By: Kathryn Hampshire
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
—The Twilight Zone, Season 1 opening narration
One of the most iconic shows of the twentieth century, The Twilight Zone remains popular despite the fact that the last episode aired over fifty years ago: it is still part of many families’ holiday traditions to watch reruns on the New Year’s Eve marathon on the SyFy channel each year. Under the guidance of creator/head writer/host Rod Serling, this show presented audiences with a combination of horror, mystery, science fiction, drama, suspense, fantasy, comedy, and superstition. What Rosemarie Garland Thomson has said of the freak show is also true of the Twilight Zone; it is a place where boundaries are blurred and category crises explored, a “middle ground” between categories, as the opening narration states.
According to Arlen Schumer, author of Visions from The Twilight Zone, episodes of the show focus on five themes: suburban nightmares, a question of identity, science and superstition, the time element, and the obsolete man. When discussing the last theme, Schumer states that Serling’s “most recurring theme” was “alienation of the individual through bigotry, prejudice, racism, and corporate and technological oppression.” The show includes episodes like “Eye of the Beholder” and “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” which emphasize the subjectivity of normalcy and the enforcement of extreme conformity; they also delve into the world of aliens (for example, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”) and the topic of racism (like “The Shelter”). In these ways, The Twilight Zone has never shied away from topics of otherness.
The episode, “People are Alike All Over,” features a literal human zoo in order to explore issues of otherness and the power of the gaze. It suggests that there is a human tendency toward this type of cruelty. This episode takes the concept of alienation, noted by Schumer, and explores it in relation to the act of staring and the sensation of being stared at. In this compelling episode, two men venture into space to discover the unknown, but one of the men thinks he knows exactly what they will find… and he turns out to be right.
Sam Conrad and Mark Marcusson are travelling to Mars, and their attitudes couldn’t be more different: while Marcusson is excited at the prospect of new discoveries, Conrad is apprehensive about what they’ll find in the unknown. Marcusson has what he calls “a philosophy about all people,” and he predicts that they will find that Martians are just like Earth’s human beings. When they crash land on the planet and Marcusson dies soon after, Conrad finds himself the only human on a planet full of aliens; however, their apparent ability to speak his language (when he is, in fact, speaking theirs), humanoid appearance, and guise of good manners put him at ease. They welcome him to their planet and prepare a place for him to stay that seems just like a home on Earth. However, soon after settling in to what he thinks is a temporary guest house, he discovers the terrible truth: it is actually a cage in this world’s version of a zoo, complete with a sign outside stating, “Earth creature in his native habitat.” The episode ends with Conrad bemoaning the fact that Marcusson was correct, after all: “Marcusson, Marcusson… you were right… you were right…. People are alike… people are alike everywhere.” In this moment, it becomes apparent to the audience members–people themselves–that they are included in this frightening observation.
This episode fits into two of Schumer’s categories: obsolete man, and science and superstition. According to Schumer, Serling uses this episode “as a front for his more personal, serious theme… writing against prejudice and racism on earth/America thinly disguised as a plea for interplanetary understanding. Indeed, this sentiment is never clearer than when Marcusson says in his dying breath, “People are alike all over—I’m sure that when God made human beings, he developed them from a fixed formula. As long as they’ve got minds and hearts, that means they have souls… That makes them people, and people are alike,” a hopeful sentiment that points toward the inherent goodness of mankind.
However, this theme takes a darker turn as the episode progresses. Schumer observes, “His surviving astronaut partner does find out, to his chagrin, that people, whether on earth or other planets, were indeed alike, in their capacity for evil as well as good.” More specifically, this episode points to how people have not only the capability of, but also the propensity toward, freakifying otherness throughout history.
It goes without saying that Conrad finds himself in a human zoo because he is different from the Martians. The fact that the episode makes great efforts to first demonstrate their similarities (as well as the similarities between all humans involved: the audience members, the explorers, and the aliens) creates a situation that viewers perceive as ridiculous. It calls into question the validity of exhibiting human beings—and, more subtly, othering them—on earth, especially because every person who has historically been exhibited has, in fact, originated on the same planet as those exhibiting them. By pointing out the absurdity of this fictional situation, this episode serves to bring to light the same quality in human exhibition throughout history as well as issues of racism during the show’s time period.
