If, like me, you’re a baby boomer who pleaded as a child to stay up with the big kids to watch The Twilight Zone, you might remember daring yourself to make it all the way through without taking cover behind an older sibling or the family dog. The show ran from 1959 to 1964, and by the time it went off the air the phrase “twilight zone” had entered the language as a kind of shorthand for whatever feels eerie or strange. More particularly, the words attached themselves to the feeling of being in a place that’s simultaneously familiar and alien, a “neutral territory,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne described it, “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”
The man who gave this old sensation a new name was Rodman Edward Serling, known as Rod. Many in my generation listened attentively to the prologues and epilogues he delivered each week in a sonorous voice that seemed to say: enough with suburban idylls like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best; forget the crooners and hoofers served up by Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk. If you want the dark truth about American life—about life itself—come with me to the Zone.
The Twilight Zone has had many afterlives. There have been three TV remakes, including the current series hosted by Jordan Peele, now in its second season. In 1983 Steven Spielberg produced an homage film consisting of four unrelated episodes, three of them based on stories from the original series. In 2002 it was adapted for a long-running radio series, with Stacey Keach as narrator.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, the original series started turning up on binge-watching lists as if on the homeopathic principle that small doses of fear might ward off bigger fears. Now hardly a week goes by without someone invoking it in a blog or newspaper as a forecast of our own moment. Its themes—the shock of prolonged isolation, the dread of time running out, the eruption of dark dreams into waking life—feel all too current.
In 2019 Koren Shadmi, a young illustrator and writer, published The Twilight Man, a biography of Serling in the form of a graphic novel. Its stark and vertiginous black-and-white illustrations convey more effectively than words alone the life and work of a man whose imagination was both verbal and visual. Growing up in Israel in the 1980s, Shadmi had noticed references to The Twilight Zone on The Simpsons and The Wonder Years and saw a few episodes of the 1985 television remake. After moving to New York in 2002, he watched the entire original series and was amazed by its “beautiful, gray-toned gems with eye-popping visuals and stranger-than-strange stories” that made him think of “the old Jewish Mashals and Maasiyas”—allegorical fables whose force felt undiminished by time. The show had a cartoonish quality—improbable plots played out in an unreal monochrome world—yet the dread that ran through it felt unnervingly vivid and real. As he watched and rewatched,
the world around me seemed to become more and more like the Twilight Zone. Donald Trump was elected president. White Supremacists were coming out of the woodworks. California was set ablaze…. Again and again, The Twilight Zone was mentioned in the news. It all made perfect sense to me.
Suspecting that the “existential anxiety [that] runs at the core of The Twilight Zone…conveys some deep truth about its creator,” Shadmi became fascinated by Serling himself.*
Rod Serling grew up in the 1930s in the small upstate New York city of Binghamton, the second son of an assimilated Jewish family. He belonged to the first generation of American Jews for whom the demarcation between being Jewish and being American was not a border patrolled on both sides. It was a time, as Philip Roth writes in The Plot Against America, when “Israel didn’t yet exist [and] six million European Jews hadn’t yet ceased to exist,” when a Jewish boy, like all other boys, “pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school,” and the “homeland was America.” Serling’s friend the writer and producer Dick Berg spoke of the “fragments of his Jewish imagination”—an apt phrase for a man whose parents observed Christmas (which became a double family holiday when Rod was born on Christmas Day, 1924) while his father served as vice-president of the Reform synagogue.
A high school student when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, young Serling wrote “US Army Air Corps” under “future plans” in the school yearbook and talked about dropping out to fight the Nazis. Deferring to his parents’ wishes, he waited until graduation to enlist and was deployed not to Europe but to the Pacific, where he fought as a paratrooper in the Philippines. Close to starvation as rations ran out during the Battle of Leyte, he stood near his friend Melvin Levy as Levy sang joyously at the sight of US supply planes approaching over the mountains, until a crate fell out of the sky and crushed him to death in mid-song. It was Serling who placed a Star of David on the grave. Having seen how slender the line between life and death can be, he came home not only with a shrapnel wound and a Purple Heart but with earned knowledge that chance exerts dominion over even the most prudent life—themes that would recur in many episodes of The Twilight Zone.
