Once every couple of years, I love to go back and revisit The Twilight Zone. There's sometime all too familiar about that "vast" and "timeless...dimension of imagination." I've been spoiled by Netflix, which has but season 4 streaming online. I can escape into the "middle ground between light and shadow" from the safety of my recliner for hours.
What keeps bringing me back? Is it the imaginative stories? Is it the memorable characters? Is it the meaningful themes almost 60 years later? I can't think of another show that stands the test of time better than The Twilight Zone. It brings older people back to a more memorable time; it gives younger generations a glimpse into the past. But, what it does the best is craft stories that, at their core, spread ideas which resonate with any person of any generation.
So what can younger generations and future generations still learn from a black-and-white anthology series from the 1960s? Come with me, won't you? To a "dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination." Let's take a look at
No YOLO & 11 Other Life Lessons from THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
Don't Judge Others
Before the world had been to the moon yet, The Twilight Zone was already thinking about Mars. In the episode "People Are Alike All Over," two astronauts, Marcusson and Conrad, head a mission to Mars. Marcusson, an optimist, believes that all people across the galaxy (if there are any) are good-natured. Conrad fears space travel and doubts such ideals. After Marcusson dies from crash landing on Mars, Conrad's fears consume him until he actually meets Martians. And, they turn out to be quite helpful. And, they look just like humans. And, they even build him a house based on their ability to read his mind. And, it turns out Conrad is no more than a monkey flinging his poo at the zoo. The Martians display Conrad as "Earth Creature in his native habitat." The End.
So, where was that part about the judging of others? What we have here is an idea of someone believing to be superior to others. As humans on Earth, we cage and display animals in zoos. We do it, in part, because we can. Conrad is caged as a human of Earth by the dominant creatures of Mars. But, zoos aren't the only place in which man displays his dominance. The Martians take no time to get to know Conrad, because they've already judged him as merely an Earthling. Man judges other men (and women and children). We label. We stereotype. We judge people before we get to know the individual person. The Twilight Zone kills off the optimist in hopes that you keep yours alive.
Online Awareness/Digital Identity
Be aware of your actions. "The Masks" reveals the truth with haunting results. When a family visits their dying relative, their disinterest is prevalent to all. Clearly, they just want their money. The dying man, Foster, says that for them to get the money, they must wear a mask. These masks represent the personality of each relative (although, Foster convinces them by telling them it's the opposite to fuel their greed). After Foster dies, the family members remove their masks to reveal their faces have transformed into the repulsive shapes of the disguise, ironically, unmasking their true selves to the world.
When it comes to human interaction, we only see what the other person wants us to see. The same goes for the Internet. We all create a digital identity through our interaction with others on the internet. Our online persona is a digital mask. Others see what we post, what we like, what we share, what we comment, and their perception of us creates a mask. The hope is that our own digital mask forms to our face, and the two are indistinguishable. The alternative is a similar fate to those among The Twilight Zone.
The Voice of the Internet
The picture above is from the episode "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?". Doesn't it just capture the voice of the internet? I'm right; you're wrong. Wanna fight about it? Hurumph!
The episode I want to bring to your attention for this lesson is "The Mind and the Matter." It tells the story of Mr. Archibald Beechcroft, a "my way or the highway" sort of fellow. We see the short fuse of his temper is easily lit. Mr. Beechcroft would just prefer to get rid of all the people in the world. Such aspirations are the bread and butter of the Twilight Zone. After reading a book titled "The Mind and the Matter" Beechcroft gains the ability to concentrate someone away. They just disappear. He eventually renders the entire Earth empty except for himself. Shortly after, loneliness sets in on Mr. Beechcroft. He attempts to rectify his situation, and even goes as far as repopulating the world in his image. Turns out, if everyone is like him, then they are all curmudgeons who don't want anyone else around. Mr. Beechcroft sees the error in his worldview and sets everyone and everything back to normal.
