The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s classic television show The Twilight Zone blended the chilling world of Alfred Hitchcock with the macabre mind of Roald Dahl and the fantastical creativity of Ray Bradbury. More than 50 years after its premiere, the provocative, award-winning drama continues to inspire filmmakers and writers (notably, screenwriters for The Simpsons). We invite you to explore the dimensions of fear and the boundaries of imagination—and humor—as you cross into The Twilight Zone.
Renowned science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury was a major influence on The Twilight Zone even before his memorable teleplay “I Sing the Body Electric,” about three children who customize their own robotic grandmother, was produced for the show in 1962. George Clayton Johnson, a regular Twilight Zone screenwriter, confessed, “A lot of Bradbury was used in The Twilight Zone.… We all stole from him. Bradbury was the seminal influence.”
By Bradbury’s account, his influence preceded the show’s 1959 debut: A year earlier Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, an accomplished dramatic screenwriter, had approached him for advice about writing in the fantasy genre. Bradbury gave Serling a stack of science-fiction and fantasy books, including some of his own, and this counsel: “After you read these books you will have a complete idea of what your show should be like.” Serling followed that advice, perhaps too closely. His pilot episode for The Twilight Zone, entitled “Where Is Everybody?,” about a confused man who stumbles into a vacant town, recalls Bradbury’s 1949 short story “The Silent Towns.” Only when Serling’s wife made the connection, while reading Bradbury’s story collection The Martian Chronicles in bed one night, did Serling realize he had unconsciously copied the master.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1962; later The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 1962–1965) was an American television show created by English-born filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Each episode, a tale of mystery or suspense, opens and closes with a monologue by Hitchcock. (Rod Serling borrowed the technique for The Twilight Zone, which premiered four years after Hitchcock’s show, but the presentations are vastly different in style.)
Hitchcock enlisted the help of leading science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, who wrote or contributed to at least six teleplays for the show. “I’d loved Hitchcock forever,” Bradbury said, “and I saw his show and realized that we were similar spirits.”
Hitchcock admired Bradbury’s style enough to approach him for a larger project. In 1956 he asked Bradbury to adapt a story called “The Birds” into a screenplay. Unfortunately, Bradbury had a conflicting assignment: a teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Bradbury told Hitchcock he’d do the “Birds” adaptation, he recalled, “if you can wait two weeks for me.” Hitchcock found another writer. After seeing the finished movie (The Birds, 1963), Bradbury lamented his lost opportunity: “I should have done it. The film is full of holes.… I often wonder what would have happened if I had written it.”
Between 1958 and 1961 British writer Roald Dahl wrote six episodes for the mystery and suspense television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His script for “Lamb to the Slaughter,” adapted from his own short story, was nominated for an Emmy award in 1959. The plot is ingenious: A woman bludgeons her uncaring husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then sticks the meat in the oven; later she feeds it to the detectives who come to investigate the murder. Hitchcock praised the episode, calling it the best half-hour show of the series.
Roald Dahl’s own short-lived fantasy television show, ’Way Out (1961), took many of its cues from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Like Hitchcock, Dahl bookended each episode with a chilling monologue designed to create suspense, and his macabre stories, tinged with black humor, explore dark impulses, anxiety and the unspoken fears locked within the subconscious.
Roald Dahl achieved worldwide recognition as a children’s author with James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and other novels, but he was also a best-selling writer of short stories for adults, many of them dark, disturbing suspense tales. Science-fiction author Ray Bradbury admired Dahl’s work, and in 1958 he recommended the offbeat author to Rod Serling, who had just signed a contract with CBS for his television series The Twilight Zone. After giving Serling books by Dahl, John Collier and other writers of fantasy fiction, recalled Bradbury, “I said, ‘Buy some of these stories or hire some of these authors to work for you, because you can’t do the whole thing by yourself.’”
In 1961 Dahl created ’Way Out, a 14-episode television program that resembled The Twilight Zone in its use of suspenseful, psychological plots and twist endings. CBS executive Mike Dann called ’Way Out a “companion program to Twilight Zone” and scheduled it to air immediately preceding that program in the Friday night lineup. One critic, comparing the creators of these two shows and their precursor, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, described Dahl as “a thin Alfred Hitchcock, an East Coast Rod Serling.”
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling cowrote the film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes (1963). The 1968 movie is about an astronaut who crash-lands on an alien planet where intelligent apes rule over the undomesticated human species. Faithful to his storytelling trademark, Serling scrapped the story’s original ending (in which the protagonist escapes back to Earth) in favor of a twist.
