The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling knew how to use parables and dramatic irony to often tell the best kind of science fiction stories, ones that often ended with a tragic twist, an unnerving final shot, or a gasp-worthy climax.
Serling didn't so much pull the rug out from under his audience as he forced upon them the uneasy revelation that their footing was never as solid as it seemed. In doing so, one of the best television shows ever was born, while popularizing the phrase "a Twilight Zone ending."
Before another TZ marathon begins on SYFY, we submit to you our ranking of the most memorable and shocking endings the show ever produced.
**Spoiler Warning: There are obviously spoilers for The Twilight Zone below**
"The Silence" (Season 2)
This underrated episode asks: Could you not say a single world for an entire year, in exchange for $500,000? That's the bet Jamie Tennyson, an annoying AF loud mouth, accepts from aristocrat Archie after bothering the members of his club with his constant pleas for a loan.
Surprisingly, Jamie goes the whole year without talking — but Archie can't pay up. He's broke. But what's more shocking is what Jamie reveals he did to himself to ensure he would earn his money. Another tragic twist from The Twilight Zone.
"Five Characters In Search of an Exit" (Season 3)
An army officer, a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, and (because reasons) a bagpipe player are trapped at the bottom of a strange metal container. The only thing scarier than their close confines is the constant ringing of bells that plagues their intense time together.
The din of those bells rattles our insides up until the final moments when the episode takes a Kafka-by-way-of-Toy-Story turn: Our five main characters are all (clutch the pearls) dolls, suffering an existential crisis at the bottom of a Salvation Army toy bin. It would have made for a much more depressing ending for Toy Story.
"The Masks" (Season 5)
Mardi Gras gets The Twilight Zone treatment, with a dash of Knives Out, as very wealthy, very terminally-ill man invites his greedy family over to settle his affairs. He insists that they all don grotesque masks that match their uniquely terrible personality traits — if they don't, they won’t see a dime of their inheritance.
You can probably guess where this is going, when the family members take off their masks… One of the most disturbing endings in the history of the show.
"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up" (Season 2)
The X-Files' most recent (and final?) season recently paid homage to this Twilight Zone classic — a mini-masterpiece in tension. Moments after a UFO crashes in a frozen lake, state troops follow footprints leading from the crash site to a diner occupied by bus passengers.
One of them is suspected of being a Martian and paranoia soon goes viral as we discover that there's more than one person here that isn't who they say they are.
"The Invaders" (Season 2)
Written by legendary author Richard Matheson and scored by Jerry Goldsmith, "The Invaders" is a mostly dialogue-free affair and an all-timer.
A lone woman (Agnes Moorehead), confined to what Serling describes as a "handmade, crude, and untouched by progress" farmhouse is plagued by a tiny race of seemingly alien beings that have landed their spaceship on her roof. Before nearly going mad, she uses everything she can to stop the aliens — before we realize that these tiny invaders are really United States astronauts and they've crashed on a planet home to giants.
"To Serve Man" (Season 1)
Nine-foot-tall aliens come to Earth seemingly in peace with cures for the planet's Big Three: War, famine, and disease. So far, so good, right?
This being The Twilight Zone, things take a turn for the very bad in a slow-burn way as humans begin to accept invites to the aliens' home planet and cryptographers get curious about the book one of the aliens left behind at the U.N.: To Serve Man. We realize too late what recipes (hint hint) are inside it.
"I Shot an Arrow Into the Air" (Season 1)
Serling's test run for his script for the original Planet of the Apes, "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air" centers on the eight-man crew of a spacecraft that vanishes soon after it launches. Those who survived the crash spend most of the episode arguing over what little water they have before violently turning against each other.
But the lone survivor soon discovers that he hasn't crashed on an asteroid and that the only thing worse than this discovery — in classic Twilight Zone fashion — is what it reveals about humanity: that man can reach the stars only to be dragged back down to Earth by his lesser instincts.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (Season 5)
This adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story is the only episode of television to ever win an Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film. This 1962 French short film, which The Twilight Zone aired in 1964, centers on a fighter in the Civil War who is about to be hanged by Union troops. He escapes and flees in an increasingly dream-like dash to reunite with his wife — only to have his reunion cut violently short by the gallows.
He never left the noose around his neck. But he spent his last moments imagining he did.
"Time Enough At Last" (Season 1)
No matter how many times we watch this classic episode, we still gasp and feel a lump in our throat during its final minutes.
Bookworm Henry Bemis (the late, great Burgess Meredith) is stuck both at his bank job and constantly in the pages of a good book. He gets so lost in his favorite pieces of literature that it rubs everyone from his boss to his wife the wrong way. Their annoyance is short-lived when Henry seemingly becomes the only survivor of a nuclear blast that takes everyone away — but leaves him with plenty of reading material.
Too bad Henry doesn’t have a spare set of reading glasses, though.
"Eye of the Beholder" (Season 2)
When people think of The Twilight Zone, they usually picture this iconic episode, which tackles conformity and the cost we'll pay for it in a way that is more timely now than it was almost 60 years ago.
Despite her best efforts and several surgical procedures, Janet (Maxine Stuart) has yet to achieve her ideal physical beauty. This next — and last — surgery will determine whether or not she will be accepted by her society and the premium they put on physical beauty. Up until Janet's bandages come off, we're white-knuckled in anticipation for the gut-punch of a reveal and further proof that beauty is only skin deep — especially among the most shallow of us.