Swirling black and white lines, starry outer space with floating door and eyeball from the Twilight Zone

Your Next Stop, the Nostalgia Zone

By Mahnaz Dar

Every New Year’s Eve, I sit down to watch Syfy’s The Twilight Zone marathon. I’ve tuned in every year since 2000, and rewatching always makes me nostalgic for my younger self. I also love spotting actors of yesteryear who went on to become more well known. Is that William Shatner—aka Star Trek’s Captain Kirk—as an airplane passenger having a panic attack while a terrifying creature only he can see wreaks havoc? And look, it’s Julie Newmar and Burgess Meredith playing the devil in two Faustian episodes—great practice for their future turns as Batman villains.

Ahead of its time in many ways, the show grappled with the ramifications of space travel, artificial intelligence, and nuclear war. But on my most recent rewatch, I was struck by how many storylines were tinged with a yearning for the past. It was an odd realization; The Twilight Zone aired between 1959 and 1964—a period that’s often idealized in pop culture (think Stand by Me or American Graffiti). For many characters in The Twilight Zone, however, the present is at best dull and draining and at worst hellish; reminiscing about the past offers them a much-needed escape.

“A Stop at Willoughby” follows Gart Williams, an ad executive who’s verbally abused both at work and at home. Falling asleep while commuting, he ends up in 1888, in an idyllic small town called Willoughby. In “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” two siblings whose family is rocked by divorce find solace by escaping to a rustic world filled with happy children who spend their time fishing and baking cakes under the supervision of benevolent Aunt T—a setting that evokes both Tom Sawyer and Neverland. And “Walking Distance” centers on a man who takes great joy in traveling back in time to his childhood town in 1934.

There’s something intensely relatable about these stories. The protagonist of “Walking Distance” marvels when he walks into a drugstore and is told that ice cream sodas cost just 10 cents; I miss the days when you could pay $10 for a movie ticket. Many Millennials lament the death of third places—sites other than work/school or home—in particular malls, a place where teens could enjoy independence, meet friends and crushes, and just hang out.

Black and white wall clock

And like Gart Williams, we sometimes long for a past we never knew. Watching ‘70s movies like Manhattan, I wish I could step into a New York that isn’t overrun by Chase banks and Duane Reades. Young people discovering Sex and the City are shocked—and intrigued—at the idea of a world where dating isn’t facilitated by apps, where face-to-face meet-cutes are the norm. And everyone I know abhors modern-day healthcare, with its online health portals and long wait times for appointments; I find myself pining for the world of Norman Rockwell paintings, where the friendly family doctor takes time to listen to a little girl’s doll’s heartbeat.

There’s something seductive about nostalgia, especially when the present feels oppressive. Maybe that’s why we’re so drawn to The Twilight Zone after all these years. Viewers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were looking for that same escape. The threat of nuclear war felt imminent (reflected in episodes such as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter”), and it continues to loom now as warfare rages across the world. Capitalism eroded people’s joie de vivre back then, and it still does, as workers in industries from medicine to publishing strike for better conditions. Telling ourselves that things were once better can be comforting—maybe we can recapture that feeling again, if we try hard enough.

But it’s also dangerous to idealize a past that never existed, and that’s something The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was keenly aware of, even if his characters weren’t. When Gart Williams opts to stay in the paradise that is Willoughby, he ends up dying. Willoughby, we learn, is the name of a funeral home. It’s also futile; no matter how firmly we try to cling to the past, it always slips out of our grip. I’m reminded of “Spur of the Moment,” where a middle-aged woman tries over and over to warn her younger self not to make a life-altering mistake but can never catch up with the past.

Indeed, Serling created the Twilight Zone to effect social change. Angered by the murder of Emmett Till, a Black boy lynched in Mississippi, he wanted viewers to confront issues such as bigotry and prejudice. As bleak as the show could be, its goal was to get viewers to look forward, not back.

And maybe there’s a lesson here for us, too. A love of nostalgia shouldn’t prevent us from living in the now, from making the world a better place. As a character in “Walking Distance” puts it, “Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right place. You’ve been looking behind you…Try looking ahead.”