Edited from original post on 5.24.09 and restored video; 11.17.12: CBS pulled the video so I have replaced it with a scene at the episode end after the “reveal.”
SPOILER WARNING: If you have never seen the “Eye of the Beholder” episode (alternatively titled “The Private World of Darkness” of The Twilight Zone, I STRONGLY recommend not watching the scene below from the dénouement or after perusing my observations.
Whenever I watched Rod Serling’s landmark television series, The Twilight Zone (1959-64) I was unaware I was receiving an education the public school system could never provide. There were episodes that taught me about surrealism, existentialism, futurism and visions of the dystopian model long before I learned of utopian societal theories. When the series began on October 2, 1959 we all gathered around the 19-inch screen black and white television set in the living room; dad, mother and me, to watch a new program that promised a entertaining half-hour. I was almost six years old (born, 11.21.53) so I was old enough to understand the program was fantasy but as I got older I began realizing it was far more than flights of the imagination.
It could teach life lessons, had morals that were as intense as anything in fables or the Bible and certainly exposed such taboo subjects as racism, prejudice, warfare, cruelty of man against man, life after death and how punishment often fit the crime and how other times people who didn’t deserve it were crushed by fate nonetheless.
I could never thank Mr. Serling in person for instilling in me the desire to become a successful writer; a heavy smoker, he died of cancer on June 28, 1975, barely halfway to the age of 51. I still remember crying, even as a junior at the uni, because he was one of the people I always wanted to me in person. My father told me that the best way to remember and honor him was to continue writing.
I remember reading somewhere years ago how Serling often got ideas in the shower, which I did as well. I also had my most profound story ideas from those final moments before dreaming and it was an epiphany to learn that state of existence had a names: the hypnagogic state. Years later I also learned that one of my favorite writer/directors, the Toronto-based David Cronenberg, also penned his best work from dreams.
One of my fondest memories of TZ was that wonderfully esoteric opening narration:
There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
The opening narration and visual cues were altered every year during its five seasons but was always potent. With Bernard Herrmann’s beautifully eerie opening score and the subtle use of animation I can never look at the cave opening, accompanying the line “…it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…” without thinking about what lied within that darkness.
The first episode was genuinely frightening as Mike Ferris, although he does not know his name, who is played brilliantly by Earl Holliman (the cook in another existential science fiction opus, the 1956 film Forbidden Planet), asks the question, “Where Is Everybody?” (the title). He is alone in a town devoid of any other people, but as he investigates he finds evidence that people were recently around: a burning cigarette, telephone ringing in a phone booth, a movie projector playing a film with a jet aircraft for an empty theater, and a jail cell door mysteriously beginning to close on its own. Although he apparently has no memory of who he is or how he arrived in this town he concludes “I’m in the Air Force.” He has a sweet conversation with a female manikin and in one particularly unnerving scene he is looking at a collection of paperback books, all with the same title The Last Man on Earth!
In the evening, all the lights come on and one creepy visual has him looking up at a huge eye, as if someone is watching him; it is for an eye doctor’s office. Eventually, terrified and unhinged, he begins pleading for help and pushing a button which is revealed as panic button as we learn Ferris was undergoing sensory deprivation, for 484 hours, no less, as a military experiment to learn the effects of a space flight to the moon. As they take him off on a stretcher, Ferris looks up at the moon and promises to be there soon. In the original story, a ticket from the movie theater falls out of his pocket, proving he was there, and even though this was omitted from the program this kind of dénouement would become a common theme throughout the series proving to audiences what appeared to surreal or impossible could, in face, be actuality rather than a hallucination of the characters.
The closing narration made certain that I could never again look up into the night sky and see the moon as I had before:
Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting… in the Twilight Zone
As the series continued there was only one problem: it was broadcast on Sunday evenings at 9 p.m. which was past my bedtime! One of my guilty pleasures, as a child, was that since my parents had a 7-inch black and white set in their bedroom and usually went to bed around 8:30 because they opened Rosenbush Feed before daybreak for farmers who generally came into town very early for feed and products, and I would sneak into the living room, already in my pajamas, and turn on the TV, and with the sound as low as possible to still be able to hear the dialogue (eons ahead of closed captioning) and sit very close to watch the TZ.
Those days led to my poor eyesight and bad hearing and more than a few times I got caught and punished, which was usually having TV privileges revoked! They tried unplugging the TV but I quickly learned how to plug it back in, again we were eons ahead of the parental blocking controls available with current technology and since the set was connected to an antenna on the roof it was never disconnected due to the effect it could have on reception. Dad even tried leaving the volume turned up loud so they could hear me turn it on, but again, I quickly realized I could turn the volume knob down before turning on the set. They even would come in to see if the set had just been off, because 1950s TVs sometimes took a minute or more before the tiny white dot disappeared as the static charge dissipated.
