Marsha White is in search of a gold thimble that she saw advertised in the local department store. It’s a sign of the times as much as last week’s Mr. Bevis, who gets a raise to $10 a week! Did people really go in for 24k gold thimbles back then? When she finds it on the ninth floor of an eight floor department store, we know things have gone just a little askew!
I confess that I was originally viewing this episode humorously as department store woes. You go to the store to buy something, the sales clerk fails to give you a receipt, then you notice it’s defective and can’t get anyone to honor your purchase. You then spend far too long trying to get your money back to no avail! Proof positive that you should always pay with a credit card. Well, that would be fine if you had one, I guess. If this episode were done today, it would need to feature one of those accursed apocalypse-inducing operator assisted phone systems. Press one for housewares, two for unhelpful managers, three for questions about options one and two… etc. As it is, Marsha is frustrated by the options she’s dealing with, and she’s dealing with real people. Alas, the same can’t be said the other way around…
I’ve always been a fan of the uncanny valley. It’s that concept where a face falls somewhere outside the normal range of what a face should look like, causing some emotional discomfort from the viewer. It can put a person on edge, because there’s something just a little off about their appearance. I find this a fascinating experience and typically love it. Alita: Battle Angel didn’t put me off; rather it made me love the character. Hell, even the sea-people faces of Lovecraft’s nightmares are welcome visages in my world. I was brought into science fiction at such a young age, I love those not-quite-human looks. Rod Serling’s The After Hours takes one heck of a view of the uncanny valley using mannequins. It’s an inspired choice.
In 2020, Netflix turned the graphic novel The Umbrella Academy into a series. In season 2, one of the characters is stuck in an apocalypse (no doubt brought about by those telephone systems) with no companion other than the upper half of a mannequin. It might seem like a weird choice but I’d be right there with him, because if I found myself in a world devoid of people, I’d go for a mannequin too. (Or a volleyball, if it came down to it but I’d hope to have a more humanoid looking companion with me. No offense, Wilson.) Now if the mannequin looked as stunningly real as those in this episode, I’d be very happy indeed. William J. Tuttle created the mannequins for this episode, effectively duplicating the real life people upon whom they are based. It’s a stunning visual and I find it hard to say that we are in the uncanny valley when looking at them, so close to lifelike that I am totally unbothered by it. Now, that doesn’t say much since, as I said, I’m rarely bothered by it, but I was stunned how closely each mannequin resembled their counterparts.
Besides the visuals, it’s a very clever idea, adding just a hint of the scary to an inanimate object. Of course, one has to suspend disbelief with most science fiction but this more so than normal because the only reason the mannequins get this benefit is that they look like humans. Do plastic cups get the same luxury, going out into the world to live amongst other cups? Do wooden shelves have a chance to mingle with all other shelves? It’s only in their anthropomorphized state do we bend the rules with them. But that’s ok because it makes for a damned good story and makes us give a second thought to those mannequins we see in the department stores. I will never be able to look at the headless ones the same way anymore though… I mean, how mean is it to do that? When they get their time in the world, it’s got to be a bit disorienting for them and the people who they interact with. Unless they live in either Sleepy Hollow, or of course The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
For two thirds of The After Hours it was the scariest episode of The Twilight Zone I’ve seen so far. As soon as the mannequins start chatting at the end, it was probably the silliest. It’s not just that it pops the bubble of fear that the episode has worked so hard to build up, it’s just far too prosaic and human to see the mannequins behaving like a bunch of good friends, trying to help Marsha remember how their world works.
The whole idea is absurd, anyway, so let’s focus instead on the part of this episode that does work, and works incredibly well. The reason The After Hours is so frightening is that it combines three different forms of fear. There is the fear of being alone somewhere you shouldn’t be, which is heightened here by the deserted ninth floor, with its empty display cases. This plays on the fear of being in an abandoned building where only spirits dwell, perhaps, but also the eeriness of a place that should be full of life and lacks any. If you’ve ever been in a shopping arcade, a school, a hospital or an airport, for example, during hours they are less frequented, you will probably have experienced that feeling of wrongness, like you’re the only person around and shouldn’t be there, and then maybe you start to get that feeling of not being alone…
Then there’s the ninth floor, which plays on a fear of a magical or ghostly space that shouldn’t exist. There are countless examples of this in fiction, but my favourite is Number 13 by M.R. James. Finally, there is the uncanny valley response, and that’s what makes the mannequins so frightening, especially when they look like this:
We respond with an innate horror to a figure that is almost human but not quite, and that response is proven to be heightened if the almost-human moves (at its most extreme, that’s the difference between our emotional response to a corpse and the fear of zombies, both of which exist at the depths of the uncanny valley). A mannequin that lurks in the background and then suddenly moves an arm is the perfect way to trigger that fear.
I had no idea The Twilight Zone had come up with the idea of scary mannequins so long before Doctor Who, but the two approaches are actually very different. In Doctor Who (Spearhead from Space / Terror of the Autons / Rose) the mannequins are killers, but here the fear is built from the idea that the victim is a mannequin herself. That loss of identity and humanity should theoretically be a more powerful psychological fear, but the Doctor Who iteration of the idea still manages to trump this by a mile, and that’s simply because it keeps playing with the uncanny valley response, while The After Hours humanises the mannequins. As soon as they turn into moving people and start having a conversation, the magic is lost. There is no longer an inherent wrongness to them, and the deserted shop floor is instead filled with people chatting and cheering on the one whose turn it is to be a human for a month. It’s a brave and unusual idea, anyway. You have to give it that.
Any good drama needs light and shade, and the light is most definitely the comedy provided by Mr. Armbruster, the campest shop assistant I’ve ever seen. It’s a hilariously fruity performance from James Millhollin, whose emotional response to everything that happens is always written large all over his face. My favourite moment was when Marsha said, “I didn’t get a receipt, but I paid cash,” and then the sceptical Armbruster treats us to this reaction:
It’s best not to think too hard about this episode, or you’ll end up with difficult questions to answer, such as why the mannequin that Marsha meets on the ninth floor goes through the whole silly rigmarole with the thimble and doesn’t just tell her who she is and try to trigger her memories there and then, rather than risking allowing her to return to the human world when she is confused and distressed and her time is up. Perhaps the thimble is kept there as a way to make buried memories resurface, but if so it doesn’t work very well. That said, there’s something very melancholy about a non-person trying to buy a present for a mother who doesn’t exist. Marsha has a family of sorts, but not the one she thinks she has.
So next time you visit a department store, steer clear of those mannequins, and if anyone suggests you visit the “specialties” department, don’t get into that lift. Shopping online might be destroying our high streets, but at least it doesn’t have a ninth floor… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Mighty Casey