Research Report

Jacob Sunday
Sally Cloninger
Ready Camera 1
RC1 Research Report:
Where is Everybody?
The anthology series The Twilight Zone first aired on October 2, 1959. The series could be placed into the genre of science fiction but also shared elements with horror and fantasy. Each episode consisted of a new cast of characters and a different fantastic story. In the social climate of the 1950’s and bourgeoning golden age of television the series’ creator, Rod Serling, stepped forward as an outspoken advocate for television as a medium to reach the masses with social commentary. Often he would meet with censorship and his battles at times were very public. However, Mr. Serling persevered and adapted to the limitations placed on storytelling by sponsors and station executives. This essay will explore the techniques utilized by Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone. By exploring these techniques we will uncover the experimental elements of his approach, the lasting or fading impact of his endeavor, the archival significance of his these techniques in early television and finally, how personally his deft manipulation of both the audience in the living rooms of America and those pulling the strings behind the camera has personally shaped my aesthetic.
Well before The Twilight Zone Mr. Serling faced resistance to socially charged commentary in his teleplays. In 1955 he fashioned a story which focused on the acquittal of two white men accused of lynching a young black male, Emmitt Till, in a small Southern town. (Metress 144) This story plagued Serling for years. He presented the story several times with edits only to be turned down again and again. Writers at that time “were torn between the desire to present compelling and timely plays and the fear of incurring the wrath of sponsors and network executives”(Cochran 196). Cochran, the author of American Noir, also states that television was subject to the fear of nonconformity which was a rampant adversary of the arts in the culture of the Cold War era(197). Eventually Serling’s Noon on Doomsday aired April 25, 1956. This piece was a watered down version of his original A Town Turns to Dust which was the poignant portrayal of the injustices and prejudices of the Emmitt Till story. Serling wasn’t happy with this version, but it shows how he attempted to retain some of the Till story by “slanting it into his revisions via oblique references and subplots”(Metress 145). The hard learned lessons of A Town Turns to Dust tested Serling and honed his skills as a writer. By the time The Twilight Zone aired he was an expert at embedding message in his stories and finding tools that could convey his social conscience without nearly the volume of balking from sponsors and executive heads as he had run up against before.
It was the limitations placed on Serling that led him to experiment and find a vessel to launch his ideas, it was The Twilight Zone. In a 1959 interview, Serling was asked by Mike Wallace “You’re going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the forseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?” (Farber, Green 57) In hindsight, Serling’s silent response to that question could be seen as coy. Though Serling had taken what appeared to be a step down the ladder in an environment judging television on such rudimentary criteria as high, middle and low brow broadcasting, he in fact had taken the first steps into a strategic position where he was able to germinate the minds of America with his unique and socially conscious writings.
Serling’s approach incorporated the networks demands for the practice of the habit principle and became the show’s regular narrator(Baughman 188). As the narrator, it allowed Serling addressed the audience directly. In the opening of each episode, Serling would purr out the words that would find cult status and resonate in the minds of Americans for generations. The intro changed through the seasons but held a similar theme. These are some examples.

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension that is as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. It lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call, The Twilight Zone.
You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!
You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone.
(Michael Somos ) (
Two of these three examples are direct commands or supraliminal statements. Defined by Michele Nelson, a supraliminal message is where “…the individual is aware of the prime, but not of its potential influence”(118). His statements also show a high level of hypnotic suggestion when compared to the criteria set out in a study on hypnosis in advertising(Kaplan 61). Though Rod Serling doesn’t use the word subliminal he describes a liminal state or the space between. Regardless of whether Serling was aware of this technique or not it was a highly effective way of disarming his audience. (If, however, he was aware, his daring reflexivity and wordsmithing is brilliant) By placing the audience in a receptive state and into The Twilight Zone he took away the knee jerk reaction of disbelief and was able to present fantastic stories with little resistance from his audience.
Next, by housing his messages in the fantastical he circumvented the audience and the censors again. The Menippean satire, which is discussed by M. Keith Booker in his book Strange TV: Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to the X-File (2002), is based in the practice of defamiliarizing the audience with the underlying topics by utilizing the fantastical to test philosophical ideas in the extraordinary (3). He continues by explaining that it is not strictly fantasy that one is approaching with the menippea since it is used commonly to address current and topical issues, and that the approach is often an experiment in itself. Viewing the action of the story from new and unexpected vantage points “results in a radical change in the scale of observed phenomenon of life (116)”. By adopting the habit principle to secure authority and trustworthiness, using that position to then command the audience with supraliminal hypnotic suggestion, and finally housing his message in a defamiliarizing Menippean satire of science fiction and fantasy, Rod Serling hit the trifecta for presenting otherwise uncomfortable and socially conscience topics.
