Tonight, we watched an episode from the first season of The Twilight Zone. The story is called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Filmed circa 1960, it’s probably a statement on HUAC and the Red Menace. I read the story in science fiction class in high school, and I first saw the episode years ago, and I thought it was great.
I see it a little differently now.
In the episode, a quiet afternoon on a suburban street turns into a night of hostility and death. Several neighbors witness something — a meteor, perhaps — streak by overhead. Soon after, they realize the power has gone out, the radios won’t pick up anything, the phones aren’t working, the cars won’t start. One of the men sets out to see if the next street over is having the same trouble.
A teenager says he knows what happened; he read it in a comic book. The meteor is a spaceship, and the aliens have disrupted power and communications. Two other men were planning to walk into town to find out what the trouble is, and the boy begs them not to go. He says they may not come back. In the comic book, the only people who could leave the area were an alien family that had been planted in the area to earn the neighbors’ trust.
Some of the neighbors start to believe the story. When one man’s car starts unexpectedly, that’s suspicious. Why is your car starting when ours won’t? A woman says she’s seen the man walking outside early in the morning, looking up at the stars. Why is that? Clearly he’s watching for the spaceship bringing the invasion fleet. As the night goes on, accusations keep flying and tempers are burning hotter.
Then a figure appears at the end of the street, walking towards the group. It’s dark. Who’s coming? It must be the aliens. Someone grabs a gun and shoots. Of course, it’s Pete coming back from his foray to the next street over. Even his death doesn’t snap people back to using common sense, and as the chaos builds, we zoom out to find a pair of humanoid aliens watching from a hilltop. It’s always the same, one says to the other. All we have to do is shut off a few of their machines and wait for them to destroy each other.
Today, I can’t really see that happening. I’ve seen people support each other after 9/11, help each other after hurricanes, share flashlights and radios after the big Northeast Blackout. The only somewhat violent incident I recall after Hurricane Ivan was a couple of out of town deputies tasing a resident who was on the dark and isolated beach trying to defend his home from looters.
The part that left me with chills and convinced me that the story still has a great deal of relevance was Rod Serling’s closing narration, which I quote here:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.
I listened to these words and I thought about the bright, inspired 9-year-old who was shot dead a few days ago because a disturbed man was biased against members of a particular political party.
“Prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy.” Rod Serling, you were right. More’s the pity.