In Serling’s version, the final scene reveals that the protagonist (Charlton Heston) has in fact not arrived on an alien planet but has unknowingly returned to Earth in a post-apocalyptic future. Though unexpected for most viewers, this twist might not have surprised Twilight Zone fans—Serling used nearly the same ending for his 1960 episode “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” in which a spacecraft crashes on a hot, desert-like asteroid. One astronaut, panicked and hysterical about his survival, kills the others for their water supply. Later, dragging his tired body over a ridge, he sees a sign for Reno, Nevada: “Oh my dear God. I know what happened. We never left Earth!... We just…we just crashed back into it.”
Steven Spielberg’s classic 1982 horror film Poltergeist adapted its premise (a girl vanishes through a portal in her closet into another world) from the 1962 Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost” by science-fiction author Richard Matheson. The episode begins with a girl’s distant cries sounding from her bedroom in the middle of the night. Her father goes to console her but discovers her bedroom empty—yet his daughter’s voice continues to emanate from a mysterious source. A physicist, called in to investigate, finds a portal in the girl’s bedroom wall and concludes that the girl has fallen through it into another dimension.
Aside from a significant expansion of the storyline and character list, Spielberg’s biggest departure from this premise is taking his film fully into the supernatural realm—with ghosts, demons and psychic divination—and away from the pseudoscientific basis of “Little Girl Lost.” Poltergeist’s little girl, Carol Anne, is sucked into a spirit world instead of a hypothetical extra dimension; her parents consult a spiritual medium instead of a physicist.
According to Matheson, Spielberg requested a videotape of “Little Girl Lost” from him before beginning production on Poltergeist.
Unlike typical episodes of The Simpsons—the longest-running primetime program in the U.S.—which recount the workaday lives of the suburban family of the title and their fellow residents of Springfield (state unnamed), the show’s annual Halloween special, Treehouse of Horror, explores themes of fantasy and science fiction. The writers’ favorite source for material appears to be, as one may expect, The Twilight Zone. Among the classic episodes they have spoofed or referenced are “To Serve Man,” “Living Doll,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Little Girl Lost,” “The Little People,” “A Kind of Stopwatch,” “It’s a Good Life,” “A Small Talent for War” and “Big Tall Wish.” That’s quite a tally of appropriation, considering the annual special has aired since only 1990.
In the “Little Girl Lost” takeoff, entitled “Homer³” (one of the segments in Treehouse of Horror VI, 1995), Homer Simpson, the family patriarch, accidentally steps into the third dimension (from the show’s 2-D animation) through a portal in his wall. The strangeness of his futuristic surroundings reminds him of “that twilighty show about that zone.”
In the first of three segments in the inaugural Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror special (October 25, 1990), the Simpsons unknowingly desecrate a burial ground by moving into a house built on top of it. Soon the ghosts of the offended dead occupy the house and haunt the family. This follows the same basic storyline as Steven Spielberg’s horror film Poltergeist (1982)—even until the end, with the implosion of the possessed house. In Poltergeist, however, the implosion is the climactic result of all the paranormal activity preceding it; in Treehouse of Horror, the house destroys itself to get away from the Simpson family.
Treehouse of Horror again parodied Poltergeist in the 1995 segment “Homer³.” Homer Simpson, after vanishing through a portal in the wall from the flat world of 2-D animation into the third dimension, is rescued by his son, Bart, who jumps into the portal with a rope around his waist—the same way the mother rescues her little girl, Carol Anne, in Poltergeist.
The writers of the Simpsons television show paid tribute to the master of horror, Alfred Hitchcock, in their 20th annual Treehouse of Horror special, in 2009. The segment “Dial ‘M’ for Murder or Press ‘#’ to Return to Main Menu” (the first part named after the 1954 Hitchcock film) is a mini-retrospective of Hitchcock’s lifework. The plot is based on the famous “crisscross” double-murder conspiracy in Strangers on a Train (1951); Bart accidentally knocks a cameo likeness of Hitchcock off the top of Mount Rushmore, recalling the final scene of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), which also supplies the segment’s background music; and Lisa chases Bart through iconic film sets from such Hitchcock classics as Spellbound (1945) and Strangers on a Train. The segment finally ends on a black silhouette of Hitchcock’s profile, eminently recognizable to viewers of his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1962).