By utilizing freak show conventions, “People Are Alike All Over” makes audience members acutely aware of the gaze throughout the episode, from the moment that the aliens first encounter the human being to the end with their blatant stare at the new exhibit. According to Rosemarie Garland Thomson, staring creates a power dynamic between the object of the stare and the person doing the staring. She identifies four different visual rhetorics that govern the representation of people with disabilities, three of which she finds othering. These same rhetorics are employed in the representation of “others” in this episode.
When Conrad steps out of the mangled spaceship, he encounters a veritable wall of alien beings staring at him as he stares back. This creates the first example of the gaze as a method of othering, in the way that viewers would expect. He seems to be engaged in the visual rhetoric of the wondrous, expressing “amazement and admiration,” the type of stare that people would expect from a human being toward an alien race. At the same time, though, the aliens stare at him through an exotic lens, seeing him as “alien, distant, often sensationalized, eroticized, or entertaining in their difference” (Thomson 59, 65). Thomson’s examination of the exotic continues, saying that it “fascinates, and seduces with exaggeration, creating a sensationalized embellished alien” (66). The way the aliens look at Conrad is the way that we would expect human beings to look at an alien if one were to crash land on our own planet. Additionally, by placing him in a cage at the end, they complete their engagement with the exotic rhetoric by exemplifying it to the extreme: in this setting, they make it very clear they intend to use him as a source of amazement and fascination, complete with the embellishment of quaint living quarters and a sign labeling the exhibit.
This combination of fascination and fear we see in the eyes of the other aliens when faced with this “Earth creature” is very different from the combination we see in a female of their species named Tinia’s eyes: she looks at Conrad with a combination of discomfort with the actions of her peers and pity for this poor, pathetic earthling. Thus, the way that she looks at him throughout the episode engages with sentimental visual rhetoric.
These sentiments come together in the end of the episode when Conrad stares out at the crowd of aliens staring at him, and meets Tinia’s eyes, full of pity, before she turns and runs away from the spectacle, her discomfort overcoming her in that moment. Although her gaze seems to be the least harmful of those in this episode, the sentimental stare is problematic in its own right: it “diminishes” its subject into either “the sympathetic victim or helpless sufferer” (Garland-Thomson 63). Instead of seeing Conrad as a being of equal dignity to herself, her gaze turns him into an object of pity.
Before this analysis comes to a close, it is important to consider one other important gaze at work here: that of the viewer. Even though the content may lead an audience to side with one of the three different points of view discussed above, the way that Serling frames the story creates an opportunity for viewers to instead see it through the one lens that Thomson does not find othering, realistic lens. According to Thomson, the realistic visual rhetoric “minimizes distance and difference by establishing a relation of contiguity between viewer and viewed” (69). The main point of the episode, that “People Are Alike All Over,” invites members of the audience to question their own similarities to the characters, motivations, and actions happening on screen. Although it is impossible that anyone could relate directly to these fantastical experiences, the concepts of otherness, freakification, racism, and the gaze (both being the starer and the stared at) are relatable to the general audience and important to consider long after the episode’s credits roll.
At the end of each Twilight Zone episode, Serling wraps up the story with a closing narration that summarizes the main themes while simultaneously planting another seed for contemplation in the minds of audience members. This episode is no different: in the following excerpt, Serling points out the subjectivity of personhood by placing the label of “animal” upon Conrad and transitively on the audience members themselves.
“Species of animal brought back alive. Interesting similarity in physical characteristics to human beings in head, trunk, arms, legs, hands, feet. Very tiny, undeveloped brain. Comes from primitive planet named Earth. Calls himself Samuel Conrad. And he will remain here in his cage with the running water and the electricity and the central heat as long as he lives. Samuel Conrad has found the Twilight Zone.”
—The Twilight Zone, Season 2 Episode 25 closing narration
Garland Thomas, Rosemarie. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. 2002. 56-75. Print.
“People Are Alike All Over.” The Twilight Zone. CBS. 25 March 1960. Television. Internet Movie Database. Web. 17 October 2015.
Schumer, Arlen. “The Five Themes of The Twilight Zone.” Twilight Zone, n.d. Web. 20 October 2015.