25 Best ‘Twilight Zone’ Episodes – Rolling Stone
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25 Best ‘Twilight Zone’ Episodes

rod serling twilight zone

Rod Serling, center, creator and host of the original 'The Twilight Zone.'

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images, Everett Collection (2)

The guy in the suit is always there, sitting in a booth in the back of restaurant or at a table in a nightclub. Maybe he’s popping out of an alleyway or from behind a tree in the woods, or perhaps strolling into living rooms and crime scenes. His speech is erudite. His voice is unmistakable. His jaw is tight; even when he talks, his mouth barely seems to be moving. His hand almost always clenches a cigarette. The man is your tour guide to “a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man … a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind … a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.” And he’s always got a tale to tell you, about everyday people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, folks who find themselves stuck in (and running out of) time, and dreamers who learn that every granted wish comes with a price tag. Your next stop, as he’s always happy to tell you, is: The Twilight Zone.

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Just ask anyone who’s pored through all five seasons or spent an entire holiday weekend indoors thanks to all-day marathons — almost 60 years after it debuted, Rod Serling’s sci-fi anthology show remains a groundbreaking, genre-busting take on the gray area between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. The stories could take place in a futuristic dystopia or a suburban street not unlike your own. There was usually a twist, involving a heavy dose of irony, Faustian bargaining and the pettier aspects of human nature tipping the scales of cosmic justice (TV host/podcaster/stand-up comic Chris Hardwick used to do a bit that suggested a better title for the show would be “Nice Try, Asshole.”)

And as Jordan Peele steps into Serling’s shoes and gives us a Twilight Zone for the Trump era, courtesy of CBS All Access, there’s no better time to revisit the original show’s high points. From hidden martians and hungry aliens to the monsters living next door to you, here are our contenders for the 25 best Twilight Zone episodes.

25. “The Masks” (Season 5, Episode 25)
This late-season highlight — directed by actor-turned-pioneering-female-filmmaker Ida Lupino — starts out as a slow-burner brimming with passive-aggressive bitchery. A dying patriarch (Robert Keith) has assembled his family so they can say their goodbyes; the greedy bastards are more interested in divvying up his wealth. Before he goes gently into the night, however, the man has one caveat: his future “mourners” must spend the evening wearing grotesque masks until the clock strikes midnight. And from the moment everyone puts these horrific things on — the better to reveal the ugliness inside all of them, my dear — we’re treated to one of the most unsettling collections of blank-faced characters delving into a dark night of the soul short of that Eyes Wide Shut orgy. DF

24. “Long Distance Call” (Season 2, Episode 22)
Most Twilight Zone fans know Billy Mumy as the omnipotent kid who sent a Perry Como fan to the cornfield in “It’s a Good Life.” But before that, the child actor an episode about a boy who communicates with his dead grandma through a toy telephone she gifted him before she passed away. As if that isn’t creepy enough, she keeps coercing him to attempt suicide — from jumping in front of a car to laying in a pond — so he can join Grandma Dearest in the afterlife. In typical Zone fashion, we never actually hear her speaking on the other end of the line, leaving audiences to debate whether it’s really her or simply a child grappling with death for the first time. (Probably the former, since the mother overhears a conversation about chocolate ice cream and totally flips.) Either way, it’s undoubtedly one of the more disturbing episodes of the series. AM

23. “Two” (Season 3, Episode 1)
One of the more formally audacious half hours of the show’s five-year run, this literal two-hander finds a brutish soldier (Charles Bronson) duking it out with his female counterpart (Elizabeth Montgomery) as the last two survivors of World War III. The catch is that there’s hardly any dialogue at all (and had the episode actually done away with those few didactic lines about the futility of it all, it might have ranked higher on this list). It’s as close to a silent movie as the show ever did, with the music, the postapocalyptic set design (the street sign covered in vegetation still gets us) and the actors doing all of the heavy lifting. And Bewitched fans, are you in for a treat — no offense to Samantha Stephens, but this is by far the best work Montgomery ever did. DF

