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What Modern Horror Filmmakers Can Learn From “The Twilight Zone”

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All images courtesy of RLJ/Image

Over 50 years later, The Twilight Zone is still having a profound impact on the horror genre. Rod Serling’s series was so revolutionary and brilliant that it essentially serves as a crash course in structuring a scary story. Nearly every major facet of the genre is touched on at some point, so if you’re a screenwriter looking for a bit of inspiration, turn on literally any Twilight Zone episode and you’ll leave feeling enriched. From throughout a 156-episode run that should be cherished as a filmmaking Bible, here are five vital lessons Serling taught us about horror storytelling that are just as relevant today as ever.

Hide Twists In Plain Sight

It’s easy to overlook the sheer genius of The Twilight Zone’s plot twists because many of us grew up already knowing the endings. After all, some of the best ones have grown so famous as to seep into pop culture and become the subject of countless parodies. But throughout the series, Rod Serling so perfectly illustrates how to gobsmack viewers with a huge surprise: throw them off the scent by making them ask the wrong question.

Possibly the most well-known reveal in the franchise takes place in “Eye of the Beholder.” In this Season 2 episode, Janet, a woman with an apparently hideous facial deformity, undergoes surgery, and she spends the full 22 minutes wrapped up in bandages. As the story progresses, we are consistently called on to speculate about what Janet looks like underneath, and all attention is drawn to her. In fact, this is merely a distraction, and the twist has little to do with the woman.

In the closing moments, we discover that Janet is actually beautiful and it’s the doctors who are deformed. We spent so much of our energy searching for clues related to Janet that we didn’t even notice the director had been strategically hiding the doctors in shadow the entire time. “Eye of the Beholder” intentionally gets us wondering what’s wrong with Janet, and so we never consider that there could be nothing wrong with her. We were lead down the wrong path so the reveal would be that much more shocking.

This happens in so many Twilight Zone episodes. It’s usually not that the finale comes out of nowhere; it’s instead hidden in plain sight. In “The Invaders,” the mystery appears to center around the tiny people when really it’s the old woman we should be focusing on. In “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up,” we try to deduce which character is the alien, not considering that there could be more than one. “To Serve Man” shows us the eponymous book about halfway through, but so much else is going on that we don’t have time to think about an alternate reading of that title.

This principle can be applied to any story with a third act surprise, as many of Hollywood’s most successful directors could tell you. Take M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, a return to form for a director who has fallen from grace in recent years. In the movie, two children who spend five days with their grandparents begin to suspect that things aren’t as they appear. From the very beginning, Shyamalan poses the question, “What’s wrong with Nana and Pop Pop?” Are the possessed? Are they aliens? In fact, this is classic misdirection.

SPOILER ALERT!

In trying to work through an explanation of the grandparents’ behavior, we were lead away from the actual twist: these aren’t even their grandparents. 

And so if your goal is to shock the audience with a twist, as The Twilight Zone taught us, ask them one question while hiding the real one right under their noses.


The After Hours - The Twilight Zone

Use Silence As a Powerful Tool

Modern horror relies heavily on music and sound effects, and while these are certainly valuable tools, the power of silence should never be forgotten. The Twilight Zone boasts a phenomenal score, which is usually composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, yet many of the most iconic scenes resonate because they are so unsettlingly quiet.

Take, for instance, “The After Hours.” This Season 1 episode follows Marsha, a woman shopping in a department store who is taken to a mysterious abandoned area. She’s approached by a bizarre employee, who emerges from the shadows, makes far too much eye contact, and guides Marsha to the only item for sale on the whole floor: a gold thimble, which just happens to be exactly what she was looking for. This already eerie scenario is made all the more powerful by the long stretches of silence in between sentences. The lack of audio accompaniment makes us feel as isolated as Marsha, and the complete stillness is so out of the ordinary, especially compared to the bustling shopping center depicted in the opening, that we can’t help but be weirded out.

When director Douglas Heyes cuts to a closeup of the thimble, the presence of which is clearly meant to be a surprising twist, there is no sudden cue in the score telling us how to react. That would ruin the moment. Furthermore, when the clerk somehow utters Marsha’s name, even though Marsha never gave her that information, we still receive no indication that we should be jumping out of our seats. Even without music, our panic sets in as the woman stares Marsha down, asks if she’s happy, and starts laughing maniacally. What the hell is going on here? This whole scene is effective precisely because its muted nature makes us extremely uncomfortable. The sequence comprises about three and a half full minutes of screen time, yet for that length, all that’s audible is the dialogue and the tapping of shoes.

