5 lessons from classic Twilight Zone episodes for 2020

We’re looking back at five classic Twilight Zone episodes that reflect the world of 2020. But look sharp! Some spoilers ahead.

Picture if you will, a world hanging by a thread. A place where sickness, isolation, depression and derision have become the norm. And every day a new revelation seems to threaten the fabric of that final string holding that planet in orbit.

Enter, a man from the past. His name is Rod Serling. And while he may look like your typical mid century specimen and dress the part of the collected TV producer, I’m happy to report that he was something more. Because Mr. Serling was a sort of twisted Nostradamus. He died fifty years ago this month, but the prophecies he made have continued to come true to this very day.

Though the Earth’s trajectory may seem bleak, Mr. Sterling left behind a bit of advice for those in 2020. However, the roadmap he left behind leads directly . . . to the Twilight Zone.

The Shelter (Season 3; Episode 3)

When UFOs are spotted heading toward Earth, a man and his family lock themselves in the bunker they’ve built under their house. But it’s only a matter of time before his neighbors are begging to be let in. As the threat of invasion continues to climb, the desperate neighbors reveal their bigotry, hatred, and selfishness, ultimately leading them to break down the shelter door.

We’ve dealt with a lot in 2020 so far, but thankfully we haven’t had to add “encountered aliens” to the list. Even so, “The Shelter” contains themes that will seem eerily familiar to modern viewers.

Sure, we’re not seeing many people break into bomb shelters, but the central theme of self-interest can be seen in the headlines every day from toilet paper hoarding to mask/anti-mask screaming matches at the grocery store.

The Shelter” takes a straightforward approach to exploring an individual’s reaction to crisis, and while Serling’s script is short on nuance, he still drives his point home with style.

Four O’Clock (Season 3; Episode 29)

A man who delights in trying to ruin people’s lives, decides to “destroy evil” by shrinking everyone he disagrees with at exactly four o’clock.

The thing that makes this Twilight Zone episode so creepy is actor Theodore Bikel’s perfect interpretation of main character, Oliver Crangle. This is a man whose obsessive hunt for what he deems evil fills him with a sort of demented glee. Sure, he has a lot of anger and frustration, too, but it’s the fevered joy in his pursuit that makes “Four O’Clock” so terrifying.

Although this episode, which first aired in 1962, shows that demonizing others isn’t a new activity, it can’t be denied that the practice has gained a lot of traction in the times of social media and op-ed based news programs. From the “Karen” phenomenon to deeming unfavorable facts as fake news, new examples of intolerance disguised as self righteousness are just a Google search away.

I Am the Night—Color Me Black (Season 5; Episode 26)

On the morning of a convicted man’s execution, the sun inexplicably refuses to rise, leaving the town bathed in darkness.

In one of the most somber episodes in the history of the Twilight Zone, Serling indirectly tackles systemic racism in this meditation on police prejudice and media bias.

The convicted man murdered a known white supremacist who was harassing a man of color, but his chance of a lighter sentence was lost when the sheriff omitted evidence and the deputy perjured himself on the stand. The local newspaper further skewed public opinion by repeatedly referring to the prisoner as guilty even before the trial was concluded.

It’s a dark episode, both literally and figuratively, and director Abner Biberman commits fully to the story’s bleak tone. Hatred and distrust can grow in any society at any time. This spring, we’ve seen thousands of people take to the streets to protest against the systemic racism that has cost countless Black community members their lives.

As the shadows thicken over the doomed town, Serling’s final lines sum up the story with lines that sound eerily prophetic in 2020.

A sickness known as hate; not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.”

The Mind and the Matter (Season 2; Episode 27)

When a bitter man uses his telepathic powers to populate the world with replicas of himself, he learns a valuable lesson about the importance of diversity.

Through a clever and quirky story, Serling and company examine the perils of surrounding yourself with only like minded people. Of course it doesn’t start out that way. Archibald Beechcroft’s biggest desire is to be alone, but after ridding the world of its population, Beechcroft discovers he has no idea what to do with his time. That’s when he has the idea to conjure up a city full of versions of himself.

When viewed through a modern lens, this goofy edition of Twilight Zone resonates as a fine metaphor for social media’s most popular sites. Since 2016, we’ve learned a lot about how sites optimize our feeds to show us content that confirms our biases. Viewed this way, this episode asks if that feedback loop really makes us happy or if we might be better off engaging with differing outlooks. As the curmudgeon Beechcroft exclaims, “A lot of me is just as bad as a lot of them.”

It’s a Good Life (Season 3; Episode 8)

The town of Peaksville faces extinction after a monstrous six-year-old boy with God-like powers forces its citizens to do and say exactly what he wants.

Thanks to its powerful story and top notch cast, “It’s a Good Life” is arguably the most disturbing tale in the Twilight Zone cannon. But while the story focuses on a small town held hostage, the same arrested terror can be seen today in commerce and governments where powerful people demand absolute agreement and adulation from those around them.

Because the good people of Peaksville are desperate to maintain their lives, they’re willing to do anything to please the monstrous little Anthony Freemont. A good example of this comes when Anthony’s father tries to explain why their neighbors were upset after Anthony wished their children into the cornfield. “It’s just that if you wish people away like that, there won’t be no one left.” The lesson, however, falls on deaf ears. Anthony already holds all control. He’s not interested in learning new information, and he’s certainly not going to change his behavior.

History has seen a long line of authoritarians, but the modern era has several whose leadership style mirror’s the monster at the center of “It’s a Good Life.” Serling warns viewers at the end of the episode that if they run into Anthony Freemont they can be sure they’ve entered his fabled zone. And while it’s far too easy to call 2020 a phantasmic dream we’re hoping to wake up from, there is something to Serling’s advice.

No matter how dark the days may seem, or how high the summits left to climb, the lessons needed to make it through this year can be found . . . in the Twilight Zone.

Looking for more prescient Twilight Zone episodes? We’ve got you covered.

  • The Obsolete Man (Season 2; Episode 29)
  • The Midnight Sun (Season 3; Episode 10)
  • Time Enough at Last (Season 1; Episode 8)
  • The Invaders (Season 2; Episode 15)
  • The Purple Testament (Season 1; Episode 19)
Next: Hungry for horror? Gorge yourself on Hannibal on Netflix

Check out Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. The original series can be streamed now on Hulu.

Let us know your favorite Twilight Zone episode in the comments. 

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