22. “The Dummy” (Season 3, Episode 33)
You didn’t need to be a fan of the classic 1945 horror movie Dead of Night to know that ventriloquist dummies are, in a word, creepy-as-hell. Still, this Season Three episode was happy to remind Sixties TV viewers how much mileage you could get from a spooky reaction shot of, per Serling, “a brash stick of kindling.” Cliff Robertson is a nightclub entertainer who’s convinced his mouthy wooden partner, Willie, is actually alive … and more than a little sick and tired of having a hand up his back. The answer, Robertson thinks, is a new dummy and a new act. Willie has other ideas. The ending — what our friendly narrator calls “the ol’ switcheroo” — is still eerie after all these years. And dig those Dutch angles! DF

21.A Stop at Willoughby” (Season 1, Episode 30)
An ad executive (James Daly) discovers he can escape his monotonous life by falling asleep on his commuter train and be transported to the peaceful town of Willoughby, circa 1888 — “where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure,” the train conductor tells him. When his resentful wife and demanding boss drive him to the brink of madness, our hero gets off the train for good … killing him instantly in the present. (The name of the funeral parlor: Willoughby & Sons.) Interesting side note: The central character made such a huge impression on Matthew Weiner that he partly based Mad Men’s Don Draper on this doomed daydreamer. AM

20. “A Nice Place to Visit” (Season 1, Episode 28)
Rocky (Larry Blyden) is a petty thief who gets gunned down by the fuzz after a job goes south. Several hours later, he’s awakened by an elderly man named Pip (Sebastian Cabot). This dead ringer for Colonel Sanders says that he’s going to be Rocky’s “guide” in the after-life, a sort of jovial fixer who’ll give him whatever he wants. Soon, this loser crook finds himself neck-deep in women and gambling winnings, with his every wish coming true. We’ll gingerly suggest that the specific shoe-drop of a twist here has gotten a lot of mileage in the proceeding decades (and in the last few years in particular), which doesn’t mean that it didn’t leave viewers going “Wait, what?” upon its first airing or that Cabot’s climactic laugh doesn’t still give you gooseflesh. DF

19. “The Hitchhiker” (Season 1, Episode 16)
A young woman is on a cross-country road trip from Manhattan to Los Angeles when her tire blows out. “Lady, you’re on the side of the angels,” the mechanic tells her, amazed she’s unscathed. Then things start to get weird. She resumes driving, only to come across the same unrelenting hitchhiker over and over in every state she passes through. You get three guesses as to the mystery man is, and the first two don’t count. The episode may have been adapted from a radio play, but seeing an ominous stranger following a woman traveling alone on screen made the fear all the more palpable. And we have the sneaking suspicion that once upon a time, M. Night Shyamalan caught a re-run of this at a formative age and started taking notes. AM

18. “The Midnight Sun” (Season 3, Episode 10)
This tale of ecological catastrophe is so convincing in its portrayal of a burning world that you can practically see waves of heat distortion radiating from the screen. Lois Nettleton and Betty Garde play an isolated artist and her landlord, trying their best to cope with certain doom as Earth’s altered orbit brings it ever closer to the sun. Then Serling’s script slowly turns up the psychological temperature too, as a looter breaks in, but reveals he’s really hunting for something to assuage his survivor’s guilt after his wife and newborn died from the heat. A twist reverses the nature of the doomsday scenario, but it pales in comparison to the unbearable you-are-there feeling of that broiling apartment. To say this parable of a planet on fire and the inability of art to ameliorate disaster still resonates would be an understatement. STC

17. “Perchance to Dream” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Or, The Carnival of Dr. Caligari. Richard Conte is man with a heart condition who’s plagued by recurring nightmares. His psychiatrist explains that he’s simply working his way through some sort of  narrative, one involving an amusement park, a rollercoaster and one snake-charmer of a dancer (Suzanne Lloyd) the patient believes is attacking him through his subconscious. The question soon becomes: Will his ticker give out before he loses his mind, or vice versa? When (or how) he’ll shuffle off this mortal coil is the mystery here, though what sticks with you are the dream sequences, all German Expressionism set design and unrelenting dread. DF

