The Twilight Zone was good fun back in my youth, a time spent with my cousins marveling at the strange stories that aired each week. Back then I marveled at the creativity of the writers, but never really discerned the social commentary of each episode. I watched with the eye of a child who only saw monsters and magic. As an adult I view those episodes over and over again with decades of experience dealing with human nature. I realize now how much those tales told about our humanity and the problems that we all too often carelessly create.
I have often thought back to some of the plots that were of little interest to me as a child, which now occupy my thoughts with a sense of wonder. One particular episode involved a seemingly happy group of neighbors who appeared to be living the good life in a state of bliss. Sadly it took little more than a perceived emergency to tear their relationships irreparably apart. During our most recent battles with Covid 19 I have watched individuals who were once close, become bitterly divided over stay at home rules, remote learning, masks and vaccines. The discussions about such issues have often become vile and personally insulting. As in The Twilight Zone story sometimes the disagreements even become violent. We had a wonderful opportunity to work together to defeat the virus and keep one another safe, but instead we turned it into a gladiatorial contest of wills. Many died because of our unwillingness to accept precautions rather than demand freedoms.
In another storyline that I found to be boring when I first saw it, there is a woman inside a New York City apartment who is one of the last survivors of a global climate event. Something has gone awry with the earth, leading to extremes of heat and cold. Life is unbearable, not just because of the strain on the human body, but also because of the death and destruction that the disaster has caused. The tale focuses on a single woman doing her best to cling to life in the horrific conditions, but ultimately she becomes the prey of forces that nobody can control.
I remember thinking that the very premise of this episode was too far fetched to even be interesting. I could not imagine the cycles of the seasons changing so drastically that people would die. Now I look at the strange weather occurrences that have become almost commonplace, and I realize that we got a warning from The Twilight Zone decades before scientists began to speak of concepts like global warming and climate change.
I watched my own city endure five straight days of driving rain that inundated homes and businesses. This may have been written off as a once in a lifetime event, but in truth the incidence of flooding here is becoming commonplace. Each summer and fall I have witnessed increasingly horrific wildfires in the western United States. My regular visits to places like Colorado and California have shown me how devastatingly long term the drought has been. Places that were once green have turned into deserts of brown. Last winter many Texans, including me, spent days without heat while uncharacteristic cold froze our pipes and in some cases caused death. Somehow that episode of The Twilight Zone that I once almost ignored seems prophetic in frightening ways.
I’ve often wondered how some people are able to look into the future and make predictions with such accuracy. Perhaps they are brilliant or much more observant than the rest of us. The talented writers of The Twilight Zone hit the bullseye so often that I find myself in awe of their prescience. Creators of art often have a deeper understanding of the human capacity to create chaos than even our scientists. Their stories speak to us in ways that lectures on the effects of carbon dioxide or the dangers of nuclear weapons do not. Humans have learned from lore and tales from the beginning of time. We would do well to consider the possibilities that come from the gifted minds of those who appear to know us better than we know ourselves.
I missed The Twilight Zone marathon this year. I’d spent too much time binging on movies and series during my time of pandemic isolation. Somehow I was in hopes of a better new year, and so I did not wish to spend my time watching television all day long. Nonetheless, I often think about the shows on The Twilight Zone and find myself wondering how many more of its predictions may one day come true. In truth, the main theme of the series is that we humans are often our own worst enemies. We create problems and ignore their consequences until it is too late. We react emotionally rather than rationally all too often. We have it in our power to work together, but cannot seem to find a sweet spot of common trust.
I’m sad that so many died in the collapse of the Champlain South Tower in Surfside, Florida. We may never know exactly what happened to cause the tragedy, but it is fairly certain that problems were found and virtually ignored while the residents and the board of directors quibbled over costs and the realities of the situation. Innocents were lost because of our human tendency to ignore and even deny problems. We seem to be particularly bad at that all too often, leading to wishful thinking that cracks in walls aren’t really that bad, or a deadly virus will miraculously go away, or climate change is little more than a political myth. The Twilight Zone warns us again and again that our hubris and unwillingness to sacrifice and work together often leads to real and tragic disasters. When will we learn?