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Terror takes flight: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson

The Best of Richard Matheson
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is the most terrifying of Richard Matheson’s many classic tales

Of all the inventions that humankind’s ingenuity and creativity have concocted, few are more unnatural than the airplane. Okay, yes, nuclear and chemical weapons, Thalidomide, the iron maiden. But none of those is as ubiquitous or as unquestioningly accepted as the modern commercial airline. Most people think nothing of going online and booking a ticket to somewhere for business or pleasure, then voluntarily strapping themselves inside a giant pressurized tube made of plastic and metal and being lofted tens of thousands of feet into the air. That people are even aching to do this during a global pandemic characterized by a virus that is transmitted most swiftly and easily in enclosed, poorly ventilated interior spaces (like, say, the cabin of an airplane) speaks volumes about how twisted humanity’s love affair with air travel has become.

It’s the claustrophobia as much as anything else, and the threat of catastrophe, whether precipitated by human or natural intervention. But more than any of this is the sheer helplessness of surrounding oneself with strangers in an enclosed environment, entrusting your life to the competence of unknown pilots and the goodwill of one’s fellow passengers, all while knowing that should anything go wrong at any time, there is literally no escape. (Has there ever been a more futile pantomime than the flight attendants’ mandated safety demonstration at the beginning of every commercial flight?)

Richard Matheson knew the potential for panic and dread that airline travel can induce, and was not afraid to exploit it for all it could avail. Matheson is a Grand Master of Horror recipient at the World Horror Convention and the winner of a lifetime achievement honour from the Bram Stoker Awards. He wrote novels, short stories, teleplays, and screenplays, many of which – Hell House, “Duel,” I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man – are genre classics. But nothing in the canon of Matheson’s work comes close to matching the sheer, paranoid terror of his 1961 short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

The premise of the story could not be more simple. Arthur Jeffrey Wilson is flying across the country to Los Angeles overnight to attend a business meeting. During the flight, Wilson, seated in the emergency exit row, becomes increasingly convinced he sees the form of a man on the wing of the plane tampering with one of the engines. Unable to convince any of the pilots or flight crew that what he sees is real, and fearing for the safety of everyone on board, he decides to take matters into his own hands.

Such a bare-bones description of the plot – which is well familiar even to readers who do not habitually consume fright fiction, such is the pop cultural penetration of Matheson’s tale – does nothing to convey the relentless pitch of white-knuckle fear this story induces.

Part of this results from Matheson’s chosen method, which owes a debt to Henry James. Critics of James’s “The Turn of the Screw” have long debated whether the ghosts in that story are real or a product of the Governess’s insanity; the genius of the story is that it can be read both ways simultaneously. Much the same effect is at work in Matheson’s tale, which keeps open the possibility that what Wilson experiences is real and that he is delusional.

The episode of The Twilight Zone starring William Shatner, and scripted by Matheson, denudes the fear by visualizing the creature on the wing

A scene in the plane’s cramped washroom seeds the ground for the second reading: Wilson is travelling with a loaded gun and he is prone to take it out periodically for the purpose of taking his own life. Though he has yet to follow through on his suicidal ideation, it is clear that he is prone to depressive thoughts and anxiety. On top of this, we are informed that as a fearful flyer and has dosed himself on drugs before boarding the plane. (While in flight, he downs even more Dramamine to help him sleep.) None of this, of course, is conducive to lucidity or peak mental stability and there is every possibility that the combination of the drugs, the lateness of the hour, and his natural paranoia produce a series of very vivid hallucinations.

It is equally possible that there is a naked, slavering, humanoid creature on the wing curiously pulling up the metal plate that covers the engine cowling. If the scene is all in Wilson’s imagination, it is an extraordinarily detailed vision. Here is the description of what Wilson thinks he sees on the other side of the plane’s window:

It was a hideously malignant face, a face not human. Its skin was grimy, of a wide-pored coarseness; its nose a squat, discoloured lump; its lips misshapen, cracked, forced apart by teeth of a grotesque size and crookedness; its eyes recessed and small – unblinking. All framed by shaggy, tangled hair which sprouted, too in furry tufts from the man’s ears and nose, in birdlike down across his cheeks.

If the tension in the story arises at least in part from the ambiguity about Wilson’s mental state, this is perhaps one reason why the episode of The Twilight Zone television series adapted by Matheson himself is somewhat less effective than its source material. It’s not the fault of William Shatner, playing Wilson, whose performance is solid if typically over-the-top. It is the fact that in order to render Wilson’s experience for the audience, it is necessary to show us the figure on the wing. Regardless of the relative sanity of the Wilson character, by manifesting the creature on the wing it becomes more concrete for the viewer and thus less frightening. The same is true of the 1983 remake directed by George Miller and starring John Lithgow, which was included in the feature film anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Steven Spielberg managed to figure a way around this conundrum in his television adaptation of “Duel” (also written for the small screen by Matheson), in which the driver of the truck pursuing another cross-country businessman (this one played by Dennis Weaver) is never seen, thereby rendering the truck itself monstrous. Doing something similar in the case of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” would not be possible.

Where the image of the creature denudes the terror, no such recourse is available to the reader of the story, who is left alone with the narration, a starkly terrifying scenario, and the endless possibilities of the imagination to visualize what may or may not be assaulting the plane and driving an already mentally fragile man to take decisive action against a perceived threat. By the time the story is over and the reader is finally allowed to breathe once again, it is hard not to agree with Wilson’s early lament: “Dear God, if only he could have gone by train.”

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