After the war he enrolled on the GI Bill at Antioch College. There he met a freshman, Carol Kramer, whose father had allowed her to go to the notoriously progressive school but now announced, “I absolutely forbid you to marry that black-haired little Jew.” Two years after meeting they married. Perhaps in order to mollify his father-in-law, he attended Unitarian services with his wife.
A natural schmoozer (Carol “had never met anyone who was as self-assured”), he got a job at a Cincinnati radio station that was venturing into the brave new world of TV, billing itself as “Ohio’s first television service.” Working late into the nights on a diet of “black coffee and fingernails,” he tried his hand at short dramatic scripts, some of which he sold under a pseudonym to a competing TV station across town.
He thereby joined—at least as a fellow traveler—a group of talented young TV writers, many of them also Jewish war veterans, including Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, and Abby Mann. Unlike some who thought of TV work, in Serling’s words, “as a kind of finger exercise for what they hoped would turn into legitimate writing later on,” these writers were excited by the new medium. Wireless transmission of images had been technically feasible since the 1930s, but affordable receivers and commercial stations did not arrive until after the war. In 1945 there were fewer than 10,000 TV sets in the whole country. By 1952 there were nearly 20 million.
Manufacturers and advertisers were quick to recognize TV’s immense marketing power. In 1948 an enterprising young chemist named Hazel Bishop developed a lipstick that wouldn’t smear during a kiss or leave a smudge on the lip of a drinking glass. By 1950, she was selling 50,000 tubes per year at a dollar apiece. Two years later—after she bought television time—annual sales jumped to 4.5 million.
As the networks went national, sponsors tried to shut down anything that might limit the appeal of their products. Portrayals of Black people that defied the caricatures of Amos ’n’ Andy (one among many shows that played racial degradation for laughs) might upset white viewers, and not only in the South. Antiwar sentiment might alienate veterans. Candor about sex might scandalize proper people, whether their propriety was a matter of conviction or pretense.
And so the first wave of serious TV writers was on a collision course with what Serling called the “whole pressure system of sponsors, agencies and networks.” Liberal, iconoclastic, and chronically indignant, these writers wanted to awaken the public to bigotries and cruelties—anti-Semitism, racism, indifference to the poor. They thought of TV viewers as citizens. Sponsors thought of them as consumers.
Still, writing for television in those early years had the freewheeling fun of putting on a spontaneous show for friends at the school gym. Budgets were low. Sets were sparse—a kitchen table and chairs, an office desk with a telephone—which made for a sense of intimacy. Movies, especially with recent advances in widescreen projection, could dazzle with aerial shots and sweeping vistas. But TV writers, in Serling’s words, “had to be intimate. We didn’t have room to be anything else.” With a quick cut or slow dissolve to a new scene, a movie could create the illusion of more time passing than actually elapses on screen. But television made viewers feel that they were watching—almost spying on—real people in real time. For the actors, the best means of conveying emotion was a lingering close-up. As for the writers, Chayefsky said, they “tried to write dialogue as if it had been wire-tapped.”
By the mid-1950s, Serling and Chayefsky were the writers most in demand. Serling’s first major success was Patterns, a teleplay broadcast live in 1955 on Kraft Television Theatre, about a discarded businessman coming to terms with his own dispensability. The following year Serling’s reputation was secured by Requiem for a Heavyweight, performed on Playhouse 90, about a ruined boxer groping for dignity. Strong reviews prompted encore performances, and movie adaptations followed.
Other substantive works included The Strike (1954), which told the story of a field commander in Korea haunted by the knowledge that an air strike he calls in to protect his troops will kill every man in the scouting platoon he had sent out the night before. The utilitarian calculus pressed upon him by other officers—more men will be saved than killed—gives him small solace. Serling was staking out his terrain: the inner human landscape of guilt and fear and irresolvable conflict. According to his sometime friend Ray Bradbury, he wanted to be the Arthur Miller of television.
But even as live television—including the first performances of Chayefsky’s Marty (1953), Rose’s Twelve Angry Men (1954), and Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1959)—was flourishing, its days were numbered. By the late 1950s live TV—except for sporting events, breaking news, and variety show “specials”—could not match the commercial utility of the new technology of videotape. A taped show could be trimmed to fit a time slot. Gaffes could be cut. Revenues could be increased and costs lowered by recording in prime time in New York, then running the tape three hours later in LA without requiring a second performance back east. Kraft Television Theatre was canceled in 1958. Playhouse 90 managed to survive until 1960. All that remained of the dream of bringing live theater to a mass audience was soap opera.