Later in the episode comes the big reveal, as Marsha bumps in to a series of mannequins that resemble all of the people she’s spoken to thus far. When the mannequin of the elevator attendant is knocked over, Marsha gasps and the camera quickly zooms into its face. Once again, there’s no startling music, so we can practically hear our heart beating in our chest as this plastic doll, which mere minutes ago was a living, breathing man, stares directly at us in a disquietly close-up. That is pure nightmare fuel.

Marsha stumbles around for a few seconds, and then off-screen voices begin calling her name. After each utterance of the word “Marsha,” we cut to a still mannequin for several seconds at a time. At one point, there are ten shots in a row of the mannequins’ faces, edited together frantically but without any music, dialogue or sound effects. There’s then a 40 second long sequence where Marsha cautiously walks across the room, and all that can be heard is her faint breath. Suddenly, after all this buildup, one of the mannequins finally moves, and because of how subtle all that came before was, it’s easily one of the most terrifying Twilight Zone scenes ever.

It’s not that loud noises should never be utilized and a more reserved sequence is always inherently better. But this is simply one example of many in which The Twilight Zone taught us that scaring the audience with silence can be incredibly powerful, and it’s especially true today, as modern viewers aren’t accustomed to so much time elapsing without audio. For that reason, a 60-second lull, as in those Paranormal Activity bedroom scenes, drives us absolutely crazy.


Living Doll - The Twilight Zone

Have Something To Say

Every successful piece of horror should have a little something to say beyond what’s on the surface, and that was certainly the case with The Twilight Zone. Even the scariest episodes still have more going on than just a bunch of aliens or haunted inanimate objects; they work both as thrill-machines and as legitimately interesting pieces of storytelling.

For example, there’s “Living Doll,” one of the first instances of the killer doll trope ever put to screen. On a basic level, it’s the tale of a father, Erich, who is haunted by his daughter’s seemingly possessed doll. His wife and child don’t believe him, and no matter how hard he tries to get rid of Talky Tina, nothing seems to work. In the end, the doll trips Erich and he falls down the stairs to his death. Roll credits. It’s a pretty basic story of an inanimate object going rogue and haunting one individual while everyone else thinks he’s crazy.

But in addition to all that, it’s also about the experience of living with an abusive father. When Annabelle and Christie arrive home with the doll, they try to rush up the stairs to avoid the short-tempered Erich, who freaks out and says that Christie doesn’t need another toy. He has no appreciation for the joy his step-daughter gets out of this present, and he doesn’t realize that Christie needs a companion because her own dad is so neglectful. While Tina says lovely things to Christie, to Erich, the doll’s speech becomes hostile, representing how Erich sees a threat in anything that brings his child happiness. Erich’s rage is ultimately his downfall: Serling makes this explicit in the closing narration, saying that “to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian.”

While the subtext can occasionally be a bit on the nose, nearly every Twilight Zone has some broader message like this, even if the primary goal is to creep viewers out. Another example is “Long Distance Call,” a horrifying episode about a boy who communicates with his recently deceased grandmother over a toy telephone. That concept is already enough to make for an excellent piece, but it also serves as an allegory for coping with the death of a loved one, addressing both how the boy deals with the loss of his grandmother and how the grandmother deals with the loss of the boy.

And so even if a movie’s main purpose is to instill fear in the audience, there has to be something else for us to latch on to. It’s this very reason that The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch are three of the greatest horror films of the past few years; each contains an engaging undertone, whether it’s the idea of coping with depression, the horrors of sexual assault, or the potentially destructive nature of blind faith. On the other hand, a movie like The Gallows is essentially 90 minutes of cliche scares with nothing to say whatsoever, so good luck remembering anything that happens in it more than a week later.


The Midnight Sun - The Twilight Zone

Tell Human Stories In a Genre Setting

Even the most fantastical Twilight Zone episodes don’t seem too unrealistic because they are told from the perspective of an average person. Similarly, horror films with outlandish plots have the potential to alienate viewers, but even the most bizarre premise will work if we believe the actions of the human characters.

“The Midnight Sun,” for instance, is a high-concept episode in which the Earth suddenly falls out of orbit and begins heading directly into the sun. From that description alone, you might picture an awful Roland Emmerich blockbuster, but The Twilight Zone turns it into an all-time classic by telling the story entirely through the eyes of two women living in a New York City apartment building. Never do we leave that one room.

All throughout the series, crazy premises like these are made easily digestible because we buy in to the reality of the people. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is about a potential alien invasion, but we spend the whole time with the residents of a suburban town. “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?” is also about aliens come to Earth, yet it takes place inside an unremarkable restaurant. The series adopts silly ideas that at the time were being butchered in absurd B-movies and turns them into first-rate entertainment, and it does so by putting less on screen and more in the dialogue.

