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matt zoller seitz

Seitz Asks: What’s the Scariest Episode of The Twilight Zone?

Seitz Asks: What’s the scariest episode of The Twilight Zone?
Seitz Answers: “The Masks”

If it were possible to convert nightmares into electricity, we’d have all the power we could ever need thanks to The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling’s anthology series — which ran from 1959 to 1964 on CBS and inspired two TV revivals and a feature film — probably generated more anxiety in viewers than any show in history. On the cusp of Halloween, I offer my pick for the scariest Twilight Zone episode and invite you to name yours. 

This was not an easy choice given the volume of unnerving stories told by Serling and his writers, but I’m going with “The Masks,” which first aired March 20, 1964. Written by Serling and directed by Ida Lupino, it’s set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. An old millionaire has dinner with his daughter, her husband and their two children. All four are horrid people who only care about the old man’s money and can’t wait for him to die so that they can collect it. After the meal, he invites them into his study and tells them they have to wear masks made by “an old Cajun” until midnight, otherwise they won’t get anything from him except train fare home. “I’m told, in addition to their artistic value, they have certain, uh … certain properties,” pop says. Specifically, the masks reflect the opposite of a person’s true nature. Or so he says.

We know he’s lying because the masks that the patriarch chooses reflect our first impressions of his kids: The daughter is a cowardly hypochondriac, her husband a Scrooge, the granddaughter a narcissist, and the grandson a bully. And when they finally take the masks off … well, suffice it to say this episode is in the same wheelhouse as the classic “Eye of the Beholder” and that it isn’t just frightening because of its punch line.

The whole second half of “The Masks” is unsettling because its story denies four of the five actors any expressive tools beside their muffled voices.  During the last third, you might feel that you’re watching a televised cousin of ancient Greek theater, with the performers enacting mythological notions about external appearance reflecting one’s true essence. The offspring are being punished, the father says, “because you’re cruel and miserable people … because none of you respond to love.” Even when their voices become panicked, the voices remain muffled, the masks immobile. This simple fact invests the episode with an eerie nightmare power. I’ve seen these faces in my dreams.

What’s your pick for the scariest Twilight Zone episode? You can pick from the original, the remakes, the movie — your choice, as along as it’s creepy as hell.

Photo: CBS