The Twilight Zone is one of those shows that holds partial responsibility for igniting a love of psychological horror and great storytelling across generations of young creatives. And after a feature length film, a radio show, a theme park attraction, a book, and several revivals that span the late fifties to the early part of the 21st century, The Twilight Zone has become something of a cult legend. The show is something that filmmakers and artists will continue to look back on fondly — and for inspiration.
But not all Twilight Zone episodes are created equal. The show is not above a few really bad episodes, and quite a few forgettable ones. This list will include the best of the best. We’re looking for things like storytelling, originality, humor, terror, and overall engaging plots that keep viewers emotionally invested from the opening theme song to Rod Serling’s episode outro.
Check out The 15 Best Twilight Zone Episodes of All Time.
15. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Why not start off with a widely known fan favorite? William Shatner blessed us with his overacting in this airborne episode from the fifth season circa 1963.
In this episode, Bob Wilson (Shatner) is on a flight with his wife nearly six months after he suffered a nervous breakdown while on another plane. He is traveling home after being institutionalized. Clearly nervous but holding his own, Bob quietly waits for the flight to be over with. However, he catches sight of some sort of horrible gremlin-like creature on the wing of the plane. After every attempt to get his wife and the flight attendants to look out of his window, the monster leaps out of sight. His credibility is already tarnished due to his past, so nobody believes what he’s saying. Bob descends into a panic and grows more and more desperate to get the plane to land before the creature can cause it to crash. Throughout the episode, you’re left wondering if there is a creature on the wing or if Bob has gone into full blown psychosis.
14. The Invaders
The fifteenth episode of season two follows the interaction between an old woman and the alien invaders who terrorize her. The woman (portrayed by Agnes Moorehead of Citizen Kane fame) lives alone in her rustic home without modern amenities or technology. The intruders are tiny creatures in comically cute robotic-looking space suits. But there’s nothing cute about these tiny intruders; in fact, you’ll find yourself rooting for the old woman all the way until the end, even when the sort of predictable plot twist reveals itself.
The main allure of this episode was the complete absence of dialogue until the very end. All you can hear through the episode is the classic ’50s laser soundbite and the groans and cries of the injured woman. Another distinct trait of this episode was the one-woman performance by Moorehead, which she performed fantastically. “The Invaders” was later adapted for The Twilight Zone’s radio show.
13. It’s a Good Life
The eighth episode of the third season was quite possibly the most utterly frustrating episode of The Twilight Zone to date — as well as one of the best. It was originally based on the short story of the same name by Jerome Bixby.
The episode focuses on a town called Peaksville that apparently exists in some strange limbo in the universe; either the rest of the world was destroyed, or Peaksville exists in some kind of alternate void. Regardless, they live in constant emotional and physical turmoil, and they’re antagonized by a vicious monster that happens to be a little freckle-faced human (or something like it) no older than six. This little guy is Anthony, some kind of godlike child with the ability to read minds, create thought forms, make people disappear, mutate other living beings, and control the weather.
12. Living Doll
If you don’t like dolls, you should probably skip the sixth episode of the fifth season of The Twilight Zone. “Living Doll” stars a freakishly creepy doll named Talky Tina who talks, giggles, and dishes out death threats.
Annabelle and her daughter Christie are having trouble adjusting to their new life with Annabelle’s new husband, Erich. The new hubby is a royal jerk who strongly dislikes Christie because she is not his child. Annabelle purchases a Talky Tina doll to comfort the dejected child, and Erich is furious at the waste of money. He soon discovers that when the mother and daughter aren’t around, Talky Tina voices her grievances, starting off with “My name is Talky Tina, and I don’t think I like you.” What ensues is a psychological battle between Erich and Talky Tina, with Erich becoming increasingly terrified of the doll and Tina becoming a lot more chatty about some very scary things.
11. A World of Difference
The twenty-third episode of the first season stars Howard Duff as Arthur/Gerald. It is widely considered to be one of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes, as it chooses to focus on inward struggles as opposed to science fiction themes.
Most of the episode is set in Arthur’s office as the businessman is preparing to go on vacation with his wife. Reality quickly becomes warped early on when Arthur realizes his office phone doesn’t work, and he’s actually on a movie set instead of his office. Everyone he encounters reiterates that he’s not Arthur, but Gerald Raigan, an actor attempting to portray the fictional Arthur. His life as a film star is very different from his life as Arthur — as Gerald, he’s in the middle of a brutal divorce and has a crippling drinking problem.
