“I know, it’s an incredible story. I of all people know this. And you won’t believe me — no, not at first. But I’m going to tell you the whole thing. Then you’ll believe — because you must, you must believe.”
I think everyone who loves the Twilight Zone has a favourite episode – that quintessential story that strikes a chord. Maybe it’s the subject or the moral, a particular character that you identify with, or even its relevance to a social, political or historical event. Whatever the reason, every fan has that one episode he/she just can’t live without.
On November 4, 1960 — 52 years ago today — my favourite Twilight Zone episode, “The Howling Man,” first aired. Written by Charles Beaumont and flawlessly directed by Douglas Heyes, “The Howling Man” is the tale of a man who comes face-to-face with the Devil, and failing to recognize him, looses him upon the earth.
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.
The story is set just after the end of the First World War. David Ellington, played by H.M. Wynant, stumbles upon a monastery while on a hiking trip. He’s sick and exhausted and is looking for a place to rest. But the monks of the hermitage — “The Brotherhood of Truth” — are reluctant to offer him any assistance. He soon learns the cause of their hesitation — a prisoner they have locked in a cell. This “man”, who howls incessantly, turns out (unbeknownst to Ellington of course) to be the Devil.
“What you saw was no man, Mr. Ellington. It is the Devil himself!”
Robin Hughes is superb in his sympathetic portrayal of the Devil/Howling Man. He has Ellington, and the audience, hooked right from the very beginning. When Ellington comes face-to-face with him, the man begs for help.
“In the name of mercy, help me. You’re not one of them?”
“They’re mad, Mr. Ellington, all of them, raving mad.”
He weaves a very moving tale of how and why Brother Jerome (head of the Brotherhood) imprisoned him, and when he stares pitifully through the window of his cell and woefully asks, “Tell me, is it wrong to kiss?”, it melted MY heart.
Ellington buys the Devil’s story and goes to Jerome for answers. Jerome attempts to convince Ellington to leave the hermitage, saying that he is suffering from delirium. No man is imprisoned there, he insists. But Ellington sees through the charade and quips, “Honest men make unconvincing liars.”
In an effort to keep Ellington from going to the police, Brother Jerome (played brilliantly by the legendary actor John Carradine) decides to come clean and reveal the identity of the “howling man” he has locked in the cell.
“What you saw in the cell is Satan. Otherwise known as the Dark Angel, Ahriman, Asmodeus, Belial, Diabolus, the Devil. You asked for the truth. Now you have it. You do believe me, don’t you?”
Ellington says he believes, but Jerome knows he is lying. So Jerome tells him of how the “howling man” came to be captured and imprisoned at the hermitage.
Carradine, who looks not unlike Moses stepping off the set of “The Ten Commandments”, delivers a gloriously powerful performance, one full of energy and conviction. One of my favourite lines from the episode is spoken by Jerome as he explains what the Brotherhood of Truth is founded upon. “Truth is our dogma. We believe it to be man’s greatest weapon against the Devil, who is the father of all lies.”
When Ellington questions how they can keep the Devil locked up, wide-eyed Carradine lifts his staff above his head and dramatically exclaims: “With the Staff of Truth!” Interesting to note that in Beaumont’s original story the Brothers carried crosses, but director Douglas Heyes felt the symbol of the cross was decidedly too Christian and opted for a more broadly acceptable prop – the shepherd’s crook. Understandably, Beaumont was not pleased with the change, but much to my delight, the Staff of Truth is still evocative of Christianity and fits beautifully into the story.
Ellington wonders if perhaps Jerome has made a mistake.
Ellington: “How did you recognize him? He doesn’t look evil.”
Jerome: “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”
Ellington points out that there is still great suffering in the world: murders, robberies — even as they are speaking, he says, people are starving. Jerome replies, “The suffering man was meant to endure. We cause most of our own griefs. We need no help from him.”
Ellington convinces Jerome that he does indeed believe him, and a satisfied Jerome allows him to stay the night. Once in his room, Ellington waits for the monk who is sitting with him to fall asleep. Thoroughly convinced that the monks are indeed mad, he heads straight for the Howling Man’s cell to free him.
Devil: “You’ve come! Good!”
Ellington: “What do you want me to do?”
Devil: “Lift off the wooden bolt.”
Ellington: “Is this all that holds you in?”
