As the first season of The Twilight Zone neared its conclusion 60 years ago, viewers had become accustomed to a weekly form of terror that hit home so hard precisely because of what it also seemed to portend. There were mirthful episodes, but horror—human horror that often happened to feature aliens—accounted for the show’s grip.
One would watch as characters became consigned to a place—buried in a place, disappearing in a place, melding with a place—from which they would not depart. Or, if they did, that place would be carried forward with them, life now lived as a type of chronic, psychological displacement. The realm of the title was something that became embedded in those touched by the place, and characters and viewers knew it would not be going anywhere.
Series creator Rod Serling spoke in interviews about how he never expected his quirky show to have a second life beyond its initial run. A humble man, Serling nonetheless knew what he had wrought with the better episodes, those that didn’t rely merely on twist endings for their impact.
Sci-fi buffs at the time—including some of the best authors—generally felt a need to apologize for their passion, as thought it were juvenile. But if one possessed an open mind, as Serling did, sci-fi signaled opportunity. It afforded a means to blend horror and social commentary, sans the trappings of naturalistic fiction. One could comment on the world at present, without having to dink around with the actual news of the day, and show where the world might be headed, what could continue to dog it, and what would, in fact, get worse without concerted efforts to redress it. The series was less about fictionalizing current events, as fictionalizing current times—an invaluable, freeing distinction that allowed an audience to think, “Oh dear, that could happen.”
Like all the best television programs, The Twilight Zone arrived almost fully-formed; it did not ramp up to quality. That first season contains both a perfect work of television drama, and arguably the most forward-looking program of that time period, capturing the way our world is now playing out in the digital age of fake news, paranoia, woke mobs, and humans hunting humans. It is episode 22, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” and it’s the signpost that shows the way from 1960 straight to 2020.
The prefatory montage to each Zone episode was like a crisscross of Dali and Cocteau, a serged seam that, when perforated, took us into another world. But with “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it’s as though those foggy mists of time and the cosmos are burned off by the heat of a late summer day, and then we see a literal signpost, telling us that we have come to Maple Street, USA. Welcome, stranger.
A neighborhood teems with life. Kids bust away from a game of baseball to surround the ice cream man, while adults, busy at their chores—watering the lawn, washing the car—hobnob with each other, affable multitaskers. You have the sense they have come out of their houses on this day less for chores than for camaraderie.
The sign for Maple Street crowns this block in suburbia where you can stroll down the middle of the road, with little passing traffic. Among the gregarious men congregating there is Steve Brand, played by Claude Akins. He’s one of those actors whose presence all but ensures quality. Serling knows this, as did Howard Hawks, who stuck Akins in the besieged jail of Rio Bravo the year before. As a viewer, you centered on his presence. He’s the character actor form of veracity, for good or bad.
Akins was often a “heavy”—and he had the build to fill out both parts of the description—but in this episode he’s more ursine, a protective bear for the block as a whole. A meteor passes overhead, witnessed by all, and it’s all the more discomfiting for happening in the middle of a summer afternoon. There’s a curiosity factor—a communal query of “What the heck was that?”—which modulates to fear when a teen boy named Tommy says, matter of factly, that this is just how the alien takeover begins in his comic books.
The casualness of his tone is disarming, akin to how so many of us speak now when we’re relaying something we’ve not vetted, as when something mentioned on the internet becomes treated as the chapter and verse of reality. (All the more so if the rumormonger is on the proper side of the identity politics of the day.) In today’s public square, if you found a rope in a tree that is part of a man’s exercise equipment, and you want to get people to believe that hangings are about to commence, the goal is all too easily realized. The White Knights ride on various social media platforms, but just use that phrase and someone can say you advocate for the Klan. We feel that anything can get us. It’s not that it can, really—but thinking it can, and not rising above that paranoia, allows it to get us.
Sixty years ago, the terror centered on fears of takeover and usurpation, be they attacks from Russia or from worlds beyond. The power goes out on Maple Street. Someone remarks, understandably, that the meteor could have played a role, but the seed of fear germinates quickly, especially when—and this is ironic—one is not alone. A trope and presumption of horror is that the person in isolation is the prime victim. Reason will falter when we are off on our own, unable to rely on anyone else. But the brilliance of this Rod Serling-penned episode is that community—what may be faux-community, or the illusion of true community—is the culprit for max paranoia, perhaps the most debilitating terror of all. The monster imagined can all but scare the bejesus out of the actual, would-be bogeyman. Imaginary monsters have a knack for out-monstering the real deal.
