When the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired on October 2, 1959, its creator and narrator Rod Serling made a declaration. “The place is here, the time is now,” he intoned, as he ushered viewers into a new reality known as the fifth dimension. “And the journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey.”
Nearly six decades later, viewers can reenter The Twilight Zone—but this time, with Jordan Peele as the series’ host. Now streaming exclusively on CBS All Access, the contemporary revival suggests that much of Serling’s groundbreaking sci-fi anthology series is still current. Serling held up a fun-house mirror to our cultural anxieties, refracting rather than simply reflecting the values, beliefs, and assumptions that underpin society. He prompted viewers to consider essential issues of his day, such as humankind’s place within the universe during the Space Race and the prospect of nuclear annihilation as Cold War tensions escalated.
Though times have changed, many of the societal concerns that Serling pointed to continue to plague us—and are liable to reappear when Peele reopens the door to the fifth dimension. Peele—an Emmy- and Academy Award–winning writer, director, and actor who, in addition to hosting the revival, also coproduced it with Simon Kinberg—is known for weaving socially conscious narratives into unnerving genre work. Before we exit our world and enter his, we revisit some of the original series’ visionary storylines, which reveal takeaways that are eerily relevant to contemporary life—and affirm The Twilight Zone’s ongoing cultural relevance.
It’s 6:43 p.m. on a late summer afternoon. A mysterious light appears in the sky. The power goes out. Phones stop working. There’s no signal on the radio, and cars won’t start—except for one of your neighbors’, which mysteriously still turns on.
In The Twilight Zone, the residents of Maple Street, a picturesque suburban community, react to this anomaly rapidly—and harshly. An us-versus-them dynamic emerges at the mere suggestion that some unnamed menace has infiltrated the town from the outside. Aliens, it’s surmised, may live among them, though there’s no clear sense of who the “monster” is. One man remarks that there’s “something wrong” with his neighbor—“something that ain’t legitimate.” The town dwellers seek to root out the threat from within and point to differences among themselves as cause for violent protective measures. Paranoia and mob mentality overcome goodwill and reason.
There’s no visible cause of the negative developments on Maple Street, so its residents go on “a monster kick.” Their fear and internalized biases only require a single event to incite drastic, misdirected action—and a frantic search for a scapegoat. The result is their own demise by each other’s hands.
History has shown us the dangers of seeking out “an other” to blame in unstable times: Especially during periods of political or economic strife, when people are in search of a party to hold accountable, bigoted ideologies can gain traction and result in normalized discrimination. In 2017, the FBI noted a 17 percent increase in reported hate crimes from the previous year. That same year, nearly 60 percent of victims who reported hate crimes were targeted due to race, ethnicity, or ancestry bias. And yet, othering remains a staple of public discourse today. Dehumanizing, xenophobic tactics should be called out for what they are. In the real world and in The Twilight Zone, rushing to assign fault without nuance, fueled by fear, is harmful and can even prove fatal.
Patient 307, Miss Janet Tyler, is recovering from her 11th and final cosmetic procedure. Her head is wrapped in bandages, shielding others from her appearance. This medical experiment was Patient 307’s last chance to correct her looks, and if it’s successful, she’ll be welcomed into society. If not… She waits, blindly, for her face—and fate—to be revealed.
“I want to belong.” This is a relatively common sentiment, but for Miss Janet Tyler, it’s also a plea for her life. The outcome of her state-sponsored cosmetic procedure will determine her future. She undergoes repeated treatments to adhere to her society’s aim of “glorious conformity.” Unfortunately, she fails to meet prescribed beauty standards, so she’s segregated to a community where she’ll be among her “own kind.” Although Miss Tyler briefly resists, her attempts prove futile, because those around her have been sold a notion: People like Patient 307 are unlike the rest—a stain upon society—and they must conform or be gone.
That a person’s physical appearance informs her worth to society—and herself—is readily apparent within and outside of the fifth dimension. This is especially true of young women and girls, whose looks are all too often commodified as precious social currency. While traditional media outlets such as fashion magazines have long set limited, unrealistic physical standards for women, contemporary social media exacerbates the problem. A recent study found that young women felt more negatively about their appearance after engaging with the social media profiles of peers who they perceived to be more attractive than themselves.
