When it comes to terror, my favorite television show of all time; The Twilight Zone has no equal. While other television programs since have had their share of psychological horrors, Rod Serling’s groundbreaking program blazed the trail from 1959-1964. While Twilight Zone had its moments of sardonic humor, lighthearted whimsy, and at times ridiculous and over the top presentation, it also had its share of unsettling and chilling episodes. Narrowing this down to five episodes wasn’t easy, and there are many great episodes from “Printer’s Devil” to “The Dummy” to “The New Exhibit” and “Long Live Walter Jameson” that make my most honorable of mentions.
I’ve written about the Twilight Zone in the past, but with the passing of time perspective changes, and these five episodes we’re about to examine are my personal favorites, that for me set the mood for this spookiest of holidays.
Aside from getting Snickers and Kit Kats in my treat bag, one of the first things I think of when talking Halloween, is witchcraft.
When I got my Twilight Zone boxset several years ago and marathon watched all five seasons, when I came across this episode from season four, I knew this tale of witchcraft, love, lust and dark desire would be a staple of my Halloween viewing.
Season four was unique in that the show switched to a one hour format compared to the previous three seasons as well as the fifth and final seasons half hour runtime. The extra time afforded many of the episodes to expand their stories and Jess-Belle definitely benefited allowing the characters to be fleshed out, and for the story of Jess-Belle’s obsession with Billy-Ben and the lengths she would go to pursue him and win his heart unfold.
The whole vibe of this episode says Halloween to me. Whether its the setting in the Appalachian mountains and the deep, dark woods with how everything is framed and lit, to the fact that with Twilight Zone being black and white it adds to the overall mood and ambience of its episodes, and Jess-Belle is no exception. I’m not saying a TV show or movie has to be black and white to be creepy or eerie, but having that element certainly doesn’t hurt either.
4) The Masks
“We all wear masks, metaphorically speaking”.
What if the masks one wears doesn’t hide their personality, but rather amplifies it? Jason Foster on the eve of his imminent death is surrounded by his children, and he stipulates each must wear a mask until the stroke of midnight in order to inherit all that he intends to leave behind.
The masks are meant to represent the opposite of each child’s less than desirable personality traits, while Jason Foster dons a skull mask as his life rapidly draws to a close, and death looms large. Jason Foster knows his children are only participating in order to gain their portions of the inheritance, but in life and in death there are lessons to be learned and tolls to be paid.
The Masks isn’t a particularly scary episode, but not every story needs jump scares. There’s a quiet, brooding intensity here that’s meant to be taken at more than face value.
3) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Either you love William Shatner as an actor or you hate William Shatner as an actor, you can’t be somewhere in the middle. With Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Shatner is definitely not somewhere in the middle when it comes to his performance.
It’s because of Shatner’s over the top portrayal that makes Nightmare at 20,000 Feet work as well as it does. Shatner’s mounting tension and anxiety accelerate as he feels he’s the only one on board this overnight flight that sees the danger lurking on the wing of the plane. Hell bent on proving to his fellow passengers and the crew on board that the creature he’s seeing is real, and not part of a shattered psyche he thought he had finally been able to piece together.
Granted, the gremlin on the side of the wing is about as convincing as the Gorn he fought as Kirk on Star Trek. The gremlin is pretty ridiculous to look at for 2020, but for the early sixties it got the job done, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is less about the monster and more about the madness and struggle to convince others that you’re not the only one seeing this thing sabotaging the plane.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet has been redone in subsequent Twilight Zone reboots and was parodied to hilarious effect during the “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet” segment of the Simpsons season five Treehouse of Horror, but the original story still stands out as the absolute best.
Unfortunately, there’s no decapitated Flanders or shout out to Wang computers.
2) The Howling Man
When I had previously written about The Twilight Zone, I inexplicably left The Howling Man off of my list, but that mistake has now been corrected. This episode has it all, especially for a holiday like Halloween when the air is cooler and the night falls quicker.
The Howling Man is set in post World War I Europe. We’ve got the old castle with something dark and mysterious behind its walls, a wayward traveler caught in a storm, and the eternal struggle between good and evil, and how man can be tempted and swayed by his own curiosity and willingness to trust his fellow man. We’re told the story in flashback form by our main protagonist David Ellington about his encounter with no ordinary man, but the devil himself.
First encountering him in that old castle guarded by a group of monks, David; finding refuge from the storm, meets a man who claims he’s being wrongly imprisoned for kissing his sweetheart and is being held against his will by overly religious zealots. Tempted to help the man, David sets him free only to learn too late the truth of the man’s identity, and that the order of Brothers warnings had fallen on deaf ears. Flash forward, and David laments his error in trusting too freely and that he’s pursued the devil for decades attempting to atone for his past mistake.
The Howling Man ranks high on the list of all-time great Twilight Zone episodes. Its mood, storytelling, along with beautiful cinematography and direction, give it that eerie Gothic horror flavor perfect for Halloween.
1) Living Doll
“Who loves ya, baby?”
Talky Tina doesn’t love our friend Telly Savalas, and for good reason.
Erich Streator played by Savalas is a cantankerous old coot who; because he’s shooting blanks in the old boudoir, is resentful that he can’t have children of his own, and try as he might to connect with his stepdaughter Christie draws the ire of her new Talky Tina doll.
Streators paranoia with Talky Tina’s threats and demeanor has him pushed over the edge, at first thinking his significant other Annabelle is pranking him for not being accepting of her daughter Christie’s confidence issues, but gradually he realizes the doll is behind the threatening phone calls, causing distrust between Streator and his family, driving a wedge further between them until it’s too late, and Streator ultimately meets his fate. Annabelle finds his lifeless body next to Talky Tina and quickly realizes that Tina ain’t taking no shit from anyone in the house.
Living Doll has been the inspiration for evil/killer doll stories from Chucky in Child’s Play to Annabelle in, well, Annabelle. Best of all Living Doll was parodied by The Simpsons, in one of my favorite Treehouse of Horror episodes “Clown Without Pity”, including the classic exchange between Homer and the mysterious old shopkeep about a cursed Krusty doll. That’s bad.
Living Doll thankfully is free of potassium benzoate.
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