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"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
The Twilight Zone episode
William Shatner stars in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" with Nick Cravat as the gremlin.
Episode no. Season 5
Episode 123
Written by Richard Matheson
(From his story, first published in Alone by Night, 1961)
Directed by Richard Donner
Featured music Stock
Production no. 2605
Original airdate October 11, 1963
Guest stars

William Shatner: Bob Wilson
Christine White: Julia Wilson
Ed Kemmer: Flight Engineer
Asa Maynor: Stewardess
Nick Cravat: Gremlin

Episode chronology
← Previous Next →
"Steel" "A Kind of a Stopwatch"
List of Twilight Zone episodes

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is a 1963 episode of the American television anthology series The Twilight Zone, based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson.


Opening narration

Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home - the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson's flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he's traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson's plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.

Plot summary

Bob Wilson (William Shatner) is a salesman on an airplane for the first time since his nervous breakdown six months ago. He spots a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Every time someone else looks out the window, the gremlin leaps out of view, so nobody believes Bob's seemingly outlandish claim. Bob realizes that his wife is starting to think he needs to go back to the sanitarium, but also, if nothing is done about the gremlin, it will damage the plane and cause it to crash. Bob steals a sleeping policeman's revolver, and opens the window marked "Auxiliary Exit" to shoot the gremlin, succeeding despite the fact that he is nearly blown out of the plane himself. Once the plane has landed, although he is whisked away in a straitjacket, there is evidence of his claims: the unusual damage to the plane's engine nacelle — yet to be discovered by mechanics — that presumably can only be explained as caused by something that clawed at the airframe's structure.

It has been theorized that "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is actually the sequel to "Nick of Time"; the Mystic Seer machine being the reason behind the nervous breakdown Shatner's character has recently recovered from, regardless of the character's conflicting names.

Closing narration

The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer, though, for the moment, he is, as he said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.

Preview for next week's story

Announcer: "And now, Mr. Serling."

Next time on The Twilight Zone, we probe into the element of time and present a very oddball opus entitled, "A Kind of a Stopwatch". We tell the story of a man, a stopwatch, and an incredible deviation from the norm, said norm being the usual 24 hour day, said deviation involving what happens when a stopwatch is pushed and everything stops, not just time. To titillate and intrigue - "A Kind of a Stopwatch". Next, on Twilight Zone.

In Twilight Zone: The Movie

This episode was remade into a segment of the 1983 movie version of the series, with John Lithgow portraying the main character, who has been renamed John Valentine. The story is somewhat shortened, but the plot in general is the same, although with some differences. In this version, Valentine travels alone, and his fear of flight seems to be more emphasized, as the segment begins with an almost hysterical Valentine hiding in the bathroom. When he eventually spots the gremlin, he reacts more strongly than the original incarnation of the character. He yells at the flight crew and his fellow passengers on several occasions. At the end of the segment, in a scene not shown in the original 1963 TV episode, the mechanics discover the damage to the plane. The damage is also more severe.

The appearance and behavior of the gremlin has also been altered. The original gremlin was an ape-like creature which seemed to be driven by curiosity rather than a will to cause damage. In the movie, the gremlin more resembles an alien, with slimy beige skin and a frightful grin. It also seems to be more intelligent and menacing and immediately begins to dismantle the one of the jet's engines, rather than curiously roaming about as the original gremlin did, and taunts Valentine several times, holding up a piece of wing and demonstratively tossing it inside the engine to damage it. When Valentine tries to shoot the gremlin, it runs over the wing to Valentine, grabs his hand holding the gun, and promptly bites the gun in half. At that moment the lights of the landing field appear below. The gremlin grabs Valentine's face, seemingly about to kill him, but stops and the waves its finger in a dismissive "tut-tut-tut" manner. It then leaps away, off into somewhere else... and then there is an into the storm clouds. The original gremlin never made physical contact with Wilson, and it is quite possible that Wilson wounded or even killed it.

The epilogue features Valentine being driven to the sanitarium by the passenger from the prologue (played by Dan Aykroyd) who killed his driving companion after asking, "Want to see something really scary?", the same question he poses to Valentine before the movie ends.


Richard Matheson, in The Twilight Zone Magazine, called this episode one of his favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, praising Richard Donner's direction and William Shatner's performance, though criticizing the appearance of the monster, comparing it to a "surly teddy bear."

References in other media

Parts of this episode's plot have been repeated and parodied several times in popular culture, including television shows, films, radio, and music. For example, the Treehouse of Horror IV episode of The Simpsons features a segment called "Terror at 5½ Feet". It takes place on a bus rather than an airplane, and puts Bart Simpson in the role of Bob Wilson. [1]

Robot Chicken Season 3 episode 44 "Tapping a Hero" aired 09/02/2007, which featured a parody of this episode.

Futurama briefly parodied this episode, along with several other Twilight Zone references, in Season 3, episode 15, titled "I Dated a Robot".

The British grebo band Pop Will Eat Itself used samples of dialogue from the episode on a track on their 1990 album Cure for Sanity, also called "Nightmare at 20,000ft".

Tiny Toon Adventures once parodied this for their Halloween episode.

Johnny Bravo had an episode parodying various Twilight Zone episