Billy, a five year old boy, is given toy telephone by his adoring grandmother on his birthday, days before she dies. She tells him that the phone is for the exclusive communication between the two of them. After her death, Billy takes himself to hold conversations with her, and takes her to command his death, presumably so that he can join her.
As Serling notes, there are at least two ways to interpret what happens, either as involving real communication from the dead, or as the consequence of Billy’s young and overwrought imagination. Which explanatory stance one adopts, Serling points out, depends on one’s frame of reference. If we could easily land on the second of these two possible interpretations, that would be well and good. But we can’t simply dismiss Billy’s perspective, because when his mother picks up the phone, she not hears Billy’s deceased grandmother’s voice on the line. Later, Billy’s father converses, nay pleads with, Billy’s grandmother to release her hold on the child.
We tend to think of the products of the imagination, and particularly the products of overwrought imaginations, individualistically. An imagined state of affairs is a mental state of an individual. An individual can describe what she imagines to another, but if that induces the imagined state in another, there are still two sets of imagined events or things, not one. That’s a a key difference between imagination and perception. Two or more individuals can perceive the same apple, but we can’t imagine the same apple. There are two, possibly very similar, imagined apples.
Yet individualism about the imagination can’t be right. When we read and discuss a novel, we can discuss what happens to the individuals in the novel, and when we do so we are different persons imagining the same objects, just as when we look at an apple we are individuals perceiving the same object. The fact that our perceptions, from slightly different points of view and framed with differing background information, is compatible with our zeroing in on the same thing.
So when Billy picks up the toy phone, and when his parents do so later, they share a story, and they imagine the same individual, Billy’s grandmother, who is at the center of that story. The imagined individual, who was, until recently, an individual who existed not just in the imagination, but was the dominating force in Billy’s family, is shared by the surviving members of the family as saliently as was the actual grandmother. Billy and his parents now have to come to grips with that individual, and doing so is more challenging than it was when the individual was not “merely” imagined, but existed in the real world.