The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street: The Scariest Episode of TV I’ve Ever Seen

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is, in no uncertain terms, the scariest episode of television I have ever watched; a microcosm of how easily society can tear itself apart when people are afraid—or are simply faced with disruption to the comfortable, the routine, the every day, the safe. It takes Main Street U.S.A. and, within a half-hour, leaves it as a paranoid, out-of-control mob—and it’s a feeling all too familiar to those of us in 2021 America. 

I first heard “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” almost twenty years ago when a teacher read Rod Serling’s adaption to our class over several weeks, and first saw it a few years later during one of the three yearly Twilight Zone marathons that used to run on Sci Fi. In my youthful innocence at the time, it seemed like something from a distant time and place, the sort of thing you would hear about and think “it could never happen here.” As I talk about it now, it’s something that I know all too well could and did indeed happen here.

A man talking to the boy, the boy's back is turned to the camera

When Rod Serling wrote “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” back in 1960, there were likely two real-world parallels on his mind: the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the late ‘50s, an ugly, often out of control witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy accusing prominent left-leaning members of the government and of Hollywood of being sympathetic towards communists; and the so-called “white flight” of postwar America, which saw white families increasingly move out of the “unsafe” (i.e. racially diverse) cities into more idyllic suburban areas—and the increasing momentum of the Civil Rights movement that those same white families saw as a threat to their suburban paradise. 

But the beauty of The Twilight Zone—and why no show on television has, in my opinion, ever come close to having its scope or impact—is the universality of the themes and stories presented. Every episode of The Twilight Zone—the horror ones, the science fiction ones, the supernatural ones—is firmly grounded in the human experience. Episodes might strongly allude to real-world events and take place in worlds ever-so-slightly removed from the reality we inhabit, but ultimately they’re all stories about us—our ingenuity, our perseverance, our anxieties, and our capacity for both wonders and horrors in how we choose to treat our fellow man. It’s one of the all-time landmarks of existential horror and quite possibly the only thing that I could say is philosophical horror—if such a thing exists. It’s also my favorite television series of all time, but that’s a personal thing and slightly less relevant to any discussion we might have.

It’s also why I’ve never been on board with any of the attempts at reviving the series—The Twilight Zone isn’t a show that particularly needs updating, nor does it even necessarily need expanding upon. The episodes of that original run—written with an understanding of the past, an eye towards the future, and a keen, often grim awareness of human nature in both its beauty and its outright ugliness—accomplish something that very few pieces of media achieve: a true sense of timelessness, existing in a world all its own, one that is simultaneously alien and familiar, both nostalgic and all too frighteningly relevant. Throughout 2022, I plan to revisit a great number of classic Twilight Zone episodes, and there is none more suitable to start the year off with than the episode that arguably remains the most relevant to this day. 

an establishing shot of Maple Street

As I write this on the eve of 2021, we are entering our third year of life with quite possibly the greatest disruption to our social norms and comforts that any of us have ever seen in our lifetime: the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exasperated—among, well, everything else—a resurgence in open white supremacy and a corresponding attempt to “reclaim” America for the people who think it rightfully belongs to them. 

Watching “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” in 2021, it’s virtually impossible to not see parallels to the current state of America. Disinformation, paranoia, seemingly decent people turning on their friends and neighbors, mob mentality, fear of The Other—it’s all there, just the same now as it was more than sixty years ago. As a wise man once said: same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

Getting into the episode itself, the first thing that stands out is what an absolute master class the episode is in minimal world-building, escalation, tension, and pacing. We open on Maple Street, with an establishing shot that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the likes of Leave It To Beaver. It’s the America of the American Dream: well-manicured lawns, cars parked in their driveways, mom in the kitchen, the kids playing outside—and, it should be noted, not a person of color in sight. 

On this day though, something out of the ordinary happens: a meteor flies overhead, catching the attention of everyone on Maple Street. A few minutes later, all the power on the block has gone out, as well as the phone lines and the radio. Important to note: none of the residents of Maple Street are physically harmed by this phenomenon nor do they face any sort of physical threat. The only thing that the meteor brings is a disruption to the consistency of their daily life. One neighbor goes to see if the neighboring streets have also lost power. Several others decide to head downtown and talk to the police department, only for a young boy to warn them that “they” don’t want them to leave the street. Upon further questioning, the boy reveals that he has read a story about an alien invasion that started with a similar phenomenon and that in the story the invaders had sent scouts in advance, disguised as human beings. 

Steve, aggressively holding Charlie by the shirt

While the citizens of Maple Street initially seem skeptical of this idea, misinformation and paranoia quickly spread throughout the community like wildfire. While there is certainly an outside influence present, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” never loses sight of how this paranoia is almost entirely self-fueling, that our fellow humans are almost always the only monsters we need.  

When one neighbor’s car starts while everyone else’s house still lacks power, all eyes turn towards him. Personality quirks that would otherwise be deemed as mundane—not coming outside to observe the meteor, going outside, and stargazing at night due to a bout of insomnia—are suddenly treated with suspicion. Anything that deviates from their idea of “normalcy” is treated as evidence that this person must be the invader that they’re looking for. 

This suspicion, based on nothing more than paranoid speculation, jumps from person to person, ping-ponging back and forth, escalating each and every time. When Steve, one of the reasonable voices among the crowd, tries to defend the accused, suddenly the finger is pointed towards him and the process repeats itself. Why is he building a radio in his basement? Why has nobody seen it? Is he just building it as a hobby…or is he using it to communicate with invaders from another planet?

