WATCH: Why This Twilight Zone Episode Is More Timely Than Ever
“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.”
So ends “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” one of the most widely viewed and well regarded episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” a science fiction anthology series that ran from 1959-1964. The episode, written and narrated by “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling in 1960, is an exploration of humanity’s baser impulses in the face of an anonymous, perhaps non-existent threat. The plot of the episode is fairly simple – a mysterious object is seen above a small town, and suddenly the lights go off, cars won’t turn on, and the conveniences and comforts of modern life are taken away. Tommy, a young boy, tells the people of the town that the disruption is almost certainly due to aliens, and that they have most likely placed an alien somewhere in the town to prepare for an invasion. All of the adults in the town (Tommy appears to be the only child) almost immediately take to Tommy’s explanation and begin searching for the alien sleeper cell (“they look just like humans,” Tommy warns).
The rest of the plot should be fairly obvious. The town’s inhabitants begin turning on one another, denouncing and accusing (most notably the character of Charlie). Slowly at first, then panicked and rapid. Eventually, the town devolves into chaos and violence. In a classic “Twilight Zone” twist (there’s always a twist), the aliens turn out to be real, but they simply watch the humans destroy each other at the slightest provocation – “the world is full of Maple Streets,” the aliens say as they watch the violence, “and we’ll go from one to the other and watch them destroy themselves.”
While Serling likely wrote the episode in response to the McCarthyite terror during the Red Scare in the 1950’s, its lesson, like humanity’s penchant for stupidity and violence, has endured. It is on the point of stupidity that the episode’s genius rests. It might at first appear as if the town’s immediate willingness to go along with Tommy’s interpretation of events is due to restrictions in run time (each show was only 25 minutes long), or sloppy writing (likely the former), but the fact that a child, using evidence gleaned from comic books, sets off the violent events is telling in regards to Serling’s cynical worldview. The message of the episode is more than just “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy,” it’s that stupidity can kill – the next step being, prejudice is stupidity.
The episode, which has so often been used as a tool for teaching the dangers of mob psychology, seems more important than ever. Not just because of the mass-hysteria infecting our government and country in regards to the refugee program (now the “aliens” are from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, etc…). Not because of the mob-like rush to believe any story with a comforting or damning narrative, no matter how implausible. But also because humans, we can see, have not gotten much smarter – because again and again we are reminded of the enduring, roach-like persistence of stupidity.
The episode will always be prescient, because its themes seem unfortunately eternal. There is one piece of writing about the episode however which appears especially relevant to our current situation. We turn to a piece written by Todd VanDerWerff for the A.V. club back in 2011. He writes, “As this episode was airing, I jokingly asked my wife if there was any way, in this situation, everybody would start to think an angry old drunk was speaking the truth just because he was speaking loudly and forcefully, and she instantly reeled off five or six more examples from recent human history than I had already been thinking of. In times of trouble, people don’t want to hear soothing words of wisdom; they want to hear somebody who shares their rage.”
Now, the year is 2017, the United States is full of Maple Streets, and that loud, angry, old man is our president.
Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org