I was that addicted to being in the zone! Finally, my parents advised I could watch TZ but had to go to bed immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, Boris Karloff had a program called Thriller, which came on at 11 p.m.! It’s no wonder I was always too tired to finger-paint in kindergarten!
In future essays, I’ll explore other classic episodes from the 156, including: The After Hours, The Howling Man, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, Shadow Play, The Masks, To Serve Man, Time Enough at Last and It’s A Good Life. Last month I reviewed And Then There Were None which still gives me horripilation when I watch it.
Originally titled, The Private World of Darkness and later called The Eye of the Beholder is an episode that is profound enough to affect an audience today as much as it in 1960. Broadcast in the second season, it begins with Rod Serling’s opening narration:
Suspended in time and space for a moment, your introduction to Miss Janet Tyler, who lives in a very private world of darkness, a universe whose dimensions are the size, thickness, length of a swath of bandages that cover her face. In a moment we’ll go back into this room, and also in a moment we’ll look under those bandages, keeping in mind, of course, that we’re not to be surprised by what we see, because this isn’t just a hospital, and this patient 307 is not just a woman. This happens to be the Twilight Zone, and Miss Janet Tyler, with you, is about to enter it.
When we first meet Janet Tyler (Maxine Stuart) her face is bandaged and although we are not provided with the reasons for her many surgeries we are certain of three major points: it has something to do with her ugly facial appearance; she desperately wants to fit in to society’s norm; and not only is her appearance not revealed until the climax, the camera is careful to never show the faces of the doctor, nurses or orderlies.
And for good reason as we learn when the bandages are removed. Using a camera inside a fishbowl, covered with the gauze, we are given a shock that is as unexpected as any reveal possible especially when we the faces of the hospital staff, shrouded in shadows, reviled by her appearance as the doctor drops the scissors to exclaim: “no change at all.”
When we see the face of Donna Douglas, who will later play Ely Mae Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, there is a moment of confusion to the audience: she is a beautiful blond! When she screams, seconds before we see what our societal prejudices would consider deformed faces of the doctor and nurses, they are in fact, the norm, and her ravishing beauty is the deviation!
Using two different actresses was a clever idea with Stuart the bandaged Janet and Douglas as the revealed Janet and the intentional use of shadows in a film noirish style added to the mystery. By keeping the other actors, all shot from behind, low angles or in a manner that refuses to reveal their true appearance, Serling, who penned the story, never allows the audience to guess the outcome.
Even more frightening was the State Leader espousing, on TV screens throughout the hospital corridors, importance of single ideals, single norms and a single form of government: perhaps, anything, or indeed, anyone different should not be allowed to exist. A mere 15 years after the end of WW II, his speech echoed Adolph Hitler’s propaganda about a “master race” and watching Douglas run past horrified norms is truly unnerving. It plays similarly to the big screen dystopian society in George Orwell’s “1984,” which as a movie was filmed twice with Edmund O’Brien and later John Hurt as the protagonist.
When she finally reaches the room where we meet the handsome, but also ugly, Walter Smith (Edson Stroll) who is going to take her to a place where she can live amongst their own kind, the Nazi theme of ghettos, where Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables were exiled is both sad and believable.
There was also a sense of pathos in the Doctor Bernardi (William D. Gordon) who really wanted to help Janet; after all he did perform the mandatory 11 surgeries to correct her deformity and even though by his, and the governmental definition, she does not conform to society’s norm, one can believe he is hopeful her life will somehow be better with her “own kind.”
Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place and when is it? What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? You want an answer? The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence, on this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out amongst the stars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A lesson to be learned— in The Twilight Zone.
The title was changed from Eye of the Beholder to The Private World of Darkness to avoid a lawsuit from producer, Stuart Reynolds, who was marketing a same-named educational film to schools. Forty nine years later, and who knows what became of the educational film but by either name, the Serling story is far more lasting.
There is another gut-wrenching moment when, in front of the hospital staff, she asks Walter why do “we look like this?” His reply, which repeats the original title, is as beautiful as the misshapen faces of the others being accepted as not ugly, about the “very, very old saying…beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
While it may be difficult today to accept the concept that deformity in one society is acceptable while what is defined as beautiful is not is still worth pondering. We all have prejudices: the cruelty of children making fun of their classmates for wearing glasses, having acne, being poor, overweight, underweight, by the color of their skin, religious beliefs or even the clothes they wear remains with many of us as we grow older and as adults not much changes.
It is all the more difficult to repudiate such negative opinions of one another, especially in light of our 21st Century world where the multitudes of the powerful reject entire populations through religious persecution, political ideology and economic disparity.
In 1960, Serling tried to teach a simple lesson and nearly five decades later and unfortunately, most people still haven’t learned.