It is rather remarkable that in the six decades since The Twilight Zone first entered the pop culture consciousness, no one has had the idea to screen it theatrically.
That is being rectified as of today, November 14, because Fathom Events is screening, for the very first time in theaters, a specially curated selection of six episodes of the iconic television series along with a new documentary on Rod Serling. When it came time to choose which episodes would be part of this special 60th-anniversary theatrical presentation, Jodi Serling, daughter of Rod Serling, says one choice was easy to make.
"Well, 'Walking Distance' ... was my father's favorite [episode]," she told SYFY WIRE. "I mean, there was just pieces of him in it, dealing with the loss that he had because he never saw his father, because he wasn't able to be released from the Army in time before his father died. So it was a very personal story for him."
Serling adds that "Walking Distance" is her favorite episode as well, because every time she sees it, she's reminded of her father.
"My father every summer would take a ride from our place on Cayuga Lake, which is in Ithaca, and he would ride an hour to Binghamton, New York, and revisit his hometown," she explains. "It was like his private journey of seeing his old house. It's still there on Bennett Ave., going on the merry-go-round — which isn't the same merry-go-round — and walking the streets as he did when he played marbles with his friends. That episode is so nostalgic [for me] because it's so much about my dad, I can't help but see him."
"I think for my father, just about every character of every episode that he wrote were like pieces of him," she continues. "[The series] just examined his soaring imagination and his overwhelming generosity and definitely his quest for heroism and his irrepressible wit and above all ... his profound sense of decency."
Much of the impetus for the series came from Rod Serling's personal struggles and trauma. A World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater, he had difficult bouts with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I think he talked about it through some of The Twilight Zone episodes that dealt with war, but I know that my mom was like his rock of Gibraltar and I think he talked with her a lot about it," Serling says. "When he came out of the war, he was broken, and the only way that he could fix himself from all that ... post-traumatic stress was to write about it, and it became cathartic for him. He definitely would have nightmares, my mom said, and would wake up sweating, thinking he was still in the Philippines, in the jungle, and he saw a lot of horrible things over in the war. But while he came home broken, he fixed himself through writing."
"There was a lot of pain in a lot of stories, a lot about loneliness and loss," she adds. "He evoked themes of prejudice and love and war — the issues that are in our society. So he encompassed a lot of subjects that were all part of what he had dealt with for most of his life."
Another legendary episode being screened in theaters is "Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," a fraught tale about paranoia and the fragile state of neighborly relations. Serling always longed for the nostalgia of his idyllic American upbringing in upstate New York, and the town depicted in that episode was modeled after the hamlet where Serling was raised. As he did several times during the series, Serling deconstructed the mystique of nostalgia to explore the darker aspects of humanity.
"Everything he wrote were pieces of his past or pieces of his present or even premonitions of what he thought was going to happen in the future," Serling says.
Maintaining creative control of The Twilight Zone meant keeping an exhaustive schedule. Serling, who died at age 50 in 1975 after open-heart surgery, was the host, producer, and writer of the show. The family knew that when his office door was closed, he was busy creating television magic. That's when he would dictate his scripts into a recorder, a sight that his daughter remembers quite fondly.
"I do remember him on the Dictaphone and waving to us like, move out and go away, I'm busy right now," she says. "But his attention was never short. I mean, he was always around for us as children. He was a great father."
Having a famous TV dad must have had its perks, but Serling says she was too young to really appreciate it. "To this day, I still love seeing my dad on TV, but I think as a child I didn't really share the extent of the excitement," she says. "I remember asking my dad about the show when I was about 11, and I guess his explanations would confound my 11-year-old brain. He would describe The Twilight Zone [episodes] like they were his grown-up fairytales. [One time] I asked him if there were animals in the series, and he told me that I was barking up the wrong tree. But then he would tell me that [the show] was about the mysteries of life that I would never learn in school. And to me, that sounded vaguely rebellious and cool."
Aside from the ongoing impact of The Twilight Zone, which was recently rebooted by Jordan Peele in a new series that the Serling estate has been quite supportive of, Jodi Serling wants to make sure something else her father was passionate about is not forgotten: his dedication to social activism.
"My father was incredibly passionate about and wanted to save society," she points out. "In 1968, when the country was in turmoil with the civil rights and antiwar movements, my father did a speech at the Library of Congress in Washington. I do have the quote that he said, 'So long as men and women write what they want, then all of the other freedoms, all of them will remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes an act of conscience, a weapon of truth, and an article of faith.'"
"He was always very involved in civil rights," she continues. "He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and he went to school with Coretta Scott King at Antioch; both my mother and he knew his wife very well. He kind of felt that the duty of radio and television and film was to be vehicles of social criticisms and that writers should represent the public consciousness. He also felt that it was criminal that we are not permitted to make dramatic notes of social evils that exist in our society. He used science fiction a lot of times as a gateway to get things across when he was meeting resistance from the sponsors. He knew as long as he used aliens, then he could get away with it because the sponsors wouldn't know what he was really doing and what message he was trying to portray."
Before our conversation ended, we asked Jodi Serling a question we've always wondered: Would Rod Serling have taken a ride on the Tower of Terror ride?
"That's an interesting question," she says. "I've never been asked that. He definitely had no fear and was a risk-taker. So, you know, I'm not sure, but I think he would have ridden it. But I don't know. I rode it a few times and it is pretty intense, let me tell you."