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The Essential Geek #24: "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"

The Essential Geek #24: "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"

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Paranoia strikes deep. Into your heart it will creep.

At least, that's what Buffalo Springfield said. And they're ALWAYS right.

Seriously, they had a point. Paranoia and the fear it inspires can be almost intoxicating in their own way. One minute, we're legitimately cautious about possible future terror attacks; the next, it's Code Orange and time to leap into the thought-proof bunker. Watch Fox News for a few minutes and you'll see what I mean; it's the freakin' Paranoia Channel..

We live in a paranoid age, and short of shutting down the world's major news outlets for a day and encouraging the good people of this planet to CHILL, there's not too much we can do about it. Fear is a powerful enough emotion that it sells, and so the networks and the newspapers can stir up their audience by latching onto whichever the terror du jour may happen to be.

Over forty years ago, Rod Serling penned a human fable that took its own inspiration from the McCarthy hearings and the red scare of the fifties, and yet its lessons still hold true for our own paranoid age. It was episode 22 of the first season of "The Twilight Zone," original airdate March 4 1960, "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."

Like all great stories, its specifics are simple and plain. Claude Aikins portrays Steve Brand, one of the many residents of Maple Street wrapped up in a strange evening when all of the electricity seems to go out after a meteor passes overhead. Pete Van Horn heads off the street to discover what could be wrong, and the rest of the street's inhabitants are thrust together in their confusion over the seemingly random occurrence.

It's little Tommy, an avid sci-fi reader (a young geek!) who makes what at first seems like a ludicrous suggestion. His theory is that aliens who look just like you and I have infiltrated the small community. Impossibly, Tommy's theory slowly starts to take hold, as one by one the citizens become increasingly suspicious of one another. What especially freaks out the residents of Maple Street are bizarre, brief returns of power to only certain people's homes and cars. When a car suddenly starts up out of nowhere, instantly the owner of that car is branded as a sure-fire alien, and all fingers turn to them for pointing.

Slowly, carefully, methodically even, the paranoia builds. Eventually everyone points in every direction; each resident has their own attributes and behaviors that make them worthy of suspicion. Then Pete Van Horn returns from his exploratory mission, and things take a dark turn, and there's the classic "Twilight Zone" twist ending...one I won't spoil here for those who haven't seen the episode yet.

Every time I watch an episode of "Twilight Zone," whether it's one I've never seen or one I've seen before, I'm newly amazed at exactly how this brave, bold and brilliant series made it to the airwaves and continued for as long as it did. "The Monsters Are Due..." is a classic example of what made this show great. The specifics of the story are easy for anyone to understand and even empathize with; we've all been inconvenienced by an unexpected power outage. But it's not long before the tale takes twists that tie into deep and primal feelings to which we've all surrendered at some point. Whether it's the new guy in the office, the neighbor next door, or the person to your right on your next airplane voyage, suspicion and paranoia are emotions that lurk simmering beneath each of our surfaces. We may not always admit to them, and we usually don't act on them either. And yet, there they are, comforting and familiar in their own way.

How masterful of Serling to recognize those fears and tap into them with such a simple story. It's just a power outage, just a quiet street, just like any other quiet street in America...it only takes a few stray comments and a churning mob mentality to tear this sliver of "society" asunder.

I don't know that there's been a writer in television with quite the depth and scope of creativity that Rod Serling had. There have been plenty of great TV producers, from Carl Reiner to Joss Whedon and beyond, but few of them have acted as the kind of full-on auteur that Serling was. He wrote many of the "Twilight Zone" episodes, oversaw the writing of others by some of the genre's top talents, and even appeared on-camera as the host of the series. And unlike writers such as David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin, who have themselves shouldered writing credits on most if not all of their series' individual episodes, Serling had no recurring characters or situations to fall back on. Just the broad idea of a show about worlds like our own, yet divergent in some way; places and times and people who we could recognize, but who took strange turns down unknown paths and led us to unimaginable storytelling twists and concepts.

Throughout, he made it look easy. And when it comes to vintage Serling, there's maybe no better testimony to his genius than "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street."

You can run out to your local video store now and pick up "Monsters Are Due..." on volume 2 of Image Entertainment's "Twilight Zone" DVD series. The disc contains four episodes, all classics, but none of them in season or airdate order. If you're more patient, you might want to wait until December 28, when Image begins its re-release of "The Twilight Zone" in full season boxed sets, which will include new extras and special features.

Either way you slice it, you're in for a treat anytime you enter the Twilight Zone...but especially if your destination happens to be Maple Street. It's a street not unlike your own, but with one small difference--paranoia, striking deep.

Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.

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