Ashland playwright David Hill is conducting a workshop with other Ashland writers to develop plays in the vein of “The Twilight Zone.” Participants are developing psychological thrillers to be presented in a dramatic reading by Ashland Contemporary Theatre on Halloween in the Gresham Room of the Ashland library. Hill was a student of Rod Serling, the originator of the iconic television series “The Twilight Zone.” We got together one afternoon at Boulevard Coffee.
EH: Can you tell me about the genesis of “The Twilight Zone”?
DH: Serling started “The Twilight Zone” because he wrote a television play about racial prejudice that generated a lot of controversy. The network executives made him water it down and change it so that the entire point was lost. He figured that the only way he could say what he felt needed to be said was to disguise it as science fiction. That’s how he got the idea for the television series. He wasn’t that interested in science fiction, but he felt if you’ve got spacemen and monsters in a script, the networks were not going to relate it to a political situation, even though it was.
He was very concerned about McCarthyism. He never wrote about McCarthyism, but he wrote “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” where Martians manipulate humans to turn against each other, the way the Hollywood writers were turning against each other before the McCarthy Committees. That was his statement, but it was so disguised, nobody could actually say that he was getting into politics.
Serling started writing because he had post-traumatic stress disorder from his wartime experiences. He had nightmares and insomnia until the end of his life. So his writing was his method of coping with these nightmares. He came up with the name “Twilight Zone” because it represents the period of consciousness where you’re not quite sure you’re dreaming or awake. That’s what he wanted to capture, that feeling that this is not quite real. And that’s where he spent a lot of his life, in that semi-dream state, reliving his war experiences. I met him in the Philippines when he had decided that he was going to go back to the places where he had these experiences. He hoped that by seeing what these places looked like now, he could get over the nightmares.
EH: How was Serling as a teacher?
DH: He said, “Everything you write has to come from your life.” I remember thinking, “My goodness, this guy lives in the Twilight Zone? What is he talking about?” But as I’ve written, I think even the most imaginative things have to be grounded in your life.
This was in the 1950s and ’60s, when we were sure that the Russians were going to blow us all up and the world was going to end before we were 40. The end of the world and the space race were common themes for America at that time.
And then he had his recurring themes that he was dealing with: His experience in the war; his experience as a boxer, that’s where “Requiem for a Heavyweight” came from. The third theme was his nostalgia for small-town America, where he grew up. He wrote 97 of the 150-some-odd of “The Twilight Zone” episodes.
EH: What other writers wrote such psychological thrillers?
DH: Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” invented the genre originally, and then there was Edgar Allen Poe. That’s where it all came from.