jerry Goldsmith’s score was marvelous, and I liked the monster infinitely more – even its sense of humor.”


“Settling in for a 13-hour transatlantic flight to a land rife with ancient mysteries is Justin Sanderson. Mr. Sanderson’s occupation is to uncover unbiased truth. But with an hour before certain doom, he must ask the right questions of the right people. Landing at the truth this time will require an unscheduled stopover in The Twilight Zone.”

            -Narration by host Jordan Peele for “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (2019) 

Adam Scott in "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet"

           The second half of the first episode of the 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone for CBS All-Access (now Paramount+) was a segment titled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” The segment was an homage to and a reimagining of Richard Matheson’s original series episode. The teleplay was by Marco Ramirez, from a story by Jordan Peele, Simon Kinberg, and Ramirez. The segment was directed by Craig Yaitanes. Below is an excerpt from a flash review of the episode I wrote shortly after its initial broadcast on April 1, 2019.

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a reimagining of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a story about a nervous airplane passenger who sees a gremlin tampering with the engine of a passenger jet. Another attempt at adapting this tale poses a particular challenge. How can a new version be staged which captures the atmosphere of the original while moving the story in a fresh new direction? This is the challenge set up by the new series. The answer lies in taking the skeleton of Matheson’s story and changing the focus of the nightmare.

            All that is essential to the drama is the psychological makeup of the protagonist, a man who previously suffered a mental breakdown placed in a situation which again forces him to call into question his own sanity at the risk of the lives of the passengers on the airplane. The suspense arrives from the fact that an airplane cannot simply pull over and assess the trouble. Jordan Peele and company understood that, in this sense, the gremlin was not necessary and removed that aspect of the story entirely (well, almost). In place of the gremlin? An MP3 player loaded with a very ominous podcast which becomes the focus of the nightmare.

Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) is an investigative reporter on a flight from Washington D.C. to Tel Aviv. He previously suffered a mental breakdown while on assignment. After going through the grueling boarding process and giving up his first class seat to a family, he takes a window seat and plans for a smooth flight. This is quickly challenged by Justin’s discovery of an MP3 player in the compartment of the seat in front of him. The player is paused on a podcast, Enigmatique, which tells the story of the doomed Flight 1015, the very flight Justin is taking. As he listens to more of the podcast he realizes that Flight 1015 will soon mysteriously disappear, never to be found. Justin attempts to unravel the mystery but only succeeds in drawing the ire of the flight crew and the other passengers. He has apparently made one friend, however, in a pilot named Joe Beaumont (Chris Diamantopoulos) who hitches free rides but never flies anymore due to trouble in the past. He claims to believe Justin. With Justin’s help, Beaumont gains access to the cockpit and subdues the pilots. He lowers the cabin pressure, putting all of the passengers to sleep, then signs off, “Goodnight, New York,” and sends the plane into a nosedive. Only Justin, with a portable oxygen tank, is left conscious as the plane begins its deadly descent.

Justin wakes up on the shore of an isolated lake. He finds the MP3 player and gives it a listen only to discover that the flight is his personal hell and the other passengers are now his tormentors.

             Not every viewer is going to enjoy this reimagining of a classic episode but I really enjoyed this fresh take. I thought it was staged extraordinarily well and perfectly captured the claustrophobic panic of the original story. The gremlin could likely not have been bettered than that of the 1983 film version, and the twist ending with the damning realization and the idea of a personal hell echoes several original series episodes.

            There are several “Easter eggs” in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” beginning with names. Joe Beaumont is, of course, an homage to original series writer Charles Beaumont. The podcast host is Rodman Edwards, a nod to The Twilight Zone creator Rodman Edward Serling. Donner is also the name of a character in the episode. 

William Tuttle’s original design for the gremlin returns in the form of a doll found floating in the water near the wreckage of the plane. Jordan Peele’s introduction for the episode is also interesting as he delivers it on a screen inside the airplane. The astute viewer will notice that behind Peele one can see that he is delivering the opening narration in the place where the episode will end.

            A recent appearance of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” arrived via the 2018 book anthology, Flight or Fright, edited by Stephen King and Bev Vincent. In his afterword to the anthology, co-editor Vincent reveals the story of the anthology’s creation. Stephen King approached Vincent and Cemetery Dance publisher Richard Chizmar in a restaurant prior to the premiere of the film adaptation of King’s The Dark Tower (2017). King had fastened on the idea of an anthology of airplane-themed horror stories, and he tasked Vincent to co-edit the book with him and Chizmar to publish it. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was the story which immediately came to Vincent’s mind, and served as the launching point for the anthology. An earlier anthology, Mysterious Air Stories, did much the same thing. Published in 1986 by W.H. Allen, the volume was edited by the prolific anthologist Peter Haining under the pseudonym William Pattrick. The cover for the book, by an unknown artist, was an illustration of Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” included within. Mysterious Air Stories was one in a series of travel-themed horror anthologies compiled by Haining under the Pattrick name, also including Mysterious Railway Stories (1984), Mysterious Sea Stories (1985), and Mysterious Motoring Stories (1987). Haining was an admirer of “The Group” and included stories by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Bloch across the series. 

