Following up on my “What I Learned About Storytelling From the Original Twilight Zone,” this is the first in a series of Twilight Zone lists I’ll be posting. I know I’m crazy, but since I’m making the lists anyway, I might as well share ’em with you fine folks.
The Twilight Zone is known for its twist endings and giving generations of folks the heebie-jeebies. I hate spoilers, so I won’t be posting a list of the Top 10 Twist Endings. But these are the episodes I feel are the heebie-jeebiest. I’ll do my best not to spoil the endings for you. Sure, I’ll describe the premise and why it’s great, but I won’t reveal anything that happens after the last commercial break.
13. The Arrival (Season 3, Episode 2)
Flight 107 lands safely, but there’s no sign of the passengers or crew. The FAA sends Mr. Sheckly to investigate.
One of my greatest fears is “What if reality doesn’t line up with my perception?” It’s a theme I keep coming back to in my own writing, and this episode pulls it off.
12. Person or Persons Unknown (Season 3, Episode 27)
David Gurney wakes up next to his wife, but she doesn’t remember him. Neither does anyone else.
I love fears that are so universal yet so impossible. Philip K. Dick pulled the same gag in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, one of my favorite novels.
(Also see also the hour-long episode “The Parallel” for a similar feel)
11. The Passerby (Season 3, Episode 4)
A bunch of creepy Civil War soldiers walk down a creepy road to a creepy destination.
The writers of The Twilight Zone must have been Civil War reenactors, because it shows up in plenty of episodes. This is the best of the lot. It’s one of the few episodes where you see the ending coming a mile away, but you don’t care because everything is just so perfectly eerie.
10. Judgment Night (Season 1, Episode 10)
Carl Lanser finds himself on a passenger ship during World War 2. He doesn’t remember how he got there, but he knows something terrible will happen at 1:15 a.m.
Thick fog and silent accusations. This episode has a delightful, claustrophobic vibe and a lovely sense of impending doom. It also features one of my all-time favorite tropes, but careful, sweetie, spoilers.
(Also see “A Quality of Mercy” and “The Purple Testament” for more creepy stories from WW2)
9. The Midnight Sun (Season 3, Episode 10)
Norma and Mrs. Bronson try to survive in a nearly empty New York City. The world has been knocked off its axis and is heading toward the sun, and every day the temperature reaches a new record high.
This episode features some of the most memorable visuals of the entire series. In quiet moments, I find myself remembering Norma screaming as the thermometer explodes.
8. Perchance to Dream (Season 1, Episode 9)
Edward Hall explains his problem to a psychiatrist. Hall has a heart condition. Every night he dreams of Maya, an exotic carnival dancer who tries to scare him to death.
I’m blessed/cursed with dreams so vivid I often wake up exhausted. And it’s easy to imagine trying not to dream about something so hard that of course you dream about it. “Perchance to Dream” also features some of the most surreal images of the whole series.
7. Shadow Play (Season 2, Episode 26)
Convicted of murder, Adam Grant is sentenced to die in the electric chair. His defense sounds insane: he didn’t murder anyone because this is only his reoccurring nightmare. And if he’s put to death, everyone else will cease to exist.
Guess I have a soft spot for dream episodes. This one also has something I can’t get enough of: the characters sitting down and discussing and analyzing their situation at great length. I can’t get enough of it.
(Another great episode where the characters wax metaphysical: “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”)
6. The After Hours (Season 1, Episode 34)
Marsha White goes to the department store to buy a gift. The elevator takes her to a nearly deserted floor, which is her entry point into The Twilight Zone.
Keyword: mannequins. One of the most memorable episodes of the series, “The After Hours” creates a terrifying atmosphere that delivers on its promises.
5. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Season 1, Episode 22)
Maple Street is as American as apple pie. Unfortunately, one of those apples is hiding a dark secret.
Ever wonder what Leave it to Beaver would look like if everyone was on the verge of killing each other? The Twilight Zone loved to exploit the real fears of its viewers concerning the Cold War. The tension and consequences in this episode feel real despite some of the more fantastic elements.
(For more suburbian Cold War-terror, check out “The Shelter”)
4. Where is Everybody? (Season 1, Episode 1)
A man wanders into a town. He needs help; he can’t remember who he is. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single living soul around. Or is there?
I like that it’s a pilot episode, and the guy is dressed as a pilot. But it’s also 25 minutes of absolute perfection and a killer introduction to the series. Overpowering atmosphere? Check. Universal fear that would never happen? Probably? Check. The scariest thing is the unknown? Check.
3. Eye of the Beholder (Season 2, Episode 6)
Janet Tyler’s face is hidden by bandages. It’s the last surgical attempt they will make to fix her face before sending her to live with others who society cannot accept.
This is one of the greatest half-hours to ever grace a television set, so I won’t spoil it for you. The fascist undertones are a nice bonus.
2. Mirror Image (Season 1, Episode 21)
Millicent Barnes is waiting at the bus station when things go wrong. Someone keeps moving her suitcase, and the man at the counter keeps saying she’s doing things she doesn’t remember. Is she going crazy, or is someone at the station out to get her?
This episode is one of the inspirations for Monsters All the Way Down. Doppelgängers are terrifying to me, and this episode will show you why.
(Check out “The Hitchhiker” for a similar sense of “OH MY GOSH JUST GET OUT OF THERE!”)
And the winner is…
1. It’s a Good Life (Season 3, Episode 8)
Anthony Fremont is a 6-year-old boy holding an entire town in a grip of fear. Anthony has absolute power over reality, and his will is all-powerful. So you’d better keep saying, “It’s a good day, Anthony, a really good day,” or he just might send you out to the cornfield.
Here it is, the most spine-chilling of them all. The frantic survivors of Anthony’s town live under an oppression that you won’t forget. If you even think a bad thing about Anthony–pop!–you’re yesterday’s news.
It gets to me because I have a son about Anthony’s age. My son loves me, but there are times–like when I tell him it’s bedtime–that he would teleport me into space if he could.
(The same creepy kid, Bill Mumy, plays another creepy kid in “Long Distance Call”)
Bonus! Honorable Mentions
Here are scary episodes I love that just barely missed the cut. Most are fan favorites.
The Invaders (Season 2, Episode 15)
The premise is solid, but the Invaders look like wind-up toys. Agnes Moorehead still does an amazing job selling it.
Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? (Season 2, Episode 28)
A diner full of people trying to find out who the alien is. This would be right up my alley, but it has some goofy details that kept it out of the running.
Stopover in a Quiet Town (Season 5, Episode 30)
A couple wake up in a hotel room with no idea how they got there. The town is nothing but artificial trees and set dressing, and there’s no escape. Unfortunately, the twist doesn’t live up to the premise.
The Howling Man (Season 2, Episode 5)
This is a slow burn, and it could have been a serious contender. If only they hadn’t decided to be so cheesy with part of the most important costume of the episode.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Season 5, Episode 3)
This episode has it all. It plays on all the right fears. It’s tense as a garotte wire. It has William freakin’ Shatner in the performance of his career. But the costume looks like a Moss Man action figure from He-Man, and it just doesn’t hold up. Even though it’s one of my favorite episodes, I worry it just doesn’t hold up because of the goofy monster.
So what do you think? Did I leave out your favorite freaky episode of The Twilight Zone? Let me know in the comments!
EDIT: On Facebook, Jessica Hines pointed out I didn’t mention Talking Tina from “Living Doll.” It’s a great episode, and it almost made the list. Two more honorable mentions are the ventriloquist dummy episodes, “The Dummy” and “Caesar and Me.”