By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2020)
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.
– Narrator’s epilogue from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960 episode of The Twilight Zone) original teleplay by Rod Serling
A few days ago, this Tweet by NBC news journalist Richard Engel caught my attention:
Coughobia. coughing can be healthy. It’s a clearing of the airways. I have a son who struggles to cough on his own. It’s a major problem. Tdy, got an email from a woman with allergies, says she terrifies people when she sniffles. societal pressures, emerging part of virus story.
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) March 3, 2020
Now here was an angle on the Coronavirus crisis that I hadn’t given much thought to. Engel makes a very salient point about “social” side effects of pandemic panic. Many people are prone to allergies or suffer from non-viral chronic respiratory conditions who will be (or already are) getting dirty looks when they’re out and about. I’ve been worried about this myself for several days; the apple and cherry trees have begun to blossom, and (right on schedule) so has my usual reaction: sneezing fits, runny nose and dry coughing.
I currently live in fear of mob retribution should I fail to suppress a sneeze in an elevator.
On the flip side, I must come clean and plead guilty to feeding the monster myself. Earlier this week I was waiting in line at the drug store. Standing in front of me was a man and his young daughter (I’d guess she was around 7 or 8 years old). She was doing the fidget dance. Just as she twirled around to face in my direction, she emitted a fusillade of open-mouthed coughs. I jumped back like James Brown, nearly colliding with the person standing behind me (we’re all a tad “jumpy” in Seattle just now). For a few seconds, I was seeing red and nearly said something to her dad, who was too busy futzing around with his cell phone to notice his Little Typhoid Mary’s St. Vitus Dance of Death.
Thankfully, my logical brain quickly wrested the wheel from my lizard brain, and I thought better of making a scene. After all she was just a little girl, bored waiting in line.
A lot of sociopolitical fallout from pandemic panic has been on display in recent weeks: fear of the “other” (ranging from unconscious racial profiling to outright xenophobia), disinformation, fear mongering, and the good old reliable standbys anxiety and paranoia.
This got me thinking about one my favorite episodes of the original Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. Scripted by series creator Rod Serling, the episode premiered in 1960. I re-watched it today and was struck by how tight Serling’s teleplay is; any aspiring dramatist would do well to study it as a masterclass in depth and brevity.
**** SPOILERS AHEAD ****
The story opens under blue suburban skies of Maple Street, U.S.A. in a neighborhood straight outta Leave it to Beaver where the residents are momentarily distracted from their lawn mowing and such by the overhead rumble and flash of what appears to be a meteor streaking though the sky. However, this brief anomaly is only the prelude to a more concerning turn of events: a sudden power outage coupled with an inexplicable shutdown of anything gas-powered, from lawn mowers to automobiles. Concern builds.
This precipitates an impromptu community meeting in the middle of the block, as residents start to speculate as to what (or who) could be to blame for these odd events. A young boy takes center stage. An avid sci-fi comic book fan, he regales the adults with a tale he read recently about an alien invasion. In the story, the invaders infiltrate towns by embedding a family in each neighborhood, until the time is right to “take over” en masse.
The seed has been planted; fear, distrust and paranoia spreads through the block like wildfire, becoming increasingly more palpable with the diminishing daylight. By nightfall, anarchy reigns, and once-friendly neighbors have turned into a murderous mob.
The camera pulls away further and further from the shocking mayhem occurring on Maple Street to a “God’s-eye” view, where we become aware of two shadowy observers (who are obviously the alien invaders). After absorbing the ongoing scenario, one asks the other “And this pattern is always the same?” “With a few variations,” his companion intones with a clinical detachment, adding “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.” Cue Mr. Serling’s equally omniscient epilogue (top of post).
Obviously, when Serling wrote the piece he was referring at the time to the Red Scare; America and Russia were at the height of the Cold War and nuclear paranoia was rampant among the general populace (in the episode, a character sarcastically refers to himself as a “Fifth Columnist” when accused of being an alien invader by his neighbors).
That said, Serling’s script (like much of his work) is “evergreen”. With its underlying themes about mob psychology, scapegoating, and humanity’s curious predilection to eschew logic and pragmatism for fear and loathing, the “message” is just as relevant now.
Keep your head, be a good neighbor, and don’t forget to wash your hands for 20 seconds.