February 1, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 9. Perchance to Dream


directed by Robert Florey
written by Charles Beaumont
starring Richard Conte
also starring John Larch
and featuring Suzanne Lloyd
music by Van Cleave

Friday, November 27, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This one has a distinctly different texture and spirit. Probably this can be attributed to the three creatives making their Twilight Zone debut: Charles Beaumont, Robert Florey, and Nathan Van Cleave. We may be still stuck inside the head of a neurotic, but the concerns aren’t those of Rod Serling. The fears being plumbed here are more mysterious, wetter. The high expressionist, quasi-surreal style isn’t within Rod’s reach as a writer, I don’t think. It takes a certain daring, a certain social disregard, to put stuff like this to paper. This episode gives a clear sense of a less conventional personality at work.

I was reminded throughout this episode of the unforgettably scary diner scene from Mulholland Drive, where the guy summons his nightmare into reality by recounting it. (If you haven’t seen it before, fair warning: I’m not kidding!) That scene works so well because it correctly captures that in a dream, there is no difference between the feeling of dread and the thing that is dreaded: they are both manifestations of the same swell of emotion. Watching the scene, we understand subconsciously from our own dream experiences that we’re being subjected to a cresting wave of fear that cannot be averted, that must be endured. The idea that one could rid oneself of that kind of fear by “confronting it” is an illusion — there is nothing external about it, so there’s nothing to confront. This is the mistake made by the guy in the scene; his quest to exorcise the godawful feeling is what forces the fear to manifest itself bodily and, at least in the context of the scene, kill him. (More likely, he simply wakes up.)

The car crash sequence in “Perchance to Dream” is the very same scene, even though it’s framed somewhat differently (as a flashback, and explicitly as a case of the mind playing tricks on itself). Every time I watch it I feel dread that the Mulholland Drive monster is going to slide into view in the mirror. (The actual dissolve to mysterious eyes is blessedly gentle.) And the whole episode is an exploration of the same kind of fear: fear of fear itself.

Fear is of course a manifestation of the irrational, subjective side of the mind. So we’re really dealing with the same subject matter as in every other episode, but here the emphasis is shifted. Previously the threat has been: what goes on inside your head might cut you off from society. Here the threat is: what goes on inside your head might kill you, and society won’t be able to get in there to save you.

“Maya the Cat Girl” is Hall’s own irrational self, which he nervously imagines as having attributes relating to sex and to the animal kingdom, and dwelling in a sleazy, mysterious underworld that simultaneously entices and frightens him. All pretty standard stuff, says Dr. Freud. As he moves toward this projected self in his dream, half his fear manifests in “him,” as a sense of impending doom, and half manifests in “her,” as a malicious desire to bring about his doom. She becomes the supposed “source” of his fear — the one who, as the guy in Mulholland Drive says, “is doing it.”

In reality, since she is him, the deadly fear she seems to be inflicting on him is none other than the fear that he is already experiencing, siphoning around in a vicious circle. The roller-coaster ride gets wilder the more frightened he gets; the fear is making it go.

Even before the “twist” reveal that he’s been asleep the whole time, Hall’s ultimate dream-death is already depicted as a perverse suicide — he leaps out the window exactly because he so dreads that he will. He continues to seek relief from terror by “confronting” it.

I can relate to this perverse impulse, which is the impulse of anxiety. But I want to outgrow it. Whereas a piece of art like this episode just reinforces the pattern.

It’s important to note that this twist ending, which might seem particularly gothic, is just as regressive and conservative as always. The “dangerous truth” at the heart of the episode is (as usual) that the world one experiences is inside one’s head and thus isn’t necessarily shared by anyone else. But a full embrace of this truth would actually grant Hall a redemptive ending: because unbeknownst to him, he lives on; because his fear is not permanent or ultimate, even though it has been, in his dream of the moment, all-consuming. Instead, we get the supposedly-spooky reveal that, having died in his own reality, he has also died in the doctor’s reality. Far from being spooky, this actually reinforces the conventional intuition that different people’s realities do in fact correspond, and that the social consensus is superior to any individual subjectivity. More truly spooky would be for Hall — and the viewer — to have to accept that he “really” did jump out the window, and also, subsequently, “really” didn’t. But the episode flattens any such paradox.

It is, however, not generally a timid episode. I really enjoy how close to true surrealism it wanders, even in sequences that aren’t overtly dreamlike. In the very opening moments, perhaps there’s some trite “symbolic” explanation for all the attention given to the revolving door — I haven’t really tried to puzzle one out — but I certainly enjoy it on its surface, simply as a kind of bubbling up of the irrational into the ordinary. The music and the visual style begin to suggest the subterranean capacity of anything to be revealed as mere impersonal pattern and sensation. This is the essence of a very basic kind of “creepiness.”

