HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Thirty Minute Reality Check: How The Twilight Zone Reflected American Society in the 1950s
© 2004, Meredith Brenner

Imagine, if you will, a time that seemed innocent... almost too innocent. Imagine a nation under whose seemingly conformist and conservative surface dramatic social changes were brewing, changes as obvious as integration and as subtle as fast food. And imagine, if you will, a radical television show that scrutinized, criticized, and most importantly, publicized these changes, making the social turmoil of a nation apparent to its post-world war, self-contented middle-class citizens. But what if this television show was not as it appeared? What if it masqueraded as simple science fiction, and did not reveal its true agenda until viewers took a closer look? Let us examine how such a television program can become a defining force in the culture of a nation, a force that remains just as powerful almost forty-five years after it first appeared. Let us investigate the secrets of... The Twilight Zone.

With ominous opening monologues, mind-bending special effects (at the time, anyway) and totally unexpected-twist endings, The Twilight Zone captured the attention and imagination of America at the end of one of the most influential and change-inspiring decades of the century. During the fifties, Americans experienced vast changes not only in our country's position in the world, but also in our own culture -- and one of the leading vehicles for this change was television. In a time when situation comedies and game shows dominated the air waves, Rod Serling's science fiction anthology program stood out as an example not only of the artistic potential of television in terms of writing and special effects, but also of the power television had as social commentary and a thought-provoking medium. Seeing television's potential not just as a circus for the masses, but as an opportunity to challenge the conscious, penetrate the subconscious, and make people think without realizing it, Serling used this new window on America to showcase the prominent issues of the time, as well as to reflect Americans' fears of the consequences of some of our actions. The Cold War, the Bomb, space travel, aliens, technology -- even morality in general -- are all themes that appear frequently in The Twilight Zone. What sets The Twilight Zone apart, however, is the way in which these topics were presented. In a time of Communist witch-hunts and finger-pointing, it was difficult to present objectively the flaws in American culture without putting oneself at risk. So, Serling disguised his social commentary as science fiction; he hid the shocking facts behind even more shocking fantasy. Radical in its own time and still admired and emulated today, The Twilight Zone set the standard for thoughtful television and inspired a generation to think differently about the changes it was witnessing.

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle-ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call the 'Twilight Zone.' (Engel)

With these words, and some famously eerie music, Rod Serling ushered America into The Twilight Zone. The show aired for five seasons from 1959 to 1964 (Vahimagi), and although this is a little after the fifties, many of the fears and anxieties prominent in the show had their basis in events during that decade. There were 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and an amazing 92 of them were written by Serling himself (SciFi.com). The show, which aired on CBS, was considered to be the first adult science-fiction anthology on television. Serling once described the show for TV Guide in this way: "It's an anthology series, half hour in length, that delves into the odd, the bizarre, the unexpected. It probes into the dimension of imagination but with a concern for taste and for an adult audience too long considered to have IQs in negative figures." (Vahimagi)

As an anthology, each episode dealt with a different storyline and different characters; one did not need to watch all the episodes to understand what was happening in any one. There were some constant features, however -- every episode opened with a monologue that provided basic background information and hinted at the mysteries to come, and each show ended with a monologue that, like a closing argument to a jury about to vote on its own fate, summarized the events of the story and made a point about the underlying themes of the episode. These monologues were performed by Rod Serling himself in his authoritative, teacher-with-a-sense-of-impending-doom voice. In addition to the eerie mood-setting opening, the show became extremely well known for its plot twists -- each story would end by revealing some sort of shocking, unpredictable, totally unexpected secret to the viewer, often a secret that completely altered the meaning of the story and hinted at the message Serling was trying to get across -- a message that, if stated more directly, would have been preachy if not unpopular and politically incorrect.

A key example of such a plot twist is evident in the show's pilot episode, which quickly set the tone for the 155 stories to follow. Titled "Where is Everybody?", the pilot aired on October 2, 1959 (Sander). The story followed a man as he wandered around a seemingly deserted town. Although he (and the viewer) saw no one, objects would appear to have been moved by someone else, and telephones would ring only for there to be no one there when our hero answered. Eventually, the man is driven insane by the loneliness and the puzzling events, and collapses while frantically pushing the crossing button on a stoplight. The twist is that the man is actually an astronaut in training for a solitary flight -- he has been living in solitary confinement for days, and the entire town was merely a hallucination he was experiencing. The crossing button, as it turns out, is a panic button in the solitary confinement chamber (Zicree).

