The Twilight Zone permeated popular culture in a huge way. An anthology of short and often surreal stories of horror or science-fiction, its commentary and scope was broad. Famous episodes include Time Enough at Last, where a man who just wanted time to read and no distractions from his reading. But when he is the last man on earth, his glasses break, leading the infamous ‘There was time now!’ scene, parodied in pop culture ever since. It is this kind of ironic surrealism which cemented The Twilight Zone as an American classic.
Some of my personal favourite episodes deal with the character of Death. In this post, I would like to explore the iterations of Death in The Twilight Zone, and consider why these characters are the way they are.
In the following episodes, Death is not personified. He is, however, alluded to through imagery and story type, and thus deserve some consideration.
Escape Clause (S01 E06), written by Rod Serling, presents a typically Death-related deal with for immortality. An old man makes a deal that he will live forever, with the stipulation of an escape clause should he change his mind about eternity. It is not Death who offers him this though, but the Devil (played by Thomas Gomez). The idea of Death bartering with mortality dates back to ancient Greek times, when Thanatos (the god of death) was tricked by King Sisyphus and chained up. While Thanatos was chained up no one could die. Thanatos was eventually released though, and Sisyphus was punished to eternally push a boulder up a hill in Hades. That it is the devil explains why the odds are stacked against him though. Because the old man is so bored with his life, he confesses to a murder he did not commit in hopes of feeling the electric chair. Unfortunately, he is sentenced to life in prison instead, and with no end to his life he would spend forever in jail. In the end, the devil claims the soul he knew he would possess.
This is an episode worth mentioning because of director Mitchell Leisen. Leisen is known for his work on a movie called Death Takes a Holiday (1934). It tells the tale of Death, making a deal with a lord to stay in his castle so that he may learn about humanity and why they fear him. It was a well-received movie and is still considered great today for its depiction of a sympathetic and more human Death than what was usually shown. I would recommend anyone watch this movie.
The Grave (S03 E07) uses Death imagery, but the supernatural culprit is a ghost. Written and directed by Montgomery Pittman, the episode focuses on the murder of a man. The murderers visit the grave, and one of them dies. It worries them and they visit at the same time as the sister. The sister Ione, played by Elen Wilard, is seen at the grave site, and a mysterious shadow fluttering behind her as the Grim Reaper’s cloak. The episode ends with her laughter.
Like the last episode, Death does not exist as a character but as a symbolic figure. That figure is The Grim Reaper is first mentioned in 1847, though the figure is a traditionally Germanic and English one dating as far back as the 15th Century. He carries a scythe to harvest souls and take them to the afterlife. This is the most common depiction of Death in Western literature and media, and the one utilised here. He is intimidating, he is otherworldly, and he is a danger to everyone he comes across.
The Twilight Zone does star Death as a character in three of its episodes. There are interesting overarching themes to these very different iterations.
His first appears early on in the series in the second episode of the first season, named One for the Angels. It was written by Rod Serling and directed by Robert Parrish. Death in this episode is played by Murray Hamilton, and he appears as he warns a con-man that he will die at midnight. Death is duped in to agreeing to a stay of death until the man finishes one last job; he then quits the business so that he can never be taken. The man feels he has won, until Death must take a young girl in his place.
The man eventually persuades Death to take him instead of the girl by distracting him. Despite all of this, Death is fair. He sticks by his word, even when the con man does not. He confirms he is going to Heaven. He smiles. He may not be as amiable as the Death characters to follow, but he stays by his word.
The Hitch-Hiker (S01 E16), based on The Hitchhiker by Lucille Fletcher, presents Death as more of a gentle character. A woman has a near-death experience, and she spends the episode avoiding a hitch-hiker (played by Leonard Strong) who seems to be following her. No one else can see him though, leading her to suspect that he coming after her. It is not until she calls her mother in a panic and hears that her only daughter died in a crash that she realises that she has been dead all along. The hitch-hiker then appears in the back seat and asks ‘I believe you’re going… my way?’
Death here is not obtrusive, nor is he insistent. He gives her a chance to accept her fate at her own pace. He allows her to come to terms with what happened. He is kind and he is understanding.
My personal favourite Twilight Zone episode comes in season 3 (E16), called Nothing in the Dark. Written by George Clayton Johnson and directed by Lamont Johnson, it’s about an old woman who is terrified of Death. She saw him in a crowd some unspecified number of years ago, and she has been convinced ever since that he is coming after her. To keep Death at bay, she locks herself away until she is forced by her conscience to come to the aid of a man who was attacked outside her home.
Most noticeable for many about this episode who the character of Death. First, he is played by a young Robert Redford before his career really started to soar. Secondly, Death does not appear as one would expect. He is not serious, old or dower. He is young, attractive and he is surprisingly full of life. He charms the old woman and when she realises who he is, he remains just jovial and kind.
The realisation is a clever one. Death presents himself as a figure of authority, a young police officer. He keeps up the lie and asks her questions about her self-imposed exile. She knows her home will be torn down soon, but she is scared to leave in case Death finds her, never realising that she has let him in. It is only when she points Death out to another person and they cannot see him that she realises Death has no reflection.
It also has this glorious piece of dialogue:
‘You see? No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning’
It’s a brilliant episode. One of the best in all the seasons. When she goes with him, there is nothing to fear. There is only peace.
In the end, Death as a character is never about Death as a character. He is a conductor, and the story belongs to those who are about to die. The narrative is about how people deal with death as a concept, whether it is bargaining, denial or fear. In the end though, death must always be accepted by our protagonists.
Fear of death is exploited through its imagery, but Death himself is never anything to be afraid of. Death can appear as anyone—as shown by his numerous actors—and his morals and roles change depending on the narrative. There is no canonical Death, not even in The Twilight Zone. We can draw comparisons—that Death is always male is common in Western media as the dichotomy to the feminine life is often juxtaposed—but there is only one factor worth noting: Death is never the villain, even if we must admit that death is usually a bad thing. Death is patient, Death is fair, and Death is kind.
The reason why is up for interpretation. I posit that it’s because we all fear death in some way, even if we do not fear dying ourselves. We like to imagine Death will be gentle because should we meet him as these characters do, we would like him to be kind to us. That is my thought.
And so, dear readers, we reach the end of another post.
Let me ask you this: do you have a favourite Twilight Zone episode? Is there an interpretation of Death outside of the series that you like? And what do you think Death would be like in this world?
Let me know your thoughts.