Usually I would here point out that it needn’t be creepy, if one isn’t afraid of the irrational; that the impersonal pattern of the living world is actually something to revel in. But in this context, where one expects the streamlined storytelling conventions of prime-time TV, it is absolutely creepy. Those conventions form a synthetic psychology, which the viewer assumes while watching. As such, as a “watcher of TV,” I find the interruptions of pure surface into this episode to be splendidly eerie.

“Did you ever look at this picture? I mean really look at it.” That question, and the shot of the dull painting seen over Hall’s shoulder, gave me a special thrill. Hall has become unmoored from the ordinary constraints that govern TV behavior and has chosen to stare at an arbitrary piece of set dressing, forcing the camera — not usually inclined to such silliness — to do the same. This is, to me, a beautiful way of suggesting the dizzying freedom of being an individual. Even in the context of the dream that is The Twilight Zone itself, Hall is worryingly free.

• The episode has a screwy structure. No particular element is essential to any of the others. It just works as a feeling driving itself around in circles. But the feeling is the one being described by the story, which gives a fine form to it — a spiraling dream about spiraling dreams.

• “Marbles can be found, Mr. Hall.” Not true! The false promises of the outside world. In actuality, there were never any marbles to begin with. So there is no antidote to fear of having lost them.

• He blows cigarette smoke right in the doctor’s face. Is this how it was in those days?

• “The mind is everything. If you think you’ve got a pain in your arm, and there’s no physical reason for it, it hurts just the same, doesn’t it?” Well said! That could serve as the motto for the series.

• I think Robert Florey knew very well that he was depicting a conversation between the two halves of the mind when he shot the central exchange between Edward and Maya as between two extreme close-ups of alternating tilt. I feel like I’ve been through a similar dream exchange with myself many times. “You are afraid.” / “Only because this isn’t happening. This is a dream. I’m not here, I’m at home, asleep. And you’re part of that dream!” / “I know that.” / “You do?” / “Of course.”

The music in this episode is excellent! [Nathan] Van Cleave is hardly known at all these days, but this is really top-notch work, and it raises the whole episode up. This is, really, as good a job of horror scoring as any I can think of. (It reminds me a little of parts of Rosemary’s Baby, which is right up there for me.) Listening to the roller coaster cue on its own is plenty unnerving.

According to those who know, the “dream” instrument used throughout that sounds like a theremin is actually just a solo violin with some kind of studio effect applied. There does however seem to be some kind of synthesizing organ in there making bloops and blats, possibly a Novachord.

Van Cleave will be back for a number of subsequent Twilight Zone episodes, so we’ll get some sense of his range.


  1. Whoa–that WAS a scary one.
    A lot of it had to do with the music. I turned the sound off for part of the scene where he’s driving in Laurel Canyon, and it was a different experience altogether. Of course, right? And when I watched the clip from “Mulholland Drive” (are these LA drives inherently creepy?), it was so suspenseful (even though I had seen it before, I couldn’t remember the nature of the pop-up horror) that I made the screen very small so as not to be overwhelmed by the image.
    Isn’t “suspense,” in fact, the fear of fear? Well, I guess not always the FEAR of fear, but at least the anticipation of fear. And if you’re a person who enjoys that feeling of anticipation (likes roller coasters and haunted houses and scary movies), then it isn’t FEAR of fear but DELIGHT in fear. “The kind of pain I like.”
    But if you’re not, then you hide your eyes during scary movies because the idea of being that frightened is in itself frightening. Just like with Mr. Hall.
    I am doing this train of thought, and not working it all out like I’m writing an essay. You may have noticed.
    This episode has two of the creepiest TV/film devices for me–the horror of seeing someone’s face suddenly appear in a mirror at night, and the long held close-up on an object that seems innocuous, but the longer the camera stays on it the more you panic, with the idea that you’re SUPPOSED to see something in it that you haven’t seen yet–don’t you see it? It’s right there!!!!!! AAAHH!
    Also–how could the script say this guy is 35???? (Seems Richard Conte was actually 49 in 1959. Why couldn’t they say he was 45?)
    Maya the Cat Girl is a pretty funny invention to represent his inner torment.
    Dr. Huffman or Ruffman was a kind man. I liked him. Also, he looked VERY familiar. John Larch, hunh?
    If I ever go to a carnival at night, remind me not to tilt my head so as to view it all from an extreme angle, or go on any rides with a solo violinist.

    Posted by MRB on |

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