16. “The Four of Us Are Dying” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Meet Arch Hammer, a con man played by Harry Townes … and Ross Martin … and Phillip Pine … and Don Gordon. He’s blessed with a tremendous gift for a grifter: the ability to change his face to resemble the friends, lovers and acquaintances of his marks. When he tries to blackmail a gangster in the guise of a man the mobster had executed, he winds up on the run — and the new face he changes into will lead to him to his doom. The combination of shapeshifting and an underworld demimonde gives the proceedings a distinctly Lynchian flair, which may be why frequent Lynch collaborator Trent Reznor borrowed the title for a deep cut on his 2008 album The Slip. STC

15. “Nick of Time” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Before he’d become a Zone MVP thanks to a long flight, a window seat and a gremlin, William Shatner made an earlier appearance on the show (written by the great Richard Matheson) as one half of a couple stuck in Ridgeville, Ohio when their car breaks down. Killing time in a cafe, the superstitious man and his wife (Patricia Breslin) begin feeding pennies into a fortune teller machine. It correctly predicts that he will get a major promotion at work; then it warns these newlyweds about leaving the premises. It’s a perfect showcase for a vintage watch-Shatner-unravel performance, but what sells the episode is the tiny devil’s head on top of the machine — a rubber-faced Mephisto that seems to be mocking the duo every time they drop another coin in the slot. DF

14. “The After Hours” (Season 1, Episode 34)
It’s a simple plot: a woman, in search of a gift for her mother, gets trapped in a department store. The lights are dim, the floor is silent. The elevator doors won’t open. Neither will the entrance to the stairs. Then the mannequins start whispering her name, one by one: “Marsha! Climb off it!” “The After Hours” runs at such a steady pace, it’s frightening even after you’ve figured out the twist. At the end, Serling delivers a line that helps cement the half hour’s place as one of the series’ greatest episodes: “Just how normal are we?” AM

13. “Mirror Image” (Season 1, Episode 21)
This Twilight Zone episode has been getting namechecked a lot over the past few weeks — Peele has claimed it’s a big influence on Us, and the ancestry is clear. When Millicent Barnes (Psycho‘s Vera Miles) asks a porter when her late bus is arriving, she’s told she just asked the same question 15 minutes ago … except she hadn’t. Later, she spots a woman who likes just like her reflected in a bathroom mirror. She recounts a fantastic story about parallel universes and how the other versions of our selves have to “move us out” so they can live. “That’s a little metaphysical for me,” replies the stranger (Martin Milner) who comforts her; his own skepticism will soon be tested, however, as things take a turn toward the untethered. A nice, bare-bones tale of doppelgänger paranoia. DF

12. “Where Is Everybody?” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Atomic Age anxiety hangs thick in the air of otherwise deserted streets in the very first episode of Rod Serling’s magnum opus. Dimple-chinned character actor Earl Holliman is an Air Force pilot who discovers himself on the outskirts of a small town, population … zero. As the unsettling details mount, from the mundane (coffee brewing and a jukebox playing with no one in sight) to the more macabre (a display of paperbacks where every single book is titled The Last Man on Earth), so does our hero’s sense that he’s coming apart at the seams. Of course there’s an answer as to what’s really going on — the question is simply whether the concluding revelation makes the story of his suffering less frightening or more? STC

11. “It’s a Good Life” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Not every visit to the Zone entailed sociopolitical commentary — sometimes Serling and company simply wanted to scare the pants off of you. “It’s a Good Life” is naturally dominated by young actor Bill Mumy (a.k.a. Will Robinson from Lost in Space), and his petulance as the all-powerful Anthony Fremont, telepathic ruler of the town of Peaksville, Ohio is all-too-relatable for any parent of a tantrum-throwing child. Even a simple phrase like “Wish it into the cornfield” — the no-man’s-land where everyone who displeases this six-year-old Thanos is banished and buried forever — takes on an awful resonance. And no amount of wishing can get that dreadful image that follows Fremont’s father uttering it out of your head. STC

