The Twilight Zone: Nightmare as a Child

Twilight Zone Nightmare as a Child MarkieThe Twilight Zone is often predictable to me but I wonder if that’s because I am so entrenched in Science Fiction that I see the signs from the start?  Were those signs as obvious to me when I was a kid?  Or did it have more to do with the fact that this was 1960 and our movies and TV were not saturated with ideas like this?  Whatever the reason, I still loved Nightmare as a Child.  I mean, I knew almost instantly that the strange little girl, Markie, was the younger version of Helen Foley, the adult we are introduced to.  Saw it coming instantly because the girl was aware of so much about the adults life that there was only one possible way to take the plot.  The thing is, Terry Burnham is magnificent as Markie.  What a talented little actress.  I think she actually looked like a younger version of Helen too.  She was born in 1949 and had her first role in 1955.  By the time of The Twilight Zone, she was 11 and she absolutely stole the show.  A skilled performance from a very young acress!

The plot is very modern though; one I didn’t see coming.  A man turns up who we know is in some way nefarious, but I hardly imagined that he murdered Helen’s mother when Helen was a child, thus scarring Helen for life.  Peter Selden goes to check on Helen to see if she’s remembered her past and finds his presence starts to rekindle those memories.  Here’s the problem though: as far as I can tell, he’s been imprisoned all these years too considering he’s had to stalk Helen just to see what she’s remembered.  That’s no way to live!  He couldn’t move on with his life because of the crime he’d committed making him almost as much a prisoner of the past as Helen.  He’s been a living dead man for all the years while, paradoxically,  Helen moved on with her life just having blocked out parts of her past.  When he confronts her, I was delighted she managed to knock him down the stairs but his death is not one to mourn; we’ve rid ourselves of a pedophile and murderer.  At least Helen has her memories back and can enjoy life to the fullest.

Why did I call him a pedophile, you ask?  I often wonder why some of these episodes are not repeated on those July 4th Marathons.  I think this one comes down to Selden.  We are introduced to an older man who worked for Helen’s mother when she was a little girl. He tells Helen that he had a crush on her back then.  Now, I’m no genealogist, but he seems quite a bit older than her and if we consider that he killed her mother while the little girl was in bed, there’s clearly an age gap!  This isn’t a 16 year old while Helen was 14 which might go unnoticed.  Perhaps they needed to cast a younger actor, but Shepperd Strudwick was fantastic as an easy-to-hate baddie, so I can see why they cast him.  But no matter how you cut it, that adds a level of discomfort to the narrative that I wasn’t expecting.  On top of that, Creepster McHandy carries a picture of the little girl around in his pocket!  Granted this episode goes down the route of a murder mystery with a twist of Sci-fi, but there’s an underlying, unspoken horror to this story.  Peter Selden was a bad man on many levels.  “The human imagination is often weird,” says the coroner, but he may not fully appreciate how that applied to the dead man.

This was a very good episode with a very dark undercurrent.  But me being me, I did have to laugh at one thing.  When Selden was telling Helen when they last saw one another, he says it was “18 or 19 [years ago] to be exact!”  Well, friend, 18 or 19 is not an exact number.  It’s an approximate, an estimate.  “18 years, 3 months” is exact.  If nothing more, it tells me that I can always find something to have a laugh at even in the darkest corners of The Twilight Zone.   ML

The view from across the pond:

Any intelligent discussion of this episode is going to have to centre around one thing: motive. That’s not to say the sci-fi element isn’t fun, but the identity of Markie is guessable very early in the episode, and her presence is easily written off as a manifestation of Helen’s returning memories, after many years of amnesia, so there doesn’t even need to be any sci-fi element at all, unless you want to interpret it in that way. But no, the dark corner where we are going to have to poke our stick is a shady area of the Twilight Zone labelled: what makes Peter Selden tick.