Not even Charlie, the self-appointed leader of the ever feverish witch hunt is safe from suspicion: when a man is seen approaching the neighborhood in the darkness, Charlie grabs a shotgun and shoots him dead, only for the crowd to find that it’s simply Pete Van Horn, the neighbor from earlier returning from his investigation of neighboring streets. The mob then almost immediately turns on Charlie: that he was so quick to accuse somebody else, and that Pete must have discovered something that would incriminate Charlie, leading Charlie to shoot him to prevent them from learning the truth.

Steve angrily pointing his finger towards someone off screen

America has had a long history of Others that its white, upper-middle-class population has been told to fear: Communists, Japanese people, Black people, and Latinos, each of them supposedly coming to undermine the prosperity and way of life that the upper-middle-class felt that they were entitled to. It’s a story that is told throughout our history, with few variations each time it’s told: the Red Scare that caused people in both the government and Hollywood alike to be punished for treason, oftentimes without tangible evidence or trial; the Japanese internment which saw entire families pulled from their homes and forced to live in camps simply because we suspected that they might be working with our enemies to undermine us; an ongoing, decades-long history of discrimination and violence against the Black community; attempts to deport Latinos under the assumption that they’ve come to our country illegally and are responsible for job shortages.

More often than not, this fear of The Other, fueled by misinformation and allowed to grow within communities, leads to an increasingly prevalent outcome: violence. The final shots of “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” are haunting: having already killed one of their own, the citizens of Maple Street completely unravel into a mob, violently flailing about to try and find someone to blame, someone they can drive out and reclaim that feeling of safety and comfort. It’s a jarring series of images, quickly cut one after another: lights going on and off from home to home, guns being fired, bricks being thrown, some people shouting for someone to put a stop to the madness, and others shouting out names of their neighbors, everyone looking for someone to draw suspicion away from themselves. 

a close up of a frightened woman's face

This violence has only escalated in recent years—or, more likely, simply become more visible. Black men are harassed and killed by both police and self-appointed vigilantes, often for nothing more than simply being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Racist attacks against people with Asian heritage have increased, for no other reason than the belief that China was responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. Confrontations with front-end employees trying to enforce mask or vaccine mandates. Disinformation leads people to not only resist getting vaccinated or wearing masks but to attack other people who are taking those precautions. And, exactly one year ago from yesterday, an attack on the United States Capitol by a subset of its own citizens, fueled by the false belief that The Other was trying to steal an election that they felt was rightfully theirs. 

Here, then, lies the true horror of “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street:” that it’s not something we have to imagine. That it’s happening right now. That the monsters aren’t due on Maple Street: they’re already here, and as is often the case, the monsters in question are us. As the episode ends we pan out from Maple Street to a nearby hill, where we can see a pair of otherworldly invaders observing the madness they have wrought, the chaos of Maple Street still seen and heard in the distance. As one of them explains to the other, simply disrupting the routine of their everyday lives is enough to drive them into a panic, and that after a few hours in darkness they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find: themselves. What’s more, this world is full of Maple Streets, and the invaders intend to go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. 

In these invaders, we can see any number of agents of misinformation: foreign adversaries, far-right and far-left media hosts, anyone who has something to gain from sowing division and discord. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” drives this message home with stunning clarity: all the invaders have to do is provide what is, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly small disruption to the comforts that the people of Maple Street take for granted, and their own suspicions of one another does the rest. 

the two invaders, in front of the staircase to their ship, one of them holds what appears to be a radar dish

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” was previously covered by one of the writers on our sister site, 25YL, and a passage from that piece happened to stick in my mind: “I write this as a constituent of the United States of America, a country which, at the time of this writing (and hopefully not when you are reading this two, six, or seventy years later), is bathed in harmful rhetoric, pervasive paranoia, and the inevitable persistence of violence. Hardly a week goes by in the US without devastatingly hurtful attacks on itself, the air barely clear from gunsmoke before the ear-deafening clap-clap-clap of semi-automatic thunder begins again.”

In a tragically ironic twist, I write this piece a little over two years after his, and despite his wish of “hopefully not when you are reading this two, six, or seventy years later,” things are almost unquestionably worse now than they were back in 2019. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” serves as a still timely warning against getting caught up in mass panics and witch hunts and looking at what the facts are before you go around accusing your neighbors of something they may very well be innocent of, but as was often the case in The Twilight Zone we in the audience are left with the work of trying to find a solution to avoid what it is we’re being warned about—and quite frankly, I don’t even know where we might begin to deal with the monsters that even now are among us, or the outside forces fueling our panic and outrage. 

And that might be the most frightening thing of all. 

Looking for more horror TV episode spotlights? We’ve got you:

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One Comment

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  1. When you say it DID happen, are you referring to the slew of
    mob violence that took over many cities on a large, widespread
    scale or the mostly peaceful protest where a minority got out of control and the left seized on it due to it being one of the few times
    something of it’s kind could be attributed to the right?
    I really think we need to be fair in assessing what is my favorite
    episode of the Twilight Zone as well. When I grew up, it didn’t matter
    what political party you were a member of and I seldom knew, or
    cared, who was a Republican or Democrat. Now we have a
    president who openly condemns people who disagree with him,
    directing the exact kind of mob violence he claims occurred on
    January 6 towards his political opponents.
    Honesty is where we need to start if we want to avoid something
    like TMOMS ever happening. Everything can not be broken down
    into simple sound bites and people have complex reasons on both
    sides who deserve to be heard and not crucified without trial, simply
    for being associated with the “other” side.

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Written by Timothy Glaraton

College graduate. Horror enthusiast. Writer of things.

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