10. “Living Doll” (Season 5, Episode 6)
Long before Chucky, there was Talky Tina. The eyelash-batting doll appears innocent and lifeless; she’s nit just alive, however, but also bent on murdering the stepfather of the sweet little girl that owns her. He initially thinks it’s a prank set up by his wife (ironically named Annabelle). Once he realizes the horrible truth, he tries everything from fire to buzz saw to kill the little beast. Say it with us: “I’m Talky Tina, and you better be nice to me.” The episode may not contain a classic Twilight Zone twist, but it doesn’t need one — it’s so frightening it nearly made Us director Jordan Peele piss his pants. AM

9. “A Game of Pool” (Season 3, Episode 5)
“Be careful what you wish for” is the core thesis for a lot of Twilight Zone episodes, and that notion is cracked open like a heart-surgery patient’s rib cage in this early Season Three highlight. A pool shark (Jack Klugman) pines for being the best, if only he wasn’t always getting compared to the late, great legend Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters). Then voila! Fats comes back from the grave to let this would-be champion test his skills in a life-or-death game. Anyone familiar with the perils of being the fastest gun in the West can guess where this is going. It may also be the single sweatiest episode of the entire run. The big surprise here is Winters, who gets a rare chance to show off his dramatic chops. The extraordinary way he underplays Fats — especially as the game winds down to its final few shots — suggests there was a lot more to him as a performer than just characters and funny voices. You wished he’d done more work like this. DF

8. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (Season 3, Episode 14)
“What would it be like to be stuck somewhere, alive and conscious, forever?” A ballerina, a bagpipe player, an old-school hobo, a pretty serious clown, a gung-ho Army major and a featureless chamber to keep them all in: To paraphrase David Bowie, such is the stuff from where nightmares are woven. There’s no message to speak of in this Sartre-gone-sci-fi story of five strangers trapped together in a cylindrical limbo — just a classic Twilight Zone probe into the darker recesses of your brain. The episode ends with one of the most outlandish twists in the show’s history, but its shadow over television to come — from the snowglobe finale of St. Elsewhere to the central predicament of Lost — is long indeed. DF

7. “Time Enough at Last” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Poor Henry Bemis — so many books to read, so little time. Soon, however, this “charter member in the fraternity of dreamers” may have an abundance of the latter, courtesy of a bank vault and the H-Bomb. Nuclear annihilation was a much-used plot point and recurring preoccupation of the show throughout its five-season run, but Serling’s adaptation of Lynn Venable’s short story actually deploys it in the hapless hero’s favor for once. There’s no one left to keep the hen-pecked Henry from doing the one thing he pines for more than anything else. It’s the single most terrifying Twilight Zone episode for bibliophiles, from the sight of a paperback’s pages ruined by scrawling marks (gasp) to the now-famous ending. Long before he’d bust Rocky Balboa’s chops, Burgess Meredith proved he could play a great nebbish. And kudos to his costar, a thick pair of coke-bottle glasses that deserves its place in the TV Optometry Hall of Fame. DF

6. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (Season 2, Episode 28)
A Rod Serling original and a longtime fan favorite — Rush even paid tribute to it in a song. Two cops show up at a snowed-in diner; there’s been a report that aliens from another planet have been spotted in the area, and one of the seven folks holed up in the joint may be the otherworldly offender. Not so much a whodunnit as a whoisit, this episode, to paraphrase Stefan, has it all: A good deal of paranoid banter! The best use of a greasy-spoon counter since Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”! A bug-eyed Jack Elam acting extra-cuckoo! The line “you can’t hold somebody on ‘suspicion of being a monster'”! And not one but two climactic twists! Even the goofy title can’t ruin it. DF

