The Twilight Zone Forever

Influencing Stephen King, Star Trek, Cindy Sherman, and More

The Twilight Zone is damn near immortal,” wrote prolific horrormeister Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his idiosyncratic 1981 nonfiction survey of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror fields. “Here, for once, was something Completely New and Different,” he said of the series, and of Serling, “who finally answered H. P. Lovecraft, who showed a new direction. For me and those of my generation, the answer was like a thunderclap of revelation, opening a million entrancing possibilities.”

King’s Danse Macabre (1981); his Christine (1983); the driverless car from “A Thing About Machines,” 1960.

Those possibilities include the productions of not only the most obvious TV knockoffsThe Outer Limits (1963), Serling’s own Night Gallery (1969), George Romero’s Tales From The Darkside (1983), and two titular syndicated TV revamps of recent vintage (both in wrong-headed full color and utterly dismissible), or the Spielberg-produced turkey The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)—but practically every example of modern science fiction, fantasy, or horror that can trace its roots back to Serling and The Twilight Zone in less than six degrees of separation.

Star Trek would have simply been a glimmer in Gene Roddenberry’s eye without Serling and The Twilight Zone tackling many of the same socio-political themes Trek would become known for; its first episode was entrusted to veteran Twilight Zone sci-fi scribe George Clayton Johnson, and Roddenberry himself delivered the eulogy at Serling’s funeral (after his premature death at the age of 49 in 1975):

"No one could know Serling, or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity, his sympathetically enthusiastic curiosity about us, and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves. He dreamed of much for us, and demanded much of himself, perhaps more than was possible for either in this time and place. But it is that quality of dreams and demands that makes the ones like Rod Serling rare...and always irreplaceable.”

One of the greatest endings in modern movie history—the Statue of Liberty scene that concludes 1968’s Planet of the Apes—most are unaware was the creation of Serling, (who cowrote the screen adaptation), a big-screen revamp of a 1960 Twilight Zone episode, “I Shot An Arrow into the Air,” in which an astronaut, crash-landed on a desert planet, discovers—after murdering his two crewmen—that he’s been on Earth the whole time (suggested by an acquaintance of Serling’s at a cocktail party!), foreshadowed by a dying astronaut’s telephone pole-scrawl in the sand.

“People Are Alike All Over,” starring Roddy McDowell, 1960;
McDowell starred as Cornelius in Planet of The Apes, 1968.

1968’s other sci-fi masterpiece, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, contained numerous Twilight Zone tropes, from the robot HAL’s autonomy (“The Lonely”) to the film’s Spaceship-in-baroque penultimate scene, as surreal a juxtaposition between future and past as the Twilight Zone episode, “The Invaders,” that preceded it by seven years. George Lucas and Star Wars? Lucas’ first film was the 1971 Francis Ford Coppola-financed sci-fi THX 1138, a dystopian-future vision equal parts Orwell and Serling, starring a pre-Godfather Robert Duvall, then a veteran of The Twilight Zone (1963’s “Miniature”). Ridley Scott’s (and Philip K. Dick’s) Blade Runner? About “replicants” wanting to become human? Hello, Twilight Zone?

The series’ impact is felt more obliquely in the edgier, darker works of directors like David Lynch, whose 1977 debut film, the undergroundy, black and white Eraserhead, his revealing of the seedy underbelly of suburbia in ‘86’s Blue Velvet, and his meditation on dreams and reality in his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, all reveal his own private Twilight Zone

The enigmatic Austrailian director Peter Weir, whose first breakthrough films, ‘75’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and ‘77’s The Last Wave, are like beautifully filmed, full-color, down under Twilight Zone episodes, directed 1998’s The Truman Show, about a man (Jim Carrey) who comes to find that his life, his reality, is a massive fabrication for television—a big screen blowup of Richard Matheson’s 1960 Twilight Zone episode, “A World of Difference,” about a man who finds that his reality is a movie being filmed (the filmmakers think he’s an actor off his nut).  

M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career (and Tim Burton’s, to a lesser degree) can be seen as an ongoing homage to The Twilight Zone; the smash hit that made him, 1999’s The Sixth Sense (also the name of a short-lived 1972 supernatural TV knockoff of The Twilight Zone), is a derivation (and conflation) of two classic first-season Zone episodes, “A Passage for Trumpet” and “The Hitch-Hiker.”

The high contrast, graphic black and white cinematography of modern cult films, from Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1967) to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) to Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 Pi to Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005)—to mainstream classics like Raging Bull (1980)—all betray a strong Twilight Zone influence; see the series’ two boxing episodes, “The Big Tall Wish” and “Steel,” for the same stylized staging and less-is-more compositions of Scorsese’s black and white masterpiece. 

