Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Have you ever gone through something and wondered if you were losing your mind?  Have you ever witnessed something no one else saw?  Did you try to convince others that what you saw was in fact real, only to be met with skepticism, unbelief, and odd, quizzical glances?  And, after facing the doubts, did you then begin to question your own perceptions, doubt your own eyes and ears?

This is precisely what happens to Robert Wilson (played by William Shatner in a pre-Star Trek role) when he boards a plane in an unforgettable fifth-season Twilight Zone episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  Recently released from a sanitarium, where he’d been admitted for six months following a nervous breakdown on a flight much like this one, Wilson is noticeably nervous as he takes his seat–beside the emergency exit.



“I’m not acting much like a cured man, am I?” he says to his wife.



His wife assures him all is well, they just need to get home.  “Everything is still intact,” she says.  To which Wilson replies, “Except me.”

Adding to his distress, the aircraft is flying through an electrical storm.  It is night, as the thunder rumbles and the lightning flashes across the black canvas of the sky.  His wife now asleep, Wilson glances out his window.   He does a double-take.  There is a man on the wing of the plane!



Wilson buzzes for the flight attendant, but when she arrives, the man on the wing is gone.  He draws the curtain, as if trying to block out the vision of what he just witnessed.  The commotion wakes up his wife, but he tells her not to worry, he’s just having trouble falling asleep.  She gives him a sleeping pill, and dozes off again.

He tries to relax, but the pill isn’t working.  Glancing at the window, tempted, he pulls the curtain back again.  An inhuman face stares back at him.



The man–the creature–is back.  But how?  How can there be a living thing out there, on the wing of an aircraft flying through a storm at 20,000 feet?  “It isn’t there,” he tell himself, closing his eyes.  “It isn’t there!”



But when he opens his eyes, the creature is still looking in at him.



Wilson rings for the attendant again, but, just as it happened earlier, the creature vanishes when she looks through the window.   Sure enough, when the attendant leaves, the creature returns.  Only this time, he begins to tamper with the wing, as if he wants to crash the plane.



Wilson wakes up his wife, tells her there’s a man on the wing.  “No, no, don’t look!” he says when she tries to see past him and out the window.  He explains the man out there disappears whenever anyone else tries to see him.  Then he clarifies.  The creature on the wing is not a man.  It’s “a gremlin,” he tells her.

She looks at him like he’s lost his mind.  He can’t deal with that look.



“I’m not imagining it!” he says.  “He . . . he jumps away when anyone might see him.  Except me.”

He continues to explain himself:  “I know it sounds crazy.  But do I look insane?  I know I had a mental breakdown.  I know I had it in an airplane.  I know it looks to you like the same thing’s happening again, but it isn’t! . . . If I described him [the gremlin] to you, you’d really think I was gone.”

His wife tries to console him, telling him it’s all right, but he grows angry, tells her not to patronize him.  He could see in her eyes that she doesn’t believe a word of what he’s telling her.

“I am not insane!” he shouts, and says he’s only telling her about the gremlin because he’s starting to tamper with one of the engines under the wing.



He asks her to tell the pilot what he’s just said, and to keep an eye on the wings.  If they see nothing, he says he’ll re-commit himself to the sanitarium.  “But if they do . . .”

When his wife gets up and walks down the aisle, Wilson sees the gremlin return.  The creature pulls up a cowling plate.



“Hurry!” Wilson shouts.  “He’s out there!”

But of course when his wife and the flight engineer rush to his seat, the gremlin is gone.  The engineer, however, pretends that he’s seen the creature before.  Wilson sees through the act.  They are merely trying to placate him.  “You can stop now,” he says.  “I won’t say another word.  I’ll see us crash first.”



Later, his wife asleep again, Wilson sees the gremlin come back.  The creature continues his assault on the wing, and Wilson decides to take matters into his own hands.  He steals a gun from a sleeping policeman, then returns to his seat, careful not to wake his wife.  Before allowing himself to back down, he opens the auxiliary exit window, and, despite being nearly blown out of the plane, succeeds in shooting and killing the gremlin.  He screams as he fires the final shot.

After the plane lands, Wilson is carted off in a straitjacket.  Everyone on board is sure he has gone insane.  But then the camera pans to show us the damaged airplane wing–which no one has yet seen.  But when they do, they will realize Wilson had been right.  There had been a gremlin out there.  He wasn’t delusional, after all.



The beauty of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is that we the viewer, along with Wilson himself, are not sure what he sees is real.  Is there really a creature out there, on the wing of the jet?  Or is Wilson suffering another breakdown?  We do not find out the answer for sure until episode’s end.


