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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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!”

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

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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