April 19, 2023

The Descent into Hell: "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (1960)

Maple Street, Anytown, U.S.A. A nice place to live, where the neighbors are friendly, where the children play in the street, where (this being the very beginning of the 1960s) you imagine nobody locks their doors at night. Jim and Betty Anderson might live next door, Donna and Alex Stone across the street, and the Cleavers just around the corner, right next to where Steve Douglas is raising his three sons. It’s that kind of neighborhood.

Let’s take a walk down Maple Street, shall we? It might not look terribly interesting to us right now, but in just a little while, everyone in this close-knit community will be trying to kill each other. And if you pay close attention, you’ll have a how-to manual on how to destroy a civilization.

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As the story opens on our idyllic little setting—"A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor."—a shadow passes over the neighborhood, along with a roar and a bright flash of light. (Note: stories in which a shadow passes over you rarely end well.) At first, everyone is content with a simple explanation: it’s probably a meteor.

Soon, they discover that something has happened. Not only has there been a power outage, but things that aren’t dependent on electricity—gas stoves, lawnmowers, phones, portable radios, even cars—have stopped working. There’s no logical explanation for it, no reason why all these different items should stop working. The neighbors gather in the street to discuss the situation; as Steve Brand (Claude Akins) says, what has happened doesn’t make sense. "It isn’t just the power failure, Charlie," he tells a friend. "If it was, we’d still be able to get a broadcast on the portable [radio]." One of the other neighbors, Pete Van Horn (Ben Elway), decides to cut through the back yard to Floral Street, and see if they’re having the same trouble. Meanwhile, Charlie (Jack Weston) and Steve start the walk downtown (remember, the cars don’t work) to check with the police.  

Just then, they’re warned by Tommy (Jan Handzlik), a young teenager, that they’d better not go. "They don’t want you to," he says. When Steve asks him who "they" are, Tommy replies, "Whoever was in that thing that came by overhead." The neighbors are skeptical, but Tommy is insistent: "It’s always that way, in every story I ever read about a ship landing from outer space." Steve tells the boy to go home, but he continues; nobody will be able to leave "except the people they’d sent down ahead of them. They looked just like humans." However fanciful Tommy’s theory, it has unsettled the neighbors even more, and angered some of them. Tommy continues on about the aliens, though. According to the stories he’s read, "They sent four people. A mother and a father and two kids who looked just like humans. But they weren’t."

As the fear intensifies, so does the paranoia. Les Goodman’s (Barry Atwater) car suddenly starts on its own, and someone remembers seeing him in his backyard late nights, looking up at the sky "as if he were waiting for something." When Steve tries to diffuse the situation, Charlie brins up the radio set he works on in his basement. "What kind of ‘radio set’ you workin' on?" he asks Steve. "I never seen it. Neither has anyone else. Who you talk to on that radio set? And who talks to you?" 

As the neighbors trade accusations, they’re silenced by the approach of a figure walking in the darkness. One of them, Don, points a shotgun at the figure. Steve tries to calm him down, but Charlie grabs the gun from Don’s hands. "No more talk, Steve. You're going to talk us into a grave! You'd let whatever's out there walk right over us, wouldn't yuh? Well, some of us won't!" With that he fires at the figure, which turns out to be—Pete Van Horn, returning from Spring Street. He’s dead. 

You know you're in trouble when Claude Akins
is your voice of reason
Charlie frantically tries to defend himself, and then the lights in his house suddenly come on. Now he’s become the prime suspect. "You were so quick to kill, Charlie," Goodman says, "and you were so quick to tell us who we had to be careful of. Well, maybe you had to kill. Maybe Peter there was trying to tell us something. Maybe he'd found out something and came back to tell us who there was amongst us we should watch out for—" Charlie runs, and the group chases him back to his house. In desperation, he points the finger at the boy, Tommy. "He knew!" a woman chimes in: "He was the only one who knew! He told us all about it. Well, how did he know? How could he have known?"

Up and down the street, lights start flashing on and off. It’s Bob Weaver’s house! one person says. It’s Don Martin’s place! says another. It’s the kid, Charlie repeats. Soon it’s every family for themselves, as full-scale rioting breaks out. As it does, the camera pans back to a spacecraft, hidden in the darkness. The meteor was, in fact, an alien ship, and two aliens are observing the havoc on Maple Street. "Understand the procedure now?" one of them says. "Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers...throw them into darkness for a few hours and then you just sit back and watch the pattern." The second alien asks if the pattern is always the same. Yes, replies the first. "With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find...and it's themselves. And all we need do is sit back...and watch." And what happens next? "Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other...one to the other...one to the other…"   

Don’t you just love a twist ending like that?

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Our third excursion into The Twilight Zone, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," aired on CBS on March 4, 1960; it was the twenty-second episode of the series, aired on CBS. Viewers who've watched The Twilight Zone remember the episode vividly (it's considered one of the show's greatest stories); in 2009, Time named it one of the ten best TZ episodes. Even those who haven't watched the series may well have heard of it.

