Death is the dark unknown, and to Wanda Dunn, an aged woman living alone in an aged tenement, it is the all-encompassing object of her fear. Wanda is each of us, though we may very well feel that we can distance ourselves from her. We aren’t as old, we aren’t as alone, and we don’t have her wrinkles. It’s tempting to think that Wanda is crazy to be so afraid of death. After all, she is old, and death comes to those who are old. As we follow Wanda’s journey through this episode, this is probably a temptation we’re being told to resist. Wanda is each of us. We all share her predicament. We all occupy her dark and crumpling apartment, but we occupy it as she does, alone.
Wanda fears death, but why? She ultimately gets an explanation from Death itself. She fears death because death is unknown. Once death is revealed as an unthreatening, kind (and good looking) companion, there’s no longer anything to fear. Wanda doesn’t seem to be worried about the pain of death, but rather with the loss of life itself. She wants to live. The fact that she’s old doesn’t matter. People don’t lose the desire to live simply because they’ve lived a long life.
Though Wanda is on the lookout for “Mr. Death,” she lets him in the front door. Death appears as a wounded soldier in need of help. Though she realizes that she’s risking everything to help him, she feels compelled to do so. She can’t resist his call for help. We can interpret this as a representation of the inevitability of death. We can’t avoid it; we even run headlong towards it.
There’s a third agent in this story, the demolition expert, the contractor who has come to tear down the old, worn out building in which Wanda is holed up. He attempts to convince Wanda that the old has to be moved aside to make room for the new. The principle, he argues, applies to buildings as it applies to people.
Death appears as a person in need of help. Death needs our help. How could that be the case, when we are bound to die no matter what we do? Death is the endpoint of life, and dying is therefore part of a life. When death appears as the unthreatening, kind companion, this signals that the person who is dying needs to participate in the manner of death. Wanda can go kicking and screaming, and that’s what she seems prepared to do. But with her acquiescence, with her acceptance, death is transformed into a peaceful, wonderful experience, the final experience in life. Wanda doesn’t even sense the change. Mr. Death has her look in the mirror to see that her reflection isn’t there. Of course not all deaths are like this, but what we’re exploring is the possibility of such a death.
“Nothing in the Dark” ends with the emergence into the light from the darkness. This represents a view well articulated by Plato, and later a central theme in Christianity: Life is a struggle for understanding, an understanding that is only possible when one leaves this veil of tears and escapes the shackles of the body. Certainly there’s nothing to fear in death if we’re bound for a better place. However, we have to ask ourselves whether the possibility Plato and Rod Serling paint really is possible. Wanda, post mortem, still has a body, even as she peers down on her inert body. Is this a real possibility, or have we left both the real world and the Twilight Zone behind?
Plato, Phaedo (Benjamin Jowett, trans.)