“Living Doll,” 1963; Night of the Living Dead, 1967.

“The Big Tall Wish,” another episode from Twilight Zone’s exceptional first season, is most notable for Serling’s absolutely daring casting—in 1960—of a black actor (Ivan Dixon, later one of Hogan’s Heroes) in a starring, dramatic role on American television. Like Jack Palance’s palooka in Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” Dixon’s an over-the-hill boxer who finds winning dependent not just on a young boy’s supernaturally wishing it so, but on his own willingness to believe it—Serling’s subtle Civil Rights pep talk. “...Wish” aired in April, months before another triumphant, smiling, African-American boxer came to prominence on TV, in the Summer Olympics in Rome: Cassius Clay.

More TV and The Twilight Zone: Chris Carter’s The X-Files? ‘Nuff said. JJ Abrams’s Lost? Serling had a brief (17 episode) post-Twilight Zone series in the Fall of ’69 called The New People, about a group of young people...survivors of an airplane crash...on a deserted island! Abrams's new hit Fringe is as much Twilight Zone redux as X-Files, as he said so himself in Rolling Stone, which presented its 2009 “Most Shocking Season Finale” award to Fringe, enthusing “Not since The Twilight Zone has a twist ending inspired so many goosebumps,” to which Abrams responded, “It felt exactly like the kind of thing Rod Serling would have done.”

Beyond movies and television, beyond good-natured yet rote impersonations and parodies of Serling’s iconic presence and clipped, clenched vocal delivery, beyond sound bites of the equally iconic theme music, beyond mentions of the series in everyday usage, Serling and The Twilight Zone are an almost invisible—yet pervasive—influence on modern art and the wider popular culture. Twilight Zone’s spinning black and white vortex from its 1961 opening predates the Op Art movement by a year (and was the model for Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel TV series in 1966, to boot).

Twilight Zone third season vortex, 1961; Bridget Riley, Blaze I, 1962;
The Time Tunnel, 1966.

George Segal’s plaster-cast sculptures of people in commonplace poses have an eerie aura that evokes the many mannequin, robot, and dummy episodes of The Twilight Zone.

“The Dummy,” 1962; George Segal, The Photo Booth, 1966.

Cindy Sherman’s photographic self-portraiture, from her earliest black and white Untitled Film Stills to her current work, conveys a Twilight Zone–ish concern with the duality of appearance—as did Diane Arbus’ photographs before her.


In their December ’87 issue, New York City’s Metropolis design magazine credited early episodes, like “The After Hours” (1960), starring Anne Francis, as “sources for our continued fascination with mannequins”; Diane Arbus, Blonde Girl with Shiny Lipstick, 1967: “I wanted to see the real difference between things,” Arbus said, “between flesh and material”.

Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s books’ surreal-in-the-everyday stories, and especially their meticulously-studied illustrations, eventually made into movies (Jumanji, The Polar Express), are straight outta Twilight Zone.

And you may find yourself
In a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you might ask yourself
Well, how did I get here?
—from “Once in a Lifetime” by David Byrne and the Talking Heads, 1980.

And the possibilities continue: the name of the latest Vampire rage, Twilight, wasn’t exactly pulled out of a hat; a new show for ABC’s Fall ’09 season, Flash Forward, in which “the world’s population is given a glimpse of their future due to a mysterious global event,” is yet another conflation of Twilight Zone episodes of similar concept, “A Most Unusual Camera” (1960) and “What’s in the Box” (1964); and Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company is currently working on a feature film based on Serling’s brainchild. On the occasion of its Fiftieth Anniversary, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone can legitimately be called a true Father of American Popular Culture.

Still, the question remains:
what, exactly, was
The Twilight Zone?

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

Twilight Zone third season title, Pacific Title, 1961; William Shatner in Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” 1963.

Star Trek title graphic, 1966; Shatner as the “evil” Kirk in Matheson’s “The Enemy Within,” 1966.

“I Shot an Arrow into the Air,” 1960; the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes.

“The Invaders,” 1960; 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.

The set of “The Big Tall Wish,” 1960; Raging Bull, 1980.

Ivan Dixon in “The Big Tall Wish,” 1960; in Hogan’s Heroes, 1965.

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” 1961; Untitled, 1985, by Cindy Sherman, a creator of images that are “...psychologically disturbing—they project a vague anxiety readable as a mixture of desire, anticipation, victimization and suffering.” —anonymous art critic, circa 1980s.

“After Hours” mannequin; first DEVO album, 1978.

“The Jungle” 1961; Chris Van Allsburg, Jumanji drawing, 1982.