10. Where is Everybody
This iconic episode happens to be the pilot that launched The Twilight Zone into popularity. In “Where is Everybody?” a young man dressed in what appears to be a ’50s military jumpsuit wanders into an open cafe. This young man is suffering from a serious case of amnesia, and he’s unable to remember where he came from or how he got there. After trying to call for someone to cook him some food, he realizes the place is empty — despite freshly prepared food sitting out and a whistling kettle going off moments after his arrival.
After wandering around the town for a while, he realizes the there isn’t a single soul around, despite the fact that the town is fully functional and operating. Despite how seemingly alone he is, he can’t seem to shake the unsettling feeling that he’s being watched. On top of that, he finds a book rack at a parlor that only features copies of the same book — The Last Man on Earth, dated 1959 (the year in which the inaugural episode first aired).
9. The After Hours
The 34th episode of the original series is an interesting one that puts the viewer in an alternate universe that isn’t entirely alternate, but merely hidden from view.
Marsha arrives at a Bergdorf-style department store in order to find a gift for her mother. She decides that a gold thimble would be the best option (for some reason). She is taken via an elevator to the ninth floor, which isn’t shown on the elevator’s indicia. Beyond the doors is an empty, dark floor with no one but a vacant sales clerk who just happens to have exactly what Marsha needs, and nothing else. After purchasing the thimble, Marsha realizes the item is dented and scratched. When she returns downstairs to complain about the product and poor customer service, she’s told that there is no ninth floor. When she points out the rude sales clerk who sold her the thimble, she realizes that it’s only a mannequin with similar hair and dress. Or is it?
8. Five Characters in Search of an Exit
This fan favorite marks the 14th episode of the third season. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is as accurately descriptive as you can get for an episode title. A ballerina, a soldier, a clown, a hobo, and a bagpipe player find themselves trapped in some kind of giant dark doorless vessel. All of these victims are suffering from amnesia, with no recollection of who they are or how they became trapped in the dark pit.
All of them have their guesses about their origins. The ballerina believes they’ve been abducted by aliens, or maybe one of them is insane and hallucinating the entire experience. The clown believes that they are involved in one another’s very vivid dreams. The hobo believes they are dead and in purgatory, waiting for a spot in the afterlife. The bagpiper thinks they don’t actually exist at all, and the army man believes they are in Hell. Somehow, all of them end up being incorrect.
7. The Hitch-hiker
This gem is based on a Lucille Fletcher work called The Hitch-Hiker, and it first hit the small screen as the 16th episode of the original series.
Nan is a beautiful young woman traveling alone across the country from New York to California for a sort of coming-of-age trip. She gets a flat tire after an outwardly benign accident when she sees him for the first time — the strange man, motioning to be picked up. While the man appears to be an ordinary hitchhiker, Nan finds him deeply unsettling. She sees him again at the repair shop, but when she points him out to the repairman, he disappears. And it doesn’t stop there. She continues to see the hitchhiker everywhere, but nobody else seems to notice him. What ensues is a frightening cat and mouse game in which the hitchhiker appears everywhere Nan stops, causing her to descend into paranoid hysteria. And after pulling over to call her mother near Arizona, she uncovers a frightening revelation.
6. The Bewitchin’ pool
“The Bewitchin’ Pool” is not only one of The Twilight Zone‘s most creative episodes, but it also stands as the original series’ finale. The episode was released in mid-1964 and marked the end of the original series on a positive, uplifting, and utterly bizarre note.
The leading lady of the episode is Sport, portrayed by Mary Badham of To Kill a Mockingbird fame. Sport and her little brother Jeb live in a tumultuous family with cold, cruel, and self-absorbed parents. One day, while sitting outside of their home’s outdoor pool, a boy named Whitt appears from underneath the water and promptly invites them to follow him somewhere better. After diving underwater, the three come up in a completely different world. They don’t emerge from their swimming pool, but rather a swimming hole in the woods. The children meet Aunt T, a kind and benevolent woman with dozens of children living at her quaint little homestead. Aunt T explains that unloved children just sort of show up there, and the two kids are face with a dilemma — either they stay with their crappy parents, or they live with this complete stranger in some sort of alternate universe.
5. The Monsters are Due on Maple Street
“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is the 22nd episode of the first season. While The Twilight Zone has never been shy about themes involving the ugly nature of human beings, this episode features one of the most iconic commentaries on human nature the series ever explored. It’s also one of Rod Serling’s best written pieces.
