W

hen Emmy award-winning TV writer Rod Serling’s razor-sharp teleplays began veering into caustic social commentary and were unjustly censored by nervous sponsors, he answered this creative stifling by creating The Twilight Zone. Serling knew that the secret to making America swallow the serious-minded truths he was scribbling about was to coat them in fantasy and science fiction, allowing the average viewer to easily respond to the bizarre, challenging narratives while sneaking in his secret allegorical and often angry morality plays.

It was a formula that worked. Serling almost single-handedly set the standard for sophisticated television during the medium’s Golden Age and beyond. The Twilight Zone ran for five brilliant seasons (1959-1964), becoming an international phenomenon and helping steer the path for smart, socially volatile genre entertainment (and still does, as CBS’ successful Jordan Peele-produced reboot proves).

And while Serling – along with his carefully curated stable of co-writers – injected almost every episode with his signature sense of political dread and aching melancholy, it’s the show’s powerful sense of the macabre that has truly hard-wired it into the DNA of generations of horror fans. With its compact three-act structure and often shattering last-gasp twist, many of its most memorable episodes froze the blood of viewers young and old and still pack a powerful, nightmare-fuel punch today.

And while horror is subjective and every TZ admirer has a key episode in the run that scared them half to death, here are eight of my favorites that trade squarely in fright, ones that are some of the smartest, scariest, and eeriest entertainments ever committed to film. 

“And When the Sky Was Opened”

Season 1, Episode 11

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Douglas Heyes

Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s short tale “Disappearing Act,” this is one of the most nerve-shredding entries in the series and certainly the most doom-laden and nihilistic installment in the first season.  And yet there’s nary a monster or visible threat. Rather the story trades in the well-worn Serling theme of identity and the idea that who we are might be based on how we validate ourselves by how others see us, the science fiction shocker as an existentialist manifesto. Two astronauts return from a mission and while in recovery, one of them (Rod Taylor, The Time Machine) tries to frantically convince the other that there were in fact THREE of them who came back. And yet no one else has any memory of this missing third traveler, Col. Harrington (Charles Aidman), and there are no remaining traces or records that he ever existed. And whatever force has erased Harrington might just be coming for them. Predating films like Carnival of Souls, Sole Survivor and to a lesser extent, the Final Destination pictures, “And When the Sky Was Opened” is a blood-freezing story, pushed into next-level intensity by Taylor’s intense, barely-controlled-hysteria turn and a final few moments that are shocking in their silence.

“Judgment Night”

Season 1, Episode 10

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by John Brahm

Serling was openly repelled by war, having endured the horrors of it firsthand, an experience that effectively broke his heart and his body (the writer never properly healed from a severe leg wound suffered in combat during WW2). “Judgement Night” is an unnerving tale of displaced German U-Boat Captain Carl Lanser (Nehemiah Persoff) drifting at night in the fog aboard British passenger ship the S.S. Queen of Glasgow circa 1942, haunted by a feeling of impending doom and deja vu. The deeper he and his fellow passengers drift into the mist, the more delirious Lanser becomes, fixing his mind on the inexplicable idea that something horrible will happen at 1:15. This is a deadly earnest comment on how war dehumanizes its players, creating monsters … and how those monsters eventually get crushed by karma, supernatural or otherwise, dooming all to endless repetitions of history. With its relentlessly grim tone, potent commentary, surreal final act, and shocking twist, “Judgement Night” is supremely hard to shake.

“Long Distance Call”

Season 2, Episode 22

Written by Maxwell Sanford

Directed by James Sheldon

Future Lost in Space star (and the immortal child-monster in the Season Three episode “It’s a Good Life”) Billy Mumy appears in this eerie episode, one of a handful of second-season installments that were unfortunately shot on cheaper video, a failed bid by CBS to cut costs on the expensive series.  And while the shoddy look of the show keeps this one from being as full-throttle terrifying and cinematic as it should be, there’s no denying its power, one that rests on the perverse notion that love can be so consuming that it can endure death … and willfully take others with it. Mumy stars as Billy, a little boy who is the apple of his ailing grandmother’s eye. The domineering grand matriarch has never embraced her daughter-in-law, nor has she forgiven her son for escaping her control and her fixation on Billy borders on unhealthy. On the eve of her passing, she gifts Billy a toy telephone, explaining that once she dies, the pair will still be able to communicate. And she stands by that claim posthumously, ringing up her grandson from beyond the grave and urging him to commit suicide so they can be together! The potentially exploitative story is given sophisticated treatment, and the moment where the mother hears Grandma “breathing” on the other end of the line is unfiltered, ice-cold terror. This episode - along with season three’s “Little Girl Lost” - most certainly paved the way for Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg’s classic Poltergeist decades later.

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

Season 3, Episode 14

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Lamont Johnson

A sort of diametric opposite companion piece to “And When the Sky Was Opened,” the unforgettable “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (based on a story by Marvin Petal) offers up a nightmare world in which the titular five characters – a tramp, a ballerina, a clown, a piper, and an army General – find themselves trapped in a cylinder-like void, with no memory of how they got there or any knowledge of who they are. Every few minutes, their existential musings are interrupted by the deafening sound of a bell coming from the lone sliver of light peeking down from the “sky” above. The central mystery of how these people came together and their scrambling to figure that out takes up the bulk of the running time, and it’s fascinating and intelligent dialogue-driven stuff. But it’s the escape plan in the final act that leads to one of the ultimate TZ stingers, a creepy kissing cousin to the finale of The After Hours.