With so much of today's communication relying on technology, the face-to-face conversation is isn't quite extinct, but it's on the endangered species list for sure. We can barely hold a conversation with the person in front of us without checking our phones for a new and more interesting conversation. It's much easier for us to congregate with only those who have similar beliefs as us. But surrounding yourself with carbon copies can get messy. Whether we talk to someone with different views in person or online, we should show our beliefs by example rather than cutting down the other person. Instead of hurling verbal stones at each other, why not catch the stone, look at it, and offer a stone from your pile. Maybe you'll each gain a new stone rather than wasting them all.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
"The Man in the Bottle" follows Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Castle. They own an antiques store, but have fallen on hard times. They are patient and generous people, but they wish for something more just once in their lives. That wish gets granted when they come across an antique bottle and release the magical genie inside. After wishing for money and power, Mr. and Mrs. Castle learn that everything comes with a price (like becoming Hitler at the end of WWII). They cannot bear the weight of it all, and use their last wish to return to their normal lives. Such insight into what may be gives them a fresh appreciation for what actually is.
Now this lesson has been taught since the beginning of time, and yet people still covet what they can't have. I have nothing against someone working hard to achieve their goals and acquire things they've sought after. But, people who take shortcuts cut short their own self-appreciation and growth. Plenty of examples exist of people working hard or hardly working. Nine times out of ten, one may observe the benefits of hard work and determination as opposed to moping and feelings of entitlement. Don't Worry; be appreciative.
One of the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone is "The Eye of the Beholder." It tells the tale of Janet Tyler, a woman horribly disfigured in comparison to the normal people of her world. She wishes to be just like everyone else, and had undergone numerous surgeries to achieve it. At the last surgery, Janet pleads with the doctor to remove her bandages. He complies and reveals an unchanged Tyler. Saddened and horrified by her hideous looks, Janet is actually gorgeous by our standards. It is everyone else in the world who is deformed with sullen eyes, wrenched lips and pig snouts. Tyler is cast off into a community of other "ugly" people so the "normal" people will not be troubled.
Our popular culture fails to instill this lesson into our citizens. Although exiling the outcasts to a remote island seems a bit extreme, it's exactly what happens in the United States every day. It's just they are secluded in their minds. Discrimination is rampant when it comes to looking a certain way. Men and women are made to feel down and depressed if they don't meet the physical attributes of the magazine covers, television ads, or movie stars. Although slowly improving, we must remember that beauty is not objective; it's in "the eye of the beholder."
Help Others Freely
Another classic episode of The Twilight Zone is the Christmas themed episode "Night of the Meek." It's one of the few episodes with a happy ending for it's main character. Henry Corwin is a bubbling drunk dressed up in a frumpy Santa suit for an unnamed department store. Although his exterior is lackluster, Corwin's ideals are that of compassion and hope during the Christmas season. While getting fired for being drunk at work, Corwin recites the Bible wishing that the meek would inherit the Earth and he'd be able to spread the true meaning of Christmas to all the boys and girls. Well, where there's a Twilight Zone, there's a way. As Christmas bells ring overhead, Corwin stumbles down the street to find a sack of presents at his feet. Corwin proceeds to spread the gifts across the town for the rest of the evening. When all the gifts have been dispersed at the stroke of midnight, Corwin notices there wasn't anything in the bad for him. He also realizes that there'd be nothing in the bag he'd actually want. His gift was being the giver. The episode ends with Corwin becoming the jolliest giver of all.
Although the message hits the hardest during the holidays, the lesson of helping others lasts all year. Watching this episode puts into perspective the consumerist nature of our society. For decades we've placed the idea of buying things above and beyond the nature of giving. Look how much I spent. Look how early I had to get up to buy this. Look at all this stuff. Shouldn't we focus on the feelings and motivations behind the gifts? It's the thought that counts. not the counting of money. It could be the thoughtfulness of a gift, a kind word, or a good deed. Seek out ways in which you can better your fellow man by giving them positive feelings.
Having Others Around You
A handful of Twilight Zone episodes deal with the theme of isolation. We will get to two others in a moment, but first, I want to draw your attention to the episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." It is a story of isolation for five people. An Army major, a clown, a ballerina, a Scotsman, and a hobo are stuck in a confined space with no knowledge of where they are or who they are. As the episode unfolds, they contemplate the meaning of life, emotion, and purpose. They come together to find a way out, something they weren't able to do on their own. The revelation of where and who they are is something which can only be answered in The Twilight Zone.