Maple Street is a suburban neighborhood with happy children, friendly homeowners, and blissful American Dream-like scenery. One day, a massive unseen “monster” passes by while everyone is outside enjoying their daily lives, and it’s accompanied by a terrifying roar and bright light. Nobody hears an alarm, and the power is cut from the entire neighborhood. A young boy named Tommy believes that an alien invasion is taking place, based on similarities between their situation and what he read in a science fiction novel. The neighborhood descends into a panic, and many come to believe that aliens are impersonating one of the families. A witch-hunt ensues, and the people of Maple Street create paranoia and danger within their community. The ending (which we won’t spoil here) is truly perfect, and it really makes you think about the human capacity to become paranoid and panic-stricken based on even the slightest strange event.
4. To Serve Man
This science fiction classic, which debuted as the 24th episode of the third season, is one of the most recognizable episodes of The Twilight Zone series, and its based on a Damon Knight story of the same name.
The episode opens with a shot of a man named Michael lying in a cot in a strange, futuristic room. A disembodied voice commands that he eat and Michael refuses. Most of the episode is a flashback of Michael’s perspective of what led him to be there.
An alien race of tall, large-headed humanoids (called Kanamits) arrive on Earth with promises of aiding humanity. After an anxious meeting with the United Nations, one of the Kanamits leaves a book written in their language behind. Michael is a cryptographer hired by the government to decipher the book. Quickly, life on Earth is turned upside down, but on the whole, things seem to be improving. The Kanamits offer up trips to their home planet, and of course, Michael has been invited. The moment he boards, though, his assistant arrives to stop him, claiming that she finished deciphering the Kanamits’ book.
3. Time Enough at Last
This episode is another iconic and easily recognizable work. It stands as the eighth episode of the original series, and was adapted from a short story by Lynn Venable.
In “Time Enough at Last”, we meet a man named Henry who is bookish and passionate about reading. He works as a bank teller and pays little attention to his job. His boss and wife are cruel to him, and often say belligerent things to him and play mean pranks on him. One day, he decides to take his lunch break in one of the bank vaults so his reading will not be disturbed. An enormous explosion happens, and Henry is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he realizes that an H-bomb has been dropped and has completely wiped out the Earth. Initially devastated and contemplating suicide, Henry sees the local library in the distance. Much of the interior wasn’t destroyed and Henry realizes that he finally has all the time in the world to read without being bullied. The ending is one of the most memorable of the series, and has been referenced in pop culture quite a few times over the years.
2. Eye of the Beholder
The sixth episode of the second season is another ultra popular episode from the original Twilight Zone, and it’s one that features quite an interesting theme. The episode was later remade for The Twilight Zone revival series in 2003.
Janet has just had her eleventh plastic surgery treatment in order to look normal. She’s initially shown with a completely bandaged head upon waking up from her surgery, but she wants her bandages removed early so she can see the outcome of the surgery. Her doctor is sympathetic, as is the nurse. The doctor angrily questions why anyone has to be judged on their physical appearance, and the nurse’s nervous hushing reveals that they live in some sort of dystopian society where questioning certain things is considered treason. When the bandages are removed, the doctor and nurse are visibly shaken and disappointed, claiming that the surgery was a failure. But when the camera pans out, we see a very conventionally beautiful woman. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and most of the beholders in this society are grotesque, pig-like creatures. Janet is exiled to a village full of uglies where her horrible appearance won’t bother anyone else.
1. Walking Distance
Not every Twilight Zone episode has to have thrills and chills to be good. “Walking Distance”, the fifth episode of the original series, is a great example of strange storytelling that doubles as heartwarming and relatable fun.
The episode opens with Martin driving through the countryside. He stops at a gas station and realizes that his hometown is fairly close by. He walks to Homewood (a little on the nose, we know) and discovers something strange: nothing has changed. Time apparently came to an abrupt stop in the town, and it’s still 1934. Martin soon realizes that he’s taking a stroll through the past and sees his younger self. He inadvertently interacts with his father from the past, who surprisingly believes his claims of time-travel.
This episode explored the risks of getting caught up in nostalgia and how disillusioned adults really are when it comes to getting older. The story is considered to be one of the finest works Serling ever produced, as well as the most touching and thought-provoking.
What’s your favorite episode of The Twilight Zone? Let us know in the comments.
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