5. “The Invaders” (Season 2, Episode 15)
A close-quarters survival-horror story that prefigures The Birds, Wait Until Dark and Night of the Living Dead by years. This nearly wordless outing stars Agnes Moorehead as an old woman whose remote cabin finds itself besieged by tiny beings from an extraterrestrial spacecraft. The Hollywood legend holds her own against the alien incursion, struggling and screaming and fighting for her life in what amounts to a one-woman show. As for the de rigeur twist … let’s just say that size, for once, does matter here. But the nerve-racking intensity of a woman besieged speaks directly to more down-to-earth dread, from violence against women to the simple fear of growing old and vulnerable. STC

4. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5, Episode 3)
It’s got a screenplay by horror godhead Richard Matheson, future Superman director Richard Donner behind the camera and soon-to-be Star Trek legend William Shatner in the passenger seat as a terrified airline traveler. Oh, and a wild, woolly, absolutely maddening gremlin on the wing. “Nightmare” is one of the best known, most beloved and downright scariest episodes of The Twilight Zone for many reasons, from the skill of the cast and crew to the relatable fears of airplane malfunctions. But it all comes down to that rain-soaked cabin window and the two beings on either side of it: a monster determined to defy all rational explanation, and a man whose failing to convince his fellow passengers of the danger they all face. Once again the show presents its viewers with a painful choice: Would it be better or worse if the monster were real, or all in his head? STC

3. “Eye of the Beholder” (Season 2, Episode 6)
As in “Beauty is in …,” get it? If not, don’t worry—a character will literally say so at the close of the episode. A first-ballot candidate for the Twilight Zone hall of pop-culture fame, this episode revolves a woman (Maxine Stuart) undergoing surgery to fix her hideous disfigurement. When she removes her bandages, we see she is actually beautiful — and this is where director Douglas Heyes renders the faces of our heroine’s medical tormentors nearly unbearable to look at, followed by rapid-fire editing that practically takes those grisly visages and beats us over the head with them. It helps the sheer terror felt by the main character transcends the “ohhhh, I get it” element of the story and sinks deep into our own disgustingly perfect pores. Those warped, pig-snouted monsters will haunt your dreams. STC

2. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (Season 1, Episode 22)
Cold War paranoia, space-age science fiction, the placid surface of American life peeled back to reveal the rot beneath — for many, this is the definitive Twilight Zone episode? Charlie Farnsworth (Jack Weston) and Steve Brand (Claude Akins) are residents of a quiet suburban street where mysterious power outages erupt following a flyover by an unknown aircraft. One of them is driven into a Red Scare–style panic, seeing extraterrestrial origins in the harmless quirks of all his neighbors; the other tries to stop the witch-hunt mindset from spreading. A senseless tragedy land a full-scale riot in the streets ensue. Yes, aliens were manipulating events on Maple Street … and then they let good old-fashioned human nature do their dirty work for them. From McCarthyism to Trumpism, we have seen the monsters on Maple Street. And they are us. STC

1. “To Serve Man” (Season 3, Episode 24)
A seemingly benevolent alien civilization solves all of Earth’s problems. Then the visitors invite the grateful public to travel back with them to their home planet, brandishing the titular book as a combination bible and instruction manual. A pair of cryptologists (Lloyd Bochner and Susan Cummings) manage to decipher the name of the tome, but it’s only when the former has already boarded the ship does his partner discover the truth about what’s actually inside the covers. We then get the most famous black-comedy punchline in The Twilight Zone‘s hallowed library, with a twist like a diamond in its simple perfection. No doubt that’s why the episode is so fondly remembered — after all, it’s not like millions of Americans would ever blindly follow someone who’s promised to solve their problems but is actually determined to make those problems worse, right? But it also exemplifies what Serling’s groundbreaking show did best: take a fantastic premise, add equal parts existential horror and irony, then marinate it all in metaphor and let the whole thing simmer. Suggested serving portion: an ever-growing legion of satisfied fans.

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