Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 14, 2017
I was a teenager when Twilight Zone came back on TV in what is now called the “first revival.” The Spielberg movie had just come out (1983) which was my personal introduction to the show. It was remarkable to stumble onto these artful, concise stories. I was drawn to them for their odd and mildly scary atmosphere. And, I loved that they were more concerned with telling a good story than simply making the audience jump in fright.
Not all the stories were spooky or scary either. I remember one – it turns out to have been Meredith Burgess’ first appearance on the show – called “Time Enough at Last.” And to be honest, as a young, bookworm-ish and awkward introvert, I identified (perhaps over-identified) with the protagonist’s plight. The guy just wanted to read his books. But his boss and his wife and the bank customers where he worked kept getting in the way. He squirreled away one afternoon in the vault at the bank where he worked and that was the moment the bomb was dropped and WW III happened killing every person on the planet … except the protagonist. When he discovers he has all the books still, he is overjoyed. Oh! So many books, and finally time enough to read without distractions. Then his glasses break and all is lost; “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
I later came to appreciate Rod Serling’s genius. “Time Enough at Last” was more unnerving than scary. He was using the medium of 30-minute television episodes to teach us to think. It was disguised as mere entertainment, as fantasy and science fiction, with aliens and bizarre circumstances, but there were lessons and messages about life and society and human nature hidden for those who looked to see them.
And, after all, telling stories to show people about the virtues and vices of humanity is far better that preaching at people about them. “Show, don’t tell” young writers are ironically told. Stories, like those Rod Serling gave us on the Twilight Zone, settle into our memories like good parables. The lessons may be uncovered right away or after years of living into them.
Our Binghamton connection to Rod Serling is a point of local pride. Sure he was born in Syracuse, but he grew up here and graduated from Binghamton High School. And we here can take pride in his connection to Unitarian Universalism is as well. Sure he was not a Unitarian as a kid, he never came to this church. But as an adult he joined the Unitarian church in Columbus OH and was very involved at the UU church in Berkley CA as well. He is one of those perfect examples for us because his life’s work, his lived values align with the deep values of Unitarian Universalism so well. It is a joy to lift him up as an example of Unitarian Universalism – The Twilight Zone was a little odd, fairly ethical, and it made you think. Unitarian Universalism is a little odd, fairly ethical, and encourages its adherents to think.
In 1968 Serling was invited to deliver the commencement address to Binghamton High School’s graduating seniors. He developed his address around inviting the graduates to be tough enough: tough enough to take a stand for a cause, tough enough to compromise, near the end he offered a little about his own religious perspective. He said,
… And lastly, are you tough enough to have faith in the things worthy of faith? A belief in your own particular God … an adherence to the tenets of your particular religion … all this with a decent regard and respect for the God and religions of others. Believe without proselytizing. Believe without peddling. Believe without working both sides of the street, trying to sell to others that which is uniquely your own. But most major here—simply believe. There’s no alternative to faith … and God help us, there’s no salvation without it. http://www.rodserling.com/01281968.htm
That is an elegant appeal for plurality, for tolerance and religious freedom, for “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth…” as it is worded in the 3rd of our 7 principles. Hold fast to the truth as you know it, to faith as it is given to you, he was saying; but make space also for the faith and truth of others. These are values we Unitarian Universalists held in the late 60’s and we share these values still today.
Now, to be clear: Serling did not make a television show out of our Unitarian Universalist values. There is nothing explicitly UU about the Twilight Zone. Instead he made a television show through the lens of his own values which align so well with our UU values. He railed against prejudice, he exposed the dangers of social conformity, he invited us to question our assumptions about authority and power and beauty. He asked us to think. I could say the same for other Unitarian Universalist luminaries and activists and leaders through the years.
I have a clip from a series on the internet called “Nightmare Masterclass.” The creator of this series analyzes media with a focus on the dark and odd pieces, often in the horror and terror genres. This clip is from a piece published at the end of last year about Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone called “Lessons from the Twilight Zone.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzRiMw0eKSk From 7:08 up to 10:10
It is interesting to me that nearly 60 years after the shows began new analysis, new interpretations, and new programs continue to be offered around Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone – this sometimes too-campy, old, black-and-white show from the 50’s and 60’s.
