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Sixteen Ghosts in The Twilight Zone

by Rick Kennett

  • This article first appeared in All Hallows #17, March 1998

Debuting in 1959, Rod Serling's television series The Twilight Zone presented weekly stories of robots and space travel, metaphysics and sentimental miracles, deals with the devil and encounters with Death personified, tales of ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations. The themes of 'a second chance' and 'you can't go home any more' were re-occurring ones; the ironic twist became its hallmark.

And sometimes there were ghost stories.

During the program's five year run there were sixteen of them, ghost stories in the traditional sense, distinct from episodes which meddled with time, another of the Zone's favourite obsessions.

There were three ghost stories in that first season of 1959 - 1960, all scripted by Serling. The first, "Judgment Night" concerns a German submarine commander doomed, Flying Dutchman-like, to not only relive his wartime atrocities each night unto eternity, but to simultaneously join the ghosts of his victims on their voyage to nowhere. The second, "A Passage For Trumpet" featuring a Serling trademark: the sad, sour, down-at-heel little man. A poverty-stricken trumpeter, tired of the raw deal he feels his life has become, steps out in front of a truck and is run down. In a near-death limbo he meets the archangel Gabriel in the guise of a jazz horn player. A less pessimistic viewpoint of life is offered and a second chance accepted.

The third ghost story in that first season was "The Hitch-Hiker" which Serling adapted from Lucille Fletcher's 1940s radio play produced by and starring Orsen Welles. With the gender of the main character changed, Twilight Zone's version begins with young Nan Adams driving across the United States, constantly seeing the same strange man attempting to thumb a lift from her at various points along the way. After several days of this, frightened by every new appearance of the hitch-hiker, she eventually calls home, only to learn that her mother has suffered a nervous breakdown due to the death of her daughter six days earlier in a car crash. Looking in her rear view mirror, Nan sees the hitch-hiker in the back seat, and realizes now who he is.

The second and third seasons of The Twilight Zone aired between 1962 and 1963. Sentiment runs high in "The Trouble with Templeton" by E. Jack Neuman, a sad and beautiful story of loss, redemption and love from both sides of the grave. Aging stage actor Booth Templeton longs for his younger days and soon gets his wish.

Storming out of a production in which he has argued with the director, he suddenly finds himself back in 1927. In a raucous speakeasy he meets his long-dead friends and wife who make him feel very unwelcome. Rejected by his most treasured memories, Templeton reels, devastated, back to reality. Finding he's brought back a script titled "What To Do When Booth Comes Back", he realizes the ghosts had staged everything for his benefit, to stop him dwelling on the past and to encourage him to get on with living his life.

"Long Distance Call" by William Idelson and Charles Beaumont tells the story of a toy telephone with which five year old Billy Bayles keeps in contact with his recently deceased grandmother who so loves the child she entices him to commit suicide so he may be with her always. Here for the first time we encounter a meatier ghost than usual on The Twilight Zone, one who is not there to give us object lessons, but has quite another, darkly selfish purpose.

"The Grave" by Montgomery Pittman, though set in the American wild west and peopled with cowboys and gamblers, has the atmosphere and mood of the classic English ghost story, a feeling of things better left alone and unsaid. The story begins where most westerns finish — with a gun fight in the street and an outlaw biting the dust. The following night Connie Miller, the hired gun who had been tracking the now dead outlaw Pinto Sykes, arrives at the saloon and expresses disappointment that the town, who had been waiting in ambush for Sykes, did what he failed to do. Miller is told that on his deathbed Sykes had called him a coward, declaring Miller had deliberately avoided looking for him; Miller, Sykes had said, should have no trouble finding him now, and dares him to come to his grave at night when Sykes will 'reach up and grab him'. Goaded by his own bravado and the high stakes wagered against him by a local gambler, Miller goes out into the night to plunge a knife into the outlaw's grave. He does not return. In the morning the town's people find him lying dead across the grave. Fear-induced heart failure is supposed — until closer examination presents quite another explanation.

"Deaths-Head Revisited", Rod Serling's impassioned preachment against the horrors of the Holocaust, could almost be a companion piece to his earlier "Judgment Night" if it wasn't for the sheer scale of what it represents. Gunther Lutze, a former SS captain, while on a pleasure trip back to the ruins of Dachaus concentration camp, is waylaid by the ghosts of his many victims.

"The Hunt" is a slight fable by Earl Hamner Jr, who later went on to create The Waltons, about a dead hillbilly and his equally dead dog who are almost tricked into entering Hell. Although you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, there's no getting around a hound dog's nose for sniffing out brimstone.

