Addiction and Redemption in ‘The Twilight Zone’
By Pat Brennan
I had lost hope that things would ever change.
This was on a subconscious level. My drinking had gotten to the point where it had become vampiric, slowly sucking the life out of me with each passing day. Yet, I didn’t realize it at the time. No extreme physical signs had surfaced yet. I didn’t have the shakes in the morning, and broken blood vessels weren’t etched across my face and nose like a bloody spider’s web. I was a little overweight but had struggled with that my whole life. I chalked it up to a slowing metabolism and an unrelenting enthusiasm for Ruffles.
In truth, however, I was wasting away. My addiction to alcohol had made short work of my already meager confidence and had moved on to eroding the mental mechanisms that were essential to handling stress and other challenging emotions. What’s more, whatever ambition I had to achieve anything with my life was nearly gone. Writing was out of the picture, and I was perfectly content not to try anything that required more than the minimum amount of effort to get by.
I was far from happy with this reality but also refused to acknowledge that anything was happening. I was the walking embodiment of the “This is fine” meme, blissfully sipping away at my obviously spiked coffee as my house burned down around me.
Rod Serling’s writing on The Twilight Zone is a beautiful example of how to make genre stories that matter.
Fans of the series know of his frustration with station sponsors who wouldn’t allow him to directly address in his teleplays the social issues that were plaguing America at the time, lest it affects the balance in their bank accounts. So, since these individuals could navigate subtlety and nuance about as well as a dog can operate a car, he used science fiction and fantasy as a sort of Trojan Horse for real-life concerns. Racism, greed, and the horrors of war were just a few of the themes that were touched on in The Twilight Zone episodes penned by Serling, with many of them going on to be classics of the series.
But weightier subjects weren’t always tackled by Serling in a secretive way. Years ago, when I started my first proper rewatch of The Twilight Zone since entering adulthood, I noticed a certain type of character pop up in his output from time to time. This character stuck out to me because, at that point in my life, I was very much in their shoes: they were the hopeless drunk. Except, in Serling’s world they weren’t hopeless. Everyone around them seemed to think they were, but The Twilight Zone itself hadn’t given up on them. That strange dimension of sound, sight, and mind would offer them an exit from their personal hells and they’d believe without a doubt that they could pull themselves out if given the opportunity. All they needed was a little help.
Three episodes, in particular, caught my attention: “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” “The Night of the Meek,” and “A Passage for Trumpet.” Each had an alcoholic as its protagonist who is cosmically given an opportunity to turn their lives around. Some might write these characters off as paint-by-numbers cliches whose inner demons were used to elicit sympathy from viewers. But the pessimism of that assessment would miss entirely the humanity Serling brought to these men.
They weren’t stereotypes; they were human beings, and each one represents a facet of the alcoholic’s experience.
Mr. Denton on Doomsday (Season 1, Episode 3)
“Portrait of a town drunk named Al Denton. This is a man who’s begun his dying early — a long, agonizing route through a maze of bottles. Al Denton, who would probably give an arm or a leg or a part of his soul to have another chance, to be able to rise up and shake the dirt from his body and the bad dreams that infest his consciousness.”
Anyone who’s attended an AA (or similar support group) meeting has heard stories of how a person’s need for a drink led them to do things that made them feel less human. Addiction is demoralizing in so many ways, but it’s those moments where you degrade yourself while under its influence that are the worst. The embarrassment and shame that accompany them stay with you forever, and it can take years for your confidence to restore itself.
In “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” we meet the title character as he’s getting the bum’s rush from a salon. Denton used to be one of the fastest hands in the West but now he’s a shell of his former self. His self-worth has dried up along with his shooting prowess and he’ll resort to anything for some cheap whiskey. During his introduction, we see him sing from the gutter he’s been thrown into after being promised a drink from a rival gunfighter if he does so. He performs again in a subsequent scene, singing for the entertainment of some cruel thugs. We can’t know for sure, but it certainly appears to be the lowest point in Denton’s now cursed existence.
