How The Twilight Zone Predicted Our Paranoid Present

Tune into the annual New Year's marathon broadcast of the show that debuted 55 years ago, and you might notice something strange: Its sci-fi stories look a lot like today.
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More than half a century after it first aired, The Twilight Zone still has one of the most recognizable opening themes in television history: Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo. Incidentally, composer Marius Constant dashed off the 30-second theme song in a single afternoon, according to The New York Times—but that melody has endured in our popular imagination just as the program has. Though its original run spanned five seasons between 1959 and 1964, generations of new viewers have since discovered The Twilight Zone, its longevity at least partly buoyed by an annual marathon broadcast each New Year's dating back to 1994. The Syfy network will continue the tradition for a 19th time this week, airing more than 80 episodes in 48 hours starting the morning of Dec. 31 at 8 a.m.

Critics tend to talk about The Twilight Zone like it’s trapped in amber. The series is celebrated as an acute reflection of a rare and intense moment in American history; a space-age cult classic that captured the messy transition between post-World War II America and the chaotic 1960s. Atomic war, space exploration, government control, anxiety, and mortality are all common Twilight Zone themes.

But the series has endured for more than half a century because of how resonant it remains today. The Twilight Zone is at its core an exploration of the human condition and commentary on how people cope with fear of the unknown. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling said that even in science fiction, he was most compelled by stories that were relatable first in human terms. “If you can’t believe the unbelievability, then there’s something wrong in the writing,” he told a college class in 1975. Serling's outlook also meant he was more interested in imagining the world as it might actually become. Here's how he explained this idea in a 1970 interview: "I would probably shy away from the year 2500. I would much rather deal in 1998. The hardware that I use, I think, should be identifiable. I like to know what happens Thursday, not in the next century."

Yet now that we're well into the “next century” that was so distant to Serling, some of The Twilight Zone's more fantastical ideas and inventions have emerged in real life. More than 50 years since it first aired, re-watching the series reveals that many of the technologies and ideas it imagined as supernatural in the 1960s are commonplace or at least conceivable today—including driverless cars, flat-screen televisions, human-like robotics, government surveillance, and more.

The 1963 episode "Valley of the Shadow," for example, features a device that manipulates atoms to make objects disappear or appear. Scientists today are working on making "invisibility cloaks" that obscure objects by bending light waves around them, while 3D printing technology is becoming cheaper and more mainstream.

Several Twilight Zone episodes deal with nostalgia and the desire to return to one's youth. In "Static" (1961), a man is able to listen on-demand to a radio broadcast from his childhood, an idea that seemed supernatural when the episode first aired but is banal today. Platforms like YouTube have so altered our expectations about what’s available on-demand that we’re often surprised today when we’re not able to revisit obscure broadcasts from the past. (And if you want to get meta about it, here’s a clip from that very episode.)

The Twilight Zone also predicted driverless vehicles in more than one episode. A driverless 1939 Lagonda coupe chases a man in "A Thing About Machines" (1960), though the coupe was possessed rather than programmed like Google’s modern-day fleet of autonomous vehicles. Plastic surgery as we know it was still in its infancy when The Twilight Zone first aired, and today cosmetic surgery is common—though still not as extreme as depicted in "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1964), the episode that imagines a world in which young adults undergo surgery so they can look like one of a set number of models featured in a catalog.

Of course, there's plenty The Twilight Zone envisioned that hasn’t happened. Lucky for us, Earth was not annihilated by nuclear war in 1985, as was predicted in "Elegy" (1960). Gold has not—well, not yet anyway—lost all value, as The Twilight Zone claims it will by the year 2061 in "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" (1961). Humans did not settle on a new planet in 1991, as explained in "On Thursday We Leave for Home" (1963). Astronauts were not placed in suspended animation for long space missions in 1987, as in "The Long Morrow" (1964). And despite a scene in "Two" (1961), print newspapers almost certainly won’t be the primary source of news once 2061 rolls around.

