Twilight Zone, Paranoia, and Conformity in 1950s America
by Max Schiersner Caodaglio
“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”.Grams Jr 2014, 99
One of the most influential and culturally significant American science fiction television series, The Twilight Zone managed every week to attract about 18 million Americans viewers to watch which new mysteries would unfold on their television to infect their imagination (Zicree 1982, 1).
The Twilight Zone’s format was simple: each episode would tell its own independent story in about half an hour, while maintaining some fundamental characteristics between episodes, an approach that became known as an anthology series (Zicree 1982, 19). American popular culture historian Martin Grams Jr. argues that “The Twilight Zone is what it implies: that shadowy area of the almost-but-not-quite; the unbelievable told in terms that can be believed”(Grams Jr 2014, 11). The series went beyond a single genre, situated within science-fiction, but also mysticism, fantasy, horror, thriller, or even western. A consistent element was the appearance of normality, coupled with the potential for bizarre and suspect events. Rod Serling, the show’s creator, described the series as “stories of imagination. They all tilt from the center – unreal, told in terms of reality” (Grams Jr 2014, 118). In 1961, the show was praised by Federal Communications Commission’s Chairman Newton Minow, who, with a couple of exceptions – Twilight Zone being one of them –, bemoaned that television had become a “vast wasteland” (Worland 1996, 105).
Much of the series’ historical context derives from its production during the height of the Cold War, having first aired on October 2nd, 1959, and then run until 1964. This had a significant impact on the tone and subject matter present in many Twilight Zone episodes. Two central themes which stand out in particular, ‘anti-Communist paranoia’ and ‘status quo conformity’, I will explore in greater detail below, using the examples of two Twilight Zone episodes.
American film director and academic Dr. Stuart Samuels argues in The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers in American History/American Film (1979) that American society during the 1950s was heavily stricken by mass hysteria, paranoia, and confusing conformity at the same time.
In Samuels’ view, conformity is the individual resigned to a group majority: “During the 1950s […,] conformism had replaced individuality as the principal ingredient for success” (Samuels 1979, 263). Also, an indirect definition of ‘paranoia’ is contained in the definition of ‘conformity’:
Conformity is based on the idea that there is a clear-cut division between them and us. In periods of overt conflict, like wars or economic crises, the division between the good and the bad is obvious. But in periods of confusion, the identification of enemies becomes more problematic (Samuels 1979, 264).
How does one identify subversion? What is ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ is seen as suspect because the enemy could be anyone, anywhere, anytime (Samuels 1979, 264). Subversion acts here as an umbrella term for any activity that questioned the norms of American society in the 1950s, but it was often commonly associated with anti-communism paranoia (Schrecker 2002; Samuels 1979; Caute 1978). It is no coincidence that the popularity of the science fiction genre – as big Hollywood and prime time television productions – reached new heights during the 1950s in the United States, as this is a genre that often portrays anxiety-inducing themes like nuclear conflict, extraterrestrial invasion, de-humanization, mysticism, and issues caused by scientific and technological failure (Worland 1996, 103; Samuels 1979, 262).
To escape from the anxiety, one could acquiesce to a consensus, or group mentality (Samuels 1979, 263). The characteristic individualism of American society was suspended for the sake of national security against subversives: “Consensus mentality offered a refuge in an anxious and confusing world. It represented an attempt to shift the burden of individual responsibility for one’s fate to an impersonal monolithic whole” (Samuels 1979, 263). To illustrate these two concepts of ‘paranoia’ and ‘conformity”, let us examine two Twilight Zone episodes more closely.
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street (1960)
‘Paranoia’ was a reoccurring theme in many Twilight Zone episodes. The 22nd episode of the first season– The Monsters are Due on Maple Street – cleverly summarizes the social anxiety that Americans felt at the time. This episode utilizes themes of hysteria, paranoia, confusion, and eventual distrust among common, middle-class American people.
The episode tells the story of Maple Street, a quiet suburban neighborhood, somewhere in America. At the end of the day, all electronic devices, light posts, and cars stop working, causing a gathering on the streets of neighbors complaining. A young boy named Tommy warns the people that just before the electronic malfunction, a mysterious flash of light could be seen in the sky, and that aliens are responsible for the trouble. He even suggests that some of them have already been living undercover in Maple Street and that some of the street’s residents are working with the aliens, despite not disclosing exactly who they are. Eventually, the neighbors start to suspect each other of being aliens. When a man is shot by accident in the dark streets, Maple Street’s residents turn into a hysterical angry mob. In the distance, a pair of human-like aliens discuss how their tactics succeeded in Maple Street, and how humans are so prone to killing their peers in the absence of rationality. They move on to the next neighborhood, as one tells the other: “The world is full of Maple Streets” (Grams Jr 2014, 389).