Then fate enters the picture, literally, as a mysterious snake oil salesman named Henry J. Fate (one of Mr. Serling’s more on-the-nose moments, to be sure) takes pity on Denton and helps him regain his former gunfighting ability. This return to form leads him out of the pit he’s been living in and back into the world of the living, but it also reintroduces some problems from Denton’s past.
Rod Serling captures with heartbreaking accuracy in this episode what it can feel like when you’ve traded in your dignity for a substance. The resignation on Denton’s face as he sings his pitiful song (“How dry I am. How dry I am. Nobody knows how dry I am.”) speaks volumes as to what’s going through his head at that moment: “This is just going to happen and there’s no use fighting it.” It’s a thought that passes through the mind of an addict with eerily swift acceptance until after a while you don’t even realize it’s happening anymore.
But Serling also gives a humanity to Denton that’s surprising for its time. He’s not someone to be judged or even pitied. The audience and the few friends he has left only want to see him come back from the dark place he’s been living in for far too long. When his confidence returns, we get our first glimpse of the person he once was, the man those people knew before the years of suds and self-destruction. It’s a powerful image, one that communicates well the importance of regaining your sense of self on the road to sobriety.
The Night of the Meek (Season 2, Episode 11)
“As to my drinking, this is indefensible, and you have my abject apologies. I find of late that I have very little choice in the matter of expressing emotions. I can either drink, or I can weep, and drinking is so much more subtle.”
It’s difficult to understand what alcoholism is like when you’ve never experienced the disease. Sometimes people who have no history of it will look at those that do with thinly veiled disdain as if their addiction is a stain on their character or an indictment of their work ethic. It’s like the way some think callously that the homeless choose to be so because they “don’t want to get a job.” In other words, drunks choose to be drunk.
But no one with this illness wants it. Nobody’s happy that they’re an alcoholic, and everyone who is one wishes that they weren’t. What some refuse to understand is that there are circumstances beyond the control of many addicts that multiplies the level of difficulty they face in terms of getting their problem under control. Genetic disposition, mental illness, socioeconomic background, and the lack of a strong support system are all obstacles that can hobble you can before you even have a chance to take that first step towards recovery.
Henry Corwin, a department store Santa Claus who becomes the hero of the classic Christmas TZ installment, “The Night of the Meek,” has the deck stacked against him in just that way. He lives alone in a neighborhood populated with tenement housing and desperate souls. Without a friend and nearly penniless thanks to his drinking, Corwin is publicly deemed a “wino” by his boss before he is unceremoniously fired. Before vacating the premise, the downtrodden Kris Kringle gives the man a piece of his mind, opening to him a window into the realities Corwin endures.
“All I know is that I’m an aging, purposeless, relic of another time,” he says. “And I live in a dirty rooming house on a street filled with hungry kids and shabby people, where the only thing that comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty.” All Corwin wants to do is make life better for the people he sees laying in the gutter with him, and that’s exactly the opportunity he receives later in the evening when the Twilight Zone gives him the chance to become a real-life Santa Claus.
Many have considered this episode to be Serling at his most sentimental, and while he does lay it on a little thick at times, that judgment is missing the point. It’s a call from the writer for a more empathetic look at those we tend to dismiss. We can never truly know what someone is going through or how unseen circumstances might be contributing to their problems. The same can be said for addiction. It’s never just about the substance that the person is hooked too; it’s always tied to so much more than meets the eye.
A Passage for Trumpet (Season 1, Episode 32)
“But when I’m drunk, Baron… oh when I’m drunk, boy…I don’t see the dirty walls or the cracked pipes. I don’t know the clock’s going or the hours are going by. ’Cause then I’m Gabriel. Oh, I’m Gabriel with the golden horn. And when I put it to my lips, it comes out jeweled. It comes out a symphony. It comes out the smell of fresh flowers in summer. It comes out beauty…beauty. When I’m drunk, Baron. Only when I’m drunk.”
