Season 1, Episode 22
This episode begins by showing Maple Street, a “tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor,” according to Rod Serling’s opening monologue. The street could be that of any small town or suburb at that time. Children play while adults water the lawn, wash their cars, and talk to one another. Suddenly, something roars and flashes overhead and the phone lines, electricity, and cars all stop working. The neighbors congregate on the street to talk about what could be causing all this, when a young boy suggests that perhaps all these strange goings on could have been caused by aliens, and in doing so plants the idea that the aliens sent somebody ahead to “prepare” for their coming. At first, everybody laughs this idea off until one of the neighbor’s car starts, leading the already unsettled group to become suspicious.
The neighbors begin retroactively bringing up every small quirk that anybody else may have had, accusing one another of being odd and possibly even aliens. This paranoia and suspicion eventually leads to chaos and violence, in a visually striking scene. When exploring themes of shadows and darkness in The Twilight Zone, Erik Mortenson describes it as, “A peaceful suburban block is thrust into both literal and metaphoric darkness” (Mortenson, p. 70).
Finally, in a classic Twilight Zone twist, it’s revealed that aliens were, in fact, the true source of the power outage. One alien explains to the other that the “procedure” for fighting Earth is to make us fight amongst ourselves—all it takes is a few flashing lights and failing devices, and they’ll make each other into enemies. “Then I take it this place—this Maple Street—is not unique?” asks the other alien, observing the chaos. “By no means,” answers the first, “Their world is full of Maple Streets.”
One does not have to look too deeply to see the critique of the Red Scare and McCarthyism in this episode. During a period when people were encouraged by figures such as Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy to watch out for and report potentially suspicious activity from neighbors, coworkers, and even family members in the name of fighting communism, the parallels between Maple Street and American society as a whole become clear. When we are encouraged to fear something—be it aliens or the Soviet Union—we start looking for an enemy in everybody as a defense mechanism. Serling, who wrote this episode, saw the damage that McCarthyism was doing to our country and used an ordinary American street as a microcosm to take the Red Scare mindset to its logical conclusion—violence, chaos, and the dissolution of interpersonal relationships. The episode can, of course, be read as a broader statement about humanity’s capacity to be bigoted toward one another for minor differences without any political context. Serling was powerfully outspoken about the evils of prejudice and bigotry, so the episode’s message, while easily linked to McCarthyism, can stand on its own as well. “The episode is an honest representation of how easily we can become bigoted, much like ‘frightened little rabbits'” (Stanyard, p. 39). After explaining the dangers of prejudice and scapegoating, Serling’s haunting monologue leaves the viewer with this final thought: “And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”