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Why The Twilight Zone's 'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street' is (sadly) still essential viewing

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Dec 27, 2019, 2:00 PM EST

"On a peaceful suburban street, strange occurrences and mysterious people stoke the residents' paranoia to a disastrous intensity."

It's impossible to read that Netflix summary of this The Twilight Zone classic episode, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," without hearing Rod Serling's voice in your head. It's also (sadly) impossible to imagine a more relevant, and frightening, episode of the classic series that serves as a dark but painfully honest mirror held up to our current social and political landscape than this one.

"Maple Street," like all the best Twilight Zone eps (and great sci-fi in general), is a metaphor; thematically rich drama smuggled inside easy-to-digest genre storytelling. All it takes to turn this "tree-lined" little corner of the world, filled with children's laughter and ice cream men on corners, is a strange sound, an even stranger shadow, a flash of light, and dead phone lines.

Having aired March 1960 on CBS, the episode was made at a time when the Cold War was infecting our way of life. "Maple Street" touches on the threat of nuclear escalation — one only matched by our rising paranoia on who's finger can press "the button" faster. It also is deeply rooted in mounting fears over the Red Scare and Communism, as that witch-hunt left a permanent scab on our country's moral and ethical judgment.

Both topical themes allow "Maple Street" to tap into our then-very vulnerable psyche to show how quickly we can turn on each other when faced with situations that should bind us together. The bombs we fear will bring about our end also come, ironically, with a sense of safety.

Especially when the suburbanites on Maple Street start to ponder if the mysterious power outages and cars starting on their own are extraterrestrial in origin. A young boy and sci-fi comic fan, Tommy (it's always a Tommy), splashes gasoline on that fire when he muses to the neighborhood adults how eerily similar this real-life event is to one depicted in his comic. (The boy muses that whatever flew overhead doesn't want the townsfolk to leave. He's convinced it is a spaceship, and like the occupants of the ship in his book, he fears the people they may have sent down ahead of them don't look like "monsters," but rather just like us. Human.)

From here, the white-knuckle tension boils over into red-hot paranoia as town leader Steve Brand (Claude Akins) half-jokingly suggests the adults check the neighborhood to see who's human and who is the other thing. Soon, the adults who once reacted incredulously to the young boy's musings find themselves wishing they didn't believe it as more disturbances pin them in and turn them on each other.

Fear goes viral. After they accidentally murder one of their own (with a shotgun!), fearing he is not of this world, they point their fingers at Tommy. He must be an alien, they debate, since he was the only one who knows the plot an alien would use to conquer our planet. Despite his mother's best efforts to defend him, Tommy is far from saved. More car engines and lights turn on seemingly on their own, which turn the scared cul-da-sac residents into a hysterical, rioting mob.

This rockets us to a gut-punch of an ending, one of the show's most famous. On a nearby hilltop, we discover that aliens are indeed behind the weird phenomenon. But the rioting? The murder? That's all humanity's doing.

To become the very monsters they're scared of, all these normal people needed — with their family sedans and watered lawns and ice cream men on corners — was a push. The slightest pressure on their consistent, hermetically-sealed lives turned them into panic-fueled, hate-blinded people. The easiest to exploit. The most dangerous, too.

One race can conquer another, one neighborhood at a time, without firing a shot — minus those triggers their victims pull on themselves.

Society is suffering similar pain points now. Depending on where you live, we appear to be one busted shoelace away (or angry/racist Tweet from the White House) from completely turning on the fundamentals that make us who we are, that got us this far — that separates us from those on "Maple Street" who went from middle-class families to cautionary tales. To paraphrase a character in the show who addresses his pre-mob neighbors, we are on the verge of starting something that could become a nightmare.

Or, worse, that which nightmares come from.

There isn't an audience in the world right now that can't relate to the thematic tentpoles holding up Serling's excellent teleplay, that of identity, and fear — how much power the latter can have when it comes to defining the former. How the notion of "other" can bring out the worst in us and force us to cannibalize the better parts of ourselves to do it. Even in the face of peril or mutual destruction, fear is a very jagged pill to swallow. It's also a very addictive one.

Serling uses it and the genre trappings of his landmark series not to preach, but to educate. To tell us how mob-think is just a synonym for brain rot. Turning against our better instincts to follow our lesser ones leads us down a path that deceptively feels like survival, but it's ultimately a dead end.

"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" is Serling's way to tell audiences — then and now — to be aware of the warning signs before the lights go out and we can't tell our enemies from our friends. Because, in the end, we are all perpetually in the dark.

And while that sounds very scary, don't worry — there's light at the end of our tunnel. Because, in a way, this episode... it's about hope. Serling posits a scenario in which the audience watching it can learn from and make better choices than the characters in it. That when the chips are down, when we face a crisis, it's not there to make us weak — it's there to show us how strong we really are.

And if The Twilight Zone can find hope in that, maybe we can, too.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.