Rod Serling’s iconic television series The Twilight Zone has unique staying power. In addition to continual syndication, marathons of the show have become a holiday ritual since the 1970s —a preview of our current binge-streaming culture.
It’s hard to watch most shows over the span of hours, but The Twilight Zone’s central conceit makes it particularly apt for long-range watching: its characters are stuck in a dimensional halfway-house, where they suffer and struggle before achieving transcendence or eternal torment. The settings change, but the stakes are always eternal.
Marathon viewing of The Twilight Zone also reveals the deep melancholy of the series. Serling’s particular vision of melancholy nears the theologically contested idea of purgatory that appears in various forms in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, and some Protestant traditions.
St. Augustine described purgatory as “the time intervening between a man's death and the final resurrection,” when “the soul is held in a hidden retreat, enjoying rest or suffering hardship in accordance with what it merited during its life in the body.” French theologian F. X. Schouppe notes that according to some Christian legends, when souls residing in purgatory appear to the living, they have a “sad countenance and imploring looks, in garments of mourning, with an expression of extreme suffering.” They often “betray their presence by moans, sobs, sighs, or hurried respiration and plaintive accents.”
The marriage of the concepts of a “hidden retreat” and wailing souls match the narrative structure and storytelling of many episodes of the series. Characters in The Twilight Zone often feel torn between literal and spiritual planes. Not only have they been thrust into unfamiliar settings, they often experience amnesia. They are bodies without identities, souls without direction and grace.
In “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (1961), an Army major (William Windom) awakens disoriented in a high-walled, circular room without doors, windows, or a ceiling. The major soon notices a clown (Murray Matheson) in the room, who mocks the major’s fear over their circumstance. The major tries to understand where they both came from, but the clown responds “there is no circus, there is no war,” and points to the three other characters: a ballerina (Susan Harrison), a tramp (Kelton Garwood), and a bagpiper (Clark Allen).
An obvious parallel is Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), although there are important distinctions. In Sartre’s play, the three characters are clearly in hell, and their punishments are each other: “Hell is other people.” Although the players in “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” occasionally mock and jab each other, they are ultimately united in their confusion. They experience no corporal suffering: no hunger or thirst, no cold or discomfort. Questions like “Who are you?” and “How long will we be here?” become recursive in the script. Serling’s narrative commentary is particularly grim: “We will not end the nightmare, only explain it.”
The episode begins to more resemble the absurd theater of Eugène Ionesco than Sartre’s scene. The clown sings a threnody—“We're here because we're here because we’re here”—while the tramp is more blunt: “We're dead, and this is limbo.” When the major describes their round room as a dungeon, the ballerina tries to be optimistic, wondering, “Perhaps there are a lot of dungeons like this. . . . Perhaps they are for the unloved.”
But there is no time for a love interest in this episode. The major rallies his troops to action, convincing the others their only chance for escape is to climb out of the room. They stand on each others’ shoulders, and the major manages to climb over the ledge. He screams, and then falls into heavy snow. The camera backs out, and it is revealed that the five characters are merely toy dolls dropped into a barrel, a charity drive for orphans.
Viewers new to The Twilight Zone often think of those twists as contrived, but to those watching episode after episode, Serling’s shifts become more trope than trick. The melancholic strand to The Twilight Zone is the sneaking suspicion that all hope is fleeting in these purgatory scenes. We feel for the characters not because they are simply trapped, but because we know their door to escape is locked—and the key is nowhere to be found.
It should not be surprising that The Twilight Zone dramatizes purgatory. “Where is Everybody?” (1959), the show’s pilot, introduced this narrative approach. Serling’s narration of “The place is here. The time is now. The journey could be our journey” establishes that this series is meant to tease our own existential anxieties. The episode begins with a man (Earl Holliman) in a military-like jumpsuit walking down a road toward a café. The restaurant is empty, but coffee is brewing on the stove. The man’s monologue runs throughout the entire episode; in one scene, he speaks to himself in a mirror, inviting the viewer to answer.
“There’s some question about my identity,” he says. “I’m not sure who I am.” He walks throughout the empty town and laments, “Literally, there hasn’t been a soul.” The man’s rambling and rushing around town becomes repetitive, and the episode’s revelation—that his experiences are hallucinations, and he is an astronaut preparing for the sensory deprivation of space travel—make for a convoluted episode.
The Twilight Zone only improved from its first offering, but embedded in the episode is an essential concept: the ultimate fear of the characters in the series is that they will be alone for all eternity.
From a husband and wife with hangovers who awaken in a strange bedroom in “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (1964) to a raccoon hunter who drowns but later walks among the living in “The Hunt” (1962), The Twilight Zone hypnotizes us by blurring the lines between life and death, between finality and eternity. Although the show is best known for its clever twists, quotable lines, eccentric characters, and memorable performances, Serling's moralizing narration offers a whisper of the divine into the series.
If we understand the show’s arc as operating within the idea of purgatory, then its consistent melancholy makes perfect sense. The characters of The Twilight Zone are halfway between heaven and hell. And its viewers are drawn to the struggle.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff contributor for The Millions, and has also written for The Atlantic and Esquire. His newest book is Ember Days (Braddock Ave, 2015). He tweets@nickripatrazone.