My First Fright featuring Josh Malerman

The Twilight Zone is one of the most respected and beloved television series of all time. Horror writers regularly cite it as an influence on their writing, like Christopher Golden did for this very column. But what about the 1983 film adaptation? Twilight Zone: The Movie is an anthology, featuring (mostly) remakes of famous episodes by famous directors like Steven Spielberg and John Landis. It wasn’t well-received upon release, and it gained notoriety for a helicopter accident that claimed three lives, but it’s achieved somewhat of a cult status over the years. For some, like author Josh Malerman, it was their first real exposure to horror, an eclectic blend of spooky, fantastical storytelling. 

Josh Malerman is a horror writer and musician based in Ferndale, Michigan. He is the author of several novels, including Unbury Carol (2018), Inspection (2019) and Bird Box (2014), which was adapted into a Sandra Bullock Netflix movie that became a viral internet phenomenon.

(Interview conducted by John Brhel)

CEMETERY DANCE: What book/movie/show/etc. got you into horror?

JOSH MALERMAN: Twilight Zone: The Movie was it for me, my intro to horror. And with it I got everything at once. A creature feature (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), a psychological mind-screw (“It’s a Good Life”), a red-hot social statement (“Time Out”), and even a glimpse of horror as a heart-warmer (“Kick the Can”). I was introduced to simple horror (“Nightmare”) and elastic horror (“Good Life”). I even got to meet a “host” of sorts, if Dan Aykroyd’s blue-faced demon from “Something Scary” could be considered a host. It was the ‘50s but the ‘80s, scary (Anthony’s sister’s missing mouth) but funny (Uncle Walt pulling the rabbit out of the hat), heavy (Vic Morrow’s racism) but forgiving (Helen deciding to raise Anthony), until it wasn’t (Lithgow in the ambulance in “Even Scarier”)… I credit my own love for variety in the genre to this movie. For where else does all our fuel come from if not from the moments we fall in love?

Wow, that’s an awesome choice. That movie scared me when I was a kid, particularly the Aykroyd intro. Sounds like you enjoy the entire feature, but do you have a favorite segment? And if so, what makes it so great?

My favorite segment changes over time. Right now, with all the baloney going on in the world, I respect the hell out of “Time Out.” But when I first saw the movie it was a tie between “It’s a Good Life” and “Nightmare.” The former showed me that ANYTHING is possible in fiction. I mean… the kid essentially had the powers of a god and could do absolutely anything he imagined. That was exhilarating to me then. It still is now. As goes “Nightmare”… it’s just so iconic. The feel, the performances, even the peripheral actors who are getting annoyed with Lithgow. And, of course, the demon on the wing.

Totally. A Matheson classic! Had you seen/been a fan of the show before you saw the movie? How do you think it compares to the show?

I think I was too young to be a fan of the show before seeing the movie. Maybe I’d seen an episode or two? I don’t remember. Nowadays, the show is the holy grail for me. Even the episodes that are heavy handed or fall flat, I love ‘em… For me, it was the gateway. Like the friend who first handed you a joint at the high school talent show, the friend you ended up eating 1,000 M&Ms with. Maybe that guy grew up to be a dull man, but he sure as shit played a big role in your life at one point.

Do you think that The Twilight Zone has influenced your writing in any way? Are there shades of Serling in Bird Box, for example?

Absolutely. For the longest time, I saw Bird Box as a “black and white” book. It was intentionally written as a very straight, colorless narrative that relied almost entirely on tension and not a whole lot more. I see all the books I’ve written as episodes of a TV show—maybe I’m the host, and Bird Box was the show’s first episode. That’s a direct nod to The Twilight Zone, whether I realized that when I started thinking that way or not.

But you know… these kinds of things… they aren’t intentional. It’s not like you sit around thinking, “How can I imagine the books I’ve written as being like The Twilight Zone? Oh! I can see them as episodes.” No no. The seeing them as episodes comes first and then you realize, oh, I see them this way probably because I love The Twilight Zone, the ’80s movie was the first scary movie I ever saw, and Rod Serling and Co. changed my life and how I inherently see things.

Do you think the movie still holds up?

For me, the movie absolutely holds up! I may even watch it tonight, after talking with you about it. 

Have you watched any of Jordan Peele’s latest iteration? 

I’ve watched some of the Jordan Peele stuff and I love that, too.

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