Searching for the Exit in ‘The Twilight Zone’

Not only is the classic sci-fi show entertaining—it has a fascinating take on the afterlife.
Searching for the Exit in ‘The Twilight Zone’
'Five Characters in Search of an Exit' in 'The Twilight Zone'

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 ...

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