The Twilight Zone's 10 Best Twist Endings
Television plays host to a number of holiday traditions. In addition to repeated airings of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, the end of the year is also a time for people to revisit The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s seminal series that used fantasy elements as metaphors for social issues.
The practice of The Twilight Zone marathon began in the 1980s, when affiliates like WPIX in New York and KTLA in Los Angeles aired the series around-the-clock on New Year’s Eve. In some ways, The Twilight Zone was the original binge-watch. That’s due in part to viewers looking forward to revisiting the show’s trademark: Like short story author O. Henry, Serling and his writers often utilized a plot twist in the climax of their scripts, a conceit that helped make The Twilight Zone an enduring classic.
In anticipation of this year’s New Year’s marathon on SYFY that begins December 31 and runs through January 2, here’s where to look out for 10 of the best shock endings in the show’s history. (The list is in no particular order. You can also find episodes on Netflix. And don’t worry: You’re entering a spoiler-free zone.)
1. “To Serve Man” // Season 3, Episode 24
The imposing Richard Kiel of James Bond villain fame is part of a telepathic alien race known as the Kanamits who have come to Earth with seemingly benevolent intentions. They have answers for war, famine, and other plagues afflicting humankind. To help substantiate their claims, the government enlists two cryptographers to decipher the written text they’ve left behind. The disturbing truth is discovered when it’s already too late.
Opening Sequence: Cryptographer Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) reclines in his alien ship quarters, where it’s apparently permissible to smoke.
2. “The Little People” // Season 3, Episode 28
Commander William Fletcher (Claude Akins) and Navigator Peter Craig (Joe Maross) are two astronauts forced into an emergency landing on a desolate planet. As the dutiful Fletcher tends to ship repairs, Craig goes exploring and finds a race of microscopic inhabitants. Rather than resume their mission, Craig wants to stay behind to rule as the beings' deity. Inviting worship of a false idol doesn’t end well for him.
Opening Sequence: Fletcher descends a ladder on the stranded rocket ship and informs a lackadaisical Craig the vessel can be repaired in a day or two. Unfortunately, that’s time enough for Craig to get delusions of grandeur.
3. “The Masks” // Season 5, Episode 25
Mardi Gras comes to The Twilight Zone in this tale about a wealthy, terminally ill man named Jason Foster (Robert Keith) who invites his belligerent, greedy family to help settle his affairs before he expires. Foster insists all of them—self-absorbed daughter Emily, her cash-obsessed husband Wilfred, and misbehaving offspring Wilfred Junior and Paula—don masks in honor of the occasion or risk losing their inheritance. But Foster isn’t in a celebratory mood.
Opening Sequence: Two of Foster’s waitstaff arrange flowers for the patriarch’s expected guests while Foster is examined by his physician in his bedroom. With little time left, he's adamant that he hang on long enough to impart one final piece of fatherly wisdom.
4. “The Silence” // Season 2, Episode 25
Can money buy silence? That’s what Colonel Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) proposes to Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan), a fast-talking chatterbox who gnaws on Taylor’s nerves at their social club. Taylor wagers that Tennyson can’t remain completely silent in a glass-walled room inside the club for one entire year. If he can, Taylor will pay him $500,000. The matter becomes one of resolve, as Taylor attempts to antagonize Tennyson into speaking by any means necessary.
Opening Sequence: Tennyson rambles on about his investment strategies as Taylor grows increasingly agitated. After consulting with his lawyer, Taylor tells the waiter to pass along a note explaining his unconventional gamble.
5. “Eye of the Beholder” // Season 2, Episode 6
In a society that values conformity, Janet Tyler (Maxine Stuart) has undergone several procedures to improve her cosmetic beauty. The latest—and last—will determine whether she will be deemed acceptable by the high standards set by the state-run hospital. Tyler herself has no idea of the outcome, as the bandages have yet to come off.
Opening Sequence: Tyler rests in her hospital bed, face obscured by gauze, as a nurse tries to soothe her concerns over her hideous appearance.
6. “Time Enough at Last” // Season 1, Episode 8
Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) is a bookworm working at a bank who can’t keep his nose out of a good yarn. His love of the written word antagonizes both his boss and his wife Helen (Jacqueline deWit), who each grow tired of his diverted attention. Soon, Bemis finds himself in a world with all the reading material he likes—he’s seemingly the only survivor of a nuclear explosion.
Opening Sequence: Bemis assists (actually, short-changes) a bank customer while keeping a copy of David Copperfield in his lap.
7. “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” // Season 1, Episode 15
Has any space traveler ever met with a welcome fate in The Twilight Zone? After crashing on an asteroid, the four surviving members of an eight-man crew begin to wander the dry landscape in search of water and other life. What they find instead is the kind of cruel fate that would make anyone think twice about suiting up for space exploration.
Opening Sequence: Mission control prepares the Arrow 1 spaceship for lift-off as Serling explains it’s the first manned aircraft into space. (If Serling is narrating your day, it might be time to return to bed.)
8. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” // Season 2, Episode 28
A roadside diner is the site of a chamber mystery, though the objective isn’t to find a murderer—it’s to discover who among the patrons might be an alien whose ship has crash-landed in a nearby pond. As two police officers investigate, each customer has both reasons and excuses for being the uninvited extra-terrestrial.
Opening Sequence: As snow falls, state troopers investigate reports of an unidentified flying object that’s cut off some of the tree tops. Footprints lead away from the pond and toward the diner.
9. “The Invaders” // Season Two, Episode 15
A woman (Agnes Moorehead) living in a dilapidated cabin is terrorized by a tiny race of alien beings that have landed their spacecraft on her roof. She uses everything at her disposal to ward off their high-tech assault, including fire, before the viewer understands their true intentions.
Opening Sequence: Serling introduces a farmhouse that’s “handmade, crude,” and “untouched by progress.” Its lone occupant is a woman who has been alone for years until a crash from above changes everything.
10. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” // Season 5, Episode 22
This adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story of the same name was originally produced as a French short film in 1962 and screened as part of The Twilight Zone in 1964, a path that earned it trivia status as the only Zone episode—and possibly the only episode of television—to have won an Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film. In the Civil War-torn South, resistance fighter Peyton Farquhar (Roger Jacquet) is about to be hanged by Union soldiers. He escapes, determined to be reunited with his wife no matter the obstacle.
Opening Sequence: Serling introduces the episode by pointing out it’s the first time the series has presented a film shot by others.