Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
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|"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"|
|The Twilight Zone episode|
|Episode no.||Season 5
|Directed by||Richard Donner|
|Written by||Richard Matheson
(from his story, first published in Alone by Night, 1961)
|Featured music||Stock from "King Nine Will Not Return" and "The Rip Van Winkle Caper"|
|Original air date||October 11, 1963|
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is episode 123 of the American television anthology series The Twilight Zone, based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson, first published in Alone by Night (1961). It originally aired on October 11, 1963.
|“||Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home—the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson's flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he's traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson's plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.||”|
While traveling by airliner, Bob Wilson thinks he sees a gremlin on the wing. Bob tries to alert his wife and the flight crew to the gremlin's presence, but every time someone else looks out of the window, the gremlin leaps out of view, so Bob's claim seems outlandish. His credibility is further marred because this is his first flight since his nervous breakdown six months earlier, which also occurred on an aircraft. Bob realizes that his wife is starting to think he needs to go back to the sanitarium, but his bigger concern is that, if nothing is done about the gremlin, it will damage the airliner and cause it to crash. He sees the gremlin tinker with the wiring under one of the engine cowlings.
After repeated attempts to warn the crew, Bob grows desperate, steals a sleeping police officer's revolver, and opens the window marked "Auxiliary Exit" to shoot the gremlin, succeeding despite being nearly blown out of the aircraft himself. Once the airliner has landed, everyone believes that he has gone insane. As Bob is whisked away in a straitjacket, he tells his wife that he is alone in his knowledge of what happened during the flight. Rod Serling informs the viewers that the truth will soon be more widely known and the final shot reveals why: damage to the aircraft's wing, caused by the gremlin.
|“||The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer... though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.||”|
- William Shatner as Bob Wilson
- Christine White as Julia Wilson
- Ed Kemmer as Flight Engineer
- Asa Maynor as Stewardess
- Nick Cravat as Gremlin
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The episode was remade in 1983 by director George Miller as a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Unlike Bob Wilson, whose credibility was compromised by a recent nervous breakdown in the 1963 version, John Valentine, played by John Lithgow, suffers from severe aviatophobia, again giving the flight crew added reason to disbelieve his wild claims.
The story begins with flight attendants attempting to coax Mr. Valentine from the lavatory as he tries to recover from what seems to be a panic attack. He is repeatedly assured by the flight attendants that everything is going to be all right, but his nerves and antics disturb the surrounding passengers.
As Mr. Valentine takes his seat, he notices a hideous gremlin (played by Larry Cedar) on the wing of the aircraft and begins to spiral into severe panic. First he sees the gremlin tampering with Engine No. 1, as well as a subsequent lightning strike that causes a flameout on the engine. After some words of comfort with one of the flight crew about Engine No. 1, he watches as the creature wreaks more havoc on the wing, tampering with the spoilers and ailerons and destroying Engine No. 2, losing more control each time he sees it do something new. When he sees the gremlin begin tearing off pieces of the engine's outer housing and putting them into the engine's intake turbines (and creating massive showers of white hot sparks that shoot out the front of the engine), Valentine finally snaps, grabs a handgun from a security guard on board, breaks the window with a fire extinguisher (causing a breach in the pressurized cabin), and begins firing at the creature. This only serves to catch the attention of the gremlin, who rushes up to Valentine and promptly destroys the gun. After a tense moment in which they notice that the aircraft is landing, the gremlin grabs Valentine's face, then simply scolds him by wagging its finger in a "no, no" manner. The creature leaps into the sky as the aircraft begins to make an emergency landing. On the ground as a straitjacketed Valentine is carried off in an ambulance, the police, crew and passengers begin to discuss the incident, writing off Valentine as insane. The aircraft maintenance crew soon arrives however, and everyone gathers to examine the massive amounts of unexplained damage to Engine No. 2, including the claw marks, the gaping hole in the engine's housing, and the heavily mangled and chewed up blades of the engine's intake fan.
In popular culture
Parts of this episode's plot have been repeated and parodied several times in popular culture, including television shows, films, radio and music.
In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror IV" (1993) is a segment called "Terror at 5½ Feet". It takes place on a school bus rather than an aircraft, and puts Bart Simpson in the role of Bob Wilson. An AMC Gremlin drives alongside the bus.
In the 3rd Rock from the Sun episode "Dick's Big Giant Headache: Part 1" (1999), William Shatner makes his first appearance on the series. John Lithgow's character meets Shatner's character as he gets off an aircraft. When Shatner describes something horrifying on the wing, Lithgow replies, "The same thing happened to me!" This references not only Lithgow's portrayal of the nervous passenger in the 1983 Twilight Zone remake, but also an earlier 3rd Rock episode "Frozen Dick" (Season 1, Ep 12, 1996) when he and Jane Curtin's characters were due to fly to Chicago to pick up awards before Dick panicked about something on the wing while the plane was still on the tarmac and gets them both kicked off the plane.
On the March 16, 2010 episode of Saturday Night Live, guest host Jude Law plays William Shatner's original role, while cast regular Bobby Moynihan is the gremlin on the wing of the jet. One scene features the musical guest Pearl Jam talking with the gremlin.
In the horror film Flight 7500, a character watches the episode as part of the in-flight services, paralleling their own dire situation.
In Johnny Bravo, there is an episode where this story is parodied but with a clown on the side of the plane instead.
- Groening et al. 1997, pp. 124–125.
- "William Shatner Trivia." Sci-Fi Updates, August 8, 2013. Retrieved: October 13, 2014. Archived September 17, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
- Nightmare at 20,000 Feet at TV.com Retrieved November 4, 2015.
- McDuffee, Keith. "All-time scariest TV characters." TV Squad, October 24, 2008. Retrieved: March 13, 2012. Archived October 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
- Holmes, Chris. "SNL Funny: "Nightmare at 20,000 feet." grayflannelsuit.net, March 16, 2010. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.
- DeVoe, Bill. Trivia from The Twilight Zone. Albany, Georgia: Bear Manor Media, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59393-136-0.
- Grams, Martin. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Churchville, Maryland: OTR Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9703310-9-0.
- Groening, Matt, Ray Richmond and Antonia Coffman, eds. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-095252-5.
- Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. Los Angeles: Sillman-James Press, 1982 (second edition). ISBN 978-1-87950-509-4.