The Twilight Zone is an amazingly diverse program that offers stories of almost every conceivable theme and setting within the overall structure of intelligent modern fantasy. One area in which The Twilight Zone excelled was in the story of terror, exploring the darkest aspects of human existence in myriad ways. To celebrate the Halloween season, we’re counting down the 31 most frightening and unsettling moments from The Twilight Zone, one for each day of October. We’ll be revisiting some of the episodes we’ve already covered and looking ahead to episodes from the final three seasons of the series. -JP
#6 - Jack in the Box, from “It’s a Good Life,” season three, episode 73
Written by Rod Serling (from the Jerome Bixby story), directed by James Sheldon, starring Bill Mumy, John Larch, Cloris Leachman, Don Keefer, Alice Frost
Rod Serling’s adaptation of Jerome Bixby’s disturbing short story is chock full of unsettling moments, none more so than when the character Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), reinforced with liquor, decides to take a stand against the omnipotent child monster Anthony Freemont (Bill Mumy) during one of the strangest and most tension-filled birthday party ever presented on television. Hollis is betting on help from the final small group of townspeople Anthony has allowed to live in a closed off world, which includes Anthony’s own parents and his lobotomized Aunt Amy. Hollis quickly realizes, to his utter horror, that there will be no help. Anthony’s reign of terror has completely negated any chance that someone will step up and attempt to kill the monstrous child. In a horrible instant, the viewer can see the moment of decision go against Hollis in the faces of the others. Hollis’s reward for his attempted uprising is to be transformed into a grotesque jack in the box, with his dead face springing out at the others, mockingly topped with a conical birthday hat. “It’s a Good Life” is a masterpiece of tension and terror. Bill Mumy is resplendently terrifying in his iconic role as Anthony but everyone in the episode is undeniably convincing. In a fantastic adaptation by Serling, he removed all of Anthony’s inner monologues from the story and focused the narrative on those around Anthony. These terrified people quickly become stand-ins for the viewer and we can easily visualize ourselves trapped in that nightmare world. The interesting philosophical question which arises from the episode is whether Anthony was born a monster or whether he was unable to properly mature psychologically and emotionally because of his terrible power. Whatever the case, “It’s a Good Life” remains one of the most potently terrifying moments from the series and an enduring piece of American television.
-Jerome Bixby’s original short story, properly titled “It’s a Good Life,” was first published in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 (Ballantine, 1953), edited by Frederick Pohl.
-A sequel to “It’s a Good Life” was produced for the third incarnation of the series, which aired on UPN from 2002-2003, titled “It’s Still a Good Life,” starring Bill Mumy as an adult Anthony Freemont and Mumy’s daughter Liliana Mumy portraying Anthony’s daughter Audrey Freemont.
Read our full coverage of “It’s a Good Life” here.