American Film and Media Arts professor Dr. Rick Worland analyzes the Maple Street episode through what can be called a “macro-social” or “international” approach, connecting the main motifs in the episode to the dominant American paradigm of the Cold War Liberalism of the period. According to Worland, the aliens in the episode are the distant, invisible communists of the 1950s. At the end of the day, “the coda reveals Maple Street’s fears to be anything but delusional: There are powerful enemies ‘out there’; they are out to get us” (Worland 1996). My analysis focuses on what can be called “micro-social” aspects, or simply common social relationships in American society.
The interesting thing about this episode is not only that it seems to be a characteristic example of communist paranoia and mass hysteria in 1950s America, but also that it shows how social conformity relates to paranoid persecution: the duality us and them is established as the new status quo in the neighborhood, and the confusion identifying who is who fuels the paranoia.
Some Maple Street residents try to argue with the mob – such as Steve, who acts as the main character in the episode and somewhat a voice of reason – saying that the neighbors are “all set to find a scapegoat” and “the only thing that’s gonna happen is that we’ll eat each other up alive”. The majority has simply resigned to paranoia. Despite the warnings, the mob continues to blame innocent people, and chaos fully consumes Maple Street.
The alien danger was real; however, it was exaggerated by the Maple residents because, until the last moments of the episode, no real evidence is given to explain the strange occurrences. Even when the alien invasion is confirmed only to the viewers, no Maple residents were really working with the aliens after all: they never become aware of the real invasion. If all the residents had worked together, maybe the chaos following the failure of all electronic devices and one man’s death could have been prevented. An interesting parallel to this can be found in historian Ellen Schrecker’s description of J. Edgar Hoover’s influential 1947 testimony:
Just as there was a kernel of plausibility in the demonized image of the American Communist, so too was it conceivable that individual Communists, acting as subversives, spies, and saboteurs, could threaten American security. Protecting the nation from these dangers was to become the primary justification for much of what happened during the McCarthy period. The dangers were enormously exaggerated, but they were not wholly fictitious.Schrecker 2002, 22
There was a communist spread, but just like in the episode, their invisible presence was often exploited by politicians with little to no basis to promote chaos and personal gain (Schrecker 2002). Although the aliens could have acted on a larger scale, they chose to influence one neighborhood after the other. This localized reality relates to how anti-communist paranoia was often more exaggerated and extreme in state and local settings than on a nationwide level (Schrecker 2002, 80).
It’s a Good Life (1961)
It’s a Good Life tells the story of Anthony Fremont, a six-year-old boy who “has kept the citizens of Peaksville, Ohio, in constant fear for their lives” (Grams Jr 2014, 675). The boy can do anything just by using the power of his mind, including reading people’s thoughts. Nobody really knows if the world was destroyed and Peaksville is the only place left, or if the town was detached from common reality. Everyone in the town is forced to always smile and have happy thoughts, lest the boy get mad, and his anger turn to murderous thoughts. People always repeat to themselves how much good the boy brings to their lives and how wonderful his abilities are – although the viewer is never introduced to any act of good will from the boy – , so that they can convince not only Anthony but also themselves. The episode mentions that the boy has killed people before, so everyone is one wrongful thought away from being Anthony’s next victim (Grams Jr 2014, 675).
This episode was based on a short sci-fi story called It’s a Good Life (1953) by Jerome Bixby (Grams Jr 2014, 674). The interesting difference between the two versions is that, in the former, Anthony plays a vastly more active and conscious part in his killings: in the original story, Anthony is only three years old, and his thoughts might not mean any harm, coming perhaps from a place of innocence (Bixby 1953). In contrast, Anthony in the episode is aware of his actions and consequences, being six years old already. This suggests that, in the show, conformity does not come just from indifference or true approval of the status quo, it is a conscious decision because of one’s inability to change reality: Peaksville’s population needs to pretend to be happy all the time, otherwise Anthony could read their thoughts and ‘wish them away’. With nowhere else to go, and being powerless against the boy’s omnipotence and omniscience, conformity becomes the norm.
Anthony can be interpreted as the embodiment of the status quo and the accepted morality of the 1950s: to go against his will is to risk your life. In a parallel manner, to question the status quo in Cold War America was to risk being arrested or ostracized, and therefore punished. Schrecker (2002, 27) argues that, under the Truman administration, communists shifted from simple political dissidents to criminals, obtaining all the implications this outlaw status brings.