This clip I have offered addresses some of the background of censorship Serling had to contend with while writing for television. It also demonstrates how people underestimated the impact he could have through that medium. In a way it’s true his shows didn’t “cop a plea or chop and ax,” it was not so crass as that in the way he addressed the serious issues of his day.
I suspect that is a significant part of the continued appeal. Serling could be subtle enough to get through the censors and yet clear enough to get his point across. He referred to global annihilation by hydrogen bombs in “Time Enough at Last.” He had people taking Instant smile as a way to avoid sadness (at the cost of sameness) in “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” He anticipated the dark side of automation in the work place in “The Brain Center at Whipple’s.” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a classic example of mob mentality. “Eye of the Beholder” is going to continue to pop up in Philosophy class syllabi and discussions. He did an episode called “He’s Alive” in which Hitler’s Ghost coaches a promising young neo-Nazi on how to control a mob.
Let us start by your learning what are the dynamics of a crowd. (The shadowy figure says,) … when you speak to them, speak to them as if you were a member of the mob. Speak to them in their language, on their level.
Listen to this monologue from the earlier 1960’s, but listen with the ears of today:
Make their hate your hate. If they are poor, talk to them of poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of their fears. And if they are angry, Mr. Vollmer, if they are angry, give them objects for their anger. But most of all, the thing that is most of the essence, Mr. Vollmer, is that you make this mob an extension of yourself.
Say to them things like – things like, “They call us hatemongers. They say we’re prejudiced. They say we’re biased. They say we hate minorities- minorities. Understand the term, neighbors: ‘Minorities.’ Should I tell you who are the minorities? Should I tell you? We! We are the minorities!” That way, Mr. Vollmer. Start it that way.
In the 1960’s having ‘Hitler’s Ghost’ talk like this was seen as a gimmick, not a serious rhetorical tool. So it still counted as subtle. Today, with the amount of hate speech rattling around in our current political and social climate, it is perhaps a little less subtle as we watch.
Some of the most important lessons Serling offered us as his viewers were around issues of authority, truth, prejudice, fear and civilization. I think part of the lesson I find in these old episodes is an acknowledgement that these issues are not new today. Certainly they are different, but they are not new.
Or as Serling put it the opening narration of The Obsolete Man:
This is not a new world – it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements…technological advances…and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super-states that preceded it – it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.
Rod liked to speak for truth and took a certain pleasure being a menace. He once said “The writer’s role is to menace the public conscience.” Serling would certainly be in the camp of people who say “Question Authority.” But he also refused to oversimplify, so he would likely add something about looking for truth as a guide for judging authority.
On the topic of truth, he urged the audience to think, think through what is happening, think about the implications, think things all the way through, and most importantly think about your own life. Following closely on that, his stories reveal that to be a thorough thinker we need to listen to the thinking of other people as well as to our own thoughts – if only so we don’t get trapped in prejudiced thinking.
All of which circles in to what I take to be one of his driving lessons, his primary lesson: beware of prejudice. Prejudice not only locks us into categories, it has the potential to hurt us and kill us. And he would go so far as to say if you are not fighting against prejudice you are complicit in the harm it brings.
The Twilight Zone was all about the messages being conveyed rather than the spooky or Sci-Fi way the message was delivered. The message is what mattered. He fought against the messages of hypocrisy and greed and prejudice within our society and our own souls by shining a light on the consequences of such attitudes. He offered us warning-signs, instructive fictions, and occasionally not-so-cryptic cautionary tales. He said:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices … And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street
You and I here gathered participate in a religious community committed to building a better world, seeking more life-giving truth, and encouraging more compassion among our fellow travelers. And quite often we get to have fun in doing that. After services we will watch and discuss two of the original episodes together.
Come, let us gather around the wisdom of the Twilight Zone for a few moments, and then let us rise and reveal our own capacity to tell the truths our world needs to hear with confidence and style as Rod Serling and others like him have done throughout the ages.
In a world without end,
May it be so.