That short monologue had me in tears the first time I watched it. I didn’t understand why but looking back it was painfully obvious. The monologue was delivered by the great Jack Klugman as Joey Crown, the hero of “A Passage for Trumpet.” More than any of the other characters examined in this piece, I felt most akin to Joey Crown. It wasn’t exactly like looking in the mirror, but it was startling nonetheless and registered on a subconscious level the way so many things do when you’re busy doing your damndest to avoid the truth about yourself.
Joey Crown is a horn player. He’s also an alcoholic. For a while, those two occupations were able to coexist with each other, but by the time we meet him, the latter has consumed the former. With his music career in the dumps, Joey’s reliance on hootch becomes stronger and stronger. He drinks to forget the good times of his past and to blind himself to the stark realities of his present. Terribly lonely and no longer able to use the instrument that has been his only means of communication with the world, Joey attempts to end it all. This leads to a journey through the Twilight Zone where, during the course of an evening, he’ll find out what he has to live for and reconnect with a part of himself he thought he had lost.
I can tell you from experience that what Rod Serling gets right most in “Passage” is how the whole experience of addiction becomes a snake-eating-its-tail situation. You hate what you’re becoming so you opt to numb your senses, plunging down into oblivion where you don’t have to acknowledge the repercussions of your choices. Of course, those consequences are waiting for you when you eventually resurface, and facing them again leads you to spend more and more time below. And so, the spiral turns.
Joey’s story hit me so hard because I too thought I had lost something dear because of my alcoholism. For me, it was writing (I can barely hold a tune on the recorder let alone a trumpet) and without it, I felt like I had nothing to offer the world. Similar to Crown, when I broke away from my habit and returned to what I truly loved, I was overjoyed to find that the skill was still there. A little dulled from disuse, but still intact and waiting to be sharpened again.
Addiction can take so much away from you. After a time, you trick yourself into thinking that there’s no use even trying to get what you lost back, and the carousel of self-loathing and denial will go round and round for as long as you decide to ride it. Fortunately, we all have it in us to hop off, just as Crown, Corwin, and Denton did. It’s just that, unlike in the fantasy world of The Twilight Zone, the work doesn’t stop there.
It would be a nice little ending for this piece if I said that some sort of cosmic intervention or twist of fate led to me finally getting sober, just like it did for the characters we’ve looked at here. Or better yet, watching these tales unfold made me jump up, pour all my booze down the drain, and run to the nearest support group meeting. Cue the closing narration as the camera drifts skywards and reveals a canvas of brilliant stars twinkling in the darkness. The End, roll credits.
Unfortunately, as much as I love The Twilight Zone and think that storytelling, in general, can be a powerful tool for change, no movie, television episode, or book will ever be the sole impetus for transformation within the heart of an alcoholic. At their best, stories can inspire us to be more than we are, but they can’t do the work for us. That responsibility is in our hands, and in the addict’s first steps towards sobriety, taking action can feel equivalent to trying to move a mountain.
But it is possible, no matter how daunting it appears. My journey began with a deceivingly simple promise to myself: “07/27/2019 will be the date I stop drinking.” Giving up cold turkey isn’t for everyone, especially those who suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms, but because I’ve always been a sucker for punishment, I decided that was the route for me. Stopping was the easy part. Staying stopped and eventually dealing with all the emotional and physical damage that had been done by years of substance abuse was where it got tricky. I won’t bore you with the sometimes mundane, sometimes harrowing details of what surfaced during that first year, but I do think it’s important to be honest about this experience, especially if there are folks reading these words who seriously want to quit their addiction.
You have to fight.
There will be days when it will take everything in you not to fall back into those destructive habits from your past. You will hurt, badly, and may begin to think that all the pain isn’t worth it. That you’re not worth it. It’s in these moments that I find stories like the ones above most useful. They offer a happy ending, one that, though admittedly simplistic, can be absolutely crucial in the struggle to maintain your equilibrium when your sickness threatens to knock you off balance.
Holding onto hope, however idealistic it might seem, is never a bad thing. 🩸
Pat Brennan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, and Rue Morgue. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and very needy cat. Follow him on Twitter @PBrennan87.
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