An example of this parallel happens in the episode’s final scenes: Dan, one of Anthony’s parents’ friends, begs for the others to help him kill Anthony, and he is quickly taken care of by the boy. By simply calling him “bad man” and then transforming him into a jack-in-the-box, Anthony implies that Dan got what he deserved because he was bad. Anthony sees those who are not content with his reality as unwanted: “I hate anybody that doesn’t like me,” the boy tells his dad. This display of what happens to those who oppose the boy is remarkably similar to the popular image that was attached to communists and political dissidents during the 1950s in America:
Although distorted in many ways, the perception of an internal Communist threat had just enough plausibility to be convincing—especially to the vast majority of Americans who had no direct contact with the party or its members. Above all, it legitimated the McCarthy era repression by dehumanizing American Communists and transforming them into ideological outlaws who deserved whatever they got.Schrecker 2002, 21, emphasis added
The paranoia element in this episode resides in the fact that anyone can be the next victim – all it takes is to upset little Anthony. Hence, the characters become paranoid not only for their own, but also the others’ wellbeing: while Dan confronts Anthony in the living room, the others shout at him to stop talking. Along with the previous episode, the episode favors focusing on a small, local setting, thus ignoring a larger, nationwide big-picture approach.
The threat of communism triggered a witch hunt in America that lasted almost an entire century. The effects of that can be seen all over American culture, especially after World War II, when the duality of paranoia and conformity seemed to be at its peak.
In Maple Street, one can see how paranoia was enough to make people destroy themselves. It is no coincidence that the episode is mostly set at night, and no electricity could light Maple Street: people were too blind to see anything. In the episode, despite correctly reading the situation as an alien invasion, it was wildly misinterpreted because no neighbors were really infiltrated or collaborated with the aliens: the exaggeration was their doom. Similarly, on many levels the communist threat in the United States has often been overstated, both on local and federal levels.
In It’s A Good Life, the American political conformity and status quo discussed above are represented by a human being: Anthony. The only explanation given as to why the boy kills is that he does not like those who do not like him back. Since he has the powers of a god, omnipotent and omniscient, any resistance to his wishes is immediately punished.
These episodes serve as an evocative metaphor of a time when communists were convicted as criminals, often being punished simply for political dissidence. McCarthyism and the so-called “Anti-Communist Network” were direct manifestations of a right-wing status quo that feared a communist uprising in the United States.
Perhaps no other period in American history has been as characteristic of this paranoia/ conformity duality as the 1950s. It is no wonder that some science-fiction, thrillers, and horror movies of that period have been so popular and praised for their cultural impact. These genres seem to have captured the common anxieties and social fears so emblematic of a seminal period in American culture.
Bixby, Jerome. 1953. It’s a Good Life. In: http://ciscohouston.com/docs/docs/greats/its_a_good_life.html. Access in: 28/05/2021. Originally in: Star Science Fiction Stories. Edited by Frederik Pohl. No. 2.
Caute, David. 1978. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Grams Jr, Martin. 2014. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. 1st Editio. Churchville: OTR Publishing.
Samuels, Stuart. “The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).” In American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, by John E. O’Connor and Martin A. Jackson, 203–218. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1979. Accessed June 28, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474292856.0017.
Schrecker, Ellen. 2002. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Second Edi. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s.
The Twilight Zone. 1960. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. 25:06, March 4.
______________. 1961. “It’s A Good Life”. 25:41. November 3.
Worland, Rick. 1996. “Sign-Posts up Ahead: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ and TV Political Fantasy 1959-1965.” Science Fiction Studies 23 (1): 103–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240480%5Cnhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/4240480.pdf?acceptTC=true.
Zicree, Marc Scott. 1982. The Twilight Zone Companion. 1st Editio. Bantam Books.
“1959 The Twilight Zone logo”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thetwilightzone-logo.svg
“Photo from the television series The Twilight Zone“: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Twilight_Zone_Monsters_are_Due_on_Maple_Street.jpg
“One of the Twilight Zone’s icons”: Grey and black rounds inspired by The Twilight Zone theme; Author: SunOfErat
About the Author
Max Schiersner Caodaglio is currently in the M.A. program in American Studies at Heidelberg University. He received his B.A. in Social Sciences from Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, PUC-SP, in Brazil. He is interested in American culture, twentieth century history, and internet studies.