A parallel exists in The Eye-Dancers.  The four main characters journey through the void, and when they emerge on the other side, they find themselves in a strange new world.  But are they still dreaming?  Is this nothing but an extension of their shared nightmare of the “ghost girl” and her hypnotic, swirling blue eyes?

In chapter 6, as Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton, walking in their sleep and caught up in the throes of their nightmare, begin to vanish before Marc Kuslanski‘s eyes, Marc wonders the same thing.

“He reached out with his own hand, placed it on top of theirs.  Instantly, he felt a force, like a vacuum, grab hold of him.  He tried to pull away, but couldn’t.  . . . Had he somehow entered into their dream?  But that was impossible.  He was wide awake.  Besides, since when did dreams exert a force, a literal, tangible force, that could hold you in place?

“He tried to think–all of his knowledge, the theories he had studied, the insights he had gained–searching for the answer.  Possibilities, potentialities spun around in his mind like clothes tumbling, layer upon layer, in a drier.  He hoped one of those possibilities would stick, make sense, unlock the trunk that contained the answer.  But nothing could adequately describe what he was experiencing.”


What is real?  What is a dream?  How much does perception shape what each of us views as “reality”?

Maybe Einstein was right when he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

Or, in the words of Thoreau:  “The question is not what you look at.  But what you see.”



Thanks so much for reading!


80 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Penny L Howe
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 18:27:14

    I can so relate to your post. Excellently written I might add. I recently finished writing a sequence of a dream within a dream (and how I could tell the difference) but haven’t published it because I wasn’t sure if anyone would “get” what I was trying to say. This post is encouraging for me, Thank you!


  2. ptero9
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 18:36:53

    Yes, I remember this episode! What a great show. That and One Step Beyond were favorites of mine.
    The Eye Dancers sounds good too, will check it out!


  3. renxkyoko
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 18:53:50

    I’ve seen that episode a number of times, but each time, I’m still mesmirized.


  4. Sonya Solomonovich
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:01:16

    That’s cool. I never really thought of William Shatner as having a pre-Kirk existence. I figured he was born fully dressed in his Kirk uniform. 🙂


  5. Katie Sullivan
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:23:53

    Wonderful parallels, as usual! I love the Thoreau quote.


  6. Minister Gertrude Ferguson - Founder & CEO- Enough Tribulations
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:25:16

    Perception can be distorted, but then again, it can be a positive thing, depends on the angle, one is viewing from.


  7. insearchofitall
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 22:57:46

    I’m with Einstein and Thoreau. I think this is all an illusion that we created. Keep waiting to wake up and find reality. We can look at the same thing and each see something differently.


  8. europasicewolf
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 23:14:53

    I loved The Twilight Zone! Not sure this was the best thing to read before I head off to the land of Wolfie dreams thought! One person’s perception of reality can so easily be another’s idea of being completely dillusional especially those who lack imagination 🙂


  9. jjspina
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 00:18:58

    Thanks Mike for sharing this. I always loved the Twilight Zone. Each episode was so fascinating and to me anything can happen. Did you ever find that episode about the guy and his wife and she turns into a monster and devours him after he tells her his secret? I could be wrong, maybe it was some other show. It was frighteningly good! Best Wishes!


  10. tkmorin
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 01:24:55

    The really creepy thing? I was just talking about this episode to a friend last night. The exact same thing! I don’t have a good memory for everything, and I wondered why this one got imprinted on my brain … this is just too weird! 🙂


  11. cindy knoke
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 02:41:18

    I will NEVER forget this episode of such a wonderful show. Thanks for the great post!


  12. racoltapetru6
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 05:44:56

    Very interesting! Thank you.


  13. Fashion Mayann
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 06:28:58

    You’re so good at telling stories, maybe it’s because you saw so many episodes of this emblematic TV show while growing up, it must have truly inspired your writing skills !


  14. Inion N. Mathair
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:30:15

    Great ole pics. New to your blog but we already love it! Look forward to dropping by and reading a spell!


  15. sakuraandme
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:47:55

    Mike it sounds amazing.

    I want to see it now. 🙂

    I’ve been slow on the reading side of life. I’ll pick it up again this weekend. Half way through and are dying to know if its a dream or not? Lol

    Have a great evening. Hugs Paula xxx


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 09, 2013 @ 17:49:04

      Thanks, Paula! I will definitely be eager to hear your thoughts when you finish! And yes, if you get an opportunity to watch “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”–I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s an all-time great!


