"Either I am crazy or somebody's going to an awful lot of trouble to blot me out."
David (Richard Long)
I enjoy Twilight Zone episodes for many reasons, much the way I like the works of Stephen King.
I enjoy good entertainment, and one of the ways I like to be entertained is to see or read something that sends a little chill down my spine. Folks from my parents' generation called it the heebie jeebies, which is still probably the best way to describe it.
It's probably what made the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" movies so popular — although I have always preferred thrillers that had more going for them than merely shower slasher attacks that shamelessly borrowed the famous shower scene from "Psycho."
Twilight Zone specialized in heebie jeebies. It didn't always achieve heebie jeebie status — neither does King, for that matter — but it came close on many occasions if it didn't hit the bull's eye.
The episode that first aired on this night in 1962, "Person or Persons Unknown," was one of the episodes that hit the bull's eye.
Richard Long, a familiar TV actor from those days (in addition to his many appearances on other programs, he appeared in another Twilight Zone episode two years later), played a character who woke up one morning after a night of heavy partying to discover that no one — not his wife, his mother, his friends, his colleagues at work — knew who he was.
The opening narration observed that he had "just lost his most valuable possession" — his identity. There was no evidence of his existence anywhere.
For sure that will send a chill down your spine.
And as that fact dawned on him, things began to get worse. He was taken into custody and eventually taken to an asylum.
I suppose it is the kind of thing that most people think will never happen to them, and I'll grant you that it seems pretty far–fetched. But it's been my experience that most people never think really terrible things will happen to them, that they only happen to other people — until something terrible does happen to them or someone they know.
And make no mistake about it — losing your identity is a terrible thing.
Most people in 1962 were probably like Long's character, giving little thought to their identities, simply assuming that when they woke up in the morning everything would be just as it had been when they went to sleep the night before. They might have further assumed that a person like Long was suffering from amnesia, but the only problem with that was that he knew who he was. It was the other people who didn't know who he was.
A person's identity has become a much bigger topic of conversation than it was 55 years ago. Identity theft is a thriving business in the criminal world, and people are becoming increasingly proactive about protecting their identities.
Identity theft may have been a legal issue in 1962 as well, but without things like the personal computer and the internet, it is hard to imagine how it could have been pulled off. Of course, that is 21st–century thinking being applied to the mid–20th century.
Anyway, Dave Gurney devoutly believed that he could find evidence of his true identity. He believed someone was trying to blot out his existence, and he believed that he could find the one detail that would support his claim. He thought he had found the proof of his identity — a photo of him with his wife from a roll of film he had taken in to be developed. He went to pick up the picture, and the photo he got did, indeed, show him with his wife, the one who now claimed she did not know him.
But when he showed the photo to the psychiatrist who had been treating him and the police who were looking for him, it only showed him. His wife was no longer in the picture.
He slumped to the ground in despair, and in the next second he was seen back in his bedroom. It appeared that the whole thing had been a dream. This time his wife recognized him — but he didn't recognize her.
The nightmare continued. It just took a different turn.
Incidentally, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling apparently liked this theme so much that he revisited it in an hour–long format the following year.