This is third in a series on the religious views of Rod Serling. The first was God and Rod Serling, the second was Angels and Rod Serling.
There is an unusual logical maneuver that some philosophers and theologians take: before they establish the existence God, they first establish the existence of the devil. G. K Chesterton observed that original sin was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 2, “The Maniac”). By extension, all things evil can readily be proved easier than all things good.
Rod Serling may not have had this ethereal logic-chopping in mind when he dictated some of the classic Twilight Zone scripts dealing with the Lord of the Underworld. But without a doubt, he found discussing the machinations of Old Scratch not only entertaining, but theologically and philosophically profound.
The most obvious episode dealing with the devil was “The Howling Man,” which tells the tragedy of David Ellington. He inadvertently freed the devil from where he had been imprisoned in a monastery, and spent the rest of his life in a guilt-ridden quest to track down Satan.
Utahans should appreciate one aspect of this episode. The Howling Man in question claims to be a normal man and a prison of the monks, and his howling is just a cry for help.
The Book of Mormon has a clinching passage, “And behold, others he [the devil] flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance” (2 Nephi 28:22).
“I am no devil, for there is none” could be the subtitle for this episode: is the howling man in the cell really the devil, bound by the Staff of Truth, or is he, as he claims, an innocent man kept prisoner by religious fanatics?
The point is clear—the devil is a reality because evil is a reality. Getting past the pseudo-sophistication of the Scientific Age is the only way to confront both the devil and evil.
Serling’s devils, however, could also be subtler. The other episode, “Nick of Time,” casts a young William Shatner as Don Carter, one half of a newly-wed couple who stop at a diner. He gets intrigued, and eventually snared, by a devil-headed fortune-telling machine.
This episode sports no cloven-foot freak in red leotards, as in “The Howling Man.” But there is the bobble-head with the menacing horns and grimacing Van Dyke beard. And the existential question is more complex: is Carter’s life controlled by this machine, and by extension, the machinery of the universe? Or can he break free?
In this episode, Serling’s message echo’s Shakespeare’s “We still have judgment here” (Macbeth i.vii.8). Both Carter and Macbeth mull over their fortunes—be they from a cheap carnival machine in a greasy-spoon diner, or the lisping murmurs of the Weird Sisters. Macbeth opted for submission, to be a pinball in a cosmic arcade. But Carter broke free of the game.
This episode has a twin, “The Fever.” This one is about gambling addiction. The devil this time is not a fortune telling machine, but a slot machine. That is, on the surface it seems to be a slot machine. In actuality, the real machine is Mr. Franklin Gibbs, who cannot break away from addiction.
Unlike “The Howling Man,” the devil is not “out there;” the devil is inside.
The discussion on the devil inside will continue in the next article, The devil and Rod Serling part 2