Let’s Make a Deal: The Devil’s in The Twilight Zone
|November 23, 2012|
“Escape Clause”, The Twilight Zone, CBS, November 6, 1959
by Christopher Cappelluti
Reason dictates that the devil does not exist. As sophisticated 21st century people agree, it is absurd to put stock in the magical power of trinkets, ritualistic dances and incantations. While evil is apparent in the world — war, genocide, prejudice, hatred — few rational people would argue that the devil was responsible for such mayhem. It is thus illogical to believe in the devil. However, in television’s The Twilight Zone, the devil does exist and he operates according to logical protocol. Whether acting as an agent of poetic karma or performer of sheer mischief, the devil is formulaic in his designs and coherent in their execution.
Unlike the usual programming of the 1950s, Zone offered quality “narratives of horror and the supernatural…” and “established a reputation for [its] psychological dimension.” The devil, an archetype of supernatural horror, appears in six episodes; two written by Rod Serling, three by Charles Beaumont and one by Earl Hamner, Jr. Three of these six episodes are encounters, whereby the main character brushes up against the devil or his minions. The other three are tales of a pact; variations of a narrative motif which folklore morphologists categorize as AT 756B, or “the devil’s contract.” Though told innumerable times, the most famous rendition of the pact was written by Goethe, whereby Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for myriad boons. While the devil’s initial appearance in Zone’s first season was the series’ first comedic episode, by season four, episodes dealing with the devil became much darker and self-reflexive.
The devil first appears in Serling’s season one episode, “Escape Clause.” The main character, Walter Bedeker, is an egotistical hypochondriac who berates everyone, particularly his wife, Ethel. Bedridden Bedeker is convinced he is at death’s door, but during a house call, his doctor assures him that he is, in fact, quite healthy. The doctor’s diagnosis is psychosomatic symptoms. Bedeker calls the doctor a quack and casts him out along with Ethel, since they must be in collusion. As Bedeker waxes philosophical to himself on mortality, a well-spoken gentleman who goes by the name Cadwallader materializes. They discuss man’s mortality and, almost organically, a bargain is struck. In short, Cadwallader offers Bedeker immortality and indestructibility in exchange for his soul. It is when Cadwallader explicitly asks for this payment that Bedeker realizes with whom he is dealing: the devil.
Serling’s spin on the pact motif is notable. “Ordinarily, a man who enters into such a bargain desires, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, youth, wealth or beautiful women. None, though, are present here. The narrative illustrates [Serling’s] moral vision.” In this case, Bedeker is afraid of life and does not crave excitement but protection. As a hypochondriac he desires security from germs, other people, his mortality, etc. Furthermore, as a sarcastic misanthrope, he is not a sympathetic character. Ironically, it is the devil who is compassionate, as he writes an escape clause into the contract. “Article 93,” states that if Bedeker wishes to rescind his immortality, he may do so at any time. His soul, of course, is non-refundable.
“Behold,” he announces to Ethel, “the new Walter Bedeker!” Reborn, he capitalizes on his immortality, jumping in front of trains and buses to collect paltry insurance claims. Ultimately, however, Bedeker’s rebirth is into boredom. Without risk, he feels cheated — what good is immortality without any thrill? When Ethel tries to stop him from jumping off the roof, she falls to her death. He looks down from the roof, lighting a cigarette, wondering what it felt like. He then decides to turn himself in for murder, desiring to try the electric chair. Unfortunately, his savvy attorney manages to garner a life sentence. In his eternal cell, indestructible, Bedeker opts out through his escape clause thereby cementing the moral of Serling’s story: you cannot beat the devil.
As Serling represented the devil in a comedic pact, Charles Beaumont’s characterization was also a humorous encounter episode. In “A Nice Place to Visit,” Beaumont draws out his version of the journey to hell. Petty crook, Rocky Valentine, is caught robbing a jewelry store and, while evading arrest, is shot in the head. He wakes up at the feet of Pip, a white-bearded man in a dapper white suit. Pip is a guide whose sole purpose is to ensure that Valentine receives everything he wants. Valentine is furnished with a luxurious hotel suite, a stocked wardrobe, a casino where every table is rigged to his advantage, free room service, and three lovely ladies on his arm. It must be heaven.
