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How 'The Twilight Zone' taught one critic everything he needed to know about life

William Shatner as Bob Wilson in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode
William Shatner as Bob Wilson in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
William Shatner as Bob Wilson in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode
Author Mark Dawidziak, sitting in the bandstand of Recreation Park in Rod Serling's hometown of Binghamton, New York
Credit: Becky Dawidziak

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For Kent, Ohio television critic Mark Dawidziak, "The Twilight Zone" is literally a way of life. When his daughter Becky developed an interest in Rod Serling's work before high school, they started a nightly ritual of two episodes, which always concluded the same way: with dad saying, "Let that be a lesson to you." 

"Hmm," he eventually thought, "Maybe there's a book in that?" 

The cover for Mark Dawidziak's book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life
The cover for Mark Dawidziak's book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life

Dawidziak's new hardcover, "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone," is the result of his lifelong obsession with the program, reinvigorated and reassessed by watching the anthology over again with his daughter. The book features 50 lessons Dawidziak gleaned from the show, as well as guest lessons from various writers and celebrities, and a foreword by Serling's daughter, Anne. Mark and Becky Dawidziak chatted with us from WKSU in Kent about a few of the series' toughest teaching moments. 

Before you accuse me...

In season two's "The Howling Man" (1960), H.M. Wynant plays David Ellington, a starving, post-WW1 traveler in Europe who begs to be taken into a monastery in the midst of a storm. Inside, he's tersely received by a group of monks who appear to be from another time, led by Brother Jerome (John Carradine). They do not want to allow Ellington to take shelter in "the hermitage," but when Ellington tries to leave, he hears a howling from the depths of the monastery and then collapses from exhaustion.

When he wakes up and hears the howling again, Ellington discovers a man who claims to be wrongly imprisoned in the castle dungeon, yet all that is keeping his cell locked is a thin wooden staff. Baffled as to why the prisoner has not pried the staff off himself, Ellington allows himself to be coerced into removing it. In doing so, he releases the devil, and the wars and weapons of the Atomic Age.

"My take on this," the elder Dawidziak says, "is that you shouldn't go messing around with other people's demons, until you've taken care of your own inner demon." Ellington's inner demon, he says, is hubris. Ellington believes he knows better than the monks, because as Becky says, "they look like wild men,  and the devil looks like this harmless, innocent guy." Ellington becomes the devil's advocate, as it were, assuming Brother Jerome is wrong. Mark cites it as a biblical lesson: "remove the 'beam,' from your own eye, before you talk about the speck in your neighbor's eye."

The climax of "The Howling Man"

When no one else believes in you, believe in yourself

1963's classic thriller "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" features an unnerving performance by William Shatner as Bob Wilson, who appears to have a fear of flying. "Portrait of a frightened man," intones Serling in his narration; Wilson suffered a breakdown the last time he tried to board a plane.

This time, Wilson is holding his breath, trying to be brave as his wife offers moral support. After the plane gets in the air, Wilson starts to see a mysterious creature fiddling with the wing through his window. Maybe a bad seating choice?

Not according to Mark Dawidziak. Though Wilson is never able to show his wife, the stewardess, or anyone else the gremlin in action, his conviction in his own sanity is what saves everyone on the plane, the author says.

Wilson, after having his mental stability questioned by his wife, and being given a sedative by the flight staff, hatches a plan to kill the creature that only he can see, by stealing the air marshal's pistol and firing out the emergency exit door. Of course, this kind of disruption is grounds for an emergency landing, and while Wilson is carted away in a straitjacket, the camera pans toward the wing and a ripped open panel on it.

Never forget the little people

(This lesson isn't included in the audio! To hear Mark and Becky give their alternate takeaways from the infamous broken glasses episode, "Time Enough at Last," click on the audio player)

"Knowing where you're from, and going back to your hometown, is a real big theme in Rod Serling's work... 'Ring-A-Ding Girl' has that feeling of never forgetting where you're from, and never forgetting the people who got you there; the fact that we are all standing on somebody else's shoulders. Everybody likes to think they're self-made people, but none of us are." -Mark Dawidziak

A little later in season five after Bob Wilson's incident in the air, there was the story of starlet Bunny Blake. Blake is an enormously popular actor, says Dawidziak, whose trademarks are her fanciful rings. While shooting on location in Rome, Blake receives a gift from her hometown fan club: a very large ring. When she looks into it, she sees her loved ones in it, pleading for her to come home.

Blake decides to come home to Howardsville, Virginia, and put on a show at her old high school. But it's scheduled for the same day as the town's Founders' Day picnic, enraging her loved ones. The whole town loyally attends her show, and because of this they avoid being killed by a plane that crashed into the picnic fairgrounds. Somehow, despite being present in the town in the days before, Bunny's body is found dead in the ruins of the aircraft, and her sister finds her prophetic ring, cracked and burnt.

Off-Ramp Archives: Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer's biography of hobo author Jim Tully

On the show's moral core

Twilight Zone host, Rod Serling
Twilight Zone host, Rod Serling
Courtesy SUNY Broome Community College

Mark Dawidziak says that throughout Serling's entire television career, "His themes don't change. He is always writing about the evils of prejudice and bigotry. He's always writing about his concerns for people of age, and what we do with people that we've used up."

The reason he chose to stage these messages in fantasy, Dawidziak says, is both simple and contextual. "What he was finding at the end of the fifties is the fact that the medium has grown up," the critic says. Serling was running into opposition from standards and practices employees over the perceived distaste sponsors and particular viewing markets would have to Serling's stories. He "retreated into the 'Twilight Zone,'" says Dawidziak, where he found out that, "if you dress this up in the cloak of fantasy, and you put it in spaceships with aliens and other planets, you can say the exact same thing you were saying in a straight drama, and no one is gonna lift an eyebrow."

When Serling launched "The Twilight Zone," the show was entirely produced by his own Cayuga Productions, Inc. (named for his summer home, Cayuga Lake). Dawidziak says that "The Twilight Zone," and writing in general, were the ways in which Serling exorcised his traumas from fighting in the Pacific Theater of WW2.

Order "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life"