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"Rod Serling's Damsels in Distress" - Essay #5

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Rod Serling's Damsels in Distress (Part 2)

by Michael Martin DeSapio



"Nightmare as a Child" and "The After Hours" complete the extraordinary quintet of female-led episodes written by Rod Serling for Season 1 (1959-60) of The Twilight Zone. Like the other three episodes, these two feature unmarried, independent women who find themselves in dire straits. To some characters, the Twilight Zone is a cruel, malignant and vengeful power; to others it is a force of salvation, similar to divine grace. It is the latter Twilight Zone that Helen Foley, the heroine of "Nightmare as a Child," encounters. Essentially, "Nightmare as a Child" is the story of a woman who, through her own inner resources, combats and defeats an evil man and in the process purges herself of a traumatic childhood experience. The twist is that the person who comes to her aid is none other than her childhood self.



Upon entering her apartment, young schoolteacher Helen Foley is surprised to find a strange, stoic little girl sitting at the foot of the staircase. After Helen invites the girl inside for a cup of hot chocolate, it becomes evident that she knows many things about Helen — including a most disturbing event that occurred to her as a child of ten. It was then that Helen witnessed her mother's murder; so traumatic was this experience that her mind subsequently blocked it out, so that she now remembers only "vague, nightmarish things" about it. The girl, whose nickname is Markie, turns out to be Helen's own childhood self, who has come back to jog the adult Helen's memory and save her from impending danger. The impending danger arrives in the form of Peter Selden, the murderer of Helen's mother, who is back in town to "take care of unfinished business." Knowing that Helen's memory of the murder will eventually come back to her, he attempts to do away with her to protect himself. But thanks to Markie, Helen recognizes Selden for who he is and, during a tense struggle, pushes him over the staircase to his death. A doctor, talking to the police lieutenant at the scene of the crime, sums up the tale: "The human imagination is often weird. Sometimes it means salvation."

One must step back a bit in order to realize how female-centered "Nightmare as a Child" is, especially for a Serling script. The story can be read not only as a woman's victory over a wicked man but as a woman making amends for her mother's murder. The male character (Selden) first appears as a sinister intrusion into a civilized colloquy between a woman and a little girl. What's more, Helen's mother was Selden's boss, a rare balance of authority for the time, and Selden was truly the vulnerable party: his motive for killing Helen's mother was to prevent her from exposing him as an embezzler of company funds. The female conflicts explored in the other episodes of our "quintet" are sharpened to a fine point in "Nightmare." In this battle between woman and man, the woman is fighting unaided, relying solely on her own strength and wits. Her adversary is perfectly played by actor Shepperd Strudwick as a sort of debonair uncle with homicidal undercurrents. The slight, though disturbing, undertones of sexual menace to his behavior ratchet up the tension of this rather dark Twilight Zone episode.

Central to "Nightmare as a Child" is a classic Twilight Zone theme: Facing one's fears head-on leads to inner peace. After Selden falls to his death, Helen covers her head in horror, as if reliving the "nightmare" of her mother's murder; it is at this moment that her suppressed memory is finally purged. The subsequent conclusion of the episode is like a serene release. Helen wakes up from a refreshing slumber to hear the nursery rhyme that Markie had sung earlier wafting into her room from the hallway. Stepping outside, she is relieved to see not Markie, but an ordinary girl she doesn't know. The nursery rhyme, previously an evocation of lost innocence, has become a sign of innocence restored. Helen compliments the girl on her "lovely smile" and tells her never to lose it. We are assured that, now exorcised of her "nightmare," Helen will continue her life — and her vocation of mentoring children — with a new-found freedom and peace.

Simple and tautly written - and devoid of anything overtly supernatural - "Nightmare as a Child" skillfully combines psychological thriller and murder mystery; it is one of the Twilight Zone episodes that strongly resemble a stage play. Unfortunately, as a character Helen Foley disappoints, and the fault is mostly Serling's. Simply put, the character is one dimensional, her only defining trait being her sympathy with children, and Janice Rule (for all her talents) is unable to enliven the bland material she was given. Far more interesting is the child herself: as Markie, Terry Burnham gives an uncommonly accomplished portrayal. Although there is little physical resemblance between Burnham and Rule, we can still believe that this cheeky, stridently confident youngster is the childhood version of the strong, independent Helen. Precocious or controlling children were featured several times in The Twilight Zone; through them, Serling acknowledged the remarkable perception and prescience often shown by children. In "Nightmare" we have the added irony that it is the child who is "teaching" the schoolteacher, a fact which the latter clearly finds unnerving. The vision of a child leading the adult by the hand, even patronizing her ("You don't know? You don't have any idea? And you were doing so well, Helen!"), is a startling role reversal, and dramatizes the experience teachers often have of "learning from their pupils."

