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 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"
Production code 2605
Original air date October 11, 1963
Guest actors

William Shatner
Christine White
Ed Kemmer
Asa Maynor
Nick Cravat

Episode chronology
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List of 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.


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 assurance of what happened up there. Rod Serling informs the viewers that Bob's conviction won't be long and the final shot reveals why: the gremlin has left evidence of Bob's story, in the form of the damaged wing.



Opening narration[edit]

Closing narration[edit]


The episode was remade in 1983, 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. He watches as the creature wreaks havoc on the wing, damaging the engine, losing more control each time he sees it do something new. 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 (including claw marks) to the aircraft engines.

In popular culture[edit]

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.[1]

The Tiny Toon Adventures Halloween special, Night Ghoulery (1995), features a parody of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", with Plucky Duck in the role of Bob Wilson, and the Gremlin from the Merrie Melodies short Falling Hare appearing as well.

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]

Keith McDuffee of TV Squad listed the gremlin as the ninth scariest television character, in 2008.[3]

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 sharing a barbecue with the gremlin.[4]

The episode is referenced in the finale of Doctor Who series 8, "Death In Heaven", broadcast on 8 November 2014. The Doctor spots a cyberman on the wing of the plane in which they are travelling.[5]



  1. ^ Groening et al. 1997, pp. 124–125.
  2. ^ "William Shatner Trivia." Sci-Fi Updates, August 8, 2013. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.
  3. ^ McDuffee, Keith. "All-time scariest TV characters." TV Squad, October 24, 2008. Retrieved: March 13, 2012.
  4. ^ Holmes, Chris. "SNL Funny: “Nightmare at 20,000 feet.”, March 16, 2010. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.
  5. ^ [1]


  • 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.

External links[edit]