The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “Nightmare as a Child”
April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out. It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.
Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham. The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door. She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.
But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.
1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery. The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue. (It starts at 19:00.)
The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business. Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately. It gives you chills. It’s a stroke of genius. And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director. Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?
2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.
The best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham. Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power. It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode. However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children. Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.
We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality. We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger. Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode. It disturbs and disorients Helen.
Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind. He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone. This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”
And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.
The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?” One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror. The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day. She does not think of the past. She does not even recognize herself as a child. She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.
Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable. “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says. “And you look so like your mother.” Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed. The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.
We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now. I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.
Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.” He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement. But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here? Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?
Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of. Its very existence could be denied. Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.” The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.