When exploring the staying power of the tools employed by Serling we need only look at the cult section in any video store or turn on the television. The Twilight Zone has become a part of American television history and has made its mark in syndication and spawned a slew of copycats. From The Outer Limits to The X-Files we can see the attempt, sometimes clumsy, sometimes improved, to recreate the subtle mixture of embedded socially conscious messages and fantastic worlds. This rehashing of Serling’s style and implementation of his crafted tool kit shows that in television Serling inspired generations to continue his “noncomplicit culture of dissent that has not yet been absorbed by the dominant culture”(Fluck, 1148).
Booker discusses how The Twilight Zone broke new ground with its plurality and its utilization of “multigeneric and multimedia forms to present audiences with something not quite like anything they had seen before”(1). Now we see shows repeatedly visit this plurality in their subplots and approach to social issues. For example, in a single episode of the current program Lost, one can see a bevy of discussions on everything from the stigma of obesity to racism and back around to mental illness and alcoholism. This program swirls in a mist of misdirection and fractured storylines. Though this might deviate from the complete plotlines of the anthology series it is a clear descendent of the tools used by Serling and his defamiliarizing technique reminiscent of the Mineppean satire.
Another example of the Serling template influencing television is Star Trek, another program utilizing a fantastic or science fiction world as its backdrop for politically charged commentary. At the beginning of each episode Captain Kirk narrates his description of their mission and a star date entry, though not as direct at the command used by Serling it still utilizes the habit principle, eliciting a near Pavlovian response in its fervent followers.
And finally one of the greatest examples of where The Twilight Zone influenced television is Sesame Street. Sesame Street starts with a command, cleverly imbedded in a song, and continues with defamiliarizing its audience with a fantastic myriad of monsters and talking animals thus providing a vessel to imbed learning material and socially conscious messages. Though there is no consistent opening narrator the show consistently uses the same cast thus perpetrating the habit principle in a sense. This is almost a carbon copy of the strategy used in The Twilight Zone. Since Sesame Street is still on air and just recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, one can assume that Rod Serling’s techniques and strategies are staying with more power than most.
It can be argued that the archival significance of The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling rests in its elevation of the author himself. Nowhere else in the history of television has a television author risen to stardom like Rod Serling. By bending to the insistence the sponsors and studio executives placed on the habit principle Mr. Serling became the face of The Twilight Zone. Though other anthology writers of that time have recognizable names such as Gore Vidal and Reginal Rose many Americans would be hard pressed to remember their face or even voice. In comparison it could be that Rod Serling’s voice and face are almost immediately recognizable by a sizable amount of Americans and internationals. John Krasewski argues in his article Authorship and Adaptation: The Public Personas of Television Anthology Writers that there were four major contributing factors to the elevation of anthology writers to public figures in the 1950’s, Rod Serling had three out of the four(274). Prolific writing was one criteria. Serling had over 70 scripts under his belt during the 1950’s. A distinct dramatic style was a second criterion. Look Magazine, Seventeen and Vogue all took notice of Serling and wrote on his style. The third criterion he held was that he had a reputation as a writer before he moved into television. The fourth criterion was that the writer had to have worked with a Fred Coe. I was unable to find information as to whether this was a contributing factor in Rod Serling’s case. It should also be noted that journalist also played a significant role in the celebrity making of Rod Serling. Between 1953 and 1955 journalist’s “…reviews and articles fixated on who wrote what script and what types of social concerns specific writers had”(Krasewski, 272).
With television as a new form of media and the press closely following its development, coupled with Rod Serling being a prolific and talented writer and finally him taking the helm of The Twilight Zone and establishing himself as a public figure it was a natural progression to stardom. However, the press’ interest in writers faded with time. There have been many prolific writers and some with a public presence but the time and place that these variables met catalyzed and made the author the icon. It could be argued that the time of the iconic TV writer has faded with the now disinterested public accepting whatever appears on the tube or Youtube. The over abundance and accessibility to make media and indulge in viewing the plethora of media outlets has deluded the quality and vetting out process for the truly talented. In this glut of media makers the unique variables that led the author to cult celebrity have passed. The press doesn’t cover it and the people don’t care. The fabricators of the reality or unreality on television are no more to the public than the inner workings of the television itself. They might as well be copper wires.
In an age where iCarly on the Nickelodeon channel is probably getting more viewership than the NY TIMES has readers one can’t help but feel compelled as a socially conscious media maker to revisit some of the themes explored by The Twilight Zone. Themes like: “…our need for companionship…our preoccupation with surface appearance”(Hoppenstand, 562). And yes, these were themes on The Twilight Zone not iCarly. The difference was that approaching even the painful lessons of adolescents The Twilight Zone managed to address these very human topics with a maturity and craft of storytelling that left the audience thoughtful and moved. The craft of imbedding lessons and weaving tales that simultaneously misdirected and engrossed the viewers is a skill either lost or greatly underused in current media, other than the Fox News Channel’s “No Spin Zone”.