In passing, "Nightmare as a Child" raises fascinating questions about the ground of our identity. Am I the same person I was as a child, or even five years ago? If my ten-year old self walked into the room, would I recognize him as me, or would he seem a stranger, as Markie does to Helen? And what are we to make of Markie? Do we believe, with the rationalistic doctor, that Markie was a fabrication of Helen's mind, triggered by her seeing Selden behind the wheel of a car earlier that day? Or was she a salvific messenger sent by the Twilight Zone?

"Miss Helen Foley, who has lived in night and who will wake up to morning. Miss Helen Foley, who took a dark spot from the tapestry of her life and rubbed it clean - then stepped back a few paces and got a good look at The Twilight Zone."


*********

Many Twilight Zone fans count "The After Hours" as a favorite episode. With its evocative use of setting — a department store, where a young woman named Marsha White undergoes a progression of bizarre experiences — "The After Hours" embodies the "extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary" that was a hallmark of the Zone. In his closing narration Serling poses the question, "Just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street?" The department store, a place where women go to pursue ideals of fashion and chic, is used by Serling to showcase the pretenses, artificiality, and depersonalized state of modern life. In this "The After Hours" has a kinship with the third episode of our quintet, "Mirror Image," in which an innocent Everywoman was "trapped" in a drab bus depot outfitted with a gloriously rude ticket taker. Yet the contrast in the leading ladies could hardly be more marked. As Marsha, Anne Francis' spiritedness and down-to-earth humor are in complete contrast to Vera Miles' ethereality, and make her an instantly relatable and likeable heroine.



Marsha White is at the department store for what Serling in his opening narration calls a "most prosaic, ordinary, run of the mill errand": purchasing a gold thimble, a gift for her mother — a sort of fairy-tale object that unlocks the door to a surreal nightmare. The operator of the elevator which Marsha boards is a surly young fellow who shows no courtesy and little emotion as he transports Marsha to ninth floor. Marsha gets off the elevator to find a dark, nearly deserted showroom. Suddenly a saleswoman appears, her face at first shrouded in darkness, symbolically putting in question whether she is a real person. Chic and very well-dressed, she ministers to Marsha with a plastered-on politeness which just barely conceals an intrusive rudeness. Having purchased the thimble, Marsha is more than happy to leave. But on the elevator she discovers that the thimble is scratched. Marsha tries to goad the elevator man into some sort of feeling ("Look at it! It's scratched and it looks as if somebody stepped on it or something!") but he replies stoically as ever, "Complaints, Third Floor." In Serling's modern world, everything is bureaucratized, and even human emotion is filed away in a tidy compartment.

Anybody who has seen "The After Hours" remembers the twist ending: Marsha is in reality a mannequin who has taken her turn to live "as an outsider" for a month; she overstayed, becoming so attached to her life outside that she forgot her true nature. Thus like "Nightmare as a Child," "The After Hours" is about a memory being recovered. Yet this revelation comes only after Marsha is subjected to a final nightmare. Having fainted, she wakes up and finds herself lying on a couch in a vast storage room — it is as if she has been "thrown away." She tries to escape, but is trapped in a labyrinth of artifice — banquet tables, model living rooms, mirrors, and endless mannequins, not to mention her fashionable high heels and pencil skirt which impede her running. Marsha's nightmare ends only when, at the peak of her disorientation and hysteria, she is finally met by the saleswoman, who shows herself quite a different person than before.

The interaction between Marsha and the saleswoman (played strikingly by Elizabeth Allen) is the defining relationship of the episode. It is a match-up between blonde and brunette, innocent and devious — a symbol of the duality of human nature. Yet this icy and arrogant woman after Marsha's self-discovery shows herself a warm and motherly figure. Serling's point is that we often see people only "from the outside," the real person being hidden by a mask of formality. In the cyclical plot framework often used by Serling, the saleswoman departs at the end for her own turn in the "real world," leading us to wonder what adventures she will undergo and what new Twilight Zone episode might write itself as a result.

The mannequins in "The After Hours" are parodies of some of the people we meet on the street every day — trendy and sophisticated but without any soul, robotically repeating their assigned duties; yet the humans — the supercilious floorwalker, the plastered-on store manager — are little different from the mannequins. The most telling line of the episode is the question posed by the saleswoman to Marsha after having checked her out: "Miss White, are you happy?" In this cheeky non sequitur, perhaps Serling is posing a question of modern men and women. Do all our frenzied pursuits, in the department store or in our places of business, add up to happiness? Will a golden thimble or a fashionable dress buy contentment? Further, has our technology and our high-speed life drained us of emotion, stolen our humanity? Do we ever really pay attention to the people around us?

"Marsha White, in her normal and natural state, a wooden lady with a painted face who, one month out of the year, takes on the characteristics of someone as normal and as flesh and blood as you and I. But it makes you wonder, doesn't it, just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street? A rather good question to ask, particularly, in the Twilight Zone."




To contact Michael, send email to michaelmartind@gmail.com

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