top of page

THE TWILIGHT ZONE, A Culture Of Control, And The Power Of Black And Brown Horror

By Dominique Brown-Sampayo  
January 18, 2024

When I hear the phrase “creepy kids,” I go straight to Anthony Fremont from “It’s a Good Life” (Season Three, Episode Eight of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone). That child has everyone in his town terrified to even think “bad” thoughts – being completely dependent on the volatile whims of a violent, power-happy six-year-old would frighten most people. But this
episode is much more than that.
Based on Jerome Bixby’s 1953 short story “It’s a Good Life,” the episode follows a day with the Fremont family: young Anthony and his parents. They live in the village of Peakesville, Ohio, the last inhabited place on Earth after the rest of the population mysteriously disappears in a single day. Anthony has the intriguing and disturbing ability to cut out electricity across the town and disappear cars, animals, and people into a nearby cornfield “just by using his mind” (a phrase ominously repeated throughout Serling’s opening monologue).

MV5BNzgyNjA2MWItNTNjZi00ZmIzLTg1MDYtYTA0MDhiZjY3ZTZmL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDgyNjA5MA__._

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, CIA mind control experiments like the infamous MK-ULTRA (1) and other very real threats to the white, middle-class status quo, “It’s a Good Life” asks important questions about contemporary Western society. A foundational element of the American dream was and is a comfortable home
and a family with biological children, and people assigned female at birth in particular were expected to aspire to motherhood above all else. But what happens when a child becomes this powerful and frightening? What does it mean for the only remaining society on the planet when a six-year-old tyrant controls everything from the television to the weather?

 
Rod Serling, the creator, head writer, and host of The Twilight Zone, is often heralded as a pioneer of socially conscious television. Serling met with considerable social pushback and corporate censorship from advertisers and the ABC network when he wrote a script interrogating Southern racism following the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.(2)

Inspired by Serling’s outrage at Till’s murder and the killers’ acquittal, the script did air in 1956, but without a hint of his original message.(3) The Twilight Zone was born from Serling’s co-existing frustration with censorship and commitment to using television as a medium for social commentary.

.

MV5BMGUwMDBjMTctNTRlNy00NWY4LWJkMjAtYzJmNjdhZDM0NjUwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDgyNjA5MA__._V1_.jpg

The original series ran from 1959 to 1964, challenging and unnerving American audiences from the relative comfort of their living rooms. It dealt with contentious topics like racism, xenophobia, beauty standards, and perception versus reality – things that most white people still aren’t comfortable discussing openly. The show wasn’t perfect, but unsettling its audiences with both the surface plot and the implicit meaning allowed Serling’s team to create calculated stories that left a permanent mark on our culture. And we’re still grappling with a lot of its themes today: the rise in violence against East Asian people after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, tragically illustrates Americans’ continued capacity for fear, prejudice, and hatred.
I grew up with reruns of The Twilight Zone. I have great memories of watching the show with my dad, specifically “To Serve Man” and “The Invaders,” two of his favorite episodes. As a young Southern Black person attending majority white schools, I felt chronically out of place. I didn’t understand all of the show’s messages as a child, but it did help me make sense of things I couldn’t put into words myself. The idea that other people also saw and experienced an upside-down world was incredibly comforting. Now, I write and consume unsettling content, having learned a lot from Serling’s show. The Twilight Zone often specialized in interpersonal, societal terror, even when the monsters and aliens were real. The most compelling episodes to me examined how people related to themselves and one another in extraordinary circumstances, or how human nature remains consistent in societies that appear drastically different from ours (like in 1959’s “Eye of the
Beholder”
).

MV5BYjA0ODk1OTUtNTY3Ny00ZDM2LWIzZjUtOTEzNzkzZjgyYTc5L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDgyNjA5MA__._

“It’s a Good Life” was one of the formative episodes for me. It has it all – interrogations of power and authority, terrible consequences for trying to maintain individual control, a lingering mystery about humanity’s fate (is everyone else somewhere in the cornfield?), the threat of town-wide starvation when Anthony makes it snow for fun and ruins the crops, and a
brief body horror moment at the climax when he transplants a neighbor’s real head onto a Jack- in-the-box. But it also has Serling’s customary underlying social commentary. I find one line especially telling when talking about the dominant American culture at the time. Dan Hollis, who is drunk at his own birthday party and shortly has his head transplanted onto a spring toy, says to Anthony’s parents, “You had to go have him,” referring to Anthony. He, and maybe the town at large, blames Mr. and Mrs. Fremont for giving birth to their son who’s slowly destroying their community. But of course, Mr. and Mrs. Fremont couldn’t have known what Anthony would become or what he would do. The episode doesn’t go into their backstory, but they presumably went along with what their society expected of them: get married, have babies, raise those babies in a stable, comfortable home. They didn’t have many (if any) socially acceptable alternatives, and that inevitably is also, to me, part of the horror. But their plans and intentions went terribly wrong and their son might have casually annihilated the
rest of the planet.