Devil: “Yes, lift it off!”
Ellington: “Well, why haven’t you done it yourself?”
Devil: “Please, there’s no time for talk! Mr. Ellington, in the name of mercy. If you fail now, they’ll kill both of us. Don’t you understand that?”
As I’m sure many of us would do, Ellington removes the Staff of Truth from the cell door, and is promptly subdued by a no longer helpless Devil.
And here, at the climax of the episode, we see the genius of director Douglas Heyes at work – the Devil’s transformation from man to monster. This transformation is not the standard “cross dissolve transformation” used in movies and TV shows at the time. Heyes wanted the Devil to be moving, not standing still, while the makeup was changing.
The first stage of the transformation, though, was actually a very clever trick with light (one that would be impossible to achieve if the episode had been in colour). When Robin Hughes exits the cell, the camera zooms in on his face and there is a flash of light.
As explained by Heyes in an interview with Marc Scott Zicree, an infrared-sensitive makeup was applied under Hughes’ normal makeup. “We see a physical change in Hughes thanks to the flash of light.”
The full transformation was achieved by filming Hughes in each stage of makeup, walking quickly down the entire length of a long corridor, then splicing each shot together using the pillars Hughes was disappearing behind as the transition points.
This is, without a doubt, a very impressive and effective scene, but it’s one that Beaumont wasn’t entirely pleased with. Said Heyes,
“Beaumont just wanted an expression on Wynant’s face as he chased after him and reached up as the man went over a wall and all he wanted was to see the hand touching a cloven hoof just as it went over the wall. And when I did the literal translation of showing him visually turn into the devil, Beaumont didn’t like that. He liked the way he’d written it and that was what he wanted.”
And with that, the Devil vanishes in a cloud of smoke.
Ellington: “I didn’t believe you. I saw him and didn’t recognize him.”
Jerome: “That is Man’s weakness, and Satan’s strength.”
The story fast-forwards now to a much older David Ellington. After years of searching, he has finally recaptured the Devil and is making preparations to send him back to Brother Jerome at the hermitage. But unfortunately for Ellington and the rest of the world, his housekeeper is just as unbelieving as he himself once was, and the episode closes with her unlocking the door and letting the Devil out to roam the earth once more.
In the ending of the original short story, Beaumont leaves doubt in David Ellington’s mind as to whether or not he actually had this experience or simply dreamed it in his weak, sickened state. The story ends with Ellington receiving a card from one of the Brothers at the hermitage which simply reads: “Rest now, my son. We have him back with us again.”
While I can appreciate Beaumont’s original creation, I strongly feel that the ending of the TZ adaptation is better. It was Ellington’s unbelief and doubt that led to him releasing the Howling Man and in the episode it becomes his responsibility to recapture the evil he has let loose on the world. He dedicates his life to righting the wrong he has done and eventually his determination and perseverance pays off — he does indeed catch the Devil.
In the original, Ellington takes no responsibility whatsoever. He isn’t even certain anything happened, and it is the Brothers who must go out and essentially clean up the mess he has made. I don’t think that’s the right message to send — you make a mistake, don’t worry, someone else will look after it for you. That isn’t how it works, I’m afraid. Take responsibility for your own actions. Right your own wrongs. If you make a mistake, do your very best to fix it.
In the promo for “The Howling Man”, Serling describes the story as being, “designed for the young in heart but the strong of nerve.” How would you feel if, like David Ellington, you let the Devil out of his cell? If you had to live with the knowledge that you are now responsible for his subsequent actions? And that it’s up to you to catch him and lock him up again? Yes, perhaps this tale is bordering on the extreme, but I find it very effective. That’s what makes the Twilight Zone such an exceptional program — it presents a far-out example that teaches a lesson which can be applied in many different ways and in various scenarios.
“Truth is our dogma. We believe it to be man’s greatest weapon against the Devil, who is the father of all lies.” Seek the Truth in everything you do. Had David Ellington taken the time to do this, he’d have run from that cell, not to it.
As Brother Jerome said, it’s difficult to recognize evil, which has the ability to assume many pleasing shapes. We’re all susceptible to being fooled if we refuse to pay attention and ignore what’s often right in front of us. The Truth can be found, if you’re willing to search for Him. Lesson to be learned, not only in the Twilight Zone, but in every corner of God’s earth.
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.