Though often at odds with the sponsors, Serling was a compliant partner in the collaborative process of making a television play. “In the pre-Patterns days,” he said of himself with something between sheepishness and shame, “I would unquestioningly do any rewrite, change or delete any conception without a single question asked.” He was, he recalled, “a strange, haunted, middle-of-the-roader trying to find my way”—a way, that is, of maintaining integrity while scoring the deal. In 1956 he came close to losing both while working on a teleplay called Noon on Doomsday, based on the infamous killing in Mississippi of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy accused of whistling at a white woman. In August 1955 Till was mutilated and murdered by the woman’s husband and another white man, who were acquitted a month later by an all-white jury. The following January, in an interview with Look, the two men—constitutionally protected from a second trial on the same charge—admitted to the crime.
Serling knew that a hard-hitting treatment wouldn’t stand a chance at a time when the subject of race was still taboo. So he drained his script of the real issue—racial hatred—turned the victim from a young Black boy into an old Jewish shopkeeper, and consolidated the two killers into a single “neurotic malcontent” looking for a “scapegoat for his own unhappy, purposeless, miserable existence.” Racism and anti-Semitism were melded into one pathology—more a sickness than a crime. By the time his bosses got finished scrubbing the script, even the faintest echoes of the Till case were gone. The story had shifted from the South to a generic New England town. The substitution of a Jewish man for a Black boy was deemed insufficient, so the victim was now a vaguely alien foreigner, and the killer “a good, decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong.” Serling likened the final version of the play, broadcast in April 1956, to “striking out at a social evil with a feather duster.”
No doubt the forces of expurgation came from both within and without; but whatever their source, the experience convinced him that television would not tolerate the topical stories he hoped to write. He was coming to understand that such stories—not only about envy, loneliness, or thwarted ambition but about the compensatory bigotry, hatred, and primal fury to which they can give rise—needed somehow to be insulated from the censors, including himself.
After the Doomsday debacle, a solution began to take shape in his mind. He envisioned a weekly anthology series linked not by a connecting plot or recurring characters but by a continuous mood. It would be simultaneously credible and incredible, ordinary and uncanny, poised between reverie and nightmare. It would be set not in the present but in the recollected past or imagined future—suspended in what Serling called a “middle ground between light and shadow.” It would be essentially a series of dramatized dreams. America in the 1950s, Shadmi writes in an afterword to his biography, “was a daydream of gleaming chrome, bright white smiles, and bleach-blond hair.” But behind them were “strange monsters, quivering with fear and anger. Serling was able to see those monsters walking in broad daylight,” and he invited them into America’s living rooms.
The idea of setting stories in a dream world had been with him for years. As early as 1951 he had sold a short play, The Time Element, about a man who repeatedly dreams he’s in Hawaii on the day before Pearl Harbor, with foreknowledge of the coming attack. Ever since childhood, when he read pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, Serling had been drawn to the idea of voyaging into the past and revising it as if rewriting a script. In The Time Element, the time-traveler meets a young navy ensign serving on the USS Arizona, which he knows will be destroyed the next day. The basic plot is that of a foreboding dream—walls closing in, beast poised to pounce—from which the dreamer awakes just before catastrophe strikes.
Years later Serling dusted off the script, expanded it to an hour, and sold it to CBS, which aired it in November 1958 and liked it enough to solicit a pilot for a possible series. He now faced the challenge of using images and dialogue to represent unarticulated or even unconscious feelings. For the first episode of the new series—to be called The Twilight Zone—he chose the feeling of isolation, or, rather, it chose him. “During war, you yearn for the familiar,” says Shadmi’s Serling. “It’s all you dream about: the food, the family, the women. But once it’s all over, and you’re back home, there’s nothing waiting for you. Nothing but a great wide emptiness.”
Emptiness was the theme of the first episode of Twilight Zone, broadcast on October 2, 1959. “Where Is Everybody?” begins with a man walking into a town that has the desolate stillness of an Edward Hopper streetscape. He heads for a coffee shop where the grill is hot, the coffee pot boiling, but no one’s at the counter or in the seats. He looks through open shop doors but nobody is inside. He comes across a shaving brush with the lather still foaming.