Social media feeds often celebrate sameness in looks, lifestyle, and beliefs. To be accepted (“followed,” “friended,” “liked”), users try to align themselves with what they see around them—and, in the case of these young women, unfairly assess themselves against others’ images. In these spaces, differences are rarely elevated, and homogeneity becomes the aim. Mainstream beauty standards, as they exist on- and offline, are arbitrary. Notably, they’re also established by those in power, whether that be a corporation, a patriarchal western society—or a nationalist government, as it was with Patient 307.
Former SS captain Gunther Lutze arrives at an inn in Dachau, Germany. He’s come to visit the town’s concentration camp, where he murdered and tortured Jews. He fled capture and prosecution during the camp’s liberation 17 years earlier, but when he reenters its grounds, he comes face-to-face with his past. Rather than reveling in nostalgia, as he’d hoped, he’s haunted.
The ghosts of Dachau put Lutze on trial and find him guilty of mass murder, torturing thousands, and condoning medical experiments on women and children. His sentence: insanity. Justice is brought forth only because Lutze is forced to physically face the crimes he has committed against humanity. Had he not returned to the site of the concentration camp, Lutze could have lived out the rest of his life without acknowledging the atrocities for which he is responsible.
The Dachau concentration camp, for Gunther Lutze, is a site of inescapable reckoning. The memories he otherwise might hide or suppress are brought to the fore, but only when the evidence of what he has done stands before him.
How a society chooses to remember the mistakes it has made and how it memorializes those it has lost reflects its willingness to engage with what it has done wrong. It was only last year that the first national monument to victims of lynching, the Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in Montgomery, Alabama, creating a physical place for the United States to confront its history of racial terrorism. Memorials that acknowledge societal wrongdoings—as well as the losses and pain they inflict upon multiple generations—validate difficult, often violent histories and create a space for the public to collectively acknowledge its past. There is danger in historical ignorance, especially when there are those who would rather ignore than address the subject; looking back reminds people that what they believe to be history reverberates throughout the present day.
Michael Chambers is alone in a strange room. A voice travels over a speaker, telling him it is meal time. He refuses to eat and recalls how he ended up there, no longer on the surface of planet Earth but on a spaceship. He thinks back to the fateful April day when the extraterrestrial creatures known as Kanamits, who are now his captors, first arrived from outer space.
When the Kanamits arrive, the United Nations questions their representative, and he informs humanity that his people have the solutions to solve Earth’s problems. They offer help and, when questioned regarding the nature of their goodwill, reply, “We will not force anything on you. You will take only that which you choose to take.” Earth succumbs to the allure of an efficient, inexpensive power source, among other offerings. The Kanamits establish embassies in every country and even implement an exchange program. Chambers works to translate a Kanamit book titled To Serve Man, eventually learning that the text is, in fact, a cookbook. All the Kanamits asked for was humanity’s trust; humans readily gave it and, as a result, ended up on the menu.
The prospect of otherworldly, advanced beings offering a panacea for Earth’s intractable issues has its appeal. We frequently adopt quick fixes—digital on-demand services or apps, for instance—at a breakneck pace and without due consideration of their potentially insidious consequences.
While new technologies frequently position themselves as tools for greater convenience in daily life, they also impact how we form communities, affect our social interactions and mental health, and can alter the way we think. We don’t often raise these potential ramifications at their outset or attempt to protect ourselves against them because we are only sold their benefits. As appealing as it is to integrate services that add immediate gratification to our lives, it seems there are always unknown costs. A new problem, or many, can be created when one is solved. Commonly, those complications arise outside the user’s immediate sight—down the production line or in the back of our minds.
As is often the case in The Twilight Zone, and beyond it, our very humanity is on the line unless we contend with our fears and desires. Now that the door to the fifth dimension is open once again, streaming exclusively on CBS All Access, Jordan Peele will guide us into a realm that tells us much about our own—and likely holds truths that will carry forward for another six decades. Next stop, The Twilight Zone.