            “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” has rightly become an iconic episode from The Twilight Zone. It has spawned remakes, adaptations, and numerous parodies. Still, nearly sixty years later it is the original series episode which continues to resonate across the landscape of popular culture. Anchored by a mesmerizing lead performance from William Shatner, a strong supporting cast, excellent direction by Richard Donner, and effective makeup and special effects, it remains an undisputed classic of American television.                                              

Grade: A+

Grateful acknowledgments:

-The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (3rd ed., Silman-James, 2018)

-The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)

-“The Incredible Scripting Man: Richard Matheson Reflects on His Screen Career” by Matthew R. Bradley (The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, ed. Stanley Wiater, Matthew R. Bradley, and Paul Stuve (Citadel Press, 2009))

-Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone by Stewart T. Stanyard (ECW Press, 2007)

-“Richard Donner: TZ Alumnus Makes Good” by Robert Martin (Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, July, 1981)

-“Matheson Looks at His ‘Nightmare’” by Richard Matheson (Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, June, 1984)

-“Don Congdon, Longtime Literary Agent for Ray Bradbury, Dies at 91” by William Grimes (The New York Times, Dec 4, 2009)

-Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, October, 1983

-Starburst Magazine, October, 1983

-Richard Matheson Onscreen: A History of the Filmed Works by Matthew R. Bradley (McFarland, 2010)

-Audio commentary by Marc Scott Zicree and Richard Donner for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (The Twilight Zone: The 5th Dimension (DVD Box Set), Image Entertainment, 2014)

-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (

-The Internet Movie Database ( 


--Richard Matheson’s original short story first appeared in Alone by Night, edited by Michael and Don Congdon (Ballantine Books, 1962). The story was collected in Matheson’s 1966 collection Shock III, published by Dell. The story has been reprinted several times since, including in The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories (1985), Matheson’s Collected Stories (1989), and as the title story of Matheson’s 2002 retrospective collection from Tor Books. The story inspired two anthologies, Mysterious Air Stories, edited by Peter Haining (as by William Pattrick), published by W.H. Allen in 1986, and Flight or Fright, edited by Stephen King and Bev Vincent (Cemetery Dance, 2018).

--Richard Matheson’s teleplay for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was first published in the May-June, 1984 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine. It was published as a standalone volume by Harvest Moon Publishing in 2001, and was collected in the second volume of Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone Scripts, edited by Stanley Wiater (Edge Books/Gauntlet Press, 2002). In 2011, Gauntlet Press published a deluxe edition of the story, including the original story, Matheson’s teleplay, and Matheson’s and George Miller’s screenplay for Twilight Zone: The Movie. The book was edited by Tony Albarella.

--Richard Donner directed five additional episodes for the fifth season of the series, including “From Agnes – with Love,” “Sounds and Silences,” “The Jeopardy Room,” “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” and “Come Wander with Me.”

--William Shatner also appeared in the second season episode, “Nick of Time,” also scripted by Richard Matheson. Shatner worked again with Matheson for the first season Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within.” In 1958, Shatner appeared in Rod Serling's Playhouse 90 episode, "A Town Has Turned to Dust," a script Serling reworked for the second season The Twilight Zone episode, "Dust." Shatner played the villainous lead role in the 1962 film, The Intruder, scripted by Charles Beaumont from his 1959 novel and directed by Roger Corman. 

--Christine White also appeared in the second season episode, “The Prime Mover.”

--David Armstrong also appeared, often uncredited, in “The Mind and the Matter,” “To Serve Man,” “The Trade-Ins,” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”

--Slim Bergman also appeared, uncredited, in Richard Matheson’s “Steel.”

--Ed Haskett also appeared, uncredited, in “The Silence” and “He’s Alive.”

--This episode marks another appearance by prolific series extra Robert McCord.

--Edward Kemmer, here playing the Flight Engineer, portrayed the role of Commander Buzz Corry on Space Patrol (1950-1955). As author Marc Scott Zicree has pointed out, Kemmer was the quintessential spaceship captain of the 1950s. In “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” he encounters William Shatner, who, on Star Trek, became the quintessential spaceship captain of the 1960s.

--Twilight Zone: The Movie contains several cameos from the cast and crew of the original series, including Burgess Meredith, Bill Mumy, Buck Houghton, Kevin McCarthy, Patricia Barry, and William Schallert. The most memorable cameo, however, likely belongs to Carol Serling, who appears in the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment as a concerned air passenger. In the segment, Serling is seen holding an issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine.  

--“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Schneider.

--Viewers longing to own their own gremlin can choose from a limited edition figure created by Sideshow Collectibles (TV Land Special Edition) or one of several options from toy company Bif Bang Pow!

Additional Images:

Cover image sourced from Twilight Zone: The Movie for a 1983 Dutch-language reprint of selections from Rod Serling's Stories from the Twilight Zone (1960) and More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961).

Cover for the October, 1983 issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine: 

Cover for the June, 1984 issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine:

Cover for the October, 1983 issue of Fangoria: 

Cover, with interior illustration by Chris Roberts, for Rue Morgue #35 (Halloween, 2003):

Cover illustration by Rick Melton for The Dark Side #181 (2017):

Detail of cover illustration by "Ravenwood" for Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories by Richard Matheson (Tor, 2002): 

Painting by Cortlandt Hull for the restoration of the carousel in the pavilion at the George F. Johnson Recreational Park in Rod Serling's hometown of Binghamton, NY: 

Cover illustration by Harry O. Morris for the definitive edition of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," published by Gauntlet Press in 2011:

In Memory of Richard Donner (1930-2021)

Donner as pictured in the July, 1981 issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine


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