As a modern example of this, placing believable human characters inside a ridiculous story is exactly what makes the Paranormal Activity franchise work as well as it does. After all, it’s ultimately a series about a cult of witches worshipping an ancient time-traveling demon, but because we experience it as a normal family does, we kind of buy it. Recently, 10 Cloverfield Lane, which J.J. Abrams noted was heavily inspired by The Twilight Zone, involves a vague post-apocalyptic scenario, but rather than being an action epic, it’s instead about three people living in a bunker during the fallout. The emotional journey of the characters is what’s important. The Babadook features the totally wacky plot of a pop-up storybook come to life, yet it doesn’t seem that stupid because we sympathise with single mother Essie, an average woman who just happened to read the wrong book to her kid one night.


Nightmare at 20,000 Feet - The Twilight Zone

Make Simple Things Scary

The Twilight Zone is like the Seinfeld of horror. Just as Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy takes the simplest aspects of life and makes them hilarious, The Twilight Zone takes the simplest aspects of life and makes them terrifying.

That’s true of the aforementioned “After Hours,” which turns mannequins, objects we pass by all the time without a moment’s notice, into creatures out of a nightmare. “A Stop at Willoughby” turns the universal experience of falling asleep on a train into a peculiar journey to another world. In “Nick of Time,” the plot is driven by an ordinary fortune-telling machine that one might find in any given restaurant. We have bone-chilling narratives about a toy telephone, a spoiled child, a game of pool, a ventriloquist dummy, an airplane wing, and even a piano. But after a single viewing, the way we look at all of these things changes forever. Has any Twilight Zone fan been able to look out the window of an airplane without thinking of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet?” Sure, many Twilight Zone episodes are about crazy science fiction concepts like time travel or invaders from another planet, but the simple ones were usually the most memorable.

That’s a lesson many modern writers take to heart, especially Steven Moffat of Doctor Who. Though primarily a sci-fi show, Doctor Who usually produces at least one spooky adventure per year, and Moffat’s work tends to make horrors out of global experiences. Similar to “The After Hours,” in “Blink,” statues of angels are revealed to be the most terrifying aliens in the galaxy that move when we aren’t looking. In “The Impossible Astronaut,” a monster is based upon the very idea of being unable to remember what you were doing moments ago. “Listen” thrives on the thought that occasionally pops into everyone’s head: “What if I am not really alone right now?”

It’s one thing to execute a familiar story effectively, but if you want to frighten audiences in a unique fashion, reflect upon the mundane parts of life and use the power of your imagination to make them sinister. Ensure the movie changes the way we think and, even if no viewer watches it a second time, it will truly live on forever.


8 Comments
  • RidleyScott

    Amazing piece. I agree with it all.

  • Creepshow

    Good stuff Brendan, good stuff!
    “The After Hours” sounds like it would have my hairs standing up the entire episode. Mannequins and ventriloquist dummies creep me out to no end. Add silence to the mix, and I’m guaranteed to have to change my underwear afterwards.
    There was a show years back called Saturday Nightmares on the USA Network, and it had Twilight Zone type short stories. There was one called “The Dummy” that still haunts me to the core! (I’m sweating just thinking about it)

  • Excellent article

  • alwayswipetwice

    The Twilight Zone is truly a masterful example of the short story format. You really can’t get much higher quality than it.

    • gabriel

      Between the twilight zone and the three stooges, you really can’t go wrong

      • alwayswipetwice

        I prefer the Marx Brothers

  • Lirabelle

    There are so many Twilight Zone episodes that I love, I feel pretty confident that it is my favorite show of all time. One of the Scariest episodes to me growing up was “The Grave.” It was so simple, and 95% of the episode involves listening to a bunch of men at a saloon tell a gunslinger “we won’t blame you if you are too scared to go to that guy’s grave, since he hated you and all.” And yet it was incredibly tense and eerie.

    As for Doctor Who, you could cut the tension in “Midnight” with a knife.

  • James Allard

    Every time someone slams M. Night because he uses a plot twist I think, oh so you hate Rod Serling too? (No need to lose your collective minds, that is as far as a comparison as I am going to draw…. leave it alone.)

    The most important thing at the core of the best episodes was the script: once upon a time someone called a “writer” like (all rise) Richard Matheson (you may be seated) would sit before an ancient machine called a typewriter and bang out words, words that were translated into film. Film it was, too, not merely TV but film, short, brilliant works that worked from a strong foundation, at the core of the best was a story. Now we are slagged off with what appears to be a collection of rewrites that occur after filming and test audiences.

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