Writing for The Twilight Zone couldn't have been easy. Take a moment to think of your favorite twist endings of all time. Now realize that the TZ writers were expected to come up with one of those endings every dang week. So it's no wonder they recycled their plots every so often.
We've found that 25% of all original Twilight Zone episodes have one of five twist endings. As you watch Monday's July 4th marathon on Syfy (starting at 8 a.m./7 Central), see how many you can count.
1. The "You Thought They Were Alive, But They're Really Dead!" Ending
Episodes Which Use This Twist: "The Hitch-hiker," "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the townsfolk in "Elegy," "The Passersby," "The Hunt," the elderly on the "Passage on the Lady Anne," "Ring-a-Ding Girl"
TTZ found a deep well in playing off of humankind's near-universal fear of death. They managed to give the "omg they're dead!" twist more flavors than Baskin Robbins. Whether the main characters were fleeing death, journeying towards death, or just trying to live normal lives despite secretly being dead, the "surprise" ending is always there.
The twist kicks in here at about 8:20. The main character, a popular actress, goes to her hometown and saves many lives, despite the fact that she is actually dying in a horrific plane crash. The main thing we took away from this is how lazy it makes real dead people seem. There's like a billion of them, and they never do anything heroic.
But in The Twilight Zone, dead people often get a few hours of survival after dying, just like a chicken with its head cut off. We can thank The Twilight Zone for the fact that, every time something weird happens to us, we ask ourselves if we might be dead.
2. The "It Was All in the Main Character's Mind (Or WAS It?)" Ending
Episodes Which Use This Twist: "Where Is Everybody?," "Perchance to Dream," "A Stop at Willoughby," "King Nine Will Not Return," "A Thing about Machines," "The Arrival," "One More Pallbearer," "Person or Persons Unknown," "The Parallel," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
This twist ending was a great excuse for the writers to fill the episode with creepy stuff that didn't ever have to make sense. At the end, they could just write off the entire world as the feverish dream of a main character gone mad. Then toss in a final image which shows that the main character just might be telling the truth: a radio transmission, shoes filled with sand, dude drowned at the bottom of a pool, etc. Ha ha, you thought the main character was just crazy, but it turns out that they were just, like, inter-dimensionally shifting, or something. You're the silly one, for sure.
William Shatner provides a classic performance as a guy who really doesn't enjoy flying. At 11:45, we see the final reveal: something really did rip up the wing of that plane. Although, it's odd that nobody else looked out the window and said, "hey, that wing looks pretty messed up!" Maybe it really was just all in his head. We suppose no one will know for sure except William Shatner ... and, of course, John Lithgow.
3. The "You Think They're Human, But They're Really a Doll/Mannequin/Alien/Robot" Ending
Episodes Which Use This Twist: "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," "The After Hours," "The Lateness of the Hour," "The Invaders," "Will the Real Martian Please Stand up?", "In His Image," "The Fugitive," "Black Leather Jackets," "Stopover in a Quiet Town"
More than anything, these endings played off of the pervasive American fear that any average-looking citizen could secretly be a dirty Commie. With the "gosh, I didn't know I was DEAD" twist, the dead sometimes do good things. That's not true with this twist: Almost always the things-wearing-human-disguises are out to take over the world, or are personified as creepy and evil. It's interesting that although the Cold War ended decades ago, these twists are still powerful.
The reveal starts at 4:57. A seemingly-innocent old man reveals he is from Mars. But then, in a super-duper DOUBLE reveal, the waiter reveals he is from Venus. If the first old man really wanted to zing the waiter, he could say "Well, I hear MEN are from Mars and WOMEN are from Venus." But he doesn't, so whatever.
It's interesting that TTZ watchers would be frightened by the notion of aliens colonizing the Earth. But, really, what they're afraid of is aliens colonizing THEIR country. Seriously, if aliens landed in real life and decided to colonize the heck out of Antarctica, would it really be so tragic? The only real mistake the aliens had in District 9 was landing in South Africa, given the country's stellar record of equal treatment.
4. The "They Went Back In Time, But Can't Change the Future" Ending
Episodes Which Use This Twist: "The Time Element," "Judgment Night," "Back There," "A Quality of Mercy," "No Time Like the Past," "Of Late I think of Cliffordville," "Spur of the Moment"
These are always a bummer, because it sucks for time travel to be portrayed as so useless. Seriously, some ordinary person does the impossible: travels back in time, and it doesn't really matter. Imagine the film The Butterfly Effect, except every time Ashton Kutcher's character jumps into the present, it's just him in the office with his notebooks and some guy pounding on the door.
There's a TTZ episode where a man travels back in time, yet fails to stop Lincoln's slaying. What makes this terrifically traumatic is that this episode aired just a few years before Kennedy's assassination. If you're thinking these episodes sound like Quantum Leap without the plot, you'd be right. Once, the main character screws it up so bad that they make their future miserable. Which was cool, because at least they changed the future.
Here, a soldier is sent aboard a ship to relive his attack of said vessel. He's in Hell, caught in an endless loop of him shooting himself, if that makes any sense. How long before he realizes that he can't change the future, and just starts whooping it up like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
5. The "It Was/Wasn't Earth All Along" Ending
Episodes Which Use This Twist: "I Shot an Arrow into the Air," "Third from the Sun," "The Invaders," "Probe 7, Over and Out"
Years before coming up with the landmark twist for Planet of the Apes, Serling toyed around with the twist on The Twilight Zone. In "I Shot an Arrow into the Air," astronauts think they've landed on an asteroid, when really they just landed on Earth. What is really interesting about this episodes' twist was that they already did the exact opposite in the previous episode!. In that program, "Third from the Sun," a family escaping a war-torn planet that we assume is Earth heads for the real Earth. Which really doesn't make sense: if aliens with spaceships colonized and became humankind, then where are our freakin' spaceships?
Astronauts believe they are stranded on a desolate world and fight to the death. Then, the remaining killer astronaut realizes he is in a much worse place: Reno. Rumor has it the original end to Planet of the Apes had Charlton Heston stumbling upon a fully intact Reno and screaming "You maniacs! You didn't blow it up!"
It's a testament to the genius of the minds behind The Twilight Zone that they could make these twist ending repeats come across as fresh. That's one of the many reasons that the show has remained a hit for 52 years.