The Twilight Zone episode “The Howling Man” seems to fit the traditional “bottle episode” model: virtually one set being used, no special effects, limited casting and not the most elaborate script. A lot of bottle episodes exist to save the production company money so they can attribute more budget to another episode or grab that extra special actor to boost the ratings of a future adventure.
For the most part, bottle episodes are of little consequence. And if I gave you the ever-so-brief description of “The Howling Man”, a lost traveler meets the devil, you’d probably hit “skip episode” and move on to the next. But sometimes bottle episodes can surprise us and “The Howling Man” is one of those nice surprises.
Is it too on the nose at times? Is it overacted? Does it feel like the costume designer just grabbed whatever was around the set to dress the actors (and it happened to be unused outfits from a community theater production of The Ten Commandments)? Is the tone of the episode just plain bizarre? Undoubtedly. But, really, it fits The Twilight Zone oeuvre to a T, weirdness and all. Thus, it serves as a potent reminder of how susceptible humanity is to the pursuit of madness.
As the opening narration posits:
The prostrate form of Mr. David Ellington, scholar, seeker of truth and, regrettably, finder of truth. A man who will shortly arise from his exhaustion to confront a problem that has tormented mankind since the beginning of time. A man who knocked on a door seeking sanctuary and found, instead, the outer edges of The Twilight Zone.
Ellington is without a doubt suffering from something, be it lack of hydration or overdone scenery-chewing. Goofiness aside, the delirious man does come across a bizarre situation. He finds himself turned away at the door of an ancient castle by what appears to be a cult. He’s too sick to leave and collapsing in their hallway, so the cult allows Ellington to stay for the night against their better judgment. The men, all dressed as shepherds, fear something, as howling can be heard echoing through the halls every hour or so.
Ever the curious man, Ellington awakes and searches the castle. To his surprise, he finds a captive in a cell. The jailed man appears humble and scared and begs for release. Ellington is smart enough to investigate first and see why the man was captured. When he is caught by a guard and brought to the cult leader Brother Jerome, Ellington is told the outrageous tale that the captive is literally the Devil and the cult, for lack of a better term, is there to keep the Devil from wreaking havoc on humanity. The cult leader even explains that World War I, which had just ended at the time of the episode, had stopped due exclusively to the Devil’s capture.
Ellington doesn’t believe this story and, on the next opportunity, goes to free the prisoner. But as soon as he does, thanks to supportive coaxing from the poor imprisoned man, the prisoner reveals himself to be, indeed, the devil himself, who is now free to continue his reign of terror on the world.
We cut to 1960. Ellington has managed to capture the devil and is telling his confused housekeeper that the devil must remain locked up because ever since he went free at Ellington’s hands, World War II and the Korean War happened. The housekeeper seems to agree with Ellington, who must leave on an important errand. But as soon as Ellington’s gone, the curiosity gets the better of her and she releases the Devil into the world at the beginning of the Vietnam era.
And the end narration:
Ancient folk saying: “You can catch the Devil, but you can’t hold him long.” Ask Brother Jerome. Ask David Ellington. They know, and they’ll go on knowing to the end of their days and beyond – in the Twilight Zone.
Like I previously mentioned, the episode isn’t deep on allegory. In fact, it is rather too on-the-nose with what it is saying. But there is no harm in telling a more straight-forward story. Plus, regardless of how it is told, it doesn’t take away from the truth and power of the message. Like David Ellington or the housekeeper, folks from different walks of life with different education levels and different experiences, the temptation is always there.
I’d like to think humanity, on a whole, is not so naked in its ambition but then I look at what is going on today. Forever wars in the Middle East (with another one seemingly on the way in Iran), genocides, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, etc, etc, etc. It never seems to end. It makes me wonder if we’ve ever truly captured the devil long enough for us to mess up and free him in the first place. It makes one wonder: what if we are the devil?