The Twilight Zone Forever

Bringing Surrealism to TV

Although it shared conceptual concerns with—and adapted stories from—the cream of the science fiction field, featuring original scripts by science fiction luminaries like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and George Clayton Johnson, The Twilight Zone cannot be wholly considered a science fiction television series. It wasn’t horror, either—yet many episodes, and their shock endings, are among the most horrific ever filmed for television (or film).

“The Invaders” end title graphic, 1960.

“Perchance to Dream,” 1959; “The Eye of the Beholder,” 1960;
Cindy Sherman, circa 1980s.

And it would be unfair to pass the series off as pure fantasy, for it was grounded in a reality far more real and true for its day—and ours (a.k.a. Vietnam).

More than anything else, The Twilight Zone was surreal. Compare Serling’s original, 1959 voiceover definition of The Twilight Zone to the definition of surrealism itself by its French poet founder, Andre Breton, from his Second Surrrealist Manifesto exactly thirty years before:
Everything leads us to believe that
  there exists a spot in the mind
From which life and death
The real and the imaginary
The past and the future
The high and the low
The communicable and the incommunicable 
  Will cease to appear contradictory

The “spot in mind” identified by French surrealist Breton was branded The Twilight Zone by American pop-surrealist Rod Serling. He put surrealism on television. 

Serling and company’s twenty-three minute meditations on a wide spectrum of philosophic concerns, from the political to the metaphysical, core concepts and pop philosophies that are the zeitgeist of The Twilight Zone, have so penetrated the mass culture that now, almost fifty years since its debut, “the twilight zone,” as a concept, has become a psychological buzzword, unearthing automatic associations of the existential and the surreal in the commonplace. When people hum those iconic opening chords of Constant’s Twilight Zone theme, they are acknowledging a moment of surrealist experience as intended by the first surrealists.

“Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone scripts are, in a word, surreal,” concurred eight-time Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson in an interview in 2006. “As an art form, surrealism tries to banish the distinction between the real and the unreal to provide an infinite expansion of reality. When Serling created The Twilight Zone television series, he took a job working on the frontiers of the limitless, searching for a foolproof unity of opposites.”

Though he might not have considered himself a surrealist, Serling does fit the criteria of enchanter, set by the surrealist poet Novalis, as “an artist of madness.” In episode after episode of The Twilight Zone, Serling’s characters maddeningly questioned the very nature of their realities, both internal and external, fulfilling the surrealist desire to find a truer reality, a synthesis of the interior and exterior worlds.

Howard Duff in “A World of Difference,” 1960; Inger Stevens in “The Hitch-Hiker,” 1960; Richard Conte in “Perchance to Dream,” 1959.

This synthesis of opposites was at the core of The Twilight Zone as it was in surrealism, described by poet Pierre Reverdy in 1918 as “the bringing together of two realities which are more or less remote. The more distant and just the relationship of these realities, the stronger the image—the more emotive power and poetic reality it will have."

Johnson elaborated, “To the mind of the surrealist, both the real and the imaginary can be equally ‘real’ if, when reflected into each other, both realities make sense and mutually support each other to reveal a greater truth. When you believe both realities simultaneously your awareness of the paradoxical nature of the cosmos is intensified. You can come away from this glimpse of infinity changed, and with Rod Serling's highly-developed moral compass pointing the way, usually changed for the better.”

Indeed, Serling’s surrealistic concept of alternate realities—the “what if...?” quality of The Twilight Zone—paved the way for, and influenced the turbulent 1960s to come, by implicitly (and often explicitly) stating that things don’t have to be the way they are, that authority and the status quo must always be challenged and questioned—and bettered. “A whole generation is able to associate the Serling program with the budding of The Sixties,” acknowledged King in Danse Macabre, “at least, as The Sixties are remembered.” Johnson agrees: “The Twilight Zone played just as much a part in the renaissance transformation of The Sixties as bright-colored clothing, rock music, and marijuana did. It helped to jack people up to a higher level.†

Between surrealism and psychedelia: One of Magritte’s many doors, Victory, 1939; Twilight Zone’s door, from the fourth season opening graphics, 1963, designed by producer Herbert Hirschman, to Serling’s voiceover: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination...”; Doors poster, 1967.

A lot of those people were children, according to Buck Houghton, Twilight Zone’s original producer (1959–62). “The appeal to children was a complete surprise to us,” he recalled to Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion in 1981. “We got a lot of nasty notes from parents saying, ‘You’re keeping the kids up.’†
Chances are, if you were ten years old in 1960, and staying up to watch The Twilight Zone’s episodes about racism (“The Eye of The Beholder”), prejudice (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), and nuclear war (“Third From The Sun”), then eight years later you were probably marching against the Vietnam War, taking part in social change, countering the culture and the status quo—just as The Twilight Zone itself countered the status quo of the network television programming of its time, which then–FCC Chairman Newton Minow infamously described in 1961 as a “vast wasteland” of wall-to-wall westerns, cookie-cutter cop shows, and bland family sitcoms.

Twilight Zone episodes like “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” which takes place in a literal twilight zone, a circular white void, and “The Obsolete Man,” filmed on an outsized German expressionist set, must have seemed like broadcasts beamed from alien planets compared to the void of white bread programming surrounding them.
The surrealism of Twilight Zone episodes like those was telegraphed by their opening graphics, with their liberal borrowings from established surrealist masters: Daliesque landscapes, objects suspended Magritte-like in space.

Eyes without a face: Salvador Dali design for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, 1947;
Twilight Zone late-first season opening, 1960.

Coupled with Serling’s voiceovers and Constant’s theme music, these incredibly unique animated and still graphics made for memorable television show openings, unlike any in television history, while stealthily foreshadowing the series’ arresting interior photography. 

“The pit of man’s fears...” graphic from first season opening, 1959.
“CBS didn’t want it to be science fiction, they wanted something a little broader than that,” said Sam Clayburger, artist of the first Twilight Zone opening graphics for UPA, 1959, in a 2007 interview. “Something weird, very strange, maybe a little touch of science fiction. But not much—because it wasn’t going to be any one of those. They wanted something a little spooky and scary; the cave might have something to do with my claustrophobia.”;
Down into the Tunnel of Love: “Perchance to Dream,” 1959.

"The Twilight Zone Forever" pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 

Good evening, Vietnam: “My kid is dying in a place called South Vietnam...there isn’t even supposed to be a war going on there...Serling, “In Praise of Pip,” September 27, 1963, Twilight Zone’s debut episode of its last season, and the first mention of the Vietnam War, in a fictional context, on American television.

Andre Breton by unknown photographer, circa 1920s; CBS newspaper ad, 1959.

Man Ray’s photograph, circa 1920s, illustrating another description of surrealism by Breton: “As
beautiful as the unexpected meeting on a dissection table between an umbrella and a sewing machine.”

Or a spaceship on your rooftop (“The Invaders,” 1960)...

...or a lion in your living room (Magritte, Untitled, 1955; “The Jungle,” 1961).

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination...”


“Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” 1961.

“The Obsolete Man,” 1961.

Windows on the world: Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933; fourth season opening, 1963.

Daliscape, circa early 1930s.  Clayburger: “I wasn’t trying to do lunar landscapes. I was trying to do places not discovered yet.”