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The Twilight Zone (Episode #29): “Nightmare as a Child” (airdate 4/29/60)
The Plot: A schoolteacher meets a little girl on the stairs that wants her to remember the worst moment of her childhood.
The Goods: More than the easy nature of delivering a twist, The Twilight Zone is often about using science fiction and fantasy storytelling elements in order to play around with reality. This episode is one of the better examples of that goal being achieved through character, fear, and a question of where our minds end and the world begins.
Janice Rule plays Helen Foley, a woman who spies a child from Children of the Corn sitting oddly on the stairwell near her apartment. She’s genial, meets the young girl, and invites her into her space for some hot cocoa. Fortunately, they both take it the same.
It’s not at all hidden that little, precocious Markie (Terry Burnham) is Helen when she was younger. In fact, it’s almost obvious from the first moment they meet. More than that, there’s nothing hidden in this story, which gives it a bigger challenge to satisfy those who simply want to be slyly lied to in expectation of the scene where they’ll gasp and shake their heads. The success here comes from the acting and the slow, frustrating process of watching Helen try to understand what’s going on around her. She’s clearly lost her mind, but she might be losing it to save herself.
Like any grand trauma, Helen has pushed all memories surrounding her mother’s murder out of her sight and out of her mind.
Enter Peter Selden (Sheppered Strudwick). He’s too sinister-looking not to be sinister. The thundering presence drops by to see Helen after these long years, talking about working for her mother and being the first one to find the body.
As they talk, it becomes clear that telling the audience everything is part of the game. The true genius of this tale is in the sheer aggravation that bubbles in the blood as we watch Helen not get it at all. She’s in a fog, and the memories she lost are a key to her fighting back against a violence that is about to sneak up behind her before slitting her throat. If she could only know what we know, she’d run from Selden and call the police.
It’s a brutal reminder that our memories fail us and, sometimes, we fail ourselves by protecting a fragile sense of sanity in the short term by blocking out trauma. We fight against ourselves.
Luckily, Selden delivers the key to his own downfall, irony style. As Helen tells him about the little girl she just met (who has mysteriously disappeared), Selden reminds her that “Markie” was her childhood nickname and shows her a picture of her as a child (because he just happens to keep a picture of the little girl whose mother he murdered in his wallet (Creepy)).
In a beautiful turn, it’s realizing that she’s going insane that keys Helen into what she needs to save her sanity. She starts to remember after being reminded/informed that the girl she met this morning is a manifestation of her brain in an attempt to fight back. Realizing that she’s in the middle of a bent reality gives her the knowledge to survive a very real danger. Things only seemed odd because they were.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: ‘Helen Foley’ was the name of one of Rod Serling’s favorite childhood teachers.
On the Next Episode: You’re waiting for a train…
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.