The Twilight Zone: Perchance to Dream

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959I remember a quote from Hamlet with perfect clarity; that dread of something after death, that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns… It’s one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes in fact.  While that bit is where my memory is strongest, it’s in that same speech that we hear the quote that this episode gets its title.  To die – to sleep, to sleep –  perchance to dream.  Ay there’s the rub!  For Edward Hall, it is indeed a rub … as in he rubs his eyes and temples to stay awake.  Edward Hall has a problem.  He’s fighting his own version of Freddy Kreuger years before Freddy was ever invented; a nightmare character that chases him from dream to dream.  To compound matters, Mr. Hall has a weak heart and an over-active imagination.

The thing with The Twilight Zone is that the stories are supposed to be about any one of us.  We’re all supposed to be able to relate to them because the protagonists are just ordinary people.  Edward Hall goes to see a therapist to discuss his problems.  He sits down on the therapy couch just at the minute 3 mark of the episode.  The remaining 21 minutes don’t exist making this perhaps the shortest episode of The Twilight Zone on record, because everything we see after that is a dream.  The episode should have been called Perchance a Dream; it would have let us know early on that this may or may not have been true.  A man walks into his therapists office and dies on the couch.  The end.  Rathmann wraps the story up.  “At least he died peacefully…”

Well now, that is an interesting thing to say.  Edward was plagued by an idea but let’s rewind to his childhood.  Clearly unable to afford TV, his mom told him to stare at a picture until it moved.  Sadder still because iPads didn’t exist back then and she was a mom in need of a babysitter, so she tricks her son into using a standard picture the way today’s parents use technology.  Kudos to Mrs. Hall for inventive uses of household objects.  Unfortunately, it makes Ed a bit jumpy and when he dreams, he dreams in episodes. He dreams up Maya the Cat Girl.  Never have I wanted a cat so much in my life.  She’s actually stunningly pretty with glorious eyes.   Naturally, she wants to kill him.  After 4 days without sleep, popping pills, drinking coffee and smoking, I think he should think twice about who his Freddy Kreuger really is!  Sounds like he’s really the problem!  I don’t think it’s the fairground girl that he has to worry about.  But that’s the point that makes this so interesting.  Let’s look at another important quote, this time from Paradise Lost: The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.  We see a man sleeping but Edward Hall had another experience all together.  In perhaps the most ornate way imaginable, we are told that we just don’t know what goes on inside another person’s head.  Appearances can be deceptive and we should remember never to judge a book by its cover.  Edward Hall had a deep problem and while it was all in his head, it was no less real to him than a heart attack.  In fact, it causes a heart attack while he slumbers.  We often forget that other people have problems just because they don’t necessarily broadcast them.  And that’s perhaps a good, if subtle, message!

There are some things we need to briefly acknowledge before we wrap this up.  First off, safety was definitely not a priority in building construction of the 50’s or the windows would not have been as enormous as the one Edward opens.  That thing rivaled the doors in the place and had no safety mechanisms visible.  Also, carnivals are supposed to be fun, so why do so many movies and TV shows turn them into places of terror?  I think it’s got something to do with the uncanny valley; we’re in a place we know but things are just a bit skewed.  People are laughing for no good reason and faces and bodies contort in mirrors.  There’s something marvelously unsettling about it.  I think this makes for a  magnificent setting for a nightmare.

What I don’t know is how I’m supposed to feel about Edward Hall’s death.  I mean, he seemed like a good man so I should be bummed about his demise.  At the same time, he was a man with serious health issues and in the end, he got to lie down and close his eyes; he died “peacefully”.  This might be where we need the help of Columbo.  I started to wonder if perhaps Dr. Rothmann killed Edward Hall.  After he made the comment that Hall died peacefully, he then says,  “…and then he made that scream you heard!”  Let’s review: Hall goes in to see Rathmann; he walks past the receptionist, Miss Thomas.  The door closes and two minutes later he was dead.  Miss Thomas acknowledged that they’d been expecting him; clearly they knew he was coming which probably means they’d worked with him already and maybe even knew something was going on.  Note, before Rathmann sees Hall’s face, he recognizes him!  He then is lead over to the couch, the room goes temporarily dark, then… I think Columbo might find that Edward Hall had been hypnotized in a previous visit and offscreen a crime might have been committed and Rathmann gets rid of the one man who could expose him!!  … Ok, fanciful indeed, but it got into my head and I really wondered if there was a story here that we could explore!  The fact is, we’ve seen 9 episodes so far and it’s been a mixed bag of good endings and bad ones, but I don’t know where Edward’s death falls.  A quite sleeping death away from torment: good.  A scream at the end indicating a terrible death: bad.  I’m going to have to chalk this one up to an unclassified finale for a character.  Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?     Maybe so.  Edward Hall may roam the corridors of Morpheus’ castle forevermore; a wisp of an idea caught between light and shadow in The Twilight Zone.   ML

