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

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

Over the course of The Eye-Dancers, the four main characters undergo many dangerous, even life-threatening, situations.  They experience parallel universes, recurring nightmares that seem all-too-real, and the prospect of being permanently marooned in a strange, alien world.  Obviously, they have their work cut out for them.

However, perhaps the most significant obstacle they must face in their quest to solve the mystery and return home is . . . themselves.  They often resort to in-fighting, bickering, and the threat of violence looms, especially between Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski.  Joe is the impulsive one, a natural leader, but quick to anger, and always eager to use his fists to resolve a conflict.  Marc is highly rational, logical to the core, a science wiz who continually tries to use quantum theory to solve their problems.  Needless to say, the two rarely see eye to eye.

This theme of turning on a friend, a neighbor, in times of adversity is explored in one of the truly classic episodes of The Twilight Zone— “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” –which originally aired exactly 53 years ago–in March 1960.  Like many of the better Twilight Zone episodes, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is timeless, and it holds up very well today, half a century later.

The story opens peacefully enough, with an idyllic street scene . . .

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In the opening narration, Rod Serling says in a voice-over:

“Maple Street, U.S.A.  Late summer.  A tree-lined little world of front-porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice-cream vendor.  At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street” . . .

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“This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon,” Serling continues.  “Maple Street, in the last calm and reflective moment before the monsters came.”

In the wake of the flashing light and roar from the sky, the residents discover that the power has gone out, the phone lines are down.  Even the radio reception is shot.  They are, in effect, thrown back into the “Dark Ages,” as one of them says, all the trappings of their (and our) modern society gone in an instant.

The neighbors congregate in the street, discussing the situation.

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One of them, Steve Brand, suggests maybe the disturbance was caused by a meteor.  After all, what other explanation can there be?  Another neighbor, Pete Van Horn, decides to walk over to the next block and see if they’ve lost power over there, as well.

After Pete leaves, Steve and another resident decide they should drive downtown.  Maybe the town clerk’s office knows what’s going on.  But then a young boy, Tommy, tells them not to leave.

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They don’t want you to,” Tommy warns.  Steve asks him who “they” are.

“”Whatever was in the thing that came over,” the boy says.  He goes on to say it’s the same in every alien-invasion story he’s ever read.  The aliens send along advance scouts to earth–maybe a father, mother, and two kids.  They look like humans, but they aren’t.  They’re  sent ahead to prepare for the mass landing.

The neighbors all stand by.  Many of them look around, suddenly suspicious of the others.  A woman blows it off, asking how they could listen to a boy spout off from some comic book plot, and actually take it seriously.  Their nerves are frayed, that’s all, she says.  The last few minutes have been weird.

They get weirder when Steve Brand tries to start his car.  It won’t start.  Tommy again says the aliens don’t want him to leave.

Steve then quips, “Well, I guess what we need to do is run a check of the neighborhood and find out which ones of us are really human.”  Some of the others smile at this, but their faces are tight, tense.  It is clear that darker emotions are roiling just beneath the surface.

At this point, another neighbor, Les Goodman, comes outside and tries to start his car.  It, too, won’t start.  But when he gets out, the car starts on its own.  This causes a few of the other residents of Maple Street to question why his car started, and by itself no less.  And then a woman tells the congregation of neighbors that sometimes, late at night, she sees Les Goodman walk outside and look up at the sky, “as if he were waiting for something.  As if . . . he were looking for something.”

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Les is flabbergasted.  “You all know me,” he says to his friends and neighbors.  “We’ve lived here for five years. . . . We aren’t any different from you, any different at all!”  But it’s no use.  They no longer trust him.

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Later, as night has fallen and Maple Street is still without power, the neighbors continue to watch Les.  Their suspicions aroused, they whisper about him.  “He always was an oddball,” one man explains to his wife.

But then they begin to argue among themselves.  Someone mentions that Steve Brand has a radio set his wife sometimes talks about.  But no one has ever seen it.  “Who do you talk to on that radio, Steve?” they want to know.

For the bulk of the episode, Steve has tried to be the voice of reason amid the ever-growing paranoia of the group.  Here, he erupts, “Let’s get it all out.  Let’s pick out every idiosyncrasy of every man, woman, and child on this whole street! . . . You’re all standing out here, all set to crucify somebody.  You’re all set to find a scapegoat!  You’re all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor!”

If his words have any effect on the group, they are lost by a figure approaching out of the darkness.  “It’s the monster!  It’s the monster!” the boy, Tommy, shouts.  One of the residents runs to his house, then rushes back with a shotgun.

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He shoots the approaching figure, and he falls to the street.  The throng runs up to him, and they discover that they’ve shot Pete Van Horn, the neighbor who had gone to check on the next block, to see if they had lost power, too.

More bickering ensues, more blame . . .

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And then, all hell breaks loose.  Lights flicker on in one house, and then another, and another.  Someone’s car starts on its own, then another car does the same thing.  Mass hysteria reigns, as neighbor turns against neighbor.  Stones are picked up, hurled.  Guns are retrieved from wall mounts, and fired.  Screams pierce the night . . .

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Now the camera pans up, and we see Maple Street from above, the neighbors running around madly, fighting, killing . . .

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. . . until we see two aliens high above the street–and we realize:  the boy was right.  It wasn’t a meteor.  Aliens have landed.  But not in the way he had thought.

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As they watch the Maple Street residents lose all control the aliens discuss the situation.

“Understand the procedure now?” one of them says.  “Just stop a few of their machines . . . throw them into darkness for a few hours and then sit back and watch the pattern. . . .  They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find–and it’s themselves.”

It’s true, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a bit contrived, and the neighbors break into chaos and hysteria fairly quickly.  But the episode’s power and impact are not diminished by this.  It is a landmark Twilight Zone, and generally regarded as one of the series’ best.

Rod Serling concludes the episode with this voice-over:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout.  There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices–to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy.  And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own–for the children, and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is–that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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