Something I’ve found frustrating as a writer of speculative fiction is when people want detailed explanations of why all the bad, freaky stuff happens in my stories. (Or any book or TV show or movie, really.) Why is the house haunted? Why is this person immortal? How does the phone know what its owner is thinking?
This issue has started bugging me again because, as we do just about every New Year’s weekend, Bill and I watched a marathon of The Twilight Zone on the SyFy Channel. Not all the episodes are winners, but as most of us know, the best ones are absolute genre legends.
Sometimes the episodes offer explanations for the weird, spooky shit that happens. But quite often they do not, and it’s the ones that provide no reason for their bizarre events that are often the most instantly-recognized classics.
Take “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which you probably know a little about even if you’ve never seen it. William Shatner? The monster on the wing of the plane? Yeah, that one.
We are never told what that monster actually is.
We are never told why it messes with Shatner and nobody else on that flight.
We are never told how it knows to jump out of sight if anyone else on the plane might see it.
Hell, we’re never even told how it can survive outside at 20,000 feet and hop around on the wing of an airborne plane with no trouble.
Would the episode be better or more effective if we were flat-out told what it is, why it’s able to do what it does, and why only Shatner sees it?
Maybe, but I don’t think so. The strength of that episode is in Shatner’s performance as an extremely nervous, mentally fragile flier who’s seeing this creature do dangerous things to his plane but can’t make anyone else believe him. Does it really matter what the terrible thing is?
I think not.
And then there’s “Living Doll,” which, while not quite as iconic as “Nightmare,” is one of the show’s most popular episodes. Telly Savalas stars as Erich, a married man in an extremely tense relationship with his wife Annabelle and his stepdaughter Christie.
(May I just take a moment as a writer to admire the effective way the show communicates that information? In the beginning of the episode Annabelle, returning home from a shopping trip with Christie, tells the little girl to hurry upstairs with her new doll before Erich sees it, and that’s literally all you need to hear to understand what this family’s life is like. *chef’s kiss*)
Erich’s pissed off when Annabelle buys Christie a talking doll he deems too expensive; he can’t father children of his own and seems to take Christie’s very existence as salt in that particular wound. And when Christie’s new talking doll takes a dislike to Erich and starts threatening him whenever they’re alone together…well.
We’re never told why or how the doll can do these things. Are all Talky Tinas sentient and homicidal, or just the one little Christie happened to bring home?
I dunno. Does it matter to this particular story? Let’s say the show offered a concrete explanation about Talky Tina’s behavior. Maybe it’s one of these:
– Talky Tina is the embodiment of Christie’s suppressed hatred for her mean asshole of a stepdad;
– Talky Tina is possessed by a demon;
– Talky Tina is possessed by the ghost of a recently-executed serial killer;
– Talky Tina’s manufacturer set her behavior switch to “Evil” instead of “Good.” (That’s what happened in The Simpsons Halloween parody of this episode. Which is hilarious.)
Would knowing any of those things make the episode more enjoyable? Would they even really matter? I say no. Talky Tina, and Erich’s responses to her, are wrecking the already-poor relationships he has with his wife and stepdaughter; the situation brings all kinds of family resentments boiling to the surface. It really doesn’t matter how Talky Tina can do what she does.
You can play this game with other popular Twilight Zone episodes. How come Anthony from “It’s A Good Life” has all those terrifying powers? Why were doubles following people around in “Mirror Image?” How did Marsha the mannequin in “After Hours” actually have a mother?
Does it matter?
In an era when everyone wants to know exactly what things are and why things are going wrong, the power of imagination has been lost. Explanations can detract from the horror rather than enhancing it. If you write a story like “Living Doll” that gives me a reason why Talky Tina can do what she does, and I think your reason is stupid, the entire story collapses.
I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes don’t give the viewer any reason for why everything’s gone all freaky. Sometimes weird or outright awful things happen for no obvious reason, and you simply can’t avoid them. You can drive yourself mad asking “Why?” and never get an answer. That’s terrifying. That’s also life.