These five different characters in such a peculiar situation shows that having others around you is important. It's easy to get stuck inside your head. Dwelling on a situation can only trap you deeper into your mind. It's having people around with whom you can talk and share experiences that will help solve problems. Whatever the task may be, getting feedback from others helps us see the problem from a different perspective. So make sure to lean on your friends, family , or the nearest clown, Army major, ballerina, Scotsman, or hobo the next time you find yourself lost in your head looking for answers.
The Dangers of Over-Reliance on Technology
Here comes a Burgess Meredith double feature. The Twilight Zone had a tendency to repeat actors in a variety of roles. Burgess Meredith starred in a few episodes, and two of them happen to focus on the same theme: the dangers of over-reliance on technology. The two episodes are "Time Enough at Last" and "The Obsolete Man."
"Time Enough at Last" focuses on bookworm Henry Bemis. He is a bank teller who sneaks away into the bank vault to read whenever he can. He does this because his wife does not let him read at home. She feels that it is not important. One day, while reading in the vault, a nuclear bomb wipes out everything in the city, except him and books. Elated that he finally has time to read, Bemis stumbles and shatters his glasses rendering him blind to the written word.
"The Obsolete Man" places Burgess Meredith in a totalitarian, future America as Romney Wordsworth. Wordsworth has been placed on trial for being obsolete, because he is a librarian. Similar to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, this future has outlawed books of all kinds. Wordsworth also believes in God even though the State has proven through science that God does not exist. Found guilty and sentenced to death, Wordsworth chooses his means of execution by way of a televised assassination. When the State sees the Chancellor as the one who must play the role of assassin, Wordsworth reveals that a bomb is set to go off with both him and the Chancellor inside. After reading from his secret copy of the Bible, Wordsworth accepts his time of death. The Chancellor, on the other hand, panics. Right before the bomb is to explode, the Chancellor begs to be released "in the name of God." Wordsworth complies. The Chancellor escapes the room right as the bomb explodes and kills Wordsworth. When the Chancellor returns, he's been rendered obsolete due to his cowardice and proclamation to God.
There's a couple different ways to look at these episodes as cautionary tales about technology. The societal attitudes towards books in the episode is generally negative. This could speak to the decline of literature from the contemporary position of the time and even more so in the time since the episode aired. Author and educator Weston Ochse looks at the episode from a more modern approach. The era we live in is consumed by getting books and information from the internet or e-books. In his article "The End of Books: The Bemis Condition" Ochse suggests we aren't far off from Bemis' fate:
“This episode of Twilight Zone is analogous to ePublishing. It could be a metaphor for the computer. It’s more than a morality tale, it’s a technology tale and a horror story of the first degree. Remember, that the only thing that limited Henry Bemis from reading was technology; the medium by which he read books which were his glasses. We’d all be Henry Bemis if books were only available online, our medium, the computer. We’re only a lightning strike, a faulty switch, a sleepy workman or a natural disaster away from becoming Henry Bemis at the end of the world.”
Although censorship plays a big part, the focus should be the over-reliance on technology and science. Where are the arts? Philosophy? Literature? Freedom of religion? Free speech? What's the point in living life if we can boil it all down to 1's and 0's? Just like in Fahrenheit 451, the constant barrage of media and entertainment hinders our ability to think, speak, and act freely. The lesson is make sure you use technology as an additional means of thought and understanding for what's out there past the illuminated screen.
Environmental Awareness is the focus of the episode "The Midnight Sun" as it evokes the questions of balance. "The Midnight Sun" follows a couple of women, Norman and Mrs. Bronson, as then prepare for the end of the Earth. The Earth spontaneously changed orbit which brings it closer and closer to the Sun. The two women survive a burglary as everyone else in the apartment building, and the entire city, flees to the South. When the day's heat surpasses 120 degrees, Norma screams and collapses. When she awakes, she realizes that the temperature is -10 degrees, and the Earth is actually moving away from the Sun.
Rod Serling's closing narration sums up the episode's message as so:
The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer-watchers in the Twilight Zone.
We know now of global warming and the "greenhouse effect" but when the episode aired, these were all very new concepts. We can observe and track better than ever the flux of the environment and weather due to our harsh use of it for thousands of years. The lesson here may not provide any means of resolving the environmental issues, but, at least, we should keep our ear to the ground.