“A Nice Place to Visit”, The Twilight Zone, CBS, April 15, 1960
However, when Valentine requests to visit some deceased friends, his pseudo-guardian angel disappoints him. According to Pip, the hotel, casino and all three women are not real but are, rather, components of Valentine’s “own private domain…made especially for [him] alone.” Everything Valentine sees, besides Pip, is a mere “prop” to bring pleasure. Valentine soon becomes unhappy, desiring the possibility of failure and the thrill of risk. He becomes dreadfully bored and this, according to Beaumont (as well as Serling’s Walter Bedeker), is the worst of fates: an eternity of private boredom. In order to escape, Valentine suggests that he might not be cut out for paradise, that maybe he should check out of heaven and pay a visit to what he calls the other place. “Heaven,” Pip asks, “whatever gave you the idea you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place.”
According to Zone writers, “man does not enter into a group-hell out of Dante.” Hell is created subjectively for each person, “every detail arranged to fit the unique missteps of an amoral individual living in what ultimately proves to be a moral universe.” While most flawed characters in Zone befall a fitting comeuppance, a poetic justice (or in Dante’s Italian; contrapasso), it is brought out of their own circumstances. Valentine is not relegated to a categorical circle of gamblers and thieves. Instead, hell is subjective; “Valentine carried his hell around inside him.” This characteristic is unique to the Zone among other 1950s television programs.
As Barnouw observes, “Telefilms rarely invited the viewer to look for problems within himself. Problems came from the evil of other people, and were solved—the teleplay seemed to imply—by confining or killing them’ (214). By contrast, The Twilight Zone seems to interrogate and criticize that very process of othering, reminding us that evil exists within all men (and, by extension, all societies).
In season two, Beaumont contributed a more harrowing encounter tale; “The Howling Man.” This episode is a philosophical examination of the nature of evil and the devil’s power of manipulation. It is a frame story in which the narrator, David Ellington, begins by recounting a tale—an unbelievable tale, he confesses—about a walking trip he had taken decades earlier through central Europe in the years following World War I. He had been caught in a storm and taken by fever before coming upon a hermitage called the Brotherhood of Truth. At first he is denied entry, but the reluctant monk lets him in. When Ellington asks about a howling which haunts the halls of the monastery, Brother Chistophorous tells him it is the wind. Ellington is then taken to the head monk, Brother Jerome, who decides that Ellington must leave immediately as they have no amenities for the ill. Then Ellington, being sick, cold and lost, collapses.
He awakens and wanders, finding the howling, jailed man who begs to be set free. The howling man claims to have kissed a woman whom Jerome was spurned by. In jealousy, Jerome raised his staff against the man and locked him away. According to the howling man, the Brotherhood is a mad outcast cult, estranged from the real world. Jerome approaches, cutting their conversation short, and takes Ellington away. “What you saw in the cell is Satan,” Jerome explains, “otherwise known as The Dark Angel, Ahriman, Asmodeus, Belial, Diabolus—the Devil.” Jerome then reveals how he had tracked down the devil, trapped him, and has held him patiently, enduring his howling, for five long years. The devil’s incarceration is what accounts for the world peace following the Great War. Of course, Jerome admits, in the eyes of a “sophisticated man” this story from a hermit assuredly sounds “primitive.” Though Ellington does not really believe the story, he tells Jerome that he does.
“The Howling Man”, The Twilight Zone, CBS, November 4, 1960
As everyone sleeps, Ellington sneaks out and frees the jailed man. After he does, the man forces Ellington to the ground before revealing himself as the devil and disappearing in a cloud of smoke. Jerome sheds pity upon Ellington, who is cursed with the consequences of his decision. “I didn’t believe you,” he says, “I saw him and didn’t recognize him.” But Jerome remains stoic: “That is man’s weakness and Satan’s strength.” Returning to the frame which closes the episode, Ellington narrates that this folly of judgment led to the Second World War, the Korean War, and the proliferation of atomic weapons. He is telling his story not to the audience, but to his maid, warning her to keep his closet door locked, for he has recaptured the howling devil. And even though Zone is popular for its twist endings, there is no surprise in what happens next. “Ancient folk saying,” Serling’s narrates, “you can catch the devil but you can’t hold him long.”
