There is an episode of The Twilight Zone which is worth a fresh viewing for its prescient application to today’s social climate: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Written by Rod Serling, and broadcast in 1960, the episode begins with the following narration:
Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street – in the last calm and reflective moment – before the monsters came
Just a typical Saturday afternoon… until the power happens to go out on Maple Street. The residents don’t immediately think much of it until Tommy, a young boy living on the street, expresses some panic with the irrational idea of “What if it’s aliens?” As night falls, that idea develops as adults begin to suspect that yes, it could be aliens, and yes, one of our neighbors could be working with them. Neighbors begin to turn on each other, throwing accusations and insults. It doesn’t take long before things turn violent, and they murder one of their own. The murder only catalyzes that anger and the situation quickly becomes an all-out riot. The episode ends with two aliens on a hill, looking down on the chaos of Maple Street and commenting about how easy it was to create paranoia and panic. The easiest way to conquer the planet is to let people become their own worst enemies.
The twist of this episode is that the “monsters” due on Maple Street were not the aliens- it was the residents of Maple Street. With just a little misinformation and paranoia, they became murderers and destroyed themselves.
First broadcast in March of 1960, it is easy to see the immediate parallels it draws to the Cold War and the “Red Scare” gripping the nation at the time. While McCarthyism and support for the “House of Un-American Activities” faded by the end of the 1950’s, people still feared that the United States and the Soviet Union faced a very probable war. The summer of 1959 saw the increasing tension in foreign relations with the “Kitchen Debate” as US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khurschev openly debated the capacities of their countries. Less than two months after “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” aired, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, making foreign relations even more tense. Events such as these led to the Cuban Missile Crisis only two years later, bringing frightened populations to the brink of nuclear war. Serling would later play on these fears in the Season Three episodes “The Gift” and “The Shelter,” both dealing with a paranoid people turning on each other at the idea of a coming tragedy. Serling was an admirer of author Arthur Miller; it’s no mere coincidence that “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” bears the same allegory to McCarthyism as Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible.
It is easy to look at this episode of The Twilight Zone, see it’s allusions to the “Red Scare,” and how the episode spoke to the fears of its time. It is too tempting to say, “Boy, America sure was stupid and easily scared back then.” Sadly, it is too simple to make the mistake of thinking that the message in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” isn’t relevant to our time.
Serling closes out the episode with the following narration:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is – that these things cannot be confined – to the Twilight Zone.
2016 gave us one of the tensest and most vile presidential elections I’ve ever seen, and that venom only increased throughout the nation after Trump was elected president. Prejudice ideas and words fill our media more than ever before, as people wildly call strangers and friends things like “racist” and “Nazi.” All media outlets have become incredibly biased and create hyperbole around every minor occurrence to generate fear. It’s becoming much harder to separate fact from hyperbole and panic – simply because it is ALL hyperbole and panic. Protests from various groups have turned violent, and other groups have participated in violent action against minorities. We’ve all abandoned rationality and have become monsters.
This is all because people are afraid. People are afraid that an administration will not protect them. People are afraid that they have no freedom and their voices are not heard. Every new report from any news source, legitimate or otherwise, only serves to validate and increase people’s fears. Friends and families have turned against each other because they are afraid of a future we cannot possibly predict and cannot control.
We don’t need to worry about ISIS, North Korea, or any other foreign threat – we are already destroying ourselves. Thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, and suspicious can and ARE destroying us. The United States is full of “Maple Streets.” It is okay to be afraid, we all are afraid right now. The future, the idea of unknown powers we can’t control, is and has always been a terrifying concept. Americans in 1960 feared a Communist threat they couldn’t control, and their fear caused them to turn on and attack each other, through that embarrassing era known as “McCarthyism.” Today, people have expressed their fear of political parties and rival ideologies through violence, through insults, through suspicion and hatred. This fear has made monsters of us all, we are a thoughtless and frightened populace in search of a scapegoat, and the fallout of that fear will have more tragic consequences than any foreign nation or presidential administration could cause. Instead of attacking each other, and making this country one big, chaotic “Maple Street,” we should comfort each other’s fears and apply those energies to positive things in our life we can affect.
“The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human” – Aldous Huxley