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
#14 - Nightmares in Wax, from “The New Exhibit,” season four, episode 115
Written by Jerry Sohl (credited to Charles Beaumont), directed by John Brahm, starring Martin Balsam
“The New Exhibit” is another grim offering on the series that walks the tightrope between supernatural and psychological horror. The story is cloaked in just enough ambiguity to conceal the true nature of the narrative and works equally well as a story of murderous wax figures imbued with life or as a story of a man in the middle of a homicidal breakdown unable to accept his horrid deeds. Horror stories revolving around wax effigies, particularly the effigies of famous murderers, was a well-worn theme by the time the series approached the material for an hour-long episode of the fourth season (see A.M. Burrage’s oft-adapted 1931 story “The Waxwork,” and the silent film Waxworks (1924)). There are some motifs of the horror story, ventriloquist dummies being another example, which are both enduring and versatile. “The New Exhibit” is one of the most evenly paced offerings from a generally uneven fourth season and consistent director John Brahm handles the proceedings effectively and without distracting flourishes. Brahm’s use of a perspective framing shot for the climactic moment in which the wax figures slowly come alive and move off their pedestals is brilliantly staged, giving the sequence the feeling of a picture coming horribly to life. Though some commentators have suggested “The New Exhibit” would be more appropriate for a series such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour or Thriller (series which frequently presented stories of supernatural suspense), this notion flies in the face of the fact that The Twilight Zone frequently traveled along the paths of the horror story. One could argue that more horror stories were presented on the series than were science fiction stories, considering that the series rarely concerned itself with scientific inquiry and typically used the fantasy construct inherent in the science fiction story for its own purposes. One need only look to episodes such as “The Hitch-Hiker,” “The Howling Man,” “The Dummy,” or “The Masks” (or any others on this countdown) to see that the series was equally adept at the tale of supernatural terror as with any other type of tale, and perhaps more so.
-“The New Exhibit” is the first of three episodes of the series which were ghost-written by science fiction author Jerry Sohl and presented as the work of regular series writer Charles Beaumont. Beaumont became very ill from an aggressive form of mental degeneration that has been attributed to everything from early onset Alzheimer’s to lead poisoning. Beaumont soon lost his ability to write but had acquired numerous writing assignments including work for The Twilight Zone. In an effort to honor his commitments and continue to provide for his family, Beaumont entered into an agreement with his friend Jerry Sohl in which Sohl would provide scripts for The Twilight Zone under Beaumont’s name for fifty percent of the payment. Sohl, himself an accomplished writer for television, agreed to this arrangement largely because the Beaumont household had begun to struggle financially under the burden of Beaumont’s debilitating illness. What remains unclear, even at this late a date, is what, if anything, Beaumont contributed to the three teleplays, which also included the fifth season episodes “Living Doll” and “Queen of the Nile,” this latter episode a virtual remake of Beaumont’s first season episode, “Long Live Walter Jameson.”