One reason The Twilight Zone works so well is that it always feels just a couple of steps removed from the reality we know. The classic Rod Serling–created series specialized in stories just askew from reality, tales of the uncanny that felt like situations an ordinary person could stumble into with a few wrong turns. A ventriloquist’s dummy is naturally creepy, so what if it really did come to life? Con artists prosper, so if a bunch of friendly-seeming aliens showed up, who’s to say we wouldn’t see through their scams?
Some of the most effective Twilight Zone episodes made an already scary scenario even scarier. No matter how many reassuring statistics you read about the safety of air travel, it’s still a leap of faith to step into a heavy machine that doesn’t look like it can fly and hope for the best, sometimes through gritted teeth. Throw in, say, a malevolent monster seemingly determined to bring down the plane, a monster only you can see, and even teeth-gritting doesn’t cut it.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” first aired on October 11, 1963. The third episode of The Twilight Zone’s fifth and final season, it’s since become one of the series’ most acclaimed outings, as well as the inspiration for one of the premiere episode of CBS All Access’s new Jordan Peele-hosted Twilight Zone reboot. “Nightmare” has endured in the culture for the last 55 years in part because it doubles as such an effective shorthand for a fear of flying. It’s ridiculous, of course, the idea of a creature walking on the wing of an airplane and wreaking havoc. But imagine if it did happen. Imagine the horror of looking out and seeing a creature out of your worst nightmares waiting there.
Okay, “worst nightmares” might be something of an exaggeration. The gremlin in the original episode looks a bit like an oversized teddy bear left in the wash too long. But what matters is that it terrifies the episode’s hero, Bob Wilson (played as one giant raw nerve by William Shatner), a man taking his first flight after having suffered a nervous breakdown — on a plane.
The premise of the episode is simple: When Bob looks outside, he sees a monster. When anyone else looks, they see nothing at all. Its origins are simple, too. Speaking to Marc Scott Zicree for the invaluable book The Twilight Zone Companion, writer Richard Matheson said, “I was on an airplane. I looked out the window and said, ‘Jeez, what if I saw a guy out there?’”
From that thought sprung Matheson’s short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” first published in 1961. A key contributor to The Twilight Zone, Matheson adapted the episode himself, and the script wisely puts as much emphasis on Bob’s mounting psychological distress as it does on the monster driving it. He’s traveling with his wife, Ruth (Christine White), who’s come to retrieve him from a treatment center where he’s been recuperating under a doctor’s care. But he’s cured now. Or maybe not.
Does he see a monster on the wing? We see it, but the episode withholds any kind of confirmation that we’re not just seeing the creature — a gremlin like pilots described seeing during World War II, by Bob’s reckoning — through Bob’s unreliable eyes. What’s more, the gremlin seems to float away as if powered by fairy dust or, well, the kind of wires used in television productions.
Yet even if the gremlin’s seemingly magical movements were the result of the limitations of a network TV budget, director Richard Donner made its dreamlike qualities part of the episode’s atmosphere. Then just starting out — in the next decade he’d go on to direct The Omen and Superman — Donner demonstrates a lot of technical expertise in the episode, turning the confined space of the airplane cabin into a pressure cooker as Bill becomes increasingly desperate. He makes particularly good use of the contrast between the darkness and bad weather outside and the brightly illuminated sterility of the airplane interior.
When Bill, gun in hand, breaks a window and collapses the divide between the two, it’s shocking. But it also feels like the only move he has left if he wants to save the plane and, in the process, prove his sanity. Then, in the last shot, after the plane has landed, the episode proves him right, revealing the damage he thought he saw the gremlin wreaking to have been real all along. The final twist is that there is no twist. He’s a sane hero, not a deluded psycho.
It’s a brilliantly executed installment that could have taken on a different form. Matheson recounts that the episode was at one point to have been helmed by Jacques Tourneur, the great director of Out of the Past and Cat People, and no stranger to making the most of deep shadows and a limited budget. Matheson recalls Tourneur conceiving of a dark suit covered in “diamond dust,” a kind of star suit that would have barely been discernible. As great as the episode is, it’s hard not to wish for a glimpse of what that version might have looked like.
But would it have been as indelible as the version we got? Maybe not. As The Twilight Zone became a fixture of syndication, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” emerged as one of the series’ most famous episodes, and one destined to have a long afterlife. That included a slot in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, an anthology film directed by Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller, and John Landis; an accident that led to the death of Vic Morrow and two child actors in the making of the film cast a long shadow over the project. Still, reviews singled out Miller’s segment, a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring John Lithgow, as particularly praiseworthy.
It’s not hard to see why, either. Miller’s version doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the original. Traveling alone instead of in the company of a caring wife, Lithgow begins the segment in full meltdown mode and things only gets worse from there. And though Miller preserves the moment of vindication in which the protagonist is revealed to have been right all along, his version also sends the hero off to the nuthouse in an ambulance driven by a murderous Dan Aykroyd, reprising a character first seen in the film’s introductory segment (in which he kills Albert Brooks). But, technically, it’s remarkable, combining swooping camerawork, a truly scary monster, and black humor. Lithgow can’t get comfortable and can’t calm his nerves with a cigarette, and all the while he’s surrounded by a bratty kid and other annoyances. Its best joke: that flying is a nightmare at 20,000 feet even before the monster shows up.
The film vaulted “Nightmare” back into the public consciousness and the parodies soon followed, most prominently a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Martin Short’s recurring character Ed Grimley plays the Shatner role to the annoyance of his seatmate, played by Jesse Jackson. Years later, SNL would take another pass at the episode in a 2010 sketch introduced by Bill Hader’s Rod Serling and featuring Jude Law as the panicky passenger who sees Bobby Moynihan, playing a dead ringer for the original gremlin, on the wing — a gremlin that here goes on to smoke a cigarette, grill some salmon, and hang out with Pearl Jam.
The story also became the subject of a couple of jokes on the Lithgow-starring 3rd Rock From the Sun — one involving no less than Shatner himself. In his first appearance in a recurring role as the leader of the show’s earthbound aliens’, Shatner disembarks from a plane and describes seeing something on the wing. Lithgow’s character’s response: “The same thing happened to me!”
“Nightmare” send-ups appeared on Muppets Tonight (in an episode also featuring Shatner), Futurama, Key & Peele, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and elsewhere. The most famous parody, however, belongs to The Simpsons, whose fourth annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode features a segment entitled “Nightmare at 5 1/2 Feet,” which moves the action to a school bus plagued by a gremlin as it makes it way through a rainstorm. It’s a loving homage that takes some of its shots directly from the original (even if it does feature a more believable-looking monster).
The original has become so familiar that it’s little wonder that “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” one of two new episodes of the revived, Jordan Peele–hosted Twilight Zone premiering simultaneously on CBS All Access, uses only the broad strokes for inspiration. There’s no gremlin on the wing; the episode’s protagonist, played by Adam Scott, suffers a meltdown for other reasons, confined to a plane that maybe only he can save, unless he’s going out of his mind. That far up, with no way out, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s what, particularly if you suspect your plane might have veered off course and into another dimension — perhaps one situated in the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, one as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.