Teaching ‘The Twilight Zone’ | Part 1

By. T.J. Tranchell

Art: Paul Shipper

We are told when we enter the fifth dimension known as The Twilight Zone that it is a place not just of sight and sound but of mind. The realm of the mind, be it imaginative or logical, is my business. I am a teacher at a community college. I teach the dreaded pre-requisite for everything English 101. But when students step into my classroom, they’ve left behind the admittedly boring world of sentence diagrams and retreads of basic grammar. They have stepped into Rod Serling’s territory.

Academic freedom — what teachers can teach without an overabundance of interference from administrators and governments — is one of those hot topics of the day. I have been granted a level of freedom that is quickly disappearing. I use that freedom to present lessons in critical thinking and faulty logic. Yes, there is grammar and how to cite sources using MLA format, but there’s so much more. The Twilight Zone is the tool I use to present these lessons.

Rod Serling

Every student in the class comes from a different realm of experience: socio-economic differences exist, some students came to college right out of high school, and some are non-traditional students who haven’t written a paper in anywhere from five to twenty years. So, I started with the same question every time: What is the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase “the twilight zone?”

I hope you, reader, asked yourself that question just now. There is a smattering of students who know of the television series which aired from 1959–1964. They know it was in black and white and some students have even seen a few episodes. Even among those who’ve never seen the show, there are replies about vague spaces, foggy assumptions, the space between daytime and dusk, and the part of the ocean in which the sun never shines. And still, there are those whose pop-cultural background causes them to leap right to Twilight, the young adult paranormal romance series created by Stephanie Meyer. I never chide them for that. That is their experience. I am here to show them something new — even if it is older than their parents.

For the record, I am old enough to be the parent of many of these students, but not old enough to have seen the original airings of The Twilight Zone. I first saw it via a local PBS station and later Nick at Nite syndication runs. I’m old, but I’m not that old.

“Eye of the Beholder”

After establishing our intent and direction — we will use the series as an example of various critical thinking concepts and use episodes to highlight those concepts in a form other than textbook reading — we watch our first episode. A few students have seen parodies of “To Serve Man,” but most have never seen the original episode. They quickly see the purpose of clear and concise communication and how messages can be manipulated. They get a dose of the rhetorical situation and Aristotle’s Triangle: who is speaking; who is being spoken to; what is being said.

As far as an introduction goes, we could do worse. When the female codebreaker runs up to the dominant male speaker of the episode (Mr. Chapman narrates his story between the God-like voiceovers of Serling) and yells “It’s a cookbook!” there is often at least one audible gasp. I like to imagine the gasps of viewers during the initial broadcast and what those mean: we’ve been duped; these aliens (and subsequently the people in charge) do not have our best interests in mind; at the end of the day, we are all someone’s dinner.

“To Serve Man”

It’s a startling thing, learning for the first time that authority has been lying to you. I tell my students to question everything, even me. I ask the class, “When have you ever heard a teacher admit the possibility they might be wrong about something?”

Never.

None of us want to be wrong. None of us want to find out we are still ugly under the bandages and pronouncements of conformity like Janet Tyler in the episode “Eye of the Beholder.” None of us wants to become useless to society like Mr. Wordsworth in “The Obsolete Man.” Like poor Mr. Chambers who thought he had enough information to get on a spaceship and fly to an unknown planet, none of us want to be dinner.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”

In the best world, none of us would want to hold prejudices against our fellow humans, but we do. As Serling says at the end of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,”

“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.”

Critical thinking — questioning the world around us and hoping to make it a better place — can’t be contained to a sixty-year-old TV show. Indeed, it must not be. 🩸

About

T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.

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