A car starts without a driver. Again, the broad daylight aspect unsettles in a manner that the midnight haunted house would not. We can practically smell the aroma of cooked burgers and toasted buns from a backyard grill (whoever dressed this set warrants praise), but the day has turned. And, so too, do the neighbors, on each other. One man—we learn as a group turns to a mob and speech follows accordingly—has been seen on his porch at night, looking at the heavens. The statement—an observation—becomes an accusation. He claims he suffers from insomnia, but now he’s charged with monitoring the skies for the attack that has now presumably been mounted, like he was a scout on the ground.
This is a wide-open street, and yet it feels as if it is becoming an enclave in a canyon with unscalable walls, no hope of escape. Someone suggests taking a walk over to the next block, to see if the troubles are the same there. This endeavor, merely walking one street over, smacks of an Arthurian quest. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s rifts turn inter-familial. Steve, who is trying to be the voice of reason—going so far as to ask Tommy follow-up questions, taking the boy seriously, which is both kind and foolish, given where it leads them all—is revealed to be a ham radio enthusiast, outed by his wife, in essence putting forth the theory that his channel-frequency reaches all the way to Mars.
The sun goes down, but it could have been erased from the sky, never to return, because the fear is the constant—the new prevailing orb. There is fear of an alien invasion, but as the accusations mount that particular concern is sidelined. What people most want to avoid is blame, causality. Humans ostensibly freaking out over otherworldly beings infiltrating our world instead lock in on each other. To not invade another person, as it were, is to be conspicuous—and thus guilty—by dint of unexpressed and unmounted outcry. If you wish to save your skin, you better become a veritable comet of righteousness and start torching whomever you can. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
With the advent of evening, the street comes to look like something out of a war film, with tracking crane shots over the forms below, human-ants and their weaponry—rifles, bats, pistols, hammers—zig-zagging in ambiguously serried ranks. Having been at street level, we’ve been moved, subtly, overhead, for the aerial view of life on the suburban ground. We can’t tell who is who anymore, which is part of the point—the forfeiture of individuality.
When Hitchcock began a picture like Rear Window, he’d show you a shot of various objects that add up to suggest what a given person is like—their predilections, what makes them tick. This Twilight Zone episode provided us with that same information, but as indictment. The interests of the individual are used as proof of transgression, as a means of calling out. The freak of Maple Street is that person who is not in the dead-center of the crowd, the person with passions, ideas, or even just plain and simple hobbies.
And with that, we leave the inhabitants of Maple Street as combatants, who may or may not put things right with each other come the morning, allowing that the lights stop blinking and the cars cease turning on and off on their own. But what, really, can you put right after a night like this, an interlude spent in this manner with humanity turning on and against itself? Some of the humanity naturally goes. Keep at it, and eventually next to none will remain.
What follows is a shot unlike anything attempted in television at the time. The crane continues pulling away, the figures down below do indeed become like ants—albeit torch-wielding ants, so perhaps more akin to fireflies—and in one camera motion we’re outside of a space vessel atop a hill, with two aliens looking on at the scene below. You’re not sure how they do this in an unbroken camera movement—it’s probably two pieces of film composited together, as with some of the trick deep focus shots in Citizen Kane. The point is that the transition shows no seams. Truth is housed in the congruity of the long shot.
Twist endings, as we’ve noted, could be a problem for The Twilight Zone. Serling would load too much plot there, which had an unbalancing effect. But this isn’t a twist ending, so much as a jape, a bit of smack talk—prescient, all-too-true smack talk, courtesy of these alien interlopers.
One of them muses with satisfaction that all you have to do is set off a few lights, trigger a car alarm or two, and these humans lose their minds. Today you could throw in, “Post something on Twitter,” or “Share an image of a kid smirking,” and they’d thank you, add it to the bag of tricks. Watch this episode now, observe the fireflies as they flitter, flee, attack, and blur, and it’s not hard to think that perhaps they already did.
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is available for streaming on Netflix.