The originality of the show earned it a great deal of attention from critics, writers, and actors at the time. It was critically acclaimed and, although it was never a ratings winner, it had a large cult following and was especially popular with teenage viewers (Sander). Additionally, the show won three Emmy Awards -- one in each of the show's first two seasons for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama, and one for George Clemens in Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography (Vahimagi). Other notable awards the show won in its five year run include a Directors Guild Award, a Producers Guild Award, and three World Science Fiction Convention Hugo Awards. Well-known and soon to be famous actors flocked to the show because of its reputation for providing meaningful roles, due mostly to its outstanding writing. Stars such as William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Ron Howard, and Agnes Moorehead among others all appeared on episodes of The Twilight Zone (SciFi.com); some, such as Burgess Meredith, even had roles written specifically for them (Zicree).

The success of The Twilight Zone comes, in large part, from the brilliant writing of Rod Serling. He was the backbone of the show -- its creator, producer, and head writer for all five seasons. It is estimated that more than 200 of his screenplays were produced over the course of his twenty-five year career (Vahimagi). Rod Serling was born on December 25, 1924, in Syracuse, New York, and he grew up in Binghamton (Cochran). He served in the U. S. Army 11th Airborne Division, and saw action in the Philippines during World War Two, where he was wounded by shrapnel. After his discharge from the Army in 1946, Serling attended Antioch College in Ohio on the GI Bill. He enrolled as a Physical Education major, but quickly changed his focus to Language and Literature and began writing his first stories. He also wrote his first television script, "Grady Everett for the People," and sold it to the NBC anthology series Stars Over Hollywood for $100 while still an undergraduate (SciFi.com). He married Carolyn Louise Kramer in 1948, and graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950. They moved to Cincinnati, where Rod began working as a writer for WLW Radio, a local station. He eventually switched to writing for a regular series called The Storm that aired on WKRC-TV Cincinnati (Vahimagi).

In 1952, Serling decided to write freelance full-time, and it was at this point that his career began to gather momentum. From 1951-1955 more than 70 of his scripts were produced (SciFi.com), some of them on nationally recognized programs like Lux Video Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Kraft Television Theater (Vahimagi). It was one of Serling's screenplays for Kraft Television Theater that won him the critical acclaim and success that he deserved. "Patterns," a critical look at the world of big business, aired on ABC on January 12, 1955, and was an instant success. Critics loved it, and they quickly dubbed Serling the next Arthur Miller (Engel). It also won him his first of six Emmy Awards, this one for Best Original Teleplay Writing, as well as a Sylvania Award for Best Teleplay (Vahimagi). Remarkably, "Patterns" was so popular it was even remounted live and aired a second time on February 9, an event that was unheard of at the time (Sander).

Rod Serling followed the success of "Patterns" with a variety of other screenplays, but it was not until he began writing for CBS' Playhouse 90 that he once again achieved the critical acclaim he had experienced with "Patterns." The premiere episode of Playhouse 90, an anthology series of ninety-minute dramas, was Serling's adaptation of the novel "Forbidden Area." The first ninety-minute script ever written for television, "Forbidden Area" debuted on October 4, 1956; it was not terribly well received by critics, however (Engel). It was the second production of Playhouse 90 that solidified Serling's status as one of the greatest television writers of his time. "Requiem for a Heavyweight" debuted live on October 11, 1956 to immense critical acclaim. It won Serling his second consecutive Emmy, another Sylvania Award, and the first-ever George Foster Peabody Award for writing, among other awards. His third script for Playhouse 90, "The Comedian," aired on February 14, 1957, and won Serling his third Emmy Award for Best Teleplay Writing (Vahimagi).

It was in 1957, following his immense success with Playhouse 90, that Serling decided to do something a little different. He had an idea for a science fiction anthology series and, following the success of his earlier scripts, CBS offered him a joint production agreement for a weekly show whose stories' only common link would be their dependence on the viewer's imagination (Engel). Serling quickly wrote a pilot called "The Time Element," which was based on an idea that grew out of his experiences in war. In the story, a man suffers from a recurring dream in which he wakes up in Honolulu days before Pearl Harbor. He tries desperately to warn everyone of the impending attack, but no one believes him until it is too late. CBS rejected the story as a pilot episode, however, out of fears that it was too long.

