My favorite episode of the original Twilight Zone is a Cold War parable by Rod Serling entitled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” It first aired in March, 1960. McCarthyism and McCarthy himself were several years dead, but the fear of Communist infiltration was still very much alive. Serling took on that “Reds in our beds” paranoia and couched it in the terms of the other bugaboo of ’50s/’60s culture, an invasion from outer space.
A few years ago, the most recent iteration of Twilight Zone remade “Maple Street” for the age of terrorism. It was a respectable attempt, but if it had a flaw, it was that it did away with the metaphor and explicitly dealt with the fear of post-9/11 terrorists. I prefer the metaphor.
In Serling’s script, Maple Street is “a tree-lined, quiet residential street, very typical of the small town. The houses have front porches on which people sit and swing on gliders, conversing across from house to house.” Granted, we’re already in a bit of a fantasyland from a 21st Century perspective.
One summer evening, a bright object roars overhead. All power on Maple Street cuts out. Telephones, cars and radios no longer operate. People gather in the street. No one is sure what they saw. A meteor? Something else? A young boy named Tommy says in every story he’s read about a ship landing from outer space, “they” shut everything off. In those stories, no one can leave except for those the aliens sent ahead of them, looking just like humans and living among them. The adults dismiss this as a silly idea.
Pete cuts across the backyards to see if the problem persists on the next street, leaving the others to gather in the growing darkness. Les tries to restart his car, but just as he gives up and walks away, the engine roars into life on its own. “And he never did come out to look at that thing that flew overhead,” says Don. “He wasn’t even interested. Why? Why didn’t he come out with the rest of us to look?”
Charlie pipes up, “He always was an oddball. Him and his whole family. Real oddball.”
“What do you say we ask him?”
Levelheaded Steve stops them. “Wait a minute! Let’s not be a mob!”
Les backs away. “You keep your distance–all of you. So I’ve got a car that starts by itself–well, that’s a freak thing, I admit it. But does that make me some kind of criminal or something? I don’t know why the car works–it just does!”
That argument almost seems to hold, until Les’ porch light flicks on: the only light on the street.
Another woman reluctantly mentions that she’s seen Les standing on his porch in the middle of the night, “looking up in the sky as if…as if he were waiting for something.”
Les defends himself. “I’m guilty of insomnia. Now what’s the penalty for insomnia? You’re sick people–all of you! And you don’t even know what you’re starting because let me tell you…this thing you’re starting–that should frighten you. You’re letting something begin here that’s a nightmare!”
The neighbors keep a watch on Les’ house, though Steve remains unconvinced. “Let’s pick out every idiosyncracy of every single man, woman and child on the street. And then we might as well set up some kind of a kangaroo court. How about a firing squad at dawn, Charlie, so we can get rid of all the suspects? Narrow them down. Make it easier for you.”
Don counters that he’s heard that Steve spends hours down in his basement “workin’ on some kind of radio or something. Well, none of us have ever seen that radio…”
Steve shouts, “You’re standing here all set to crucify–all set to find a scapegoat–all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor! Well now look, friends, the only thing that’s gonna happen is that we’ll eat each other up alive…”
At that point, a shadowy figure appears at the end of the street. The alarm is raised, Charlie fires a shotgun…and Pete falls dead, unable to report what he saw on the next street over.
Then Charlie’s lights come on. Suspicions immediately repoint themselves. Was he protecting a secret? But Charlie says knows who the monster really is…Tommy, the kid who knew about the aliens.
Accusations begin flying every which direction. And as Charlie’s lights snap off, another house flares into life. And another. Maple Street descends into a madness of improvised weapons and violent reprisals.
The camera pulls back…back…until we’re high on a hill overlooking the chaos that was once a quiet, tree-lined suburban street. Two beings watch from the ramp of a silver spacecraft.
“Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers…throw them into darkness for a few hours and then you just sit back and watch the pattern. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find…and it’s themselves. And all we need do is sit back…and watch.”
The episode concludes with the narration of Rod Serling: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices–to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejuidices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children…and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”