The view from across the pond:

Edward Hall is the “tiredest man in the world”, trying to stay awake because he’s afraid to fall asleep. It’s pretty obvious that this is not going to be a strategy that will do anything other than buy him a very small amount of time, but there doesn’t seem to be any other option open to him. He has a heart condition, and his dreams have become so vivid and frightening that they are putting too great a strain on his heart. One more dream, and his heart will give out, but the really troubling bit is that he thinks there is somebody inside his dreams, deliberately trying to kill him.

After a run of a few episodes I was already very familiar with, I thought I had found one here that I hadn’t seen before. About ten minutes in to the episode I realised I have actually seen this one, but it hadn’t really stuck in the mind. I think the reason for that is the haunter of Edward’s dreams. The set-up for the haunter’s identity is magnificent. In a flashback sequence, Edward’s imagination is running wild and he starts thinking that if he looks in his rear view mirror in his car he will see somebody sat in the back. He feels that he is not alone. If the revelation of who was in the mirror turned out to be some abomination, or even a sinister looking man, this could have been just about the scariest episode ever, because that’s such a chilling concept, but instead it’s the eyes of a woman, who behaves in his dreams as a temptress.

I get the idea. This is an Adam and Eve kind of story, exploring the dangers of sexual temptation. Edward is drawn to his death by a siren. But (a) her eyes in the mirror are not very frightening, (b) she isn’t frightening, and (c) the choice of location for her to have her metaphorical way with him isn’t frightening either. It doesn’t matter how much you blur the camera lens, an amusement park isn’t going to scare the viewers unless you do something very different with it from what happens here – sticking a man with a heart condition on a rollercoaster. It’s a very effective metaphor for a boring guy being pursued by a predatory woman, but it’s scary only to Edward, not to the viewers. If you’re happy enjoying the exploration of the theme rather than the chills this episode could so easily have provided, that’s fine, but personally I find a story about the perils of the female sex to be a bit too 1960s. The music exacerbates the problem because it’s horror movie stuff, insistent and troublingly repetitive, but it’s trying to instruct us how to feel in the absence of anything on screen that is actually frightening.

The Twilight Zone, however, seems to be a series that is built on one big gimmick: a twist in the tale. However unlikely, inconsistent, depressing or unengaging the story of the week might be, the writers (somebody other than Rod Serling for the first time this week) seem to have worked on the assumption that it wouldn’t matter as long as the ending packs a punch and leaves the viewer thinking, “oh… wow!”. And the thing is, it works. This episode is a case in point, a middle-of-the road story with one simple idea, elevated by an ending that leaves the viewer pondering on the meaning of what just happened at the end. I was a little confused initially, but I’m pretty sure the idea here is that Edward died at the point we saw him fall asleep on the psychiatrist’s couch near the beginning of the episode, and the rest of the episode, including his conversation with Dr. Rathmann, was all his dying dream. In the best traditions of these twist endings, it makes you reassess what you have just watched, but it also means that it took about 20 minutes for Maya to finish him off. A short nap, awoken by an alarm clock, might just have saved his life.

In the closing dialogue, Rod Serling poses a question: “who’s to say which is the greater reality: the one we know or the one in dreams?” It’s an interesting question, and one that isn’t actually tackled very effectively in the episode, because the logical and very straightforward interpretation is that Edward was simply a man who suffered from very vivid dreams, and his faulty heart couldn’t take the strain. But it’s a question that leaves us wanting more, and I hope it’s one that is revisited in a future episode.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Judgment Night

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Twilight Zone: Perchance to Dream

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The notion of the nightmare that you may never wake up from, certainly for an anthology that was phenomenally popular for challenging our consensus of realities, may make the doom for the main character a logical ending. Richard Conte, John Larch and Suzanne Lloyd are all superb for such a story of the early 60s and it would be interesting to see who would be cast if they made this episode in a later decade. Charles Beaumont had written this episode in a most down-to-basics way, making it a strong inspiration of so many horror stories about dreams over time. He was a great writer for The Twilight Zone and his death from a mysterious brain disease at just 38 years old was very sad. Perchance To Dream was his first for The Twilight Zone and a great first impression.

    Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I remember watching this one when I was a kid and it genuinely scared me. Rewatching it as an adult years later and I still found it very effective. I included it on my list of recommended episodes to watch for Halloween.

    Liked by 2 people

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