Serling's "The Passersby" is one of those 'they only realized they were all ghosts at the end' sort of story, and a weak specimen of the species it is, too. The passersby of the title consist of all the dead of the American Civil War traipsing along a road. The punch line is the shade of Abraham Lincoln bringing up the rear.

A somewhat better offering by Serling is "The Changing of the Guard" where once again the supernatural is bent to the service of a sentimental tale. Forced to retire after 51 years of teaching in which he believes he has accomplished nothing, Professor Ellis Fowler prepares to take his own life. He is saved at the last moment by the appearance of the ghosts of several old students who tell him that it was the inspiration of his teachings that spurred them on to do great deeds. Convinced of his own worth, Professor Fowler retires with grace.

"A Game of Pool" by George Clayton Johnson concerns itself with the ethics of winning and losing. Pool sharp Jesse Cardiff unintentionally wishes up the late Fats Brown, the world's greatest pool player. A game ensues with life and death stakes.

After a hard fought match Jesse wins, and in doing so gains more than he bargained for. It is now Jesse Cardiff, with a reputation to protect, who must rise after his death to answer every challenge by every newcomer determined to take his crown. "Mr Fats Brown, on the other hand," says Serling's closing narration, "has gone fishing." An alternate ending, written but not filmed, has Jesse losing. Frozen with fear, he expects death. "You said if I won I'd live. If I lost I'd die!" "And you will," answers the ghost of Fats Brown, ''as all second-raters die — you'll be buried and forgotten without me touching you." Without resorting to melodramatics, the situation brings its own penalties, win or lose.

"Showdown With Rance McGrew" by Rod Serling is a failed comedy about the ghosts of outlaws showing their indignation at the way they're portrayed in TV westerns by hi-jacking an insufferable TV 'cowboy' back to the real Wild West. Serling was seldom anything other than heavy-handed when writing humour, and "Rance McGrew" is just another such example. What's worse is that the 'real' West and outlaws are no different than the TV West and outlaws — an opportunity lost to explode some myths and misconceptions, and show the West as it really was. This failing blunts the point of the episode fatally.

In 1963 The Twilight Zone went to an ill-advised hour long format for its fourth season, which included three ghost stories. Although the extra time could — and in some cases did — provide room for more depth and scope, The Twilight Zone depended largely on brevity for effect, and worked better at a thirty minute length. About half of the sixty minute episodes came off looking padded and sluggish. One of these, Serling's "The Thirty-Fathom Grave", deals with guilt and conscience when a sailor finds himself over the wreck of his former submarine which had been sunk and its entire crew lost due to his own momentary clumsiness (while he himself had been the only survivor). By now the idea of characters getting a second chance through their encounters with the bizarre had faded. In the later seasons, where the ghosts and every other beastie had grown meaner, few characters got anything other than a sticky comeuppance. This held true for the protagonist of "The Thirty-Fathom Grave", innocent though he was of any intentional evil, guilty only of a blunder that could happen to anyone. The ghosts came and got him.

Also by Serling was "He's Alive", another foray into the territory already covered by "Deaths-Head Revisited". The leader of a small band of American neo-Nazis gets his training in political machinations from the ghost of Adolf Hitler himself. Apparently a poor student, he ends up being shot by police after committing a murder ordered by Der Furhrer. This is The Twilight Zone's only venture into the psychological ghost story, concentrating not so much on the return of Hitler's ghost as the return of his ideas to haunt the world.

One of the few stories to actually benefit from the sixty minute format was Richard Matherson's "Death Ship." The three-man crew of a starship land on a distant planet and find the wreck of their own vessel. Inside it are their own dead bodies. The two junior officers are convinced they're dead, a notion rejected out of hand by the strong-willed captain. Time distortions, visions of possible futures and alien telepathic hallucinations are discussed. They take off, fearing this will inevitably lead to the crash. It doesn't. They begin to dream of home and of meeting people long since dead. They land again to find the wreck still there, and eventually they realize they can't possibly crash because they already have. They're dead and ghosts, and it's only the iron will of the captain who refuses to accept this fact that keeps them repeating the cycle, from first sighting of the wreck to awareness of the truth and back again.

The Twilight Zone reverted to its natural half hour form for its fifth and final season, and this is where its last ghost story is found: "Night Call", also by Matherson. During a storm a telephone line falls on a grave; in the nearby cottage of aged invalid Elva Keene the phone begins to ring. Poor Miss Elva who many, many years before had caused a car crash in which she was crippled and her fiancée killed — and it's on his grave that the line has fallen.

Of all the 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone there are only sixteen that could be called ghost stories in the sense of a return from the grave or a continuing experience after death, though many more twisted time by the tail or used supernatural themes and elements of a surreal or quasi-religious kind. The ghost story was not a major part of The Twilight Zone, but it was most assuredly an integral one.


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