I, like so many people have made my peace with the fact that I am going to die one day – boy that’s a pleasant way to start a post isn’t it? When people talk about being afraid of dying they often don’t realise that they too have usually accepted the fact that they will die one day and are instead actually afraid of how they are going to die. That particular fear I am not immune to either.
While I am sure most deaths are unpleasant there are two that frighten me more than any other namely drowning and burning to death. Regarding the first fear I was once told that drowning does have the advantage of you being able to be resuscitated if you are rescued in time. Is that supposed to be comforting because I assure you it isn’t! The other great fear, burning to death, is actually the more relevant one regarding this post. It’s the thought of spending those last few moments consumed by a force that is breaking up your flesh, exposing you to intense heat, incredible pain and probably suffocating you all at the same time. Just writing that makes me want to jump in to a swimming pool…The irony there is obvious!
I was reminded of just what a terrible end this is quite recently when I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone called The Midnight Sun. As I have written before, I love The Twilight Zone with a passion for its clever writing, its fascinating stories that balance between sci-fi and horror, it’s impact on pop culture and of course the twist endings. I had watched a number of them as a kid on The Sci-fi Channel but have forgotten most of them and so in the last year or so have taken to trying to watch them all again only this time as an adult.
This episode however, while it has a sci-fi premise takes the viewer straight in to the unsettling and leaves you almost praying for it to all end yet at the same time you can’t bare to look away from the screen until it is over. Almost right from start we know that this isn’t going to be a pleasant story as Rod Serling himself informs the audience that the characters we have just been introduced to are with out hope of salvation in this horrifying world in which they exist for as he puts it they are quite “doomed”.
The plot of the story revolves around a young woman named Norma and her landlady who are the only ones left in their apartment building after the last family leaves hoping to reach Canada. The streets outside are deserted and its clear that the temperature is soaring as if the city is in the grip of an intense heatwave. Only it’s not a heatwave as we soon learn when Rod Serling gives his opening narration.
…the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago, the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries—they happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in the Twilight Zone.
We aren’t given a reason why this has happened but in all honesty it is not important. What follows is nearly half an hour of watching these characters as their lives head towards their slow, hellish and tortuous death from which there is literally nowhere in the world they can escape to. Even the family at the beginning headed for Toronto are told that with so much traffic trying to escape north that it is now extremely dangerous to be sat in a car implying that people are baking to death in static traffic jams. Even worse is the fact that Toronto and other northern places only offer a brief respite as the temperature in New York today will be the temperature there tomorrow as the Earth gets closer to the sun.
A radio announcement tells us that the remaining police officers in the city have all gone to try and control the traffic heading to Canada and that the city is now lawless for those who remain. This is brought to light when Norma and her landlady hear a noise from one of the abandoned apartments and a man appears who attacks them and tries to steal some of their supplies but just as you are about to hate this guy the genius of the writing in this episode shines through. The man breaks down crying as he realises what he is doing and pleads with them to believe him when he says he is a good man. He then goes on to explain that his wife was pregnant when this whole thing started and the heat forced her to give birth prematurely. Both his wife and the baby die shortly after the delivery from the heat.
Good Lord – I started to wonder if I was going to need counselling after watching this.
From there on Norma is left to die in her apartment stripping down her clothes in an effort to keep cool while her paintings melt and a thermometer explodes. Going mad from dehydration, heatstroke and the trauma of what is happening she lets out a God-awful scream.
It is at that point the Twilight Zone trademark twist ending comes. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it but what I will say is the nightmare is far from over.
The fact this episode had such a profound effect on me and tapped in to that burning fear only demonstrates just how good this episode is and yet it’s not an enjoyable episode for that very fact. It is uncomfortable viewing for anyone far more so than is usual even for The Twilight Zone. The repeated shots of the out-of-focus sun and the hazy, empty street outside really emphasise the sensation of being in a world slowly being turned in to an oven while the intruder who attacks Norma and her landlady leaves you wondering how you would behave if you were put in this predicament. Would you hold on to your principles in the face of impending doom if abandoning them meant you might live just a few days longer?
Lois Nettleton who plays Norma does an incredible job and I was immediately on IMDB after this episode to see what else she had done. It seems she was quite a prolific actor and I was stunned to find that she was actually in an episode of another one of my favorite shows, Babylon 5, playing one of Londo’s wives.
This is a must-see episode of The Twilight Zone although its hardly one I would recommend watching if you want to just have entertainment for a free half hour (in case you are looking for recommendation for an episode like that watch To Serve Man – it’s brilliant!). It’s a real exploration of people at the end of not only their lives but of human civilisation. You could replace the Earth falling out of orbit with any number of other disasters with the most obvious one being global warming and the effect that will eventually have on our lives. When it aired in 1961 many critics claimed it was an anti-nuclear weapons story and while there are parallels with that type of story it’s only because the situation and character’s actions are presented in a rather narrow fashion which makes Norma’s suffering more universal.
My advice is sit yourself in a dark room with a set of headphones on to cancel out the rest of your world and immerse yourself in this doomed world as you experience the end of days courtesy of The Twilight Zone.