While most people in Duluth were finding their way to favorite spots on the hillside or waterfront to watch the night’s fireworks display, I got distracted by the SciFy channel’s Fourth of July Twilight Zone Marathon. I had socialized and visited the beach earlier in the day, and was watching a bit of television before leaving for the fireworks. Problem was, an episode was airing that scared the bee hooosis (Minnesotan for bejesus) out of me when I was young.
I hadn’t seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” since that fateful night my parents were out and I watched a scary television show despite their instructions to the contrary. Would the episode be as frightening to now? Would the face that appears in the airplane window when the passenger draws back the curtain make me hide behind the living room curtains like when I was little?
I had to watch it. Fireworks be dammed. Cue Rod Serling’s opening narration:
Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home – the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.
Robert Wilson is played by a young William Shatner. His wife sits beside him on his plane ride home from the sanitarium.
I marveled at the 1960s clunky airplane backdrop, made with cheap wood paneling, the airline seats with so much room on either side they looked like today’s first-class seats, and the quaint plaid curtains covering the plane windows.
Was I was scared watching the show now? Of course not. I’ve been too jaded by the likes of “Jaws,” and “The Exorcist,” and “Amityville Horror,” and dozens of other horror movies for a little Twilight Zone to scare me. But I understood why the story was so frightening when I was younger; it was the feelings that Mr. Wilson was alone in his belief that someone was out on the airplane wing. The plane is in peril from this person outside. Only he knows this, but he can’t make anyone else believe him because the humanoid (which we later learn is a gremlin) hides when anyone else tries to see him. That kind of emotional tension must have been unbearable to me as a child.
Plus there’s the tension and surprise when Mr. Wilson closes the curtain after seeing the gremlin the first time, but then wants to open it up later, just to check if anything is really out there. His hand hesitates above the curtain as he struggles with his feelings. When he draws back the curtain, the gremlin’s morose yet curious face fills the entire window. (I suspect this is the point where I fled behind the curtains.)
The gremlin’s appearance in the window is scarier than the appearance of the gremlin itself. He’s more like a wooly clown with a bad make-up job. But it’s all the peril and tension that made this episode so memorable.
This little trip down horror memory lane was worth missing the fireworks show. Even after all these years, it reminded me what makes a good horror story: tension, surprise, peril, and emotional isolation.
Now, if I could just remember that the next time I write a horror story. Who knows? Maybe I will scare the bee hooosis out of a seven-year-old.