Spare the Rod Serling
and spoil the child
By Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Published February 25, 2007 in The Times Argus, and reprinted here by permission of the author
Sometimes I like to fantasize that I'm on my deathbed, surrounded by keening family members. In the corner of the room lurks a shadowy figure in a sharkskin suit, cigarette in hand, speaking through clenched teeth into the big eye of a CBS-TV camera.
"Witness a sorry little man during his final hours. Throughout his life he's cowered at the site of mannequins, fortune-telling machines, ventriloquist dummies, talking dolls and pig-nosed people. Tonight, we hear the sad tale of this pitiful specimen of humankind, a lifelong victim of . . . 'The Twilight Zone.' "
Rod Serling was as important a player in my early childhood development as was the benevolent Captain Kangaroo and his stable of sappy characters. Together, they formed the yin-yang of black-and-white television.
Once a week, from 1959 to 1964, my family and I would hunker down as Mr. Serling offered his skewed, film-noir perspective of Cold War America. To this day, the storylines and characters from those 150-plus episodes remain crystal clear. A little too clear.
Patrick Timothy Mullikin at 6 years old
In retrospect, my parents should have been hauled off in shackles by some child protection agency caseworker for letting their impressionable six-year-old stay up to watch Mr. Serling. I don't recall ever having nightmares, though. To me it all seemed natural: Department store mannequins, as everyone knew, took turns venturing into the real world for one day as a human. To this day I like to whisper, "Marsha? Marsha? It's our turn, Marsha" when I see a blonde mannequin.
Rod Serling was my childhood hero. I liked the way he would pop up at the beginning of the show and lure me into the story. Each show ended the same way - with a clever twist. Things are never what they seem to be.
My parents and three sisters could have been aliens or automatons. Or perhaps I was. My serene hometown, Claremont, Calif., with its eight colleges, could have been nothing more than the contents of some giant's snow globe. One hearty shake, and, poof, the whole lot of us would be borne aloft into swirling chaos and destruction.
I should have been outside playing baseball instead of watching television. But as a lifelong wearer of glasses I feared being smacked in the face with the ball. Perhaps, subconsciously, I was thinking of the episode starring Burgess Meredith as the misanthrope who is the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust and finds himself among mountains of books, his passion. The twist: He breaks his only pair of glasses and can't see. Hey, that's a good one, Rod.
The real genius of Rod Serling, in my book, was his ability to turn common household items in objects of terror.
Long before Telly Savalas earned his detective badge as the lollipop-sucking Kojak, I knew him as the mean stepfather who was done in, deservedly, by Talking Tina - a sort of Chatty Cathy doll from hell. All talking dolls, can, and under the right circumstances, will, say, "My name is Talking Tina. And I'm going to kill you." Thank you, Mr. Serling, for adding dolls to my list of phobias.
When my son was little I bought him a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dummy one Christmas, which he played with during the daytime and hid at night. I didn't blame him; there was something nightmarish about that dummy. Naturally I delighted in hiding the thing under my son's bedcovers or placing it atop his bookcase to torture him, which he enjoyed thoroughly. Why was this so much fun? It took me a while to remember the episode that featured sailor-suited "Buddy," the evil dummy who eventually switches his body and soul with his owner's.
This brings up "Twilight Zone" men, who, by nature, were always depicted as nervous, sweaty guys, shot with weird camera angles to bring out the worst in them. Over the years as I continued to watch television, then movies, I began to recognize actors from their black-and-white "Twilight Zone" roles: guys like Jack Klugman, the reigning king, Martin Balsam, and a pre-Captain Kirk William Shatner who starred in perhaps my favorite episode. He and his wife are stuck in a diner in some small town while their car is being repaired. The two get hooked pumping pennies into a fortune-telling machine adorned with a bobbing devil head with rhinestone eyes. Their fortunes becoming progressively grim, ending with the ominous, "You'll never leave this town" or something along those lines. I have always been drawn to devil figurines and am somewhat creeped out by diners in small towns.
Last year I underwent a routine, though ignoble, surgical procedure. In that glorious pre- and post-anesthetic netherworld, I recalled the episode starring Donna Douglas - before she was cast forever as Elly Mae Clampet - who undergoes surgery to modify her horribly disfigured face. Most of that episode is shot from the perspective of the woman's eyes as the gauze is being unrolled slowly from her face. The kicker: It turns out she's beautiful; the doctors and nurses all have gruesome pig faces.
I thank God Mr. Serling's opus has been preserved on DVD. I own a set and watch the series regularly, as a refresher course.
I used to make my kids sit through episode after episode, like some chief passing on tribal history to the young warriors. Today, I am proud to say, my kids can quote such phrases as, "It's good that you did that, Anthony," from the episode about the six-year-old boy who is able destroy or transform people and things using just his mind. If an adult said or had bad thoughts about Anthony, that poor grownup ended up as a jack-in-the-box or was banished to the cornfield.
Thank you, Rod Serling. I'd like to think that making my children watch "The Twilight Zone" was good for them in the long run: a real character-builder and perfect antidote to the saccharine-sweet, La-La Land of Barney and the Disney characters.
"It's good that you did that, Patrick," I say to myself. "It's good that you did that."
Patrick Timothy Mullikin writes regularly for The Sunday Magazine and is an editor at The Times Argus.