Drinking and Driving
We all should know by now that drinking and driving is stupid and selfish. We'll apparently we haven't gotten it right in over 50 years, because even The Twilight Zone came out with an episode addressing this specific problem. "Stopover in a Quiet Town" takes place in a strange town with no inhabitants save for Mr. and Mrs. Frazier. The only thing they can remember is that they drank too much at a party the night before. As they were driving home, a shadow enveloped their car. As they explore the house and the entire town, they notice that it's nothing more than props like that of a movie production. Everything in the town is fake, and the train takes them back around to the town again. Also, while they explore, they keep hearing sounds like laughter from a little girl. Where did they end up after a heavy night of drinking and driving? Why, the Twilight Zone, of course.
We don't need much analysis for this episode. I'll leave you with Rod Serling's closing narration again for this lesson:
The moral of what you've just seen is clear. If you drink, don't drive. And if your wife has had a couple, she shouldn't drive either. You might both just wake up with a whale of a headache in a deserted village in the Twilight Zone.
A Balanced Upbringing
These next two episodes deal with two sides of the same coin. As far as raising a child goes, "It's a Good Life" and "The Bewitchin' Pool" show that it takes a village. Pictured on the left is a scene from "The Bewithcin' Pool." Sport and her brother Jeb live the good life in an expensive house. Although behind closed doors, we see their struggle with cold and insensitive parents. While swimming in their backyard pool, the brother and sister meet a boy named Whitt who takes them through the Twilight Zone to a old farmhouse filled with happy children and their caretaker Aunt T. When Sport and Jeb return, they find out their parents are getting a divorce. They decide to forever return to Aunt T instead of their parents who only shout over each other and disregard their kids' absence. "It's a Good Life" takes the opposite approach by showing us a six-year-old monster named Anthony Fremont. He has special powers and can make anything that he doesn't like disappear forever. The town has been cut off from the rest of the world, and regardless of the townspeople's needs as a whole, they must follow Anthony's wishes to appease him. One evening, a townsman cannot take it anymore and confronts Anthony. Anthony kills him and ruins half of the crops, and everyone begrudgingly congratulates him.
As the episodes show, it's important to raise children up with balance. Don't neglect them, because it may be too late when you attempt to show interest. Conversely, don't give in to your child's every whim, because that's what they'll be accustomed to. It may be easy to blame a bratty child for being bratty, but who allowed those actions and attitudes to manifest over time? The parents. Although we may call a wild child a "monster," it's important to remember who is in control.If you want another great story about the importance of raising balanced childresn, watch the Gene Wilder version of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
So YOLO, for the literal handful that don't know, stands for You Only Live Once (so have fun and do whatever you want right now). The ideology implies that you should take risks and not worry about the consequences because you won't get a second shot at life. The phrase has actually been around for a 100 years or so, but it's had a resurgence in the mainstream media and youth culture as a scapegoat for doing whatever makes you happy. I believe The Twilight Zone takes issue with this phrase as it is used today. The episode entitled "Escape Clause" warns viewers of indulging in frivolous pursuits out of boredom. Mr. Walter Bedeker, a narcissistic hypochondriac afraid of everything, sells his soul to the devil for immortality. With a new lease on life, he pursues death defying feats like jumping in front of buses and trains (and collects lawsuit money from the companies). After a while, Bedeker gets bored with the cheap thrills and confesses to murdering his wife just so he can go in the electric chair. When he ends up getting life in prison without parole, Bedeker realizes he's stuck in prison for all eternity unless he uses the escape clause. He calls the devil in, and says he wants out of the contract. The devil grants his request by giving Bedeker a heart attack.
Life's meaning comes from having something to lose. Bedeker had nothing left to lose. He wasn't afraid of death. He wasn't afraid of anything. So he didn't have anything for which to live. Bodybuilders continue to work out and strive for perfection because they don't want to lose their muscles. Some people constantly do word problems or crossword puzzles because they don't want to lose their mind. Some people work hard and provide because they don't want to lose their family. Some people study and converse with others concerning religious texts because they don't want to lose their faith. There's a similar phrase known as "carpe diem." The focus is to not leave things for later, because you don't know if there will be a later. Take advantage of the day, and better your future one day at a time.
Hopefully reading this has helped you better yourself today, so that you may continue to apply these life lessons tomorrow.