Serling then sold the story to the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and it aired on November 24, 1958. The network got more mail in response to "The Time Element" than to any other drama it had ever shown (Engel). The surprisingly enthusiastic reception added to Serling's desire to get his own anthology show off the ground, so he submitted a second pilot script. This one, titled "The Happy Place," imagined a society where all adults are taken to the "happy place" on their sixtieth birthdays. This is, of course, supposed to symbolize death, and the story was meant to be a parable for Nazi Germany. However, "The Happy Place" was never aired -- it was rejected by the network out of fears that no advertiser would want to back it due to its Nazi overtones (Engel).

As a result of his troubles with the first two potential pilots, Serling was quite discouraged about the prospects of what would become The Twilight Zone. It was at this time that a teleplay he wrote called "A Town Has Turned to Dust" aired on Playhouse 90. The experience, however, was not a good one. The teleplay was based on the story of Emmett Till, a young black boy brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Unfortunately, the strict corporate censors butchered Serling's version of the crime in order to protect their own interests. The script was changed so that the victim of the crime was not black but was Mexican instead, and so as not to offend any Hispanics, all potentially offensive terms were eliminated. The fact that the boy had made advances to a woman of a different socio-economic class also was eliminated; it was made to seem as if he had simply gotten out of line (Cochran). When all was said and done, the story had been changed to a completely different time and place, which caused it to lose its power as a criticism of contemporary society in a pre-civil rights era.

Serling's disgust with the way "A Town Has Turned to Dust" was handled rekindled his interest in writing a pilot for The Twilight Zone. Serling wanted to write compelling dramas that pointed to flaws in our society; however, he was having a difficult time doing that because of the censors' dominance in the industry and their concern not to offend advertisers or the mass market of viewers. During a promotional interview for The Twilight Zone with Mike Wallace in 1959, Serling made his opinion known:

I think it's criminal that we are not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils that exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society. I think it's ridiculous that drama, which by its very nature should make a comment on those things which affect our daily lives, is in a position, at least in terms of television, of not being able to take that stand. (Sander)

Part of the beauty of The Twilight Zone, as a science fiction show, was that Serling could get away with social commentary by disguising it as harmless fantasy. He was allowed to be critical if he was allegorical at the same time. As he himself put it, "You know, you can put these words into the mouth of a Martian and get away with it." (Neary) Thus, The Twilight Zone became Serling's chance to write meaningful, thought-provoking scripts, all while neatly sidestepping the censors. In addition, he was creating a show that potentially could be highly critical of the status quo and those who promoted it during a time when such actions were thought of as traitorous. By writing scripts like "A Town Has Turned to Dust," Serling was putting himself at a great deal of risk of red-baiting. Once again, it was the show's reliance on fantasy that provided Serling with a shield against such finger-pointing (Cochran).

Despite his lofty goals for the show, critics were initially skeptical of it. Serling was considered television's one great writer, the conscience of the industry, and the announcement that he was going to quit writing for series like Playhouse 90 and create his own show was seen as something of a sellout. During promotional interviews for the show, Serling seemed to purposefully push the show as being inoffensive, even going so far as to tell Mike Wallace that he had given up on trying to delve into current issues in his television writing (Sander). This was obviously not true, but it only added to the camouflage the science-fiction format provided for the real issues.

So, following the disappointment of "A Town Has Turned to Dust," Serling penned the script for "Where is Everybody?" Not only did the network like it, but more importantly, the sponsors did as well. General Foods signed on as principal sponsor in February of 1959, and soon after Kimberly-Clark joined as an alternate sponsor. Serling signed a contract giving him total creative control of the show, and he also agreed to write ninety percent of the first three seasons. On Friday, October 2, 1959, at ten o'clock, eighteen million viewers tuned in to witness the beginning of one of television's most distinctive and powerful programs (Sander).

One of the most common themes tackled in The Twilight Zone is the fear of nuclear weapons. In the late fifties and early sixties, when the show got its start, America was in the midst of the Cold War with Russia. There was a great deal of anxiety over how far Russia's nuclear weapons programs had advanced, not to mention the fear of the bomb's power. This terror affected everyone, from elementary school children learning to "duck and cover" under their desks to their parents building bomb shelters in the backyard. Needless to say, Serling's take on the bomb -- both the fear of it and the consequences of its use -- found its way into several notable episodes of The Twilight Zone, particularly during the show's first season.