Jumping out of chronological order to season four, there is a return to the pact theme. Zone’s fourth season is notable for having one-hour episodes, instead of the standard half-hour, and is often scapegoated by critics as the series’ worst season. In “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” Serling presents capitalist mogul, Bill Feathersmith; incarnation of power’s corruptive properties. The underbelly of capitalism was a theme Serling had consistently confronted since his first emmy-winning teleplay, “Patterns.” Though, while “Patterns” was “a scathing indictment of the corporate world,” “Cliffordville” is a Faustian meditation on the corporate psyche.
The episode begins in 1963 with Feathersmith putting Mr. Diedrich, the man who gave him his start, out of business. Victorious, Feathersmith then sequesters himself for the day in the top-floor office to drink, slowly coming to the realization that there is nothing more to conquer. When the night custodian, Mr. Hecate, walks in, Feathersmith mocks his station in life. Then he starts to cry, and while the men talk, they discover that they share the same hometown of Cliffordville, Indiana. Hecate reads Feathersmith as a resident upon a lonely summit and, like Walter Bedekerand Rocky Valentine, he is consumed with boredom. “It’s worse than boredom,” Feathersmith confesses, “I’m rootless now. I just have no purpose, no plans, I have no drive, because there’s no place to go.”
“Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”, The Twilight Zone, CBS, April 11, 1963
Like Bedeker, it is existential boredom that brings Feathersmith to the devil, this time a female, who operates a travel agency on a floor in Feathersmith’s building. He and Miss Devlin agree that the pleasure is not in the possessing, but in the mad drive to possess. Feathersmith desires to go back to the Cliffordville of his thirties to build his empire all over again. So a deal is struck and, again, Serling offers a unique spin on the pact motif. It is Feathersmith, a man well versed in loopholes, who insists on drafting the contract’s terms. He demands to look exactly how he did in 1910 with an intact memory of all events taking place up to 1963. Interestingly, since Feathersmith had already lost his soul, the devil’s “standard payment” is not an option. Instead, Miss Devlin demands that he pay her by liquidating all of his assets, $36,891,412.14, minus $1412.14 which he can keep — no small sum for 1910. Feathersmith signs confidently, thinking he has the upper hand, because he knows where to find Cliffordville’s oil reserves and intends to exploit them as soon as possible.
He is then spirited away to 1910. “Cliffordville,” Feathersmith exclaims, “the devil, you say!” He aggressively buys up the oil-rich swampland with his nest egg and then gloats over his acquisition, confessing the land’s hidden wealth. However, to his chagrin, he becomes a laughingstock. It turns out that the oil’s existence was so secret in Cliffordville, however the technology needed to tap into it will not exist until 1937. Feathersmith then tries to cajole mechanics to bring his newfangled ideas to life, but without blueprints, Feathersmith is mocked. When Miss Devlin reappears he accuses her of being a liar and a cheat. Though, in this case the devil is neither. “Now let’s be fair about this Mr. Feathersmith,” she says, “let’s be reasoning and rational and thoughtful.”
Feathersmith was tricked not by the devil but by his arrogance and imperfect memory. Miss Devlin agrees to send him back to 1963 for $40. Penniless, he sells his land to the first person he finds, a young Mr. Hecate. The epilogue brings Feathersmith back to his top-floor office, except he is the janitor. Hecate is the new CEO, nostalgically recalling the hometown where he got his start, acting just as brutish as Feathersmith had. Not only are their roles reversed, but their personalities as well, and this demonstrates a darkening, fatalistic streak in Serling’s perception of humanity. In “Cliffordville,” “good and bad are not written in the cement of individual character; power corrupts absolutely.”
Beaumont’s characterization of the devil in season four is his only pact story. He had adapted “Printer’s Devil” from one of his own short stories, “The Devil, You Say?”. Douglas Winter, editor of the Dansburg Courier, is at the end of his career as the wealthier Gazette forces him under. The coup de grâce comes when Winter’s linotype operator, Andy, quits. With his dream dead, Winter drains a bottle of whiskey and drives to a bridge to contemplate suicide. He is stopped, however, by an old man named Smith who smokes a crooked cigar. Smith, who also happens to be a journalist, offers his services as a linotype operator and reporter pro bono and even loans Winter close to $5,000. Winter accepts the money and services, later asking his reluctant girlfriend, Jackie, “what have I got to lose?”
