Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A toupee nightmare at 20,000 feet!

It's amazing just how many Bill Shatner roles lend themselves to being viewed through the prism of the toupee metaphor. Nowhere is this more evident than in the classic 1963 Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet".

Most of you will be familiar with the archetypal dream involving unexpected nudity: you are fearful of an impending big day at work or an important exam and the night before you have a nightmare that you have turned up but somehow managed to forget your clothes. For a toupee-wearer, such as Bill Shatner, that nightmare might be superseded by another one - turning up somewhere without your toupee.

But the metaphor in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is a little more complex than that. The plot (more detail here) involves a released mental patient Robert Wilson (William Shatner) flying home after just having been discharged from a sanatorium. As the flight progresses, he enters a private nightmare - a gremlin outside is dismantling the plane. No-one else appears to see it. Is Shatner's character going mad again?

The gremlin is a fuzzy, hairy creature - a kind on anti-Tribble (see here for potential Tribble/toupee metaphors).

The tearing away at the plane's wings appears to represent a tearing up of the frontal "skin" which anchored the front of the lace toupee Bill Shatner wore. During filming, it required regular attention to conceal its visibility from the cameras.

The crucial contrast lies between the two world's represented in the Twilight Zone episode - the safety of the toupee within the stable confines of the plane, versus outside - in the midst of the strong winds and rain, the toupee doesn't stand a chance.

The gremlin naturally serves as the representation of the toupee, in effect detaching and dismantling the very framework which keeps it safe. How can a toupee do this to itself? Caught in the wind, it is the toupee that both resists the wind, but also serves as the very instrument that provides the wind leverage to tear it from the scalp - how ironic! In reality, the toupee provides comfort, but is also permanently threatening to sabotage itself. It demands constant attention - if you ignore it, it has the power to humiliate you.

The outside nightmare, if the gremlin succeeds in dismantling the wing of the plane, will soon make it's way into the well-groomed wind-less serenity of the cabin. The plane will fall and the private nightmare will suddenly become very real - metaphorically, the toupee on Bill Shatner's head will be torn off and Bill Shatner's horrifying fear of baldness revelation will be thrust upon him. But inside, nobody believes Shatner's character is seeing what he sees. How could they? The toupee is not something which they have to grapple with. How can he explain it to them without really explaining it to them and revealing his toupee secret?

This is truly the worst kind of nightmare - one in which you are trapped and absolutely alone in your fear. The insanity and panic grows...Soon, the "lace" outside will be detached, the plane will fall, the internal comfort will be destroyed...and then the actual baldness will be revealed to everyone!

The episode ends with Shatner's character committed. But, here's the rub: the camera pans to the plane's wing and it really has been damaged.

In the real (the above being a real nightmare) world, at this point, Bill Shatner wakes up. Deeply perturbed, he is sweating and breathing heavily. He places his hand on his head, the toupee isn't there - but that is fine. As he adjusts back to the warm confines of his bed, he knows that he is not on the public stage - here, it is fine to be bald; here, the gremlin has no power.

Bill Shatner then opens a drawer by his bedside. The toupee sits inside, oblivious to the nightmare that it's host has just experienced. Shatner chooses not to wake his beloved toup; instead, he gently strokes it before quietly and carefully closing the drawer again. Phew, it was only a nightmare!

A toy of the gremlin in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet".

Watch on YouTube, or buy here as part of the Twilight Zone season 5 DVD set.


  1. The toy gremlin looks like it's wearing one of Shatner's toupees from the 1970's or 80's.

  2. And the toupee on this episode is not one of the best, by the way

  3. I thought it looked alright. It's on par with his general Jim Kirk look.

  4. Drat you, Mr. Toupologist! I was trying to get some work done and found this website by accident. Your analysis of toupology combines the best of Spock's logic and McCoy's keen insights into the human psyche.

    Now onto the tribble entry...

  5. I thought Shat was fantastic in this episode. Flying is such a common phobia and I was so busy watching out the window at the gremlin that I never noticed the toup. Definately a classic all the way around.

  6. This post is pure genius!

  7. omfg this is the funniest thing I've ever read I just read this in a public library and I had to use every ounce of self control not to burst out laughing