An intense Dennis Hopper (Photo: MovieStillsDB.com)

“He’s Alive”

Season 4, Episode 4

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

The fourth season was a hit-or-miss affair, with the network beefing up the running time of the episodes to 60 minutes, an attempt to compete with longer-form TV shows like The Outer Limits. The expansions effectively killed the beauty of TZ’s three-act structure, challenging Serling and his team to instead create shorter feature films. Among them, “He’s Alive” is perhaps the most effective, a full-bore horror show that unsparingly targets both the miserable (and still relatively fresh) legacy of the Third Reich and the pathetic personas of the disenfranchised next-generation Neo-Nazi’s who idiotically take up the vile torch. A young and intense Dennis Hopper plays Peter, an angry, sad little poverty-row punk who has found a purpose and identity as the leader of a gang of manic, street-preaching fascists. When a spectral figure appears to him one night and promises to guide him, Peter listens and soon begins to amass a flock of similarly hate-fueled fools. Who that malevolent ghost is should be easy enough to guess, but the terror in this episode lies squarely in Hopper’s nuanced performance, one of his best, in which our revulsion at him is tempered by a dose of surprising empathy.  Serling masterfully reveals the mechanics of how social and personal miseries can make monsters from lost boys and it’s horrifying.

“Night Call”

Season 5, Episode 19

Written by Richard Matheson

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Both skin-tighteningly terrifying and deeply, profoundly sad, this is perhaps the best of the fifth season offerings. Gladys Cooper plays Elva, an elderly, infirm woman living alone in the country, watched over by her nurse by day and left alone at night. One evening, she receives a phone call, the voice on the other end of the crackling wire barely audible outside of gasping and wheezing. Each night, the caller tries again, each time, his voice getting clearer. “I…want…to…talk…to…. you…” the voice both promises and threatens, leaving Elva paralyzed with fear. When the phone company finally traces where the phantom call is coming from, it hits Elva – and in turn, the audience – like a sucker-punch to the soul. Poetically penned by Matheson and atmospherically directed by the great Tourneur (The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie), this is a ghost story you won’t soon forget.

“The Howling Man”

Season 2, Episode 5

Written by Charles Beaumont

Directed by Douglas Heyes

An adaptation of Beaumont’s short supernatural mystery tale, “The Howling Man” is atypical TZ fare. There’s no moral twist, no allegory, or covert agenda. Instead we get a simple fantasy/horror fable dealing with the trickery of the Devil. In it, a wandering man (H.M. Wynant) ends up in a secret cathedral, where a sect of holy men (led by the great John Carradine) claim to be standing guard against Satan, who they’ve apparently caught and imprisoned in a cell below. The man hears a chilling howling all night and traces the noise to a beggar in the jail, a wild-eyed character who says the bearded priests are lunatics and he is an innocent man unjustly incarcerated. Torn between the unbelievable tales of a caged Beelzebub and the more plausible narrative of forced confinement, the man opts to go with his gut and let the prisoner out. He soon regrets his actions. Directed with queasy Dutch angles and fueled by dreamlike doses of heavy, Gothic atmosphere, this is scary and elemental folk horror with an eerie, open-ended finale and doom-laden Bernard Herrmann music.

“The After Hours”

Season 1, Episode 34

Written by Rod Serling

Directed by Douglas Heyes

An unforgettable, wholly unnerving and altogether immaculate example of The Twilight Zone at its most lyrical and cinematic, The After Hours has influenced generations of fantasy filmmakers, whether they are aware of it or not. In it, the beautiful Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet, the season four TZ episode “Jess-Belle”) stars as Marsha, a seemingly neurotic young woman who finds herself lost in a department store. She ends up in an eerie elevator and is whisked to the nearly abandoned ninth floor where she has an odd encounter with an icy saleswoman (Elizabeth Allen), who sells her a gold thimble. It’s the only item that’s seemingly for sale. And yet, according to the store manager, the ninth floor doesn’t exist. When the store closes and Marsha wakes alone, she must face the ultimate horror about who – and what – she is. The twist in the tale might be the gimmick that has long made “The After Hours” a fan favorite, but beneath that, the episode is a disturbing and profound comment on social identity, on stumbling through a distracting, dazzling consumer-choked world and yet not connecting with anything or anyone, hopelessly isolated. “The After Hours” is a dark fantasy masterpiece laced with humor, propelled by horror, and wrapped with that inimitable sense of loss that defined the best of Serling's work.

Chris Alexander is the former editor-in-chief of FANGORIA (2010-2015) as well as the editor and co-founder of cult film magazine Delirium. He is the writer, director and composer of the films Blood for Irina, Queen of Blood, Blood Dynasty, Female Werewolf, and Necropolis: Legion (produced for Full Moon Features). As a musician, he has released the albums Music for Murder, (Giallo Disco Records), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Future City Records) and The Drink Your Blood. More on Alexander’s work can be found at www.ChrisAlexanderOnline.com. FB: www.facebook.com/chris.alexander.54966834 IG: @chris_alexander_films