Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

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"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
The Twilight Zone episode
Episode no.Season 5
Episode 3
Directed byRichard Donner
Written byRichard Matheson
(from his story, first published in Alone by Night, 1961)
Featured musicStock from "King Nine Will Not Return" and "The Rip Van Winkle Caper"
Production code2605
Original air dateOctober 11, 1963
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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"A Kind of a Stopwatch"
The Twilight Zone (1959 TV series) (season 5)
List of The Twilight Zone episodes

"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. It is one of the most well-known and frequently referenced episodes of the series. The story follows the only passenger on an airline flight to notice a hideous creature lurking outside the plane.

Opening narration[edit]


While traveling by aeroplane, Bob Wilson, thinking he sees a gremlin on the wing, tries to alert his wife and the flight crew to its presence, but every time someone else looks out of the window the gremlin hides itself near the engine so Bob's claim seems pretty crazy. Bob admits the oddness of the gremlin avoiding everyone else's sight but not his. His credibility is further undermined by this being his first flight since suffering a 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 the gremlin is tinkering with the wiring under one of the engine cowlings, which could cause the aircraft to lose the engine and crash.

In response to his repeated attempts to raise an alarm about the gremlin, the crew gives Bob a sedative to stop him from alarming other passengers. Bob downs it with water, but does not swallow, and secretly spits it out. He then steals a sleeping police officer's revolver, straps himself in to avoid being blown out of the aircraft, and opens the emergency exit door to shoot the gremlin. Once the aeroplane 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. However, the final scene reveals conspicuous damage to the exterior of one of the aircraft's engines, confirming that Bob was right all along about the gremlin.

Closing narration[edit]



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.

In this version, while flying through a violent thunderstorm, Valentine is in the lavatory trying to recover from a panic attack. The flight attendants coax Valentine from the lavatory and back to his seat. Valentine notices a hideous gremlin on the wing of the plane and begins to spiral into another severe panic. He watches as the creature wreaks havoc on the wing, damaging the plane's engine. Valentine finally snaps and attempts to break the window with an oxygen canister, but is wrestled to the ground by another passenger (an off-duty security guard). Valentine takes the passenger's gun, shoots out the window (causing a breach in the pressurized cabin), and begins firing at the gremlin. This only serves to catch the attention of the gremlin, who rushes up to Valentine and destroys the gun. After they notice that the plane is beginning an emergency landing, the gremlin leaps away into the sky.

The police, crew, and passengers write off Valentine as insane. However, while a straitjacketed Valentine is carried off in an ambulance, the aircraft maintenance crew arrives and finds the damage to the plane's engines complete with claw marks.

There are several differences between the TV and film versions.

1. In the tv version, Bob is traveling with his wife while in the film version, John is traveling alone.

2. The gremlin resembles a bear like creature in the television version. While it looks like a skeletal demon in the film version.

3. The reason why gremlin is damaging the plane's wing in the television version is out of curiosity. While in the film version it is deliberately trying to cause the plane to crash.

4. In the tv version, the other passengers and the flight crew get annoyed at Bob for his claims of a gremlin on the plane's wing. While in the film version, they are more sympathetic towards John.

5. In the TV version, Bob grabs a gun from a air marshal and opens the aircraft's door to shoot at the gremlin. In the film version John does grab the gun, but shoots through a window and is nearly sucked out if it weren't for the other passengers trying to stop him.

6. In the tv version, Bob successfully kills the gremlin and it falls off the wing. In the film version however, the gremlin destroys the gun, does a 'No, no' motion with it's finger, and then flies away.

7. At the end of the tv version, the crew and other passengers do not see the damage that the gremlin has caused when Bob is taken away in an ambulance. In the film version they do see it when the repair crew arrive.

In popular culture[edit]

The episode is considered one of the most popular of the series and parts of the plot have been repeated and parodied several times in popular culture, including television shows, films, radio and music:

  • In 1990, UK indie band Pop Will Eat Itself released their third album, "Cure for Sanity", which features a track called Nightmare at 20,000 feet. The track is said to be inspired by singer Clint Mansell's fear of flying.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror IV" (1993) is a segment called "Terror at ​5 12 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 driven by Hans Moleman drives alongside the bus.[1]
  • American band Anthrax based the videoclip for their 1998 song "Inside Out" on this episode.
  • 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!"[2] 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.[3]
  • Keith McDuffee of TV Squad listed the gremlin as the ninth scariest television character, in 2008.[4]
  • On the March 16, 2010 episode of Saturday Night Live, guest host Jude Law plays 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.[5]
  • Shatner had a cameo on the "Whoopi Goldberg" episode of Muppets Tonight on July 7, 1996 and was bothered by a monster Muppet while riding in a jet and he refers to this episode.
  • In the Robot Chicken episode "Tapping a Hero", the episode is parodied in a sketch.
  • In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Jim Carrey parodies Shatner and his character in this episode.
  • 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. When a paranoid Johnny removes one of the clowns by force, his actions embarrasses everyone and cause the plane to be unbalanced. After being forced to land the plane to safety, the furious pilots reveal they needed the clowns not only to keep the plane balanced, but also entertainment for the passengers. Johnny is then punished by having to pose as a clown on the wing outside the airplane.
  • In The Angry Beavers episode "Dag's List", Barry the bear is repeatedly launched into the air, landing on the wing of a plane owned by Dairy Airlines. Wally Wingert's secondary character, credited as "Passenger 57" (possibly a reference to the Wesley Snipes movie), exclaims in a halted, Shatner-style voice: "There's a bear... on... the wing!"
  • In the movie Sharknado 2: The Second One, Fin Shephard checks the wing of the plane, and sees a shark on the wing of the plane. The flight attendant tells him to calm down.
  • The 1995 Tiny Toon Adventures special Tiny Toons' Night Ghoulery features a parody, with Plucky Duck in the main role.
  • The Lego Batman Movie features gremlins from the film Gremlins attacking a plane, a simultaneous reference to both the Twilight Zone episode, and the avionic history of the folk creature, the gremlin.
  • In the Futurama episode I Dated a Robot, the main characters watch a TV show entitled The Scary Door, which features a gremlin damaging a plane along with parodies of other story-lines from The Twilight Zone.
  • In the beginning of the movie Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Alex the lion gets scared by a gremlin on the plane wing, who turns out to be Mort (a mouse lemur) before getting swept away by the wind.
  • In Comedy Central's "Key and Peele - Airplane Continental", Peele's character encounters a gremlin while looking out the airplane window, in reference to the "Twilight Zone" episode.[6]
  • STRYKE Percussion’s 2018 program was entitled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and followed a similar plot line to this episode.
  • The 2018 animated movie Transylvania 3 features a scene where Jonathan (Andy Samberg) sees a gremlin outside his airplane window.



  1. ^ Groening et al. 1997, pp. 124–125.
  2. ^ "William Shatner Trivia." Sci-Fi Updates, August 8, 2013. Retrieved: October 13, 2014. Archived September 17, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Nightmare at 20,000 Feet at Retrieved November 4, 2015.[dead link]
  4. ^ McDuffee, Keith. "All-time scariest TV characters." TV Squad, October 24, 2008. Retrieved: March 13, 2012. Archived October 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ Holmes, Chris. "SNL Funny: 'Nightmare at 20,000 feet'.", March 16, 2010. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.
  6. ^


  • 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.

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