The Other Columbus: Living in the Twilight Zone

Scott Woods
"The Twilight Zone"

As I reflect on the past year of life in Columbus, I am reminded of a now-dead ritual. 

My favorite year-end observance used to be sitting through the SyFy channel’s New Year’s Eve marathon of “The Twilight Zone,” commenting online with thousands of other people as one morally challenging weirdness followed another. An unspoken covenant of the ritual was that, as we all pressed forward into a new year, we were afforded the opportunity to collectively reflect on where we had come from and how it might inform where we were headed, with the ethical punchlines of “The Twilight Zone” lighting the way.

Streaming has ruined this tradition, since anyone can just create a “Zone” marathon anytime they want by letting Netflix DJ its way through season after season of the show until their TV asks if they’ve fallen asleep.

In the spirit of that convention — and the opportunity for deliberation that came with it — I offer some Columbus-centric takes on several classic Twilight Zone episodes.

“To Serve Man” (Season 3, Episode 24)

An alien race shows up and starts solving all of the world’s problems, supposedly led by a text that instructs them how to best serve mankind. Just after the visitors begin loading spaceships with happy humans expecting to live out their days in a presumed alien paradise, a codebreaker cracks the language of the alien manual and discovers that it is actually a cookbook.

The Columbus remix: Columbus developers come into long neglected neighborhoods to improve them, utilizing impenetrable laws and paid-for access to city officials to displace residents from their homes. When people begin to realize what “tax abatements” are, it’s too late: Their neighborhoods have been siphoned of all life, replaced with the appetites and whims of foreign colonization.

“Eye of the Beholder” (Season 1, Episode 39)

A bandaged woman awakens after a surgery that doctors hope will normalize her appearance so that she won’t have to live in a colony for people who can’t blend in. When the bandages are removed, her face is revealed to be that of a beautiful woman. Alas, the procedure is a failure, as it is coyly revealed that society is in fact populated and controlled by pig-faced humans. Her beauty is not beautiful — it is terrifying — and she is taken away to be housed with her own kind.

The Columbus remix: Most science fiction traffics in ethical rhetoric that isn’t rhetorical at all for black people. The alienation of otherness and ironic implementations of justice that “Zone” stories regularly traffic in are par-for-the-course realities for black people. We don’t have to ponder what it might be like to, say, not be treated the same as everyone else for looking different. As Columbus has just installed a “new” police chief — a part played by lackluster interim chief Thomas Quinlan since February — I prepare for more of the same treatment from police for the foreseeable future.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5, Episode 3)

An airplane passenger terrified of flying is the only person who sees a monster on the wing of the plane, attempting to damage the engine. His fears are dismissed as the ravings of a paranoid fearmonger until the plane lands and indescribable damage has been done to the wing, just as he stated.

The Columbus remix: The city and school board have been selling the Olde Towne East Trolley Barn as a noble effort to fix a food desert by installing a mixed-use space, with a kickback to school funding. That is until someone reads between the lines of what a “downtown redevelopment district” is, how the kickback is really a way to use schools invest in a private project and then takes to the streets, crying, “It’s a TAX ABATEMENT!”

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (Season 1, Episode 22)

The idyllic suburban peace of Maple Street is shattered when residents, thinking they’re being invaded by aliens because their lights and cars flicker on and off uncontrollably, turn on each other despite zero evidence of alien interference. The twist is that they are in fact being manipulated by alien invaders, proving how easy it is to get people to turn on one another by simply catering to their fears.

The Columbus remix: The result of pretty much any City Council meeting.