What is it about the spooky, provocative short story that moves us so? Whether it’s listening to the big kids recount ghost stories around a campfire or reading creepypastas under the covers in the middle of the night, we cannot resist the pull of eerie, enigmatic stories that linger long after they’ve finished imparting their lessons.
Personally, I’ve been fascinated and transfixed by these kinds of stories my whole life. Ghost stories, urban legends, local folklore, internet nightmares–I love all of them. And one of the reasons why I love them so much is due, in large part, to watching The Twilight Zone with my grandmother.
Before I could really understand what I was seeing, I remember visiting my grandparents’ house and watching episodes of the Twilight Zone on what was once The Sci-Fi Channel. My grandmother, who was a loving and fun grandma, was also a well-mannered and restrained woman who never had a messy house and just wasn’t a fan of dark fiction, be it books or movies tv shows. (Assuming that it was a hard-hitting period piece or something, she and my grandfather once walked out of a screening of Men in Black. Another time, I made her watch X-Men with me, and she told me in that it was the worst movie she’d ever seen.) I wasn’t allowed to watch certain movies or TV shows because they were “unpleasant” or “inappropriate.” But for some reason, she didn’t mind The Twilight Zone, and she let me watch them. Sometimes, she watched them with me.
Those memories aren’t as vivid as I’d like them to be, but I will always remember in the early morning and evenings when Sci-Fi aired The Twilight Zone. I’ll always remember the New Year’s Eve marathons. I can still see my grandmother, taking a break from preparing dinner or tidying the house, to tell me it was time to stop watching TV, though she always stayed to watch at least one episode. She’d seen them all before, but she never spoiled them for me.
I remember being unsettled and unnerved by the show. Very rarely was it a “scary” episode, though The Twilight Zone taught me that “scary” didn’t have to involve ax-murderers or monsters. No, The Twilight Zone was a grown-up show, one that understood that the real monsters hide in plain sight, that our fears often lurk where we least expect to find them. Accordingly, I credit The Twilight Zone with a lot of my current interest in horror. I credit my grandmother for assuring me, in her quiet, gentle way, that my curiosity was normal and natural, if not a defining part of humanity’s love of storytelling.
Today, I can recognize that The Twilight Zone was an inspired achievement. Both timeless and a relic of cold-war America, straightforward yet intricate enough to obsess over, The Twilight Zone showed the world what an immaculately created half-hour of television could accomplish. It offered ghost stories about our past sins, fables about the addicting allure of political power, legends about evil little boys with god-like power, and myths about our greatest fear: the limits of our sense of order.
It distilled moments of horror into concise character portraits, complicated philosophical quandaries into succinct set pieces. It combined the technical advancements of television with the tried-and-true method of oral storytelling. It launched the careers of several Hollywood icons, including Tobert Redford, Carol Burnett, and William Shatner. It combined wonderfully moody and sinister cinematography and a mix of old and new stories to burrow under the viewer’s skin and stay there.
It speaks the truth, however dark and disturbing, which is what makes it such a compelling show after 60 years.
As Rod Serling once said, “There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.”
So, to celebrate the revival of The Twilight Zone, I’ve made a list of my ten favorite Twilight Zone episodes ever (which was hard to do). I chose these episodes because of their lasting impact on my young psyche as much for their themes and technical achievements. If you want to watch any of these yourself, you can do so on Netflix, CBS All Access, Hulu, or Prime.
“Mirror Image” (Season 1, Episode 21)
While waiting in a bus station, Millicent Barnes has the strange feeling that her doppelganger is trying to take over her life.
Opening Narration: “Millicent Barnes, age 25. Young woman waiting for a bus on a rainy November night. Not a very imaginative type is Miss Barnes: not given to undue anxiety, or fears, or for that matter even the most temporal flights of fantasy. Like most young career women, she has generic classification as a quote: ‘girl with her head on her shoulders,’ end of quote. All of which is mentioned now because, in just a moment, the head on Miss Barnes’ shoulders will be put to a test: circumstances will assault her sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block. Millicent Barnes who, in one minute, will wonder if she’s going mad.”
