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. 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.
|“||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 hides itself near the engine, so Bob's claim seems outlandish. Bob himself admits the oddity of the gremlin avoiding everyone else's sight but not his. His credibility is further strained by the fact that this is his first flight since 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 being a disturbance. Bob obediently 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 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. However, the final shot reveals conspicuous 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.
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.
In popular culture
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 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 driven by Hans Moleman drives alongside the bus.
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!" 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 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. 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 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.
- 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.[dead link]
- 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.
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