In the book Age of Propaganda authors Pratkanis and Aronson reference research conducted from the 1960’s through the early 1990’s. The research indicates that the majority of television is a gross misrepresentation of reality but that the audience takes what is portrayed on television as an accurate reflection of reality(50). One could see this moment in history, with an audience overwhelmingly receptive to misrepresentation, as a perfect time to re-launch programming that followed the paradigms set forth by Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. But would the world react differently to the gentle moralizing that Serling found irresistible? Would the subtle embedding be lost on a generation of viewers needing the hyper real of HD reality T.V.? Often the supraliminal message of favorite sport stars or even now favorite reality stars drinking, eating, wearing and driving brand names and strategically placed products overwhelms the viewer to the point where they become subliminal. It’s like a product white out. Thus turning a full circle where we are then “…perniciously influenced beyond our cognitive wills to do that which is suggested by messaging deliberately posited beneath cognitive recognition”(Ingwerson, 30).
I believe that it indeed is the time to rekindle the flames of imagination in the viewership of this nation. As responsible media makers it is our duty to rise like the phoenix from this scorched wasteland and breathe life anew into the art and craft of storytelling. In fact this revisiting of the skillful delivery of Serling and his contemporaries could work as an awaking of the imagination in the masses. The beauty and craft of subtlety would act as a shocking counter to the over stimulated and overpopulated images of the product junk yards that clutter media.
It might be related to a conditioning from my home town politics or it could just be a personality trait fostered by laziness but direct engagement has never been my first response to any problem. Instead, I found patience and persuasion to be more useful but always delivered with well placed jabs. This strategy seems to dovetail with the strategies employed by Serling and The Twilight Zone. Perhaps intuitively growing up I could sense this. I saw these fantastic stories with strange twists in reality and though not consciously aware of the moralizing being done I was incorporating it into my personal aesthetic for later use. Finding stories that deal with contemporary issues and packaging them in palatable coatings might just be what the nation needs.
For inspiration one need only to look at the classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and the themes present in those stories. Themes often explored in The Twilight Zone were alienation, xenophobia, routinization, and shifts in perspective. It is also important to take note of the shooting style of The Twilight Zone. Often reminiscent of film noir, partly due to the limitations of the technology and partly because there was a horror and carnivalesque aspect to the environment presented in the stories of The Twilight Zone.
‘Monsters are due on Maple Street’ couches cold war terror of the “others” in a teleplay about Aliens shutting off the power in a Middle American town. Serling explores mob mentality and xenophobia while watching Americans turn on each other in a hysterical paranoia.
In ‘Walking Distance’ a man longing for a break from the rat race finds himself driving just to drive. Driving away from the city and subconsciously into the old town where he grew up. He finds himself in The Twilight Zone and back in time, searching for a way to relive his past. He discovers in the end that man only gets one youth and it’s important to enjoy it while you can. On the surface this story is about escapism. A man tries to flee his work. But if we look into the subtext we discover a story trying to explore the desire of a nation to return to a more innocent time, man’s desire to go home again and revisit his youth and the warning that trying to grab and hold onto your past will only cripple you(Mandell, 39).
Oblique angles, mirror tricks to suggest a trip through the looking glass and dramatic lighting with stories told in shadows allows the audience access to their imagination.(Mandell, 41) What draws us in is this combination of the stylistic way in shooting the story as well as the stories themselves that approach and confront topics that touch the human condition. The Twilight Zone with engaging storytelling and filmic shooting elicited in its viewers a gaze versus a glance. Too often now the television is on and with just a glance over our laundry or, homework, we see what’s on the screen and never engage the programming(Carol, 17).
Personally The Twilight Zone left in me an everlasting appreciation of storytelling. Rod Serling’s subtle use of allegory and parable instead of brutish beatings over the head with direct topics allowed me to think about what had just transpired and I grew as a storyteller. In fact my first film was a trainwreck of an homage to The Twilight Zone. I used oblique camera angles, placed the action in a defamiliarizing context and addressed topics of alienation and vice.
The story followed an everyday Joe as he tried to walk to some responsibility on a lonely road only to be confronted by a creepy fisherman fishing into the slough along the road. As the everyman passes the fisherman with a pleasantry he looks at the fisherman and then down the road discovering he has yet to pass the fisherman. This repeats itself in a temporal loop and each time the man passes the fisherman he is offered an additional vice. First it’s just killing time and fishing, then its spirits, then its women and finally it’s all three. Eventually the man sits and his journey to his future is delayed. The twist is that at the end of the story the perspective shifts and the fisherman is actually fishing just for that man and those vices were his bait or lure. The title of the piece is Lure. Though rudimentary at best the piece does show the influence of The Twilight Zone on my aesthetic. It also highlights the need for those who are included in this current generation of TV viewers, me included, to take note of what is happening to media and up the ante. Make better stories, make better art, engage the issues that affect us and in turn influence our audience. Don’t let the vices of time wasting and glancing distractions dissuade us from our path. Our responsibility is down that road and though it may seem lonely it is surely better than dangling on the end of line lured away from meaning.