I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that the Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life” (first aired 50 years ago on November 3, 1961) is the most terrifying and disturbing tale ever presented on the show. All the more impressive since it doesn’t rely on a twist ending or sudden revelations to make that impact. In fact, the premise in its entirety is laid out by host Rod Serling in the longest opening narration ever presented on the show.
“Tonight’s story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a map of the United States, and there’s a little town there called Peaksville. On a given morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and Peaksville was left all alone. Its inhabitants were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Peaksville left untouched or whether the village had somehow been taken away. They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing: the cause. A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines – because they displeased him – and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages – just by using his mind. Now I’d like to introduce you to some of the people in Peaksville, Ohio. This is Mr. Fremont. It’s in his farmhouse that the monster resides. This is Mrs. Fremont. And this is Aunt Amy, who probably had more control over the monster in the beginning than almost anyone. But one day she forgot. She began to sing aloud. Now, the monster doesn’t like singing, so his mind snapped at her, turned her into the smiling, vacant thing you’re looking at now. She sings no more. And you’ll note that the people in Peaksville, Ohio, have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, the monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror. This particular monster can read minds, you see. He knows every thought, he can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster. This is the monster. His name is Anthony Fremont. He’s six years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you’d better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge. This is the Twilight Zone.”
Lesser storytellers would find such an introduction to be an insanely wasteful dump of valuable detail that should be slowly parceled out as the story unfolds. But instead of lessening the impact of the story itself, Serling’s introduction frees up the viewer’s attention so that it can focus not on the monster but on the fear and helplessness of its victims. The viewer isn’t asking himself what he would do if he himself had such powers but rather what he would do if put in the position of the conflicted and ultimately cowardly citizens of Peaksville.