Meeting Mr. Wilson: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

9780312878276_p0_v1_s600x595SPOILERS for the print version, and, yes, it matters.

The “Nightmare at…” episode of The Twilight Zone always left me feeling like I’d missed something. Yes, both the original and the 1983 movie make a point that their Mr. Wilson has a history of mental illness of some sort. And, both tell us in clear visual detail that we’re supposed to identify with this poor guy, since everybody deep down is a little bit afraid of flying. And, yeah, gross monster, etc.

Still, I’ve been largely unmoved by the whole exercise. Perhaps it was that monster, and the physics. How the heck is this critter hanging on to the wing of a DC-10? It’s implied he/it has some sort of octopus-style suckers on its hands, but still. Those planes fly at, like, 600 mph. And, what sort of evolutionary force would result in the creation of a monster that likes to tear apart planes mid-flight? Does he/it eat electrical cables like the minoks? And, how do they reproduce, since they apparently spend their lives hopping around on air planes. And, what did they do before planes were invented? Hijack pterodactyls? The story mentions WW II tales of “gremlins” messing up aircraft, which helps a little, but, I mean, come on. 

So, yeah, I never really got particularly weirded out by this one.

That all changed this morning. I’ve been listening to Matheson’s anthology while doing the settling chores (audiobooks rock), and I finally got it. I don’t know if the “it” that I got is in the dramatizations (Matheson also wrote the screenplay) and I just missed it, but it is in the story like gangbusters. Matheson’s original Arthur Jeffrey Wilson (who’s travelling alone) isn’t just some nervous guy afraid of flying; he’s suicidal. He’s so depressed, he’s carrying a pistol in his carry-on and winds up sobbing in the lavatory begging God to let him go.

So, that’s who the Monster is. It’s Wilson himself. Or, at least, Wilson is its origin. There’s no reasonable evolutionary backstory for this critter because this critter has nothing to do with reason. Somehow, here in The Zone, Wilson’s despair has materialized in the form of a monster that likes to destroy airplane engines. A monster, in other words, that might take down the entire plane. Wilson’s unseen desperation, that of a man on the edge of annihilation stuck in the midst of dozing strangers, is as improper and impossible as a monster on the wing of the plane.

Is Wilson a hero? Is he so selfish that he created the Monster solely as a way to save himself? Did he even have a choice or was his despair too powerful to control?

And, now that we’ve had that heavy-duty discussion, it’s time for a little dessert.

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