October 5, 2015 Leave a comment
The popular TV series The Twilight Zone was first broadcast in 1959. “Where Is Everybody?” is the first episode of the series. It was broadcast October 2, 1959. This story takes a fascinating look at themes of interest even today. I’ve used it in philosophy classes to foster discussion about knowledge and justified belief.
I use a two-part handout with questions for guided discussion. The questions in Part 1, reproduced in this post, draw viewers into the story and help them recall and think about the events that transpire. In a separate post I’ll list the questions used in Part 2 to facilitate reflection and discussion of themes in philosophy.
I screen the episode in class, then lead discussion around a selection of these questions. There are more questions here than can be used during a class period. So I encourage students to take some time with the rest of the questions on their own. I mix it up a little by having students get into small groups to share ideas that are prompted by two or three of the questions. Then we discuss a few of the more philosophically technical aspects of the story as a whole group. This allows me to include some lecturing. At the end I may allow time for students to write their thoughts about a wrap-up question. Students then turn in their notes, taken while viewing the story and during discussion.
You’re welcome to experiment with this exercise in your own teaching. Or you may want to view this episode of The Twilight Zone with some friends, then have a discussion around the issues raised in these questions. If you have suggestions of your own, feel free to write them in the comments box for this post. And if you do try these out in class, let us know how it goes.
Part I – Questions about Your Experience and Evaluation of this Episode
- The story begins with a man walking along a dusty road. The narrator says, “the journey we are about to watch could be our” What does this mean? How does this personalize the story? Notice, the narrator uses the first person plural (“we” and “our”), not the third person (“you” and “your”). Why might this matter?
- The man hears music playing and walks into a coffee shop. Thinking there’s someone in the back room, he calls out, “Say, I noticed there’s a town just up the road. What’s the name of it?” These are his first words in the story. Why would he ask this? Does it have anything to do with what he later begins to experience? Why would he want to know the name of the town? Does he ever learn its name? Why not? Later we find out that he can’t remember his own name. What is significant about this being a town with no name and his inability to remember his own name? (When does he realize that he can’t remember his name?)
- During the coffee shop scene, the man begins talking to himself. This happens when he pulls out a wad of cash and notices that it’s American money. When he then says, “I’m not sure who I am,” he’s still talking to whoever might be around. But we realize he’s actually talking to himself. This shift between direct address and self-address happens repeatedly throughout the story. For the story to work, we have to know what the man is experiencing. The episode depends on narration by the character himself, speaking aloud about what he’s experiencing. He’s reporting his thoughts and responses to what he encounters. But he transitions back and forth between talking to others and talking to himself. These transitions back and forth need to be smooth to move the story along and to keep us informed about what’s going on in the mind of this man. How effective is this device?
- What is significant about the following events:
- breaking the clock in the coffee shop?
- crashing into a mirror in the theater?
- discovering that the “woman” in the passenger seat is a mannequin?
- the man’s conversation with the mannequin when she tumbles into the street?
- the telephone ringing?
- getting trapped in the telephone booth?
- the gong of the clock in the church tower?
- the film clip scene in the movie theater?
- the cigar still burning in the ashtray?
Is there any symbolism here? What do these events reveal about the character, once we know the real nature of the experiment? What would you add to this list?
- At the outset of the story, the man is relaxed and casual. When he discovers there are no people in the town he’s mystified. At times he seems to be humored by his circumstances. There’s his encounter with the mannequin, and the moment when he’s stuck in the phone booth and says, “This is an absolutely hysterical town, and I’m growing very fond of it.” In due course, however, his experience is increasingly disturbing, until he reaches the heights of desperation. What is happening to him? What is your sense of the explanation for this as things unfold? Does your understanding of his plight change at all by what is revealed at the end?
- How is the character delivered from his artificially manufactured experience? In his imagination he’s pressing a button labeled WALK, but in reality he seems to be pushing an actual button. What purpose is served by this button?
- Eventually we learn that the man’s name is Mike Ferris. And we learn the backstory. Why has Ferris been kept in an isolation booth? What was the purpose of the experiment?
- What did you experience as you watched this story unfold? When the man first discovered there was no one in the town, what did you think would happen next? Were you right? As the story went on, did you expect something dreadful might eventually happen to him? What did you think might happen?
- Describe what you were feeling as the man noticed there was a “woman” in the passenger seat of a car and he began to shout out to her? How did it make you feel when he opened the door and the mannequin tumbled out onto the street? Why would Ferris have imagined this?
- Movies often begin by giving viewers a reliable sense of what the story is about. This story doesn’t do that until the end, with only five minutes remaining. But the progression of events shapes our beliefs about the story and its meaning. Based on the clues provided in the story, we naturally seek to make sense of what is happening and what will happen next. How did your beliefs about these things shift as time went on? What did you think this episode was about when the man first walked into town? What did you think when he went looking for someone to find out what was going on? When he walked into the coffee shop and there was coffee brewing, but no one was around? When he ran into the jail? When the phone started ringing? When he got stuck in the phone booth? When he went into a movie theater and a film was playing, though no one was there? Why did you feel and believe the things you did? What elements of the story were the basis of your beliefs as they shifted over time?