I am honored to repost this essay from Horror Homeroom by Dawn Keetley. Horror Homeroom is a site that examines horror movies, television, and books. I have to say that Dawn Keetley is not only the author of this post and one of the editors of this site, but she is also one of the best English professors I have had the good fortune of knowing and taking classes with.
5 Twilight Zone Episodes That
Influenced Modern Horror Film
The Twilight Zone (1959-64) is not only one of the most acclaimed TV series but also one of the most influential on artists of all kinds, but especially on the creators of horror. The list below identifies five episodes that in my view powerfully shaped some of our best modern horror films. There are undoubtedly more, but this is a beginning.
- “Mirror Image” (s. 1, ep. 21; February 26, 1960) and Psycho
Written by Rod Serling and directed by John Brahm, “Mirror Image” stars Vera Miles as Millicent Barnes, a 25-year-old unmarried woman who is waiting for a bus to take her to a new job. She is clearly an unencumbered woman who is looking out for herself, not for a man. In one of the most enigmatic of Twilight Zone episodes, however, she soon catches a glimpse of her double in a bathroom mirror—and then on the bus to the new job. A would-be fellow passenger in the bus depot strikes up a conversation with Millicent, but gets so concerned about her wild talk about doubles that before long, he has her carted off by the police.
Millicent in “Mirror Image” and Lila in Psycho (both played by Vera Miles)
Despite the fact that Millicent is played by Vera Miles, who will soon star as Lila in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), she more closely evokes Lila’s ill-fated sister Marion (Janet Leigh), a character who is similarly traveling, trying to improve her life, not securely ensconced in marriage and domesticity. Marion also has a troubled relationship with her mirror image. After she steals the money, she is unable to look at herself in the mirror–her reflection detached. Her mirror image becomes, like Millicent’s, an uncanny double, one that prefigures her doom despite her decision to return the stolen money. Lila, too, almost becomes alienated from her mirror image, catching herself unawares in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom mirror and momentarily horrified by her “double.” In the end, though, Lila recognizes herself and retains her singular selfhood.
- “I Am the Night – Color Me Black” (s. 5, ep. 26; March 27, 1964) and Night of the Living Dead
The relationship between “I Am the Night” and Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a little more oblique than some of the other connections I’m making here. This season 5 Twilight Zone episode, written by Rod Serling, concerns a town’s dark desire for vengeance against a man who was convicted (unjustly) of killing a bigot in self-defense. A minister (played by Ivan Dixon) preaches mercy to the townspeople, but they become one of those irrational mobs, driven by hate, that features more than once in The Twilight Zone. One shot of the mob closing in on the condemned man visually anticipates George A. Romero’s mob of ghouls, and it’s hard not to believe Romero wasn’t influenced by this episode in his shots of ghoul violence–as well as by the angry mob in the season 1 episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960).
(Mob scenes in “I Am the Night” and Night of the Living Dead)
With the mob scene in “I Am the Night,” the episode shifts into the supernatural as the dawn fails to come and the town is plunged into an unnatural darkness that is clearly metaphorical, embodying the townspeople’s hate; the episode then cuts to a scene of people huddled round a radio listening to reports of a similar “darkness” breaking out in other towns. It is stunningly evocative of the scenes in Night of the Living Dead in which the survivors in the farmhouse listen to reports on the radio of outbreaks of “mass murder” and cannibalism.
- “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (s. 5, ep. 15; January 24, 1964) and The Stepford Wives
“Number 12 Looks Just Like You” is a classic Twilight Zone episode written by John Tomerlin and based on a 1952 Charles Beaumont story, “The Beautiful People.” It follows the struggles of Marilyn Cuberle against her society’s decree that when she reaches adulthood she must undergo a transformation, becoming a specific numbered body type. (The episode also clearly influenced Scott Westerfeld’s 2005 novel, Uglies.) As in many Twilight Zone episodes, this plot device highlights conformity, as Marilyn vehemently insists she does not want the transformation: she doesn’t want to look just like everyone else, and she thinks she looks fine as she is. Marilyn’s alleged “choice” to undergo the transformation is an illusion, however, and she is chased down a corridor and forced / coerced (we don’t see how it actually happens) to endure the process. The change is not only physical but also mental: after the transformation, Marilyn gazes mindlessly and happily in the mirror at herself. (There may be an interesting contrast here with the alienating experiences that independent, rebellious women like Millicent in “Mirror Image” and Marion in Psycho enjoy with their mirror images.)