At first, like the proverbial kid in the candy store, he’s giddy with his unsupervised freedom. But soon his bemusement descends through anxiety into fear. He calls out to a mannequin whom he mistakes for a woman. He runs into a phone booth, closes the door, and dials the operator but gets only the taunting mimicry of a recorded voice. Unable to force the door open to let himself out, he imagines that some spectral captor has locked him in, until he remembers he must pull rather than push, and he’s released onto the vacant street. The panic attack in the phone booth lasts almost four minutes—a substantial fraction of the twenty-five-minute span of the whole episode. It’s a riff on the old slapstick routine in which a swinging door smacks some hapless fool in the face or a revolving door spins him back to where he started—except that in Serling’s hands the sight gag becomes a metaphor for terror.
“Where Is Everybody?” was the first of 156 episodes of Twilight Zone broadcast over five seasons, of which Serling wrote an astonishing ninety-two. Especially in the first season he tapped a flood of private memories—childhood, war, his climb to fame—which he converted week by week into scenes and plots and problems. In “Walking Distance” a Manhattan ad man wanders as if in a dream into the pastoral little town where he grew up. This time the town is not empty but crowded with animate memories. He sees his parents, friends, even his childhood self, with every blemish washed away by his nostalgia. But they—without the foresight to match his hindsight—see in him nothing but a menacing stranger who somehow knows everything about them as if he has been stalking them all their lives. This time-traveler is condemned to observe intimate human encounters—embraces, partings, reproaches, flirtations—with no reciprocal recognition from the observed. The script was solemn, sometimes hackneyed, but it conveyed the aching sadness of obstructed longing.
Here was the keynote of almost everything Serling wrote—soul-killing loneliness—which he embodied in voyagers stranded, astronauts marooned, spouses estranged, clerks doing mind-numbing work while dreaming of a larger life. Loneliness was again his subject in “The Hitch-Hiker,” based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher that Serling remembered hearing while still in high school. Fletcher’s protagonist was a man, but Serling preferred a woman for the role, casting the delicately vulnerable Swedish-born actress Inger Stevens.
She’s driving alone along unlit roads. Like Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s Psycho (which opened a few months later), she’s in flight through the night from a transgression—though exactly what sin or crime she has committed goes unsaid. Along the way she encounters one attentive man after another: an auto mechanic, a café proprietor, a naval recruit, and, again and again, a weary hitchhiker with sad eyes who inexplicably stays ahead of her, awaiting her arrival up the road even though she has sped away from him after each previous encounter. Some of these men are menacing, others alluring; some are surly and cool, others wolfish and leering, but she cannot tell who is a hazard and who is an opportunity. There is fear in her eyes but seduction in her smile. It’s unclear to us, and perhaps to her, whether she’s feeling the dread of violation or the rush of freedom.
Serling had an incipient sense of women’s craving for freedom in 1950s America, but his one attempt to say something intelligible about the contemporaneous struggle for Black freedom, Noon on Doomsday, had been a travesty of euphemism and evasion. He did better with an early episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Big Tall Wish”—notable at the time for its all-Black cast—in which a weary Black boxer, played by the sensitive actor Ivan Dixon, attempts to prepare a Black boy who adores him for the crushing sadness of dashed dreams. “Somebody got to take you by the hair,” he tells the child, “and rub your face into the world till you get the taste and feel of the way things are.”
We tend to remember The Twilight Zone as relentlessly grim, but it could also be wry or even outright funny. Its humor bore a family relation to Mad Magazine—affectionate ribbing with a dash of cruelty—as when Serling cast Shelley Berman, that master of deadpan, in “The Mind and the Matter” as an office worker chronically exasperated with everyone around him. He’s a Larry David prototype (Berman would go on to play David’s father in Curb Your Enthusiasm)—an incessant kvetcher who wants to empty the world of “the worst scourge there is, the populace” and refill it exclusively with people like himself. When his wish is granted, he finds himself in a crowded elevator surrounded, as if in a hall of mirrors, by men who look exactly like him—including, to his horror, a sour version of himself in drag.
