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.
Soviet spacemen were flying overhead. The Berlin Wall had just gone up. The moratorium on nuclear testing had abruptly ended with the detonation of hydrogen bombs that could unleash ten times the explosive force of all the bombs used in World War Two combined! It’s almost impossible to describe how close the end of the world felt to Americans in September 1961. The government and media were doing nothing to allay those fears save the faint hope offered by a cozy hole in the ground. In the September 15 issue of LIFE magazine appeared a letter from President Kennedy and designs for building a fallout shelter. Later that month, CBS aired an episode of the Twilight Zone entitled “The Shelter”. Bob Crane on Radio KNX would ask Rod Serling about the episode a few weeks after it aired.
A Message to You from the President
The White House
September 7, 1961
My Fellow Americans:
Nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war are facts of life we cannot ignore today. I do not believe that war can solve any of the problems facing the world today. But the decision is not ours alone.
The government is moving to improve the protection afforded you in your communities through civil defense. We have begun, and will be continuing throughout the next year and a half, a survey of all public buildings with fallout shelter potential, and the marking of those with adequate shelter for 50 persons or more. We are providing fallout shelter in new and in some existing federal buildings. We are stocking these shelters with one week’s food and medical supplies and two weeks’ water supply for the shelter occupants. In addition, I have recommended to the Congress the establishment of food reserves in centers around the country where they might be needed following an attack. Finally, we are developing improved warning systems which will make it possible to sound attack warning on buzzers right in your homes and places of business.
More comprehensive measures than these lie ahead, but they cannot be brought to completion in the immediate future. In the meantime there is much that you can do to protect yourself — and in doing so strengthen your nation.
I urge you to read and consider seriously the contents in this issue of LIFE. The security of our country and the peace of the world are the objectives of our policy. But in these dangerous days when both these objectives are threatened we must prepare for all eventualities. The ability to survive coupled with the will to do so therefore are essential to our country.
This half-hour peek at CBS’s Fall lineup for 1961 is mostly of nerdly interest for the use of Rod Serling as corporate shill. We like to think of him as a crusader against the tripe that made up the bulk of TV broadcasts in the early Sixties, but here he is playing carnival barker for shows like Rawhide and Father of the Bride. Besides The Twilight Zone, the only other fantasies on CBS that fall were two new shows featuring talking animals, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Mister Ed. There are a few whodunits like Perry Mason and The Defenders, but the only mystery I really care about is, how could a great concept like “Frontier Circus” not last more than one season?
Although Dell was quick to buy up the comic book rights to The Twilight Zone when the TV show was renewed for a second season in 1960, the first comic book didn’t appear until 1961 when only a single issue was published. Dell would publish three more issues in 1962 before turning the license over to Gold Key.
The inaugural issue compensated for its hefty 15-cent price tag with superior artwork and three relatively long stories, each with about a dozen pages. Art duties were shared by EC veterans Reed Crandall and George Evans who had spent the late Fifties collaborating on various editions of Classics Illustrated. The talents of both artists are well represented in this issue although I’m sure they would have been more comfortable drawing a host like the Crypt Keeper rather than Rod Serling. The writer is not credited but I fancy the idea that these stories were found crumpled up at the bottom of Serling’s waste-paper basket. The plots are a little predictable but the actual storytelling is impeccable. No crowded expository caption boxes here. These tales are written like teleplays, with the words and actions of the characters propelling the story.
The first story, “Specter of Youth” is a beautifully illustrated “Oh, the irony” type story that takes place in modern Greece. The depictions of local dress and antiquities display the kind of research and detail that George Evans usually reserved for his aviation covers for Aces High. Alas, the story itself is one of those where you know from the first page that the greedy antiquities fence will eventually receive a fitting comeuppance.
The remaining two stories are better and appear to be solely the work of Reed Crandall. Below is the issue’s middle story and the one featured on the cover, “The Phantom Lighthouse”. Crandall’s sense of humor is on display in the middle panels of page four. If the hole in the ice outside the shack is for fishing, then the hole in the ice inside the shack must be for something else. Click the images for a reading view.