Inside looking out: The most dangerous animal in the world
The date was March 4, 1960. Americans settled down in their homes to watch “The Twilight Zone” on their TV sets. The episode that premiered that night was “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a short story and screenplay written by the show’s creator, Rod Serling.
Let’s set the stage. Maple Street is the center of a quiet suburban neighborhood located in Anytown, America. It’s a beautiful sunny day in the tree-lined suburb of porch gliders and backyard barbecues. The sound of children laughing and the bell of an ice cream truck can be heard on the street. It’s the perfect summer afternoon in the perfect town.
And then the monsters come.
It’s first seen as a shadow and then a roar, and a flash of light. The power on Maple Street suddenly goes off. Pete Van Horn stops fixing something in his yard and walks a few blocks and discovers there’s no power in the entire neighborhood.
An imaginative young boy named Tommy, who had seen the flash of light in the sky, tells everyone that there are monsters who live among the residents, but look just like humans. They are scouts, he says, who turned off the power to isolate this neighborhood from all the others.
Down the street, Les Goodwin can’t start his car, but after he walks away, it starts by itself. Some of the people who believe Tommy’s story now think Goodwin is one of the monsters and is responsible for knocking out the power. Steve Brand defuses any arguments that Les is a monster, but Charlie Farnsworth watches over Goodwin’s house as darkness falls upon Maple Street.
One woman claims she has seen Les Goodwin staring up at the sky late at night. Les admits to this, but says he’s an insomniac. While everyone stands in the street wondering what’s going on, they see a shadowy figure carrying a hammer walking toward them. Tommy shouts, “It’s the monster!” Somebody gets a shotgun for protection. Charlie grabs the gun and shoots the approaching figure. They all run to the body now lying dead in the street and see that it’s Pete Van Horn.
As Charlie tries to defend his actions, the lights go on in his house. Now they think he is the monster who killed Pete because Pete was going to tell them that Charlie was indeed the creature. Charlie makes a run for his house. They chase after and throw rocks at him. They throw rocks through the windows of his house and the broken glass cuts Charlie’s forehead. He tries to deflect the angry crowd and shouts that Tommy is the monster. His mother tries to defend her son, but the crowd realizes that Tommy is the only one who knows about the monster’s plans. They start to approach the boy with more rocks in hands.
All of a sudden, lights in the houses go on and off, lawn mowers start by themselves, cars start and stop, and portable radios blare throughout the street. The people begin to riot and shout out names of whom they think the monster is. They run down Maple Street trampling over each other and hurling rocks and breaking glass everywhere.
Morning arrives. Maple Street is deserted now. Up in the sky, an alien monster tells another that there’s no need for weapons. Humans will destroy each other. All we have to do is do the same thing we did here. Move from one town to another and it will all be over.
At the conclusion of this TV episode, Rod Serling said, “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
On June 8, 1963, the Bronx Zoo in New York set up a new exhibit in the building inside the Gorilla House in between the cages that held the orangutans and the mountain gorillas. This exhibit was a compartment with bars with a printed proclamation under a large mirror where visitors could look in and see themselves.
The proclamation read, “You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.”
Rod Serling’s masterpiece was aired over 60 years ago, but its theme is unfortunately all too relevant today. Look around us. Don’t we all we know a Charlie Farnsworth type character who lives in our neighborhood, a man who is prepared to shoot anyone who he thinks might be a threat to him? How many of us would be the Pete Van Horns, the innocent victims hurt or killed by “Charlie’s” act of paranoia?
Some will say “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is just an entertaining piece of fiction. And yet, Rod Serling delivered a powerful warning then that we might want to heed today. There are Maple Streets in Anytown, America. The monsters aren’t coming from outer space. They’re walking out the front doors of our houses. All it will take is fear of an imagined enemy that will turn us against each other until there’s a disaster that could destroy us and cause “a fallout … for the children and the children yet unborn.”
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.