(“Number 12 Looks Just Like You” and The Stepford Wives)
The parallels with The Stepford Wives (1975) are obvious, although the experience is gendered in Ira Levin’s novel and Bryan Forbes’s film: the struggle for autonomy is not the individual’s struggle against society but women’s struggle against men. The film’s penultimate scene ends with the newly “transformed” Joanna staring blankly at the mirror brushing her hair—an evocation of Marilyn’s final adoring and yet empty gaze at herself. Women who conform—to societal dictates, to men, to normative standards of beauty—enjoy a vastly more untroubled relationship with their mirrors, it seems.
- “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (s. 5, ep. 30; April 24, 1964) and The Cabin in the Woods
Written by Earl Hamner, Jr., “Stopover” is in my view a seriously underrated episode and should rightfully appear in any top 10 list of Twilight Zone episodes. It opens with a young married couple, Bob and Millie Frazier, who wake up in a small town with no memory of how they got there. They wander around the town, which is utterly deserted, trying to figure out where they are, why no one is around, and how they can get away. They find and board a train with relief but, minutes after leaving, discover that the train has just circled back to the point of departure. At the end of the episode, a gigantic hand descends, revealing that the couple is merely a toy in the games of others. There is a reality behind their own reality of which they were profoundly unaware.
(The endings of “Stopover in a Quiet Town” and The Cabin in the Woods)
It is this ending of this episode in particular that marks its undeniable parallel to Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods (2012), which similarly ends with a giant hand that utterly shifts the frame for characters and viewers. All the characters in Cabin in the Woods are—and always have been—pawns in another’s drama. There is an earlier moment in “Stopover,” too, when the couple sees a squirrel on a tree only to discover that it, along with the tree and the grass, are fake—just like the simulated nature in Cabin in the Woods. (This scene also evokes the uncanny moment in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening in which the fleeing group encounter a house filled with plastic plants and fruit.)
As another aside, at one point in “Stopover,” Millie and Bob wander into the empty town church—a scene that anticipates the moment in Children of the Corn (1984) when Vicky and Burt arrive at a similarly deserted town and enter a similar eerily empty church. Both Vicky and Burt, like Millie and Bob in “Stopover” and the characters in Cabin in the Woods, will be sacrificed to forces greater than themselves.
- “The Trade-Ins” (s. 3, ep. 31; April 20, 1962) and Get Out
I have written elsewhere on the connection between the season 3 episode “The Trade-Ins,” written by Rod Serling, and professed Twilight Zone fan Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). (Peele is slated to helm an upcoming revival of the series for CBS All Access. The entire premise of the episode, which follows an elderly couple, John and Marie Holt, as they explore “trading in” their aging and sick bodies for new lifelike robot bodies, anticipates Get Out’s Coagula procedure, in which aging white people hijack young, healthy African American bodies. Reading “The Trade-Ins” back through Get Out reveals the power and privilege inherent in such body-swapping technologies (something The Stepford Wives also puts front and center). Systemic power and its abuses is not what preoccupies The Twilight Zone, which focuses instead on love and the ethical choice John Holt confronts about whether he should enjoy a young pain-free body alone or remain in his aging one along with his wife. Institutional power and oppression shimmers into view, though, in light of Peele’s revisionary film.
(The Holts look at the replicas in “The Trade-Ins” and the Armitages party guests scrutinize Chris in Get Out)
I’m definitely interested in hearing about what other Twilight Zone episodes you think influenced modern horror. I did write a post a little while ago about how the season 3 episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” uncannily anticipates the trope in recent horror film of characters waking up in a strange room with no idea how they got there—Cube (1997), Saw (2004), and, especially, Circle (2015).
Once again, thank you to Dawn Keetley and Horror Homeroom !