"Time Enough At Last," which aired on November 20, 1959, is one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, and also one that deals most prominently with this theme. Burgess Meredith stars as a meek bank clerk who wishes that he could be left alone to have time to read. As he hides in the bank vault one afternoon in search of peace and quiet, there is a nuclear attack, and he is left as the sole survivor. He is thrilled when he finds a library and realizes that he now has all the time he wants to read. However, just as he opens the first book, his glasses slip off his nose and shatter, leaving him nearly blind (Zicree). Although the ironic plot twist of this episode does not deal directly with the bomb, the episode still makes a point about the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the total disruption of life they could cause. Interestingly, this episode was the first time the bomb was ever detonated on television (Sander). Serling uses this particular story to point out the absolute destructive power of the bomb. The entire world has been left in ruins by the back and forth bombings that occur in this episode, leaving Burgess Meredith's character as the only man on earth. This is a reflection of society's fear of the absolute power of the bomb, and what would be risked if it was ever used. Thus, "Time Enough At Last" does more than just tell a well-written, clever story -- it also reminds viewers of the dangers of the bomb itself. The meek may inherit the earth, but the bomb could leave little worth inhabiting or inheriting. In a rush to equal power, there will only be losses.

A similar point is made in the episode "Third From the Sun." Originally aired on January 8, 1960, shortly after "Time Enough At Last," this episode tells the story of two families desperately trying to flee the planet because it is on the brink of nuclear war. They develop and put in action an elaborate plan to steal a government spaceship and fly to another world they have heard of, a world that is supposedly peaceful and safe. The twist in this episode is that they are not fleeing from the Earth -- they are fleeing to the Earth (Zicree). Serling uses this seemingly innocuous episode to reinforce the fact that the bomb has the power to destroy the world if not used correctly, because the families' home planet faces that destruction. However, it also forces the viewer to question whether or not the earth is really that different from the warring planet in the episode -- is it so peaceful and safe that it could really be considered a refuge, or is it in just as much danger as the home planet in this episode? "Third From the Sun" also points out the socially-distorting evil of our reaction to the dangers of the bomb. The families in this episode feel so threatened by the impending war that they are willing to steal and, when it comes down to it, harm others in order to get away. If we were threatened in a similar way, what would we be willing to do to ensure our own safety?

The questions of the appropriateness of our reactions to the nuclear threat are dealt with most directly in "The Shelter," an episode from 1961. In this story, several families at a birthday party are interrupted by a radio warning of incoming bombs. As they race home to prepare, it becomes apparent that one family has built a bomb shelter while the others, derisively critical of the bomb shelter, have not given any thought to what they would do in such a situation. Soon, the very friends who were giving them a hard time about building the shelter are threateningly knocking down the door in an effort to get in it. Just as the door into the shelter is about to break, however, another news bulletin announces that it was a false alarm, leaving the neighbors to consider the gravity of what they were in the process of doing (Zicree). This episode is especially powerful because it forces the viewers to question what they would do in the same situation. It does not take long for the characters in this episode to succumb to their fears and resort to anarchy and violence; what is to say that the viewer would not do the same thing? Serling's point is that we should not just be afraid of the bomb itself -- we should also be afraid of what our paranoia and fears can do to ourselves and our friends.

Although the bomb held a prominent place in fifties society as one of the greatest dangers America faced, it was not the only unknown. Space travel, which was just becoming a reality in the fifties, also was a source of concern. This anxiety could also be traced to the Cold War and specifically the space race with Russia, which raised issues of scientific superiority and weapons technology motivated by issues of national security. Space was the great unknown at this point in history -- no one knew what we would find out there, if anything, and no one knew if it was even safe to explore. There was a great deal of risk involved in exploring space, and Americans were concerned not only about the safety of the astronauts but also about what threats exploring space might set into motion. These uncertainties evolved into another common theme in The Twilight Zone.

One of the episodes that deals with this explicitly is "And When the Sky Was Opened," which aired on December 12, 1959. This episode tells the story of three astronauts who are among the first to fly into space. Their ship goes into space briefly, but soon crash lands back on earth. The creepy aspect of the episode, however, is what happens to the men and their ship after the crash landing. One by one the men, and even the spaceship itself, completely vanish. They literally disappear before each other's eyes, and once they are gone, no one else remembers that they ever existed (Zicree). This episode capitalized on the fact that Americans had no idea whether or not space travel was safe. No one had done it before; for all we knew at the time, astronauts may very well vanish from the face of the earth, forever lost in space or time or, eventually, memory. Serling used the unknown in this episode to create a situation that was particularly chilling because, although it could not be proven to be true, it could not be proven to be false either.