The motive for his original crime is clearly explained: Helen’s mother found out he was up to no good financially, and he needed to silence her. Poor Helen was an unintended witness to the murder, which plays out in flashback as a shadow on a wall, a very effective and frightening way of showing something that perhaps couldn’t be shown in too much detail on television at the time, but leaving the viewers in no doubt about what had happened. It also works well as a shadowy memory returning from the past, so it’s a very clever artistic choice from the director. The bit where Selden’s motive becomes unclear is his return to Helen’s life, and that’s where we need to speculate, because Rod Serling was so often a writer who came up with an interesting idea and wasn’t too bothered about arranging all the details into a coherent picture, as long as he got his big idea across to the viewers.

Selden clearly can’t have just popped up on the scene deliberately, many years later, with the idea of sparking a recovery of Helen’s memories and then killing the only person who could identify him as the murderer of Helen’s mother. It’s really not a plan that makes any kind of sense. You could argue that he happened to be in the vicinity of Helen and saw some spark of recognition in her eyes, but that would indicate a man who has just left the potential recovery of Helen’s memories at some point in future to chance, and besides he does say he has been keeping an eye on her. Can he have been watching her like an unseen stalker for her entire life since she was ten years old? Why would he dedicate his life to doing that, instead of just killing her many years ago? The answer must surely be something to do with the following, disturbing statement:

“I had quite a crush on you.”

He also says she was “an exceptionally beautiful child”. Could it be that Selden was in love with little Markie, and couldn’t bring himself to snuff out such a beautiful flame, until he knew he had no other choice? Could he have really watched her from afar all those years because he loved her, until he made the mistake that allowed Helen to spot him in the neighbourhood, and her memories started to re-emerge? He is carrying around a photo of Markie as a little girl, after all.

I have to be careful here, because it’s often tempting to view the past through modern eyes, and that can easily lead us down some blind alleys. This episode was made a couple of decades before I was born, and even my own childhood took place in a world that was markedly freer than the one my own children inhabit, where parents see menace lurking on every street. I don’t blame the parents of the 21st Century. I’m one of them, after all, but despite the risk to children being broadly the same as it has always been, we all behave now as if it has increased exponentially since our own childhoods. Nowadays, if we hear a line like “you were an exceptionally beautiful child”, our subconscious is going “RED ALERT!” but that may not have been the case for viewers when this episode was written, and “I had a crush on you,” might have been a perfectly innocent way for an adult male to jokingly express admiration for a pretty little girl. Times change. Helen certainly doesn’t seem to react to that suggestion with any particular horror, beyond her already growing unease caused by her resurfacing memories, and perhaps the key point here is that Selden probably wouldn’t have openly said that if he meant anything by it. However, the level of obsession that could lead a murderer to stalk the daughter of his victim for many years rather than simply dispose of her as the only witness to his crimes does suggest something more going on than meets the eye. One wonders exactly what Serling intended the viewer to take from this when he wrote it. Having said that, knowing the kind of unpolished stories Serling wrote for the Zone, he probably just thought somebody meeting themselves as a child was a cool idea and needed a generic villain to make that cool idea work. And in the end, I can’t argue with that. It is a cool idea, and it does work.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Twilight Zone: Nightmare as a Child

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The blur between what’s externally or physically real and what’s in your mind can be a fascinating ingredient for a story of this nature. That’s basically why this episode is a favorite of mine with the optimistic message that justice and healing always find a way in proper order and proper time. It’s the mind’s capacity to make you see yourself from an outside perspective that could help you to see yourself more clearly from within, quite an experience in this case for Helen thanks to Markie, that reaffirms how anthology shows can be a haven for the most humbled characters. The radio drama version took it in a slightly different direction which I didn’t like very much. So it gives me another reason to appreciate the visually more subtle way that the classic Twilight Zone could present these profound issues, even via the most extraordinary methods. Thank you both for your reviews on an anthology episode that reassures us all how our human imaginations can sometimes literally mean salvation.

    Liked by 1 person

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