The script, not surprisingly, is by Rod Serling, and allegorical interpretations abound. Serling clearly intends this to be one of his "message" scripts; his closing narration states that "thoughts, attitudes, prejudices" are weapons found only in our minds, and that "prejudices can kill...and suspicion can destroy...and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn." It could be a treatise on McCarthyism and the Red Scare, or a warning about racism; both are causes that were close to Serling’s heart. It's definitely meant to, as one critic put it, "turn a mirror on ourselves."

The point is, there’s something timeless about this story, as there is about all great stories. Whatever allegory Serling might have intended at the time, one can watch it today and find all kinds of meaning in it. It could be about terrorism, discrimination, immigration, fear of the "different"—even COVID.

Do you remember, during the COVID panic, how people were being urged to "snitch" on those they saw violating the norms of "social distancing"? We saw social media ridicule individuals who fail to join in nightly neighborhood celebrations of health workers. We read of places of business that discriminated against people based on their vaccination status. And we heard about families across America being torn apart along political and ideological lines. We divided as we always do, whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, red state or blue, vaxxer or anti-vaxxer. We made claims, exchanged accusations, and hurled invective. Those who claimed to be protecting lives were called tyrants; those who claimed to be protecting jobs were called traitors. If we didn’t close everything up, people would die. If we didn’t open everything up, people would die. And, as is always the case, anyone who disagreed with us was a fool. 

That’s why, when the COVID restrictions first started, I immediately thought of "The Monsters," and the picture it painted of people being turned against one another, of resentments coming to the surface. 

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Maybe the residents of Maple Street always harbored dark thoughts about their neighbors. It would be strange if they didn’t; what we say to our neighbors as we chat over the fence or across the street isn’t always the same as what we say when we’re in the privacy of our homes, with the doors and windows shut.  There, beyond earshot of others, we experience a kind of domestic in vino veritas—"in wine, there is truth," only in this case it’s what happens within the confines of our four walls. (In domus veritas?)

Some people think of this as hypocrisy, but others would use the term civilized. We know what is expected of us in public, or at least we used to know. You don’t tell a new mother that her child is ugly. You don’t tell people their clothes make them look fat. You know the routine. The withholding of your true opinion until you’re safely behind doors—it’s a basic kindness, but it’s really more than that. It’s one of the foundations of a civilized society. Without it, we’d find it impossible for even the most basic of human interactions. 

What happens when we weaponize those thoughts, though, when we use them against the subjects of those thoughts? When we share those thoughts with others, with friends or neighbors or acquaintances ("Did you hear what Ralph was doing last night?"), it’s called gossip; it’s a sin, and rightly so. And it results in a breakdown in trust, even if the subject of your whisperings never gets wind of it. After all, what do you think when someone shares gossip with you? If you really think about it, you’d wonder, "If this is what he says about Ralph when he’s not around, what does he say about me when I’m not around?" And when you add fear to the equation, when you bring these whisperings out in the open so everyone can hear them, they become accusations, and those eccentricities and hobbies become traitorous efforts to communicate with aliens from another world. That was the goal of the aliens in "The Monsters," and it worked wonderfully.

But what happens when you share them with, let’s say, an agent of the government, or some other figure of authority? That’s called being an informant, although there’s a better, more descriptive word for it—snitch. Some people snitch for ideological reasons, some do it for profit, some to achieve a sort of protection by insinuating themselves with the government, some to curry favor with the authorities. And not only is it an effective way of gathering information, it creates a sense of fear and paranoia. Most important, the lack of trust creates an environment making it difficult, if not impossible, to form a cohesive opposition. That is the goal of a totalitarian government, and it often works wonderfully.

The COVID scare, like other scares of the past that were manipulated and used by the government to exercise a certain kind of power, brought out the worst in people, or at least brought it to the surface. It acted not as a unifier, a "We’re all in this together" moment. It didn’t create bonds, it ruptured them. Whatever the motives happened to be, for individuals and communities alike, the attempts to isolate and discriminate created that very sense of unease and mistrust that a totalitarian might well desire. 

And if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. . .

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In 2003, there was a remake, of sorts, of "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street." It was part of one of the periodic revivals of The Twilight Zone, and it was called  "The Monsters are on Maple Street" with a script by Erin Maher and Kay Reindl, and a "story by" credit to Serling; whether the new title is an improvement or not is up to you, based on whether you think external events can turn people into monsters, or whether they’re already monsters to begin with. 

In the 2003 "Monsters," the prime suspects are not aliens, but terrorists. As the panic and uncertainty caused by a mysterious power surge spreads up and down Maple Street, hidden jealousies and simmering resentments come to the surface. Suspicion immediately falls on a family new to the neighborhood; they’ve put up a chain link fence around their property, and they were the only ones not to fly a flag on Veterans’ Day. The discovery of surveillance cameras around everyone’s house convinces the neighbors that the new family must be terrorists; the father works at an electrical firm (explaining the presence of the cameras), and their house is the only one on Maple Street that still has electricity. Instead of a full-scale riot, the neighbors invade the new family’s home, leaving them fearing for their lives.  