Hand in hand with the fears of the safety of space exploration and what we could face there came fears of who we would find there -- namely, fears of alien life. Several famous episodes of The Twilight Zone reflect these fears; "The Invaders" and "To Serve Man" are two of the most well-known. "The Invaders" is a particularly frightening episode in which we see an old woman, who lives alone in a rural cabin, fighting off tiny spacemen who have landed on her roof. Adding to the mood of the episode is the fact that there is no dialogue until the very end, when the classic Twilight Zone twist is revealed - the tiny spacemen aren't aliens invading an elderly American's home, but they are United States astronauts, who when the silence is broken at the end are heard to frantically radio back for help even though it is too late (Zicree). Part of the reason that this episode was so frightening at the time was because it presented the worst of America's fears about space travel -- that it was dangerous, and that there were Martians or other little green men out there who would harm us. This theme of fear of the unknown is also seen in "To Serve Man," the classic episode in which the aliens already have come to earth, and are luring humans back to their world with promises of peace and happiness. The aliens refer to a book titled "To Serve Man," and while translating their language to English, earth scientists discover that the title doesn't mean that they wish to help us -- it's actually a cookbook. Instead of taking humans to a world of bliss, they are taking them to dinner -- and humans are the main course! (Zicree) This episode, like so many others, presented the worst-case scenario that so many Americans feared would result from space travel, further showing that The Twilight Zone was a vehicle for Serling to point out our anxieties and concerns.

Beyond dealing with some of the common fears of the fifties and the Cold War, Serling also used The Twilight Zone to make statements about some more general moral issues. One topic that he addressed frequently, and which was a divisive part of the American social conscience in the fifties, was prejudice. After his failed attempt at using "A Town Has Turned to Dust" to make a statement about the evils of prejudice, Serling decided to use The Twilight Zone instead. Perhaps the clearest example of this can be seen in the episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," which aired on March 4, 1960. In this episode, a sudden power outage and some strange events cause a group of neighbors to conclude that there is an alien among them. Accusations fly as the situation eventually becomes violent; as the neighbors accuse each other of being the outsider, one of them is accidentally shot and killed. The situation worsens, however, as the neighbors then turn on the murderer, and the entire street quickly dissolves into chaos. The episode's surprise ending reveals that while there were no aliens among them, there were aliens watching and controlling the entire situation, marveling at how quickly this so-called "civilized" society fell apart at something as simple as the lights going out (Zicree). Serling's closing monologue for this episode states perfectly the point he was trying to make not only in that episode but the entire series:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices -- to be found in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own -- for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone. (QuotationsPage.com)

The Twilight Zone was a great deal more than a simple science fiction television show. It was a spotlight on American society in the middle of the century, showcasing our fears and criticizing our flaws, tricking us into examining our lives, selves, and society. From aspects of the Cold War such as the bomb and space travel, to seemingly ridiculous fears of Martians, and even to difficult social ills like prejudice, The Twilight Zone is a window into a time when American society was changing drastically. It remains to this day an example of the power of television, as well as proof that television not only can be intelligent but also can be a tool for changing our society. Rod Serling's masterpiece is the ultimate reflection of a time when, in the minds of many, the real world itself began to look and feel increasingly like a twilight zone.

Bibliography

Cochran, David. America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Engel, Joel. Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in The Twilight Zone. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Neary, Lynn. "Present At the Creation: The Twilight Zone." Taken from the National Public Radio website:
http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/twilightzone/

Sander, Gordon F. Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man. New York: Dutton/The Penguin Group, 1992.

Vahimagi, Tise. "Rod Serling" and "The Twilight Zone." Taken from the Museum of Broadcast Communications website:
http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/S/htmlS/serlingrod/serlingrod.htm
http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/T/htmlT/twilightzone/twilightzone.htm

Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

The SciFi Channel website:
http://www.scifi.com/twilightzone/serling
http://www.scifi.com/twilightzone/episodes

The TV Pilot Guy website, copyright 1997: http://www.geocities.com/TvPilotGuy/twilightzone59

The Quotations Page website, taken from Rand Lindsly's Quotations: http://www.quotationspage.com

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