Serling was very much a 1950s liberal. As his younger contemporary Joan Didion wrote of their generation, he was “convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.” Unlike many who grew up during the Great Depression, he never had, and therefore never lost, faith in radical politics. Traumatic though it was, his wartime experience fortified his belief that the United States was a beacon of decency in the world, and that it needed only to live up to its own professed values. In the Twilight Zone episodes “The Obsolete Man,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “The Mirror” (a crude portrait of Fidel Castro as a lunatic narcissist), he tried to represent the distinctive horror of the twentieth century—totalitarianism—not as an ideology of right or left but as a response to the human penchant for ceding volition to some paternalistic power.
Ever since the war he had been afflicted by night terrors and a dire sense of living on borrowed time. “I always write with a sense of desperate urgency,” he said, “as if I had just gotten my X-ray from the doctor” and been told to “check with the insurance man and see whether or not the house is free and clear.” But despite his demons, he remained at heart a callow optimist. He attributed racism, along with anti-Semitism and xenophobia, not to any particular historical process or cultural pathology but to ignorance that could be ameliorated by education. To that end, he wanted to use television as a teaching machine. He clobbered his viewers with the morals of his stories. Beware of What You Wish For! (“Time Enough at Last”). We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us! (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”). Sets and types were clichéd (a Wild West saloon with a buxom barmaid who seems tough but is actually tender). Production values were primitive (a shaking camera indicating a spaceship blasting off). Stories were often wrapped up with an O. Henry–style twist that left the viewer more depleted than disturbed. Yet behind it all was a moral seriousness that was invariably ingenuous and sometimes moving.
By the third season, The Twilight Zone was starting to feel, in the words of one network executive, like a “has-been show.” “I began borrowing from myself,” says Shadmi’s Serling. “Repeating myself. Making my own clichés.” His earnest moralism, oblique treatment of sex, preference for implied violence over blood and gore, reliance on characters for whom reticence was the norm—all this was at odds with the confessional, irreverent, belligerently candid style that was emerging in the 1960s.
In the fourth season, CBS tried expanding each episode to an hour, but Serling had always been better at intimation than exposition, and the new format flopped. The fifth season reverted to a half-hour, but declining Nielsen ratings and rising production costs made for a dangerous combination, and Serling’s irascibility didn’t help. In January 1964 CBS announced it was canceling the show. In an interview with Variety, Serling responded that he had “decided to cancel the network.”
He continued to work, collaborating on screenplays for Seven Days in May (1964), about a failed military coup, and Planet of the Apes (1968), to which he contributed the famous ending where the wreckage of the Statue of Liberty reveals to the stranded astronaut that he has traveled not through space to some distant planet but through time to the post-apocalyptic Earth. He hosted a new TV series, Night Gallery, which ran on NBC from 1970 to 1973 but felt stale from the start.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Serling always answered, “as a writer.” But The Twilight Zone had made his voice and face his most marketable commodities. Toward the end, he found himself typecast as a horror show host in a well-cut suit, holding a lit cigarette with lengthening ash while he introduced some ghoulish story. He sold himself to commercials for everything from toothpaste to tires and potato chips. He smoked and drank too much. On June 28, 1975, two days after undergoing heart surgery, he died at the age of fifty.
The original Twilight Zone was a product of cold war anxiety, when Americans were on notice that a hum or boom above the clouds would be all the warning they’d get before being vaporized. Now we’re less fearful of a bomb from the sky or in a terrorist’s vest than of a raucous laugh from someone not wearing a mask as the nation heads toward war with itself. The West Coast is on fire. A Black man is crushed to death for all to see beneath a white policeman’s knee. The president recommends that we inject ourselves with bleach.
Watching The Twilight Zone decades ago, one could turn off the set and climb into bed after a snuggle with the dog and wait until next week for another passing shiver. No longer. We’re living full-time where Serling expected us to live: on the edge of dysfunction, craving and dreading human contact, stalked by a menace that seems nowhere and everywhere. In a late episode whose theme was mob mentality, “I Am the Night: Color Me Black,” he deplored “a sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in the mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.”
Earlier works on Serling that contain biographical insight include Nicholas Parisi, Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018); Anne Serling, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel, 2013); Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion (Silman-James, 2018; third edition); and Martin Grams Jr., The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008). ↩