With Smith’s uncanny typing speed and nose for news, the Courier resurfaces, succeeding brilliantly. However, headlines grow increasingly diabolical; a high school principal is exposed as a bigamist, the Dansburg bank is robbed, the Gazette’s building catches fire, and other stories of death, destruction and doom unfurl. Oddly, Smith has his editions on the streets just minutes after the events occur. Then, one night, he makes a proposal to Winter. Though, as Beaumont tells the tale, this devil engages in exercises of reasoning in order to trick his signatory into believing that he is not actually the devil.
“Printer’s Devil”, The Twilight Zone, CBS, February 28, 1963
“As a sophisticated, intelligent, 20th century man,” Smith says, “you know that the devil does not exist.” Winter agrees. However, Smith suggests, Winter also knows that old, eccentric, rich men do exist, and he just asks to be thought of in that way. He says he will ply his unearthly skills for the Courier; all he wants is for Winter to sign a piece of paper which is essentially a single clause: that Winter cede his immortal soul to Smith. The alternative is Smith’s resignation and Winter’s certain failure. The two argue; Winter refuses to entertain such a ridiculous bargain while Smith uses the ridicule as fuel. He mocks Winter’s fear, baiting him as irrational to believe such nonsense; that a soul even exists. “Fancy that,” Smith says, “a grown up man who believes in the devil!” Of course, Winter is a rational man, so he signs the paper—what has he got to lose?
As the headlines grow more nefarious, Smith reveals that due to his modifications on the linotype machine, everything he prints becomes reality. The episode builds to a climax in which Smith makes an attempt on Jackie’s life. Winter realizes that, though it does not make sense, Smith is the devil and saves Jackie by using the malevolent machine. He types out a story whereby she is safe and Smith leaves Dansburg. Further, he types that his pact with the devil is rendered null and void since he did not understand the terms of the contract upon signing. Unlike Serling’s portrayals of the pact, Beaumont’s “Printer’s Devil” has a happy ending, as Winter apparently beats the devil at his own game.
Beaumont’s episode is also significant if considered as a self-reflexive nod back towards Zone as it entered its fourth season. Doug Winter resembles Rod Serling in appearance, action, and demeanor while Jackie Benson, his level-headed girlfriend, was constructed in the image of Rod’s wife Carol, who warned her husband not to sacrifice his integrity. As Winter’s linotype operator, Andy, quits to work for the Gazette, Buck Houghton, Zone’s magical producer for seasons one through three, had also amiably left the show to pursue other projects. One of the clauses of Zone’s contract with CBS for the fourth season insisted that the show change from its half-hour format to become an hour-long. Finally, the program’s official name was also changed from The Twilight Zone to, simply, Twilight Zone.
Beaumont’s parallels insinuate that agreeing to keep Zone on the air by catering to corporate desires was a sort of unholy pact. The same way Serling’s hypochondriac announces, “Behold—the new Walter Bedeker,” just after signing his contract, so too was the Zone reborn. “With its new producer and new time length, the name change was indeed symbolic. …[The new Zone] only faintly resembled the old version which had enchanted millions for three years.” Although the program survived for two more seasons, Serling admitted it was not on par with the first three years. “Printer’s Devil” is an example of how Zone provides “us not so much with the sort of ‘escape’ … but rather with a mirror of and access to our increasingly complex cultural landscape.”
Finally, going back to season three, the devil’s sixth appearance in Zone is a Southern Gothic encounter episode, “The Hunt,” by Earl Hamner, Jr.. After Hyder Simpson and his dog, Rip, die by drowning, they walk a road which brings them to a gate. The cordial gatekeeper, assumed to be Saint Peter, encourages Simpson to enter heaven. But Rip starts barking, spooked by the smoke billowing beyond. Annoyed, the gatekeeper forbids Rip, telling Simpson that there is another heaven for dogs. Perturbed by this, Simpson actually refuses to enter heaven. “Any place that’s too hifalutin for Rip,” he says, “is too fancy for me.”
