Just in time for the tail end of Halloween, here’s my ranking of the top ten best “Twilight Zone” episodes.
10. “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (1964): This is an episode with twist after twist, ending with a darkly comic final revelation that makes you appreciate the creative minds at work on television in the 1960s.
9. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (1961): Concluding with one of the famous images from the series, this is one of the classic tales involving people growing more and more suspicious and paranoid of one another after they learn that one among them is an alien. (There’s a similar concept in the 1960 episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”)
8. “Walking Distance” (1959): Gig Young somehow finds himself back in his hometown during the time of his childhood, meeting himself as a kid and inadvertently causing an injury that affects him at his present age. This is a melancholy episode, observing the tendencies of some people to spend too much time reflecting on (and regretting) the past while ignoring the more positive possibilities of the future.
7. “Where Is Everybody?” (1959): The debut episode of the show starts the series with a bang, forcing both the isolated protagonist (Earl Holliman) and the audience to contemplate the madness of awakening to find yourself totally alone without knowing how or why.
6. “The Masks” (1964): Ida Lupino, who had previously starred in the 1959 episode “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” was the first and only woman to direct an episode of “The Twilight Zone” when she helmed this creepy little story. Here we quickly find that a family game is actually a parable about the pitfalls of inner ugliness.
5. “A Stop at Willoughby” (1960): You’ll never forget this story of one man whose paradise would be anyone else’s nightmare.
4. “Deaths-Head Revisited” (1961): Rod Serling, who served in World War II, wrote this episode about a former SS guard returning to Dachau and being haunted by the ghosts of the camp’s former inmates, who hold a trial for him. Oscar Beregi, Jr. and Joseph Schildkraut, as the tormentor and the victim respectively, give unforgettable performances. The narrative is all the more affecting for taking place in the real world rather than in some alternate “Twilight Zone” reality.
3. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963): This super-famous episode, written by Richard Matheson and starring William Shatner, has been cited and parodied often in pop culture but is well-regarded for good reason. It’ll probably make you a little nervous the next time you take a plane, that’s for sure.
2. “Nothing in the Dark” (1962): A troubling dilemma for elderly and death-phobic protagonist Gladys Cooper: does she help injured young policeman Robert Redford by letting him into her apartment or does she let him freeze to death outside? One of the show’s most intriguing episodes morphs from fright into a beautiful story about how humanity, courage and companionship can blur the lines between life and death.
1. “The Hitch-Hiker” (1960): For my money, this is the single most terrifying episode of the series. Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of running into the same hitch-hiker over and over, despite the miles that Nan (Inger Stevens) keeps driving; maybe it’s the knowledge of Stevens’ own tragic death just a decade later; whatever the case, I’ll never forget the first time I saw the episode on TV late at night, alone and in the dark. There is no escape for Stevens, no happy ending. It’s classic “Twilight Zone” at its finest, showing exactly why it is still as spooky as ever. I don’t know if it’s actually better than “Nothing in the Dark,” an episode which sets the bar pretty high, but it is certainly more chilling.