Imagine, for a moment, a broadcast of the original Twilight Zone where Rod Serling never appears. In such an episode, the characters within are forced to contend with a reality that, without warning, is subjected to the influence of a “fifth dimension,” where the laws of humanity lose all meaning. After being assailed by this anomaly for roughly half an hour, its influence fades away, and the world continues rotating onward.
No such episode exists, however. At the beginning of each story, as high strangeness begins to reveal itself, Serling steps onto the set and gazes directly through the fourth wall. He then outlines the rules of this world, and what’s to come within it- forcing the weird within to obey his word. Occasionally, characters encounter Rod and stare at him with a mixture of awe and confusion, though for the most part, he remains outside their field of vision. At the end of the episode, he intervenes one last time, to explain what has transpired- and to allow those trapped within the Twilight Zone to make their exit. So long as he is present, there is no madness- the strange and mundane worlds exist in perfect balance.
At first glance, Serling is simply a narrator, but his presence is far too involved for this to fully describe his role. In the episode titled “A World of His Own,” for instance, one character takes objection to Serling describing the events that have just transpired as “fictional” and “ridiculous nonsense.” The character then procures an envelope filled with magnetic tape, labeled “Rod Serling” on its exterior, an throws it into the fire. “Well, that’s the way it goes,” Serling then utters, before fading into nothingness. Such an event establishes a profound truth: that the Serling found within the Twilight Zone is just as fictional as the characters within. This also establishes that, though codependent, Serling the author and Serling the narrator are two separate beings.
Given this, it is not difficult to interpret what the fifth dimension described in the show’s opening is, this dimension of “sound,” “sight,” and “mind.” The fifth dimension is what lies beyond the fourth wall, whichever side of it one lives on. When the “key of imagination” opens the door between these realms, that door is not, then subsequently closed and locked- it is the fact that this door remains open that allows the show to take place. By staring through the glass, and existing in some form on both sides of it, Serling tethers the real to the unreal, drawing the audience into the fifth dimension, and allowing the Twilight Zone to exist. It is an in-between space where fiction and nonfiction collide, held together by the interface of a television’s screen.
Though Serling died in 1975, the fictional Serling narrated one more episode of The Twilight Zone in 1994. When Disney World’s so-called “imagineers” opened the Tower of Terror, Serling’s image and likeness were reconstructed from multiple past episodes of the show to produce new material; additionally, his voice was spliced with that of a similar sounding actor, resulting in a combination of the living and the dead indistinguishable from the real thing. This is some of the darkest Disney magic ever performed, for it has resulted in a curious schism: the fictional Serling now exists without the oversight of his nonfictional counterpart, resulting in a permanent imbalance between their realms.
The ride is presented as a new episode of the show, where the audience is allowed to wander through the barrier, and enter the Twilight Zone themselves. This is yet another disruption of the natural order; before this point, Serling himself had been the only person able to cross directly from one side to the other. Upon entering the ride, guests are placed in a carriage said to be the maintenance elevator of an abandoned, ritzy hotel. In this conveyance, they rise, they fall, and they experience the rush of endorphins that they waited an hour in line for. Once it’s over, like any episode of The Twilight Zone, Serling provides a concluding narration: “The next time you check into a deserted hotel… make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you’re filling.”
The riders then take their leave through the gift shop: some of them are thrilled, some of them are sick, and some of them are ready to ride again. None of them notice the fictional doubles that they’ve left behind, reaching for reality one last time before the hotel doors swing shut.