Double Lives: Coded Queerness in The Twilight Zone
In his opening post for this project, Terry noted the staggering suicide statistics of LGBTQ+ youth. These numbers are horrifying, rage-inducing, and, demand immediate action. They also suggest that we need to keep engaging with the full history of what it was (and is) like to grow up queer.
For generations of queer youth who came of age in a pre-1973 America that still defined being gay as a mental disorder potentially curable through barbaric forms of aversion therapies, there were no shining examples of queer people living happy and productive lives presented in the mainstream media. What little representation did exist typically cast lesbians as psychotics or gay men as effeminate "sissies." To heterosexual audiences, these stories were explicitly coded to read as an assurance of cultural morality, but to queer audiences, they were often subversive affirmations of existence. Today, I want to celebrate one of those coded stories.
Renowned for its subversive treatment of controversial social issues, The Twilight Zone is frequently lauded for its progressive commentary on race and gender. Yet, missing from the accolades is a celebration of its treatment of LGBT+ issues, largely because many critics incorrectly assume that the show never grappled with issues of sexual orientation. But for those of us who came of age in a world where queer representation was limited at best, we learned to find reflections of ourselves in coded narratives (i.e., stories that can be read one way by the heterosexual culture and another way by the queer culture) and I contend that the episode “In His Image” is one such example of coding.
The show’s creator, Rod Serling, famously noted that he could get away with pointed cultural criticism that would normally raise objection from censors by using Martians instead of humans as his mouthpiece. And in 1962, there was no topic considered more taboo than a public discourse on homosexuality. Although the culture was showing its first signs of change on the issue, it would be another decade before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness. But because The Twilight Zone consistently displayed a progressive sensibility, its treatment of queer marginalization isn’t wholly unexpected. What is surprising, however, is the way the episode leverages a very specific approach to the uncanny in order to code queerness.
It’s worth noting that “In His Image” is one of only 54 episodes not written by Serling. It’s significant that the creatives behind this episode are writer Charles Beaumont and director Perry Lafferty because both delved into society's treatment of the queer population in other creative works. Beaumont’s short story “A Crooked Man” caused controversy when it was published in Playboy because it explored a world in which heterosexuality and homosexuality are similarly illegal. Lafferty, for his part, went on to direct a number of queer-centric television episodes as well as produced the made-for-TV movie, An Early Frost, which was television's first real (and sympathetic) treatment of the AIDS crisis. These bodies of work indicate that Beaumont and Lafferty shared an interest in exploring homosexual identity within the context of the culture’s zeitgeist.
But making a queer narrative palatable to audiences in the early 1960s necessitated that the text be coded so that it could be read one way by the dominant (heterosexual) culture and another by the marginalized (queer) culture. Here the usage of the doppelganger in the text serves to depict the double lives queer people were often forced to live. Because the double typically displays some sort of non-normative behavior that places them at odds with their culture, it is a particularly useful device in coded narratives because it allows normative and oppositional realities to be depicted simultaneously.
The story itself is relatively straightforward. Alan (George Grizzard) and his fiancée, Jessica (Gail Kobe), embark on a trip to his hometown. There, Alan discovers that he is actually the creation of Walter (also George Grizzard), a lonely scientist. That this story echoes Frankenstein, ironically another queer coded horror narrative, is obvious in both its framing of the “mad” scientist and its sympathetic “monster.” But more importantly, the story is an exploration of restraint, specifically the pursuit of repressing one’s queer identity so that it can then be contained. This perspective is explicitly voiced by Walter who acknowledges that it’s his own inhibitions that have kept his impulses in check. By creating a replica of himself without those impulses, Walter is attempting to normalize what he has been conditioned to view as deviant behavior. But Alan can never achieve the perfection sought by Walter because Walter’s queerness is an essential part of himself, not an impulse. And so when confronted with moments of the domesticity he is supposed to desire, Alan resists and begins to malfunction.
