“An unseen, unfriendly periscope keeps a steely watch over the S.S. Queen of Glasgow as fog and sea whip across the freighter's docks. On board the Glasgow a German passenger, Carl Lanser, wanders about in confusion as the boat rocks to and fro in the black night. He doesn't know how he got aboard or what he's doing there, but strangely all the passengers are familiar. The only thing Carl Lanser knows for certain is that at 1:15 a.m., something horrible is going to happen. Suddenly, a Nazi U-boat surfaces. Lanser zooms in on the sub with his binoculars and begins to understand a horrible truth about himself...the S.S. Queen of Glasgow...and the terrible reality that lies ahead on this raw, ugly night.”
S01E10 – Judgement Night
From January 1943 to January 1945, Rod Serling served as a paratrooper and demolitions expert in the U. S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division. While wounds in his wrist and knee would earn Serling both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, other wartime memories, such as seeing his best friend crushed to death by a supply crate parachuted onto the battlefield, would provide Serling with a lifetime’s worth of nightmares and flashbacks. He dealt with these the way many a writer has, by channeling them into his work. Judgement Night would be just the first of many Twilight Zones episodes informed by Serling’s wartime experiences.
While the story is a bit slow moving, Serling tries to keep the tension up by using Hitchcock’s ticking bomb trick. We know from the outset that something awful is going to happen at a specified time, we just don’t know exactly what or to whom. Serling also switches things up a bit by having Lanser, the eventual villain of the piece, be the audience’s surrogate for most of the story, a neat trick considering the guy turns out to be a mass murdering Nazi. And veteran director John Brahm (who coincidently fled Germany when Hitler came to power) does his best to keep things interesting visually. The scene in the hallway where Lanser’s victims stare mutely at their killer is particularly effective.
The central theme of the episode, that the experience of Hell will be personalized to the individual, goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. Their concept of the afterlife included Tartarus, an abyss in which the wicked suffered punishments which reflected their crimes. King Tantalus, for example, was forced to forever try and snatch fruit from a tree which pulled its branches away just as his fingers neared it. This eternal hunger was his fate for daring to chop up his own son and feed the boy to his dinner guests.
Obviously, the most common image of Hell among Christians has been that of a lake of fire, but over the centuries, personalized tortures have also contemplated. Dante’s Inferno included sinners being stung by wasps and frozen in ice, while the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch depicted punishments so bizarre that they’re best seen rather than described (what’s up with all those flowers shoved up butts?). For Lanser, Hell is to forever experience the terror that his victims did. As his lieutenant envisions it, “Perhaps there is a special kind of hell for people like us. Perhaps to be damned is to have a fate like the people on that ship, to suffer as they suffer and to die as they die… We'll ride the ghost of that ship every night. Every night, Kapitan, for eternity. They could die only once, just once, but we could die a hundred million times.”
And so they do, all because of the decision to push a button. And in the end, that’s what really matters. Whatever the experience of Hell may turn out to be, the most important thing to keep in mind is that God doesn’t choose for us to go there. We do.
Twilight Tidbits: Even the Twilight Zone had to pay the bills, so when General Foods balked at all the tea drinking in the script, quick changes were made to ensure that all the British aboard the S.S. Queen of Glasgow looked forward to a nice coffee break instead.