Nevertheless, the abstract future imagined by The Twilight Zone is in many ways spot-on. One particularly prescient theme in the series is a recurring exploration of the relationship between humans and robots. The Twilight Zone imagined robotic lovers, personal assistants, grandmothers, children, athletes, and so on. In "The Lateness of the Hour" (1960), a man and his wife have a team of robot employees, including a maid, a cook, a handyman. Today, we have Siri on our iPhones and Roombas vacuuming our floors, though researchers are still working on robots that can consistently open doors on their own. Our collective fascination with robots is persistent in pop culture. Consider films like Westworld (1973), Weird Science (1985), A.I. (2001), and Her, the 2013 film about a man who falls in love with an operating system.

The series obsessed over questions of authenticity and identity, prompting questions about what human interaction with robots would ultimately mean for society. These are questions we're asking today, amid military and civilian drones, and Pentagon-owned bots that can run faster than humans.

Robots populate much of The Twilight Zone, which imagines a future in which boxing has been outlawed and human boxers are replaced by robots ("Steel," 1963); a robotic grandmother is beloved by her human family ("I Sing the Body Electric,” 1962); one man encounters his robot-double ("In His Image,” 1963); and another is exiled to a planet 9 million miles from Earth where he falls in love with a robot companion ("The Lonely,” 1959).

We now have prototypes for remarkably life-like robot companions, robot healthcare providers that can interact with patients, and robot telemarketers programmed so well they know to lie and say they're human.

The modern-day response to such technology is often a combination of awe and unease, and it mirrors the sense of uncanniness The Twilight Zone captured so well 50-plus years ago. In "The Brain Center at Whipple's" (1964), a man automates production at a factory, only to make himself obsolete by ushering in a new robot workforce.

One of the more chilling Twilight Zone episodes that explores obsolescence focuses on an overbearing United States government rather than a robot-run world. In "The Obsolete Man" (1961), a librarian is deemed obsolete by a future government that interferes with the lives of its citizens, disregards their privacy, and routinely imprisons them without justification.

To be fair, the world of "The Obsolete Man" is totalitarian and arguably grimmer for its citizens than our world is to us. But the episode reflects the kind of tension that is bubbling up today in the United States, especially with regard to recent questions over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, for instance. Here’s part of Serling's narrative from the episode that holds up today: "Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete."

The Twilight Zone repeatedly encourages its viewers to be skeptics. In "Third from the Sun" (1960), a government skeptic is warned that asking questions is dangerous. In "And When the Sky Was Opened" (1959), viewers are cautioned that they may cease to exist if they ask about secret government programs. In "No Time Like the Past" (1963), the cynical main character sums up his disdain: "We live in an exquisite bedlam, an insanity, made all the more grotesque by the fact that we don't recognize it as insanity."

The message is that what the government says and what it does are often incongruent, warmongers end up haunted or damned, and only those who exercise humanity may have hope for survival.

While The Twilight Zone is filled with supernatural phenomena—doppelgängers, mannequins that come to life, mind-reading aliens, a linotype machine that causes the news it prints, a stopwatch that freezes time, etc.—its underlying message is rooted in reality. It’s ultimately a show about all the ways you can lose yourself—to paranoia, to greed, to conformity. The Twilight Zone explores what it means to be human with a mix of "supernaturalism and civics," as The New Yorker put it in 1983. More simply, it is a program about fear and the price we pay by indulging in it.

"The massive fear is not being able to trust self," Serling told students in 1975. "The worst fear of all is the fear of the unknown working on you, which you cannot share with others."

The Twilight Zone is known for its twist endings, the most famous of which is perhaps the conclusion of "To Serve Man" (1962), when it's revealed that Earth's alien saviors have been planning to eat humans all along. (Simpsons fans will know this episode from its Treehouse of Horror sendup—the one that features the cookbook How to Cook for Forty Humans.)

Watch enough Twilight Zone episodes and the surprise endings become mostly predictable. It’s easy to catalogue them in a litany of familiar storytelling tropes, which is part of why the series, while brilliant, can also seem hokey at times. Some of the more obvious endings can be reduced to the following ideas: It was all a dream; she was dead the whole time; the dream wasn't a dream, and so on.

But if there's one twist that encapsulates the series, it's the idea that humans are the true monsters. The ultimate reveal of the series is that even when you're lost in the timeless infinity of The Twilight Zone—that fifth dimension between shadow and substance—you haven’t actually gone anywhere. You’ve been right here on Earth all along. 

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Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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