Artists are influenced by anything and everything they see. We suck things up, filter out what we like the most, what gets our brains ticking, and dump the rest. That’s why it is so hard for me to ever list a major influence. Other writers, music, movies, comics, friends, family, living, breathing, dreaming, sitting, all of it impacts creativity.
That being said, I can pinpoint certain artists that have had a direct influence on my work that I’ve been conscious of, Rod Serling being chief among them.
I sometimes wish I’d been born during the time of the pulps. An age when short story writers made their living selling their wares to cheap publications that cost a dime. Looking back on those stories is so much fun. The wild ideas being thrown out there for the public’s consumption have yet to be matched today. The names that were made on that flimsy paper is staggering. There was a list of authors I intended to insert here but it’s simply too massive. A truly amazing time for writing.
Don’t think I’m saying all the writing was wonderful. Most of it was pretty terrible. What gets me excited about the Pulps is how daring they were. Not everything they put out there was quality but the fact that they let in such a flood of crazy ideas is mind blowing.
I guess you could say that much of the internet is that way. Every crazy thought a writer has can be found somewhere. The difference is that there seems to be no filter. Literally EVERY bizarre (and deeply unsettling thing) a writer wants to put out there will get out. The job of perspective readers is to sift through the dump to find a gem.
There is some Pulpiness about The Twilight Zone. Some. The writing, even the weaker episodes, is far and away better than most pulp stuff (with the exception of the pulp writers who wrote for the Zone), yet it is a massive influx of striking ideas which last with the viewer. The entire premise of the show is something revolutionary. A well written, produced, and acted fantasy anthology series from a writer known for dealing with the human condition. I’m kind of surprised the thing made it on the air. (More on that in the next article).
For me, the Twilight Zone works on many different levels. Superficially it is wholly engaging series of entertaining stories with great atmosphere. Subliminally it works as a deconstruction of everything Mr. Serling had been writing about his entire career. The fantasy prism gave him free reign to say what he wanted. He himself said, “I knew I could get away with Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.” So it works as thinking entertainment as well.
This leads me to what I feel is the true essence of the Twilight Zone and what brings me back again and again.
People I talk to about the show always bring up how it scared them. I remember one girl trying to explain the show to someone who’d never seen it. “It’s a bunch of great stories with twists that will just fuck your head up,” she said. Even Twilight Zone: The Movie had Dan Akroyd saying how scary he thought the show was.
What they seem to be missing, or at least failing to mention, is the mirror the show holds up to the audience. It isn’t scary for it’s occasionally ironic twists or rare monster. What made the Twilight Zone so fascinating, and sometimes scary, was exposing the conflict within ourselves.
One of my favorite episodes (a classic in everyone’s book) is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. A shadow and a flash of light passes over Maple Street. The electricity is cut. The neighborhood gathers together to find a solution, soon becoming suspicious of each other, going mad.
If you haven’t seen it, go watch it, ‘cuz I’m about to spoil it.
As the residents of Maple Street go insane, two aliens observe their actions from atop a hill. They manipulated the electricity. One explains, “Just stop a few of their machines, their radios, and telephones and lawnmowers, throw them into darkness for a few hours, then sit back and watch the pattern….they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.”
This is scary because an outside force has had such a horrific influence over seemingly rational people. It’s also scary because the aliens claim they are going to do this to other Maple Streets all over, “And watch them destroy themselves.”
What really makes this scary is the truth of it. As independent and powerful we humans believe ourselves to be, we’re all afraid of the dark – the unknown. We are our own worst enemy, our own predator. Also in the grand scheme of the cosmos we are small and insignificant. The universe is vast, complicated, and, in the words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Big. Space is a lot bigger than we are. Forget the idea about aliens from space manipulating us. A number of galactic disasters could wipe us out any minute.
Deep down we know this. That’s why we cling to what we imagine gives us power – money, computers, cars, guns. Anything which can create the illusion of our greater importance we latch on to and won’t let go. But if it’s taken away, we revert to our savage, frightened selves in an instant.
Most of us refuse to admit that truth, even myself. So when Rod Serling produced such a profoundly blunt case for our delusion, I was genuinely terrified. And I promised myself I would never forget my stature in the universe. I also try to include this in my writing.
My girlfriend is also a Twilight Zone fan. She likes it for the same reasons as everyone else. For her it’s also about the production design. When she took the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Effects Program, she did a Twilight Zone prosthetic on me. It was one of the Surgeons from the episode “Eye of the Beholder.” At her graduation everyone commented on it, even Tom Savini himself. Turns out he’s a big TZ fan.
The surgeons in “Eye of the Beholder” are striking. Recognizably human and totally alien. Within the context of the story their faces are frightening because of what the represent. The Make-Up conveyed the morals of the story while also marking the viewers subconscious. Even if you’ve never seen the episode, or the countless spoofs, you know this image. It exists somewhere in the back of your mind.
When I create a world for a story I try to keep it direct and honest. I try to let the imagery speak for itself. Atmosphere is very important to me. A story should envelop the reader. The Twilight Zone did that and it did it very well. Serling brings you in and when he’s done, you’re changed. Although Rod Serling or the Pulps are no longer around, it is those things and ideas that keep me going.