These moments of breakdown, which are underscored via sound effect repetition, occur when Alan’s repressed state is threatened. For example, moments into the episode, Alan is confronted with an advertisement depicting a girl and her father that is the quintessential representation of the traditional family unit to which Alan, as a queer man, does not have access. It’s telling that this moment works in concert with the religious old lady questioning whether he is “sick” and warning that “the devil’s all around us if we don’t fight him” while quoting biblical verse. To a queer audience, invoking scripture from Leviticus is going to resonate in a very specific way given that it is the book from which biblical condemnation of homosexuality is typically pulled. It also reframes Alan’s murder of the woman to be an attempt to maintain the repression inherent in his coding by Walter.
Later, Alan has another episode when he is barred from entering the home he believes belongs to his aunt. Just prior to being denied, Jessica and Alan talk about their plans to live there and so Alan’s being denied entry triggers him because his subconscious understands that he doesn’t really belong in this heterosexual version of domesticity. This incident is followed closely by another episode precipitated by Jessica talking about a doctor she knows who is trained in excavating the subconscious. This threat to Alan’s thinly veiled ability to keep his true nature at bay results in his pleading with Jessica to leave before he can harm her. In all of these instances, Alan suffers a malfunction when circumstances make him feel as though his is different from the heterosexual norm.
In Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Harry M. Benshoff notes that queer coding often relies upon “homoerotic sado-masochism” and certainly the final basement confrontation between Alan and Walter bears this out. The doubling here is interesting because Walter created Alan specifically to be a more perfect version of himself. So when Walter tells Alan that he is “no one at all” the words wound Walter as much as they do Alan. The words are designed to inflict pain both outwardly and inwardly. The most telling moment between the two is when Walter admits he built Alan because he “longed for one thing. A perfect artificial man. Not a robot.” There is a clear double meaning in this admission.
Walter yearns for a male partner and yet, is unable to come to terms with what that means. And so, Alan then defaults to being a means of erasing those desires because if Alan can achieve heterosexual domesticity, so too potentially can Walter. That Alan’s final malfunction occurs during this confrontation is poetic because Walter becomes the ultimate threat to Alan’s repressed sexuality. Like the evangelist and Jessica before him, Walter triggers Alan’s rage because Alan’s true self does not fit the false reality he has been programmed to live. Alan sees in Walter the queerness Alan’s psyche seeks to repress.
Walter’s killing of Alan ultimately serves two purposes that would resonate with a queer audience. Not only is it consistent with the narrative device of the time in which even a hint that a character was queer would result in their death (see 1955’s Rebel without a Cause or 1962’s The Children’s Hour). It serves as a reminder of the dominant culture’s heteronormativity, but it also suggests that Walter’s assuming Alan’s place with Jessica is based on a lie that will eventually come out. The very limited outward displays of affection between Jessica and Walter are stilted and when juxtaposed against the image of Alan lying broken on the basement floor suggest that it is only a matter of time before Walter begins to suffer his own malfunctions when his repressions are threatened.
As an example of narrative queer coding, “In His Image” is effective because Alan is literally created by Walter to reinstate order to the internal chaos Walter feels as a result of his sexuality. The episode reflects the show’s subversive approach to storytelling by offering queer audiences a reflection of self that acknowledges cultural homophobia and the repression of identity such an environment creates.
Here's the thing. We live in a world where those of us who identify as LGBT now see representation in all facets of popular culture. Is it always perfect? Not by a long shot. But it does represent a step forward in the dominant cultural landscape acknowledging our existence. But to overlook the presence of coded stories and the role they played in affirming identity does a grave disservice to those creatives who dared to tell stories that left many of us feeling a little bit less alone.
Elizabeth Erwin is a librarian and cultural researcher who was raised on a steady diet of ABC soap operas, Sweet Valley High books, and 1940s horror. This left her with an affinity for dramatic monologues, saucy dames and big hair. She most recently co-edited The Politics of Race, Gender and Sexuality in The Walking Dead: Essays on the Television Series and Comics (McFarland) and is currently co-editing a collection exploring the Horror-Comedy film sub-genre. Elizabeth co-runs the website Horror Homeroom and she is currently working on her first podcast series.