  16. Sherri
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:49:43

    I adore theTwilight Zone and this episode is my absolute favourite! You tell the story so well, it took me right back to William Shatner’s sheer panic and then the feeling we, the viewers, had the moment we realised that he was not delusional after all but that there really was a gremlin on the plane. Clever how you also tie this in with your own writing, I’m hooked 🙂


  17. Charlene Woodley
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 16:13:19

    Ah yes, one of my favorite episodes as a true Twilight Zone fanatic. Great association with the Eye Dancers which is also classic in itself – can’t wait to read the rest of that awesome story! 🙂


  18. Parlor of Horror
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 16:55:48

    Definitlely one of my fave TZ episodes. It was also remade quite nicely in The Twilight Zone Movie with John Lithgow in the lead role.


  19. stockdalewolfe
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 18:26:05

    Twilight Zone was an example of excellent writing. It is still good today.


  20. honeydidyouseethat
    Aug 10, 2013 @ 05:21:29

    My son and I have been watching old Twilight Zone Episodes so I skipped your description. Instead, we’ll download it. As usual a thought provoking post. 🙂


  21. stormy1812
    Aug 11, 2013 @ 02:56:13

    i have only seen a few twilight zone episodes but i love the comparisons you make because i do like the ones i’ve seen. i have had a dream within a dream and it’s a very odd feeling. then there’s the deja vu which is another odd experience. it really does mess with one’s sense of reality. this sort of brings me to the whole “matrix” deal… perhaps we are stuck in the matrix but which pill do you take? do you decide to stay in the created reality or do you live in the real reality? hmm.


  22. Noeleen
    Aug 11, 2013 @ 10:07:27

    Mike, What a great read!

    I knew nothing of any Star Trek episode – not much interested, but I loved reading this, particularly with your photos there. Just great! Loved this whole read.


  23. merrildsmith
    Aug 11, 2013 @ 16:13:56

    This was a wonderful Twilight Zone episode, and you describe it very well.


  24. Ste J
    Aug 11, 2013 @ 19:58:55

    I have to see this bit of black and white magic, it looks amazing. It intrigues me how all people see things differently, perhaps we all live in different parallel realities but occupy one space…either that or modern life zones us all out that much that it just feels that we are all on different plains of existence.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 12, 2013 @ 19:05:45

      I highly recommend “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”! I hope you get a chance to watch it–it’s an unforgettable episode. And I like that thought–maybe we each live in different planes of existence but occupy the same space! Hmm . . .


  25. laurie27wsmith
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 10:51:01

    I remember that episode, special effects weren’t exactly big back then. Good analogy with your work.


  26. Kavita Joshi
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 23:30:47

    being a dreamer myself I could so much relate to this post I must say…I sometimes live life in my dreams although this year has been awesome so I ddin’t have to dream to live dully but there have been times when I have spend more time sleeping and dreaming and creating my own relaity in dreams than awake


  27. Joanna
    Aug 14, 2013 @ 05:21:02

    Wow that was absolutely riveting! Great post!


  28. Sheryl Wright Stinchcum
    Aug 15, 2013 @ 02:41:25

    Interesting parallel between your book and that Twilight Zone episode. I didn’t realize that Shatner had made a Twight Zone appearance. Well done, Mike!


  29. Hindie
    Aug 16, 2013 @ 02:06:03

    Very interesting post, i didn’t know that show ! yes, may be the reality isn’t what it seems to be!


  30. 24/7 in France
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 06:10:40

    The Twilight Zone always creeped me out, but I do remember my parents loved watching it!


  31. becky6259
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 17:50:27

    That’s an episode I hadn’t seen — I’ll have to watch for it — sounds like a good one!


  32. rosellezubey
    Aug 22, 2013 @ 15:16:46

    I was wondering if you were talking about the “Twilight Zone” episode when I read the title of your post. Well done, because it drew me in to your post since I am a huge “Twilight Zone” fan. It was also interesting to me how your story has parallels to that episode of the “Twilight Zone”. Nicely done.


  33. Holistic Wayfarer
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 03:59:13

    Great narration. =) Thanks for the hearty support and follow. Enjoying your blog.


  34. likeitiz
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 05:16:03

    Enjoyed the parallel. Love Twilight Zone when it was around. thanks.


  35. ampbreia
    Sep 05, 2013 @ 19:30:49

    Very interesting read! And I’d agree: “reality” is a persistant illusion.


  36. cliffharrison
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 16:01:31

    I loved Twilight Zone. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet was one of my favorite episodes. It had a fantastic ending. Rod Serling had a masterpiece of stories, his own and others, with a great cast of well-know performers or many of those like William Shatner who later became stars and superstars.


  37. Paula
    Feb 18, 2014 @ 21:05:07

    this episode was really cool! and that young william shatner. I like the one where “Elly May” is seen as ugly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And the one where the greedy relatives had to wear masks. I felt so sorry for the lady in the episode where she was maid to that brutal man for many many years. Only to be in a worse position after his death. Bar-ba-Rah, Bar-ba-Rah. 🙂


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