Finding Faith in the Fifth Dimension

Religious content in The Twilight Zone? The sci-fi fantasy show about time travel, homicidal dolls and aliens with hostile intent? The idea may seem absurd at first.

HMBrotherChristopherus

“The Howling Man”

Yet the deeper one looks for religious messages — and Lent certainly seems like a good time to do it — the more one finds them popping up, both directly and indirectly. (Spoilers ahead, casual Zone viewers.)

For starters, consider how often we see the Devil or one of his emissaries. In “Printer’s Devil”, for example, Burgess Meredith plays a man who helps a small-town publisher on the brink of suicide achieve financial success by ferreting out scandal stories that smash the competition. He then unfurls a contract stating that only by agreeing to relinquish his soul can the publisher cement this arrangement.

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“Printer’s Devil”

In the most famous “Devil” episode (“The Howling Man”), a man on a hiking trip stumbles onto an abbey during a terrible storm. His surprise at finding that the monks keep a man who howls loudly in a locked cell is topped only when the head monk tells him that it’s Satan himself. Swayed by the prisoner’s desperate pleas of innocence, he unlocks the cell, only to discover that the man is indeed the Devil.

And who can forget Mr. Cadwallader’s Satanic overtures in “Escape Clause,” Miss Devlin’s diabolical machinations in “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”, or Pip’s evil laugh in “A Nice Place to Visit”?

The fate of one’s soul arises even in episodes where the Devil is absent. In “Judgment Night”, a man with amnesia awakens on a British passenger vessel in 1942, and is seized by an inexplicable certainty that the ship will be torpedoed by a German U-boat. His forecast proves correct … whereupon we learn that HE is the Nazi U-boat captain, and the entire scenario is revealed as his personal hell to relive endlessly for all eternity. We even hear a fellow Nazi warn that their war crimes could merit damnation “in the eyes of God.”

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“Judgment Night”

In “Deaths-Head Revisited,” a former member of the Third Reich makes a gloating return to the concentration camp where he tortured and killed his victims. He is greeted by a man who was a prisoner there, only to discover that the man is one of many ghosts who haunt the place … and they’re ready to put the unrepentant Nazi on “trial”. He is sentenced to insanity, then told: “This is only the beginning. Your final judgment will come from God.”

We see religious content in other episodes as well. In “The Obsolete Man,” a persecuted librarian reads from a contraband Bible. In “Execution,” a preacher reminds a sneering convict in a noose about his “immortal soul.” In “I Am The Night — Color Me Black“, another preacher tells a condemned murderer not to return the hatred of the mob yelling for his death. When the murderer mutters how people like to “get with the majority,” the preacher remarks, “The minority must’ve died on the cross 2,000 years ago.”

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“I Am The Night — Color Me Black”

Perhaps the most overtly religious content comes in an underrated episode called “The Gift.” The townspeople of a small Mexican village are frightened by the arrival of a mysterious visitor who, despite his human appearance, they feel certain is an alien from outer space (who gives the name Williams). The only one not afraid of him is a little boy known as Pedro, who chats comfortably with him:

Pedro: “Where you’re from, is there a God?”

Williams: “The same God, Pedro.”

Pedro: “I wonder.”

Williams: “What?”

Pedro: “If God were to come to earth, would they find him so strange that they would be afraid, and would they shoot him?”

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“The Gift”

Williams: “Did not His son come once, Pedro?”

Pedro: “And they nailed Him to a cross.”

Williams: “And then spent 2,000 years learning to believe in Him. All things take time, Pedro.”

I could name still other examples, but you get the idea.

You certainly don’t have to be religious to enjoy The Twilight Zone. But if you are, such references can’t help but elicit a smile. Most TV shows act as if religious faith doesn’t exist. Still others mock it. How refreshing to see that Rod Serling — a Jew-turned-Unitarian who always celebrated Christmas — made sure The Twilight Zone took a more positive and inclusive path.

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 02/29/2016, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. The Twilight Zone was always a very spiritual show. Most of the episodes had a back story that dealt with faith, of a Higher Power, And there was often a question of that Higher Power eventually throwing some major guilt down on the transgressor. Yes, Rod celebrated Christmas, and became a Unitarian, but that Jewish guilt is inborn. Christians believe they are born with original sin; Jews, with original guilt. And while there is baptism to deal with the sin, how do you deal with the guilt? You create The Twilight Zone.

    • Interesting, Sandy. If you expand the parameters of this post to include the idea of Fate, then yes, I could see it applying to many other TZs (such as “And When The Sky Was Opened”). I was trying to address the question more narrowly, but you make a good point.

      I can’t and won’t address how much guilt Serling was allegedly dealing with, but nothing I’ve read indicates that TZ was created out of anything other than a desire to tell good stories that entertained and said something meaningful (at least most of the time) or commented on a larger human truth.

      “I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service,” he once said. “I turned to writing to get it off my chest.” I’m wary of going beyond that in delving into why he wrote. What matters is that he did — and that we’re all the better for it.

  2. Another great post, Paul. The amazing thing to me is that, 50+ years later, the message in these episodes doesn’t seem out of place or over the top. Today, if there’s a religious message, it’s hammered at you or, it’s used as a backdrop for comedy or sarcasm. Serling obviously knew where to draw the line. Even the conversation with Pedro, which in reading it seems like it might have crossed that line, is appropriate in the context of the episode and seems so (to me) even today.

    It’s always a pleasant surprise to see one of these episodes on DVD and to realize that religion wasn’t only contorted for/by zealots or something to be poked fun at. I’m finishing up the Outer Limits, and I find the same theme running through many of those episodes but usually it’s not worked into the story, but added on by the narrator. A further illustration, in my mind, of the master storyteller’s skill.

    I was surprised at the end of some of the DVD episodes, that they include the network public service commercials. One of those encourages families to worship together.

    • Thanks, Dan! Serling certainly knew where to draw the line, yes. Any religious “message” (whether by him or others, such as Charles Beaumont) was usually woven in with great skill and not at the expense of the story. A rare talent indeed, and one that I miss in our more cynical age. I mean, that PSA encouraging people to attend the church of their choice is really nice. How sad that it seems all but unthinkable for such an ad to air today.

      Some critics knock “The Gift” for being more direct. Obviously, I’m not one of them. Our reactions probably say more about us as individuals than it does about Serling, though. Anyway, thanks as always for stopping by, Dan. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. tommy8675309

    Nice to see someone make this point about faith in “The Twilight Zone”. Watching the show, I’m always impressed that Serling went ahead and embraced Christian ideals, and wasn’t afraid to put it out there. Really good post, Paul.

    • Thanks! And you’re right — it IS impressive that he did that. It was truly a different era, when references to faith could pop up in TV shows, movies, books (even comic books — I remember reading an old Silver Surfer comic from the late ’60s that contained a positive reference to the power of prayer) and no one batted an eye. It’s a shame that had to change. Thank God for TZ — quite literally!

  4. I love your comparisons! It’s amazing how Sterling used his show as a way to communicate a message. These days, most TV shows are so hit you over the head blatant or purely entertaining.
    Great post, Paul!

    • Thanks, Susie! You’re right — today’s shows tend to either do it in a ham-handed fashion, or provide straight fluff. Such a shame. It takes a deft touch to do it right, though, and Serling certainly had that.

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