The Twilight Zone: Comparing Every Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

The Twilight Zone now has three versions of the classic airplane horror story "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." How do they stack up?

Twilight Zone Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

The following contains spoilers for The Twilight Zone Episode 1: “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

When news broke that CBS All Access would be rebooting The Twilight Zone with Jordan Peele, the Internet’s collective first reaction was “Great!” The second reaction was….”wait, what do you mean rebooting?”

As it turns out, the 2019 version of The Twilight Zone is a unique kind of reboot and reimagining. The horror anthology concept means that the show is able to bring writers in to try their hand at entirely original scripts like the Kumail Nanjiani-starring “The Comedian.” But there is also a huge back catalogue of classic Twilight Zone installments practically crying out to be remade in a modern context. 

further reading: The Twilight Zone Review

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The most famous of those installments is 1963’s William Shatner classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” And it’s exactly that episode that the very first episode of Peele’s Twilight Zone takes on. The Adam Scott-starring airplane horror piece “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a modern update of both the original series’ episode and the 1982 The Twilight Zone: The Movie’s John Lithgow-starring followup. The 1963 and 1982 “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” stories share a lot in common, while the 2019 version is quite a diversion. 

Here is how “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” compares to the previous two “Nightmares.”

Nightmare at 30,000 Feet Plane

Airplane Horror

First, the most obvious thing that all three incarnations share. Both “Nightmares at 20,000Feet” episodes and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” are set almost exclusively in airplanes. It’s a fantastic setting for horror because there are few things that make someone feel more helpless than flying through the sky in a cramped aluminum tube. 

Horror works best when the characters being terrorized have no escape. And on an airplane, there is virtually no escape. In the 1963 episode, Bob Wilson (Shatner) has boarded an airplane with his wife. While trying to relax in his seat, he sees a monster of sorts on the plane’s wing, trying to destroy the engine and take down the plane. In the 1982 installment John Valentine (Lithgow) experiences largely the same thing, though he is not with his spouse. In 2019, Justin Sanderson (Scott) is also alone but he does call his wife prior to takeoff. That’s when he discovers a seemingly predictive podcast.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet Insanity

Insanity

Every installment of this story asks the same question: is our protagonist crazy…or the only sane person in the world? In the 1963 version, Bob Wilson is on the plane specifically because he’s coming home from a sanitarium. Bob had a mental breakdown on an airplane and now he’s got to face down his fear again. Naturally, this leads his wife and the airplane staff to not believe him when he starts going on about a danger to the plane.

In the 1982 version, John Valentine hasn’t recently suffered a mental breakdown that we’re aware of. But he is afraid of flying – really, really, really afraid of flying. John is an absolute mess aboard the flight and the mere sight of him, sweaty and nervous, makes everyone else on edge.

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further reading: The Twilight Zone: Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s Episodes

In 2019, Justin is an investigative reporter and recently suffered a mental breakdown after being traumatized in Yemen. Justin specifically says that he knows what losing his mind feels like and this isn’t it. The condition of all versions’ protagonists makes it particularly difficult for anyone else aboard the plane to want to verify their claims. It also reveals that oftentimes the gap between sanity and insanity is razor thin.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet Gremlin

The Gremlin

Every installment of this story deals with some kind of danger to the plane. While it’s a dark and stormy night in every version, it’s only in the first two that there is also a monster threatening the plane. “There’s a man on the wing!” both Bob and John iconically holler to the rest of the plane in their episodes. But as Bob later realizes, the “man” on the wing is more of a gremlin. The gremlin in the 1963 is bear-like in nature, while the one in 1982 is more skeletal.

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” has a gremlin as well…sort of. Justin never sees a gremlin terrorizing the plane’s wing but after the plane crashes in an atoll, a toy gremlin (resembling the 1963 version) washes ashore. 

It’s also interesting to note, that while the threat in  “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is unique among all versions, in the 1982 version John Valentine does uncover a newspaper that mentions a plane crash. It’s not a magic newspaper referring to the flight he’s on, but it does shock him all the same and could have even been a potential inspiration for the 2019 version.

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Nightmare at 30,000 Feet Ending

The Ending 

The first two installments have a little coda at the end. After opening their windows and shooting the gremlin, Bob and John are restrained once the plane has landed and brought off to a sanitarium. Both versions, however, exonerate their respective heroes a bit. The camera pans over the the damaged engines on the wing to reveal that, gremlin or no, these planes really were in trouble.

further reading: The Words of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Are More Relevant Than Ever

In “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” the threat to the plane is entirely new. Justin uncovers an MP3 player that’s playing a podcast about the crash of the very flight that he’s on. It’s then slowly revealed that the cause of the crash may have been Justin’s frantic reactions to save it. Did Justin really save the plane from doom, or was he always the problem? The episode leaves it ambiguous as to what actually occurred. But it does not leave Justin’s fate ambiguous. Justin is beaten to death by his fellow passengers. 

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet Air Marshal

Deus Ex Air Marshals

One little thing that every installment has in common is the presence of an air marshal. In the first two versions, Bob and John are able to defeat the gremlin by grabbing the gun off of an air marshal on the flight.

In “30,000 Feet,” Justin knows from the podcast that an air marshal is aboard the flight because his podcast says so. He thinks his friend Joe Beaumont is the air marshal and will help him save the flight. Instead the woman in the seat across from him is an air marshal and arrests him once he starts to go a little crazy.

By some estimates, less than 1 percent of U.S. flights have an air marshal aboard. On movies and TV shows, that rate seems to be closer to 95%.

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Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad