Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Many Faces of Death

"An old woman living in a nightmare; an old woman who has fought a thousand battles with death and always won. Now she's faced with a grim decision — whether or not to open a door. And in some strange and frightening way, she knows that this seemingly ordinary door leads to the Twilight Zone."

Opening narration

No subject fascinates people so much as the topic of death. For centuries, man has been asking the same questions and is really no closer to definitively answering them today than ever.

We may think we know what happens when we die, but no one who is living can say for sure what happens — and none who have died have returned to tell us what lies beyond. There is a lot of speculation, but there is no real evidence. Well, nothing that would hold up in court.

On this night in 1962, Twilight Zone presented one of its philosophically themed episodes, "Nothing in the Dark," that sought to make a profound statement on the subject. It starred Gladys Cooper, in the first of her three Twilight Zone appearances, as an elderly woman who had been on the alert for Mr. Death all her life.

She was living in a condemned building when a young man (Robert Redford in one of his early television roles) was shot in front of her door and was laying in the snow, bleeding. Cooper's character believed he was Mr. Death, but he persuaded her that he was not; she reluctantly opened her door and helped him inside.

She cared for him as best she could, but he kept telling her that he needed a doctor. She said she couldn't call anyone because she had no telephone, and she couldn't let anyone in for fear she might be letting Mr. Death enter her home.

They talked, and she told him how she had been on the alert for Mr. Death all her life, ever since seeing him sit down next to a woman on a bus, then getting up and exiting the bus. Not long after, it was discovered that the woman was dead. She had seen him frequently since.

But, Redford protested, if she knew what he looked like, she had the advantage on him. She rejected that. Mr. Death was always changing his appearance, she said. She could trust no one. Lately she had been tormented by people who came to her door claiming to be from the city, telling her the building was condemned and she would have to move. She was certain they had been Mr. Death.

"Oh, he's clever," she told Redford.

She wondered why she could always spot him, but no one else could. She concluded that it was because the end of her life was approaching. Even when, as a child, I saw this episode for the first time, I thought that was kind of a whimsical, poetic way of looking at it — and not likely to be the way it really was or could be. I have known many people who have died, and none mentioned (to me, anyway) seeing ominous figures hanging around.

When a contractor from the city came by to try to get her to vacate her apartment before the wrecking crew arrived and the woman realized he wasn't Mr. Death after all, she soon concluded that Redford was Mr. Death. He had tricked her.

He conceded the fact, but he told her that he had to make her understand that death wasn't such a terrible thing.

Transitions are difficult things sometimes — most of the time, in fact, even if they turn out to be good things in the long run — and death is the biggest transition humans face because everything about it is unknown. That was what bothered Gladys Cooper's character the most.

But Redford reassured her that it was not what she had feared, and he led her from her apartment, presumably guiding her in the direction of her destination.

Death was a subject the Twilight Zone explored on many occasions, and it reached many conclusions. Sometimes they contradicted each other. But an element of the episode that first aired on this night 55 years ago may ultimately prove to be correct. Redford was one of many actors who played Death — or some offshoot thereof. As in Gladys Cooper's experience, they were all different — old, young, male, female, you name it.

Sometimes in the Twilight Zone Death was the devil. That opens up an entirely different conversation, but that concept fits neatly with the general premise of this episode — that Mr. Death changed his appearance — and writings about death and the devil that have been part of the culture for hundreds of years.

After all, William Shakespeare wrote that "the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape." Gladys Cooper didn't necessarily find any of Mr. Death's shapes pleasing, but perhaps that is the subject for another conversation as well.

This episode is generally highly regarded by most devoted Twilight Zone fans. I guess I'm the exception. Maybe it is because of my thoughts on the premise of the episode, but I never really cared for it much.

And I consider myself a devoted Twilight Zone fan.