Subverting the idyllic small town/nuclear family trope still sends a powerful message today, when people assigned female at birth have to fight for their right to not have children and an online registry of sundown towns exists.(4)  Horror teaches us a lot about what we value and what we fear, as individuals and as communities, through what makes us angry and scared and
uncomfortable. We learn about who we are by examining our visceral, negative responses to the media we choose to consume or avoid. The genre also provides a thrilling opportunity for people who experience oppression and the willful silencing of our stories to reimagine trauma on our terms, build community, and make our voices heard. In the right hands, horror can heal. “It’s a Good Life” is much more than a story about a spoiled child with mind control abilities. It gets at several fears white Americans had at the time: having to give up authority to forces and powers they don’t understand, younger generations’ growing autonomy, and maybe most of all, the utter lack of control the townspeople have over Anthony. That’s a through line I’ve noticed in a lot of episodes: white, able-bodied, often young or middle-aged Americans forced into circumstances that are simply and irrevocably beyond their control. (Other examples from the show include “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “The Midnight Sun,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”) The people of The Twilight Zone are regularly made to confront situations in which they have minimal agency.

MV5BNmM0Y2Q0OGEtYmUzZi00NzBhLTgwYmEtNzFhNzcwZGFkNGY4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM_._V1_.jpg

They’re often stuck in extreme physical circumstances (a seamless cylinder, the entire planet Earth steadily moving away from the sun, or an airplane in mid-flight) with no way out. Control – over the self, over one’s image and environment, over the family and people in marginalized or “lower” social positions – is fundamental to many privileged people’s understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

White Americans watching The Twilight Zone when it first aired and even now are forced to grapple with the concept that maybe they don’t have as much authority as they believe. They watch people who look like them get stripped of something fundamental to their identity. Black and Brown people in the United States are painfully familiar with circumstances
beyond our control. Even after the end of chattel slavery and the official genocide of Indigenous peoples, we have laws, the medical establishment, capitalist interests, and social customs try to dictate every facet of our lives. But we are also familiar with fighting for and winning autonomy over our bodies, our family lives, where we live, what we eat, what we read, where and how we vote, and whatever else they try to police. Our creative horror often reflects these battles because we make these stories for us, to share our experiences and our fears in our own voices and on our own terms. Every day, Black and Brown people work to combat white supremacy, and story is one of our most powerful tools. From cautionary tales passed down from our elders to major cultural moments like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, horror has always had a place in our communities. I’ll never forget watching that film in a theater full of other Black people and gasping, screaming, and cheering
along with everyone else. For us, experiencing “safe fear” (like a movie or book we know intellectually can’t hurt us) without the presence of real-life danger can bring people together and help us establish common ground with others in our community.

 

Consuming and creating horror media can help us process real-life trauma and take back our narratives. It certainly has for me. “It’s a Good Life” is a hallmark episode of The Twilight Zone for a reason. In classic Rod Serling fashion, it challenges white Americans to sit with and examine multiple, deep layers of fear. As Black and Brown creators, we have infinite cultural and historical resources to do the same: make people uncomfortable, make them think, and just maybe make them reconsider their place in the world. More importantly, we have the opportunity to use horror to heal and unite our communities. Serling’s body of work proves that it’s good to challenge the status quo, to disturb privileged audiences and force them to reckon with what truly scares them the most. As the people of Peakesville say, “Real good.”

D. Brown-Sampayo Headshot.jpeg

Dominique Brown-Sampayo is a Black, queer, nonbinary woman who believes in the redemptive power of horror. Inspired by their weather anxiety and love of Black magical heroines, they published a short horror story on the Nightlight podcast in 2022 (“Locking Up”). 

 

Dominique is a native of New Orleans and recently moved home with their husband and two adorable cats. They love all things Southern Gothic, New Orleans food and culture, and Black Louisiana history. Dominique feels empowered by Black and Brown women and LGBTQIA+ creators who are making horror their own and hopes to continue contributing to this amazing space.

1* Terry Gross, “The CIA's Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A ‘Poisoner In Chief,’” NPR,
September 9, 2019, accessed January 8, 2024, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/09/758989641/the-cias-secret-quest-for-mind-control-torture-lsd-and-a-poisoner-in-chief.
2* Jacqueline Mansky, “An Early Run-In With Censors Led Rod Serling to ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Smithsonian Magazine, April 1, 2019, accessed January 9, 2024, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/early-run-censors-led-rod-serling-twilight-zone-180971837/.and edit me. It's easy.

3* Jacqueline Mansky, “An Early Run-In With Censors Led Rod Serling to ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Smithsonian Magazine, April 1, 2019, accessed January 9, 2024, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/early-run-censors-led-rod-serling-twilight-zone-180971837/.

4* “Sundown Town Map,” History and Social Justice, Tougaloo College, https://justice.tougaloo.edu/map/.

bottom of page