Meanwhile, in a truck parked on an isolated street (the classic "black van"?) two U.S. Army soldiers observe the ongoing attack on television monitors. It was the Army, not aliens or terrorists or the Boogie Man, that was responsible for the power surge. It’s all part of an experiment on "isolated communities" to see "how people behave in times of crisis." The military’s hope, apparently, was that such communities would band together under a common threat, but It’s clear from the reaction of the two that Maple Street has failed miserably, taking only five hours to descend into chaos and violence. As the new family’s house goes up in flames, one of the soldiers remarks, "If the other civilian security tests went like this, we’re all in trouble." 

In his closing voiceover, Forrest Whittaker, host of this incarnation of The Twilight Zone, comments that in a time of uncertainty, "we're so sure that villains lurk around every corner that we will create them ourselves if we can't find them. For while fear may keep us vigilant, it's also fear that tears us apart."And America itself may in be jeopardy if Americans divide against one another so quickly.

The plot of this version resembles that of the 1963 Outer Limits episode "Nightmare," in which we are led to believe that aliens are holding prisoner and interrogating several soldiers from Earth, taken in an interplanetary war (although not explicitly stated, the "Unified Earth" forces presumably represent the United Nations). At the episode’s conclusion, we find out that this is actually an experiment being conducted by the Earth’s united military to see how men respond to interrogation and psychological stress. In both cases, we find out that the perpetrators of this cruel hoax are governments, who have no compunction about using their own citizens as guinea pigs. 

Of course, we know the stories about how the United States government experimented on black men for 40 years during the 20th Century, or how we discovered that the government had been spraying zinc cadmium sulfide, a toxic substance, in cities around the country as part of a military experiment. (And this is just the tip of the iceberg.) Nothing to fear though, even though subsequent research suggests the government may have added a radioactive agent to the chemical compound. After all, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.

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Someone once said that behind every act of violence, there’s a desire for revenge. If this is true, and it doesn’t occur to me to doubt it, then a story such as "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" should chill us to the marrow, as I’m sure Serling intended. We can understand the concept of revenge; most of us have, at one time or another, felt the desire to get even for something that’s happened to us, and we’ve probably done things that have made others want to get even for what we’ve done to them. For some people, that desire metastases into a grudge, a lifelong attempt to even the score; the result is usually either a ruined life or the stuff of epic literature. A lot of the time we’re trying to get even for things than in retrospect might seem small: an insult, an injustice, a stolen girlfriend. Other times, we’re confronted with something more serious: a murdered relative, an abused child, something so horrific that we not only understand the desire, we empathize with it, we defend it, we might even (if we have the opportunity) help facilitate it. These may be more rare, but they’re also more visible.


What about the idea of someone who reacts violently to us because of who we are, what we are, what we represent? What kind of a threat can we possibly pose to them? Why on earth are they trying to get even with us?

What did I ever do to you? you ask them. Their reply: You exist.

They’re driven by envy, jealousy, a feeling of inferiority, a simmering resentment. They feel as if life has dealt them a bad hand, that they haven’t been treated the way they should be, that the world hasn’t given them what they deserve. They resent your success, your happiness, your philosophy, your beliefs. They’ll use terms like unearned privilege and cultural appropriation and various types of oppression, because you don’t recognize them for what they are: the elites, the enlightened, the superior. You don’t bow down to them, and they want to make sure you get the message. They’re determined to take it out on you because somehow it’s your fault, because in the end there has to be a scapegoat. There are no longer two sides to every story; there’s only one: theirs. Because error has no rights. And if you offer a differing opinion, they’ll deny it, because they don’t want to lose their influence, their leverage, their power. 

And it really is all about that, isn’t it? Power. The kind that thrives on fear and intimidation, that pits friends, neighbors, and countrymen against one another. Whether it’s an alien force looking to conquer Earth, a government experimenting on its own citizens, or a regime willing to subvert and divide to remain in control.  

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered what came to be known as his "House Divided" speech, given before an assembly at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. It is not only one of Lincoln’s most famous speeches, it’s one of the most cherished in Americana; in the speech’s money quote, the future president says that "A house divided against itself cannot stand." It is a philosophy that resounds throughout American history; Benjamin Franklin, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is supposed to have said, "We must all hang together or we will all hang separately" (although he wasn’t credited with it until 1840, making its origins somewhat suspect). Through wars and depressions and external threats, from Shay’s Rebellion to the Civil War to Vietnam, some of the nation’s greatest crises have come from times when "Neighbors turned against neighbors, [and] even fathers and sons turned against each other." The Founding Fathers spoke of America as a great experiment, but reminded us that there were no guarantees of success. 

Throughout history, civilizations have faced many threats; but it seems as if it’s always the internal ones that are the most chilling, that cause the most damage and destruction. Those are the stakes, and in case there are any doubts, recall the words from which Lincoln drew his inspiration. For as Christ said, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand." It’s a warning that has yet to be disproved. And then we will know the monsters are here, because we will have seen them. They are us. TV 

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