“The Hunt”, The Twilight Zone, CBS, January 26, 1962
Simpson follows his gut instead of Saint Peter’s reasoning, deciding to forsake heaven and take to Eternity Road. But, before long, he begins to second guess his decision. An angel soon finds them explaining that he was sent to guide them to heaven. Simpson is suspicious; he had already spoken with Saint Peter. The angel then reveals that Simpson was not speaking with God’s servant but with the devil at the gates of hell. Of course dogs are allowed in heaven. The devil denied Rip since he would have warned Simpson after sniffing the brimstone. Unlike “The Howling Man,” “The Hunt” is an encounter with a happy ending. Because he was loyal to his best friend, Simpson is taken to paradise.
Whether in episodes of infernal encounters or unholy pacts, the devil exists in The Twilight Zone as a mischievous liar, an expert lawyer and a mirror of the baggage a person brings to him. These six episodes repeatedly reveal that rational, sophisticated, modern people do not believe in the devil. However, the devil is characterized as modern, rational and quite sophisticated, though also as a misleader whose dealings are pocked with stringent logic and legal loopholes. Zone writers knew that reasonable people are fallible, corruptible and seemingly eager to deal with the devil at any given time. These writers have held a mirror up to humanity, revealing that an over-reliance on reason can trick people and an inability to find a footing amid natural, irrational impulses can cause the slips that empower Old Scratch. Hamner seals this point in “The Hunt.” “A man… [will] walk right into hell with both eyes open,” he explains, “but even the devil can’t fool a dog.”
Brode, Douglas and Serling, Carol. Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2009.
Carroll, Noël. “Tales of Dread in The Twilight Zone: A Contribution to Narratology,” In Philosophy in The Twilight Zone, Noël Carroll and Lester Hunt (eds.). Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
Hill, Rodney. “Anthology Drama: Mapping The Twilight Zone’s Cultural and Mythological Terrain,” In The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, J.P. Telotte (ed.). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
Presnell, Don and McGee, Marty. A Critical History of Television’s The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co. Inc., Publishers, 1998.
Telotte, J. P. (ed.). The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection. CBS. Oct. 2006. DVD.
Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (Part I: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction). Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 2011.
Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1989.
 J.P. Telotte, The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008, 11.
 Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, Part I. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and
 Douglas Brode, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2009, 131.
 Ibid., 132.
 Rod Serling, “Escape Clause,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.
 Charles Beaumont, “A Nice Place to Visit,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.
 Douglas Brode, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, 189.
 Ibid., 189-190.
 Noël Carroll, “Tales of Dread in The Twilight Zone: A Contribution to Narratology,” in Philosophy in The Twilight Zone, Noël Carroll and Lester Hunt (eds.), Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009, 29-30.
 Douglas Brode, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, 125.
 Rodney Hill, “Anthology Drama: Mapping The Twilight Zone’s Cultural and Mythological Terrain,” in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, J.P. Telotte (ed.), Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008, 118.
 Charles Beaumont, “The Howling Man,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.
 Don Presnell and Marty McGee, A Critical History of Television’s The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co. Inc., Publishers, 1998, 23.
 Rodney Hill, “Anthology Drama: Mapping The Twilight Zone’s Cultural and Mythological Terrain,” 112.
 Douglas Brode, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, 144.
 Rod Serling, “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.
 Douglas Brode, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, 146.
 Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1989, 326.
 Charles Beaumont, “Printer’s Devil,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.
 Douglas Brode, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, 140-141.
 Ibid., 141.
 Don Presnell and Marty McGee, A Critical History of Television’s The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964, 21.
 Ibid., 22.
 Rod Serling, “Escape Clause.”
 Don Presnell and Marty McGee, A Critical History of Television’s The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964, 22.
 Ibid., 23.
 Rodney Hill, “Anthology Drama: Mapping The Twilight Zone’s Cultural and Mythological Terrain,” 111.
 Earl Hamner, Jr., “The Hunt,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.
 Earl Hamner, Jr., “The Hunt.”
About the Author:
Christopher Cappelluti has contributed fiction and non-fiction to Anamesa, American Book Review, Berfrois, and nycBigCityLit (forthcoming). His research on James Joyce and Dante had won grand prize at New York University’s 2012 Threesis Academic Challenge, in which competitors present their master’s theses in three minutes. Christopher currently works in the Expository Writing Program at NYU and lives in Brooklyn.
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