This is fifth in a series on the religious views of Rod Serling. The first was God and Rod Serling, the second was Angels and Rod Serling, the third was The devil and Rod Serling, part 1, the fourth was The devil and Rod Serling, part 2.
In addition to internal and external devils, Serling touched up on people who sold their souls to the devil. Again and again, Serling revisited the tale of Faust—the seduction of power.
“Escape Clause” depicts a hypochondriac who sells his soul for perfect health and eternal life. It ends with a classic Serling punch-line, and it raises the question, “If we had eternal life, what would we do with it?”
Not much, as Serling saw it. Immortality would prolong, or even empower our folly. To misquote Shakespeare, “What fools these immortals be.”
Latter-day Saint scholar and Brigham Young University professor Hugh W. Nibley came to a similar conclusion. In his book Approaching Zion, he told of an examination he gave to his religiously-minded students:
“Last semester, to find out whether an honors class of remarkably devout students (their unusual final examination papers showed that) made any connection between the gospel and their careers, I asked them, as a midterm assignment, to assume that they had been guaranteed a thousand uninterrupted years of life here on earth, with all their wants and needs adequately funded: How would you plan to spend the rest of your lives here? I explained that this is not a hypothetical proposition, since this is the very situation the gospel puts us in.” (Approaching Zion, 257-259)
Their answers varied, but, as he pointed out, they were unable to process the question. Some of his students would travel, others would save the money for retirement, one said they would turn down the offer, and another student said if given prolonged life, he would go crazy.
But this chance for eternal life, as Nibley points out, “is the very situation the gospel puts us in.”
Are Utah Christians taking their religion seriously? Are they living in the here and now, but also preparing for the eternal future?
Christianity implies eternalism, the idea that there is more to life that the fleeting present. What impact is eternalism making in our day-to-day activities? Christ and Rod Serling (both Jews) repeatedly asked that question of not only Utah Christians, but also Christians and humans in general.
Serling again depicted this idea of soul-selling in “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” when the devil (Julie Newmar) seduces a greedy and decrepit tychoon to relive his past, in order to make more money. Again, things did not work according to plan.
But Serling had another take on the Faust Revisited theme in “Jess-Belle.” The episode’s namesake cuts a deal with a hillbilly witch for a love potion. The price was not only Jess-Bell’s soul, but also a curse: she was doomed to become a leopard every night. As one of the hour-long Twilight Zones, it has a complex plot. But the complex plot raises a simple question: what will we do for love?
Love can make us gods, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but love can also make us devils. As Tolkenites know, Gollum had a love for the Ring, and it was this love, or really covetousness, that made him Gollum.
“Come Wander With Me” is another Faust Revisited episode also set in the backwoods. Aspiring folk singer Floyd Burney travels the back roads, rooting around for new folk songs. But his motives are not pure—he is inordinately driven to be the best, to the point of plagiarism. Mary Rachel, an enigmatic woman he finds singing in the woods, has the song that Burney wants, but won’t sing for him.
This metaphysical-heavy episode has the echoes of Actaeon, the mythological hunter who saw Diana bathing, and was morphed into a stag. And both stories emphasize the nature of folly—the Christian concept hammered again and again in the book of Proverbs. Our drives can drive us both upward—or downward, as Serling warns.
“Printer’s Devil” has Burgess Meredith at his puckish best, playing Mr. Smith, a linotype operator who volunteers to work free at a failing newspaper. After handing out a few freebies, Mr. Smith produces the infamous contract, which is duly signed.
As with “The Howling Man,” this episode could be subtitled “I am no devil, for there is none” (2 Nephi 28:22). As the devil Mr. Smith seduces Mr. Winter, he says:
“Mr. Winter, as a sophisticated, intelligent twentieth-century man, you know that the Devil does not exist. True?”
“But you also know that the world is full of eccentric, rich old men, crazy old men who do all kinds of things for crazy reasons. Now, why don’t you think of me like that.”
C. S. Lewis would love this episode, since Serling and Lewis could take a playful approach to the devil. Meredith would be a perfect Uncle Screwtape.
But the core issue of this episode—as with all revisitations of Faust—are about man’s appetites. Where do we draw the boundary line between needs and wants? Is there a limit to appetite? What are we willing to do to get what we want? When does love become—to use an archaic word—cupidity, or greed?
Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Not much” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 243).
Serling would agree.