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (Season 1; Episode 22)
On a peaceful suburban street, strange occurrences and mysterious people stoke the residents’ paranoia to a disastrous intensity.
Opening Narration: “Maple Street, U.S.A., late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street…This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street in the last calm and reflective moment – before the monsters came.”
“The After Hours” Season 1, Episode 34
A woman is treated badly by some odd salespeople on an otherwise empty department store floor.
Opening Narration: “Express elevator to the ninth floor of a department store, carrying Miss Marsha White on a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand. Miss Marsha White on the ninth floor, specialties department, looking for a gold thimble. The odds are that she’ll find it—but there are even better odds that she’ll find something
“Eye of the Beholder” (Season 2, Episode 6)
A woman’s natural beauty makes her a freak in a futuristic society.
Opening Narration: “Suspended in time and space for a moment, your introduction to Miss Janet Tyler, who lives in a very private world of darkness. A universe whose dimensions are the size, thickness, length of the swath of bandages that cover her face. In a moment we will go back into this room, and also in a
“The Grave” (Season 3; Episode 7)
Old West lawman Conny Miller visits the grave of a man who he failed to track down to prove he was never afraid of him but gets more than he bargained for.
Opening Narration: “Normally, the old man would be correct. This would be the end of the story. We’ve had the traditional shoot-out on the street and the badman will soon be dead. But some men of legend and folk tale have been known to continue having their way even after death. The outlaw and killer Pinto Sykes was such a person, and shortly we’ll see how he introduces the town and a man named Conny Miller, in particular, to the Twilight Zone.”
“It’s a Good Life” (Season 3; Episode 8)
A 6-year-old controls his town with his ability to create or destroy anything with his mind.
Opening Narration: “Tonight’s story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a map of the United States, and there’s a little town there called Peaksville. On a given morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and Peaksville was left all alone. Its inhabitants were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Peaksville left untouched or whether the village had somehow been taken away.
They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing: the cause. A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines—because they displeased him—and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages—just by using his mind.
Now I’d like to introduce you to some of the people in Peaksville, Ohio. This is Mr. Fremont. It’s in his farmhouse that the monster resides. This is Mrs. Fremont. And this is Aunt Amy, who probably had more control over the monster in the beginning than almost anyone. But one day she forgot. She began to sing aloud. Now, the monster doesn’t like singing, so his mind snapped at her, turned her into the smiling, vacant thing you’re looking at now. She sings no more.
And you’ll note that the people in Peaksville, Ohio have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things
“To Serve Man” (Season 3; Episode 24)
An alien race comes to Earth, promising peace and sharing technology. A linguist and his team set out to translate the aliens’ language, using a book whose title they deduce is, “To Serve Man.”
Opening Narration: “Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown. Motives? Therein hangs the tale, for in just a moment, we’re going to ask you to shake hands, figuratively, with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time. This is the Twilight Zone.”
“On Thursday We Leave for Home” Season 4, Episode 16
A human colony is rescued from a forsaken planet. But their leader is having a hard time accepting that things will change when they get back to Earth.
This is William Benteen, who officiates on a disintegrating outpost in space. The people are a remnant society who left the Earth looking for a Millennium, a place without war, without jeopardy, without fear, and what they found was a lonely, barren place whose only industry was survival. And this is what they’ve done for three decades: survive; until the memory of the Earth they came from has become an indistinct and shadowed recollection of another time and another place. One month ago a signal from Earth announced that a ship would be coming to pick them up and take them home. In just a moment we’ll hear more of that ship, more of that home, and what it takes out of mind and body to reach it. This is the Twilight Zone.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5; Episode 3)
A man, newly recovered from a nervous breakdown, becomes convinced that a monster only he sees is damaging the plane he’s flying in.
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
“Living Doll” (Season 5; Episode 6)
In this episode, a dysfunctional family’s problems are made worse when the child’s doll proves to be not only sentient but also evil.
Opening Narration: “Talky Tina, a doll that does everything, a lifelike creation of plastic and springs and painted smile. To Erich Streator, she is the most unwelcome addition to his household—but without her, he’d never
What are your favorite Twilight Zone episodes? Let me know in the comments!