Identity Crisis: Figuring Out the End of Twilight Zone’s “A World of Difference”
There are times when watching The Twilight Zone is something of a Twilight Zone experience itself.
Actually, it’s not the watching that does that. For me, it’s apt to happen when I’m discussing an episode with other fans, and I find that their explanation of an episode differs completely from mine.
Take Season 1’s “A World of Difference”, which stars Howard Duff. I recently took note on my Twitter page of its March 11 anniversary. As always, I gave a brief synopsis: “An actor whose real life is a mess decides that the idyllic role he’s playing is reality.”
I’m used to hearing people say they like or don’t like an episode. But this time, I also got reactions like this:
- “Wait, he’s the actor? I thought the real guy just fell into the Zone and had to get out.”
- “I still don’t know how to interpret the ending.”
- “It always made me unsure which was real and which wasn’t, but I suppose he was only playing the role he believed to be his real life.”
- “Wait…for real?! He was really the actor all along? I’m so confused!”
At this point, they weren’t the only ones! It honestly never occurred to me before that the episode could be viewed in any other way.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Remember Season 4’s “The New Exhibit“, with Martin Balsam playing the curator of a “murderers’ row” at a creepy wax museum? (And if you don’t remember, check it out on Hulu or on DVD/Blu-ray ASAP. It’s excellent.) When new homicides take place, Martin (his character’s first name as well) is convinced the figures are guilty.
I, however, was certain that he was the murderer. He was only imagining in his unbalanced mind that the figures were at fault. But quite a few fans insist it’s the other way around: the figures are somehow coming to life to commit the crimes. Martin is just their patsy.
This debate led me to conduct a poll, and sure enough, a majority said the figures were responsible for the murders. I will admit that, the more I thought about it, the more I could see their point. I mean, it’s The Twilight Zone. Maybe the weirdest explanation is the right one!
For me, the explanation behind “The New Exhibit” could go either way. I think I blamed Martin because this episode makes me think of “Psycho” (thanks in part to Balsam starring in both, no doubt). In Hitchcock’s classic chiller, you have a murderer who is convinced someone else is responsible for the crime. I thought that was happening here.
I’m more convinced, though, that I’m right when it comes to “A World of Difference”. I’m not saying the other explanation is untenable. I guess Arthur Curtis could be the real person, a man who somehow fell through an inter-dimensional wormhole and found himself in this alternate identity as Gerald Reagan. I just think the other explanation makes more sense.
That’s partly because the writer is Richard Matheson. Matheson had a terrific imagination, but his stories usually weren’t that complicated. Indeed, part of his genius is how he could take a simple, wild idea and drop it into an otherwise realistic scenario — as in “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, among others — and turn it into an unforgettable story.
That, in my eyes, is what we get in “A World of Difference”. An actor whose real life was too much to take snapped, and he assumed the identity of the character he was playing on film — whose life was near-perfect.
And because this is the fifth dimension, he got his wish. It worked.
Of course, he could be rocking away in a mental ward somewhere, and what we saw of him happily walking off with his film wife only happened in his mind. But either way, the real-life Gerald Reagan became Arthur Curtis.
Besides, doesn’t that slot in better with other Twilight Zone episodes, like “A Stop at Willoughby”, where someone whose life is too stressful finds a way to escape?
Naturally, I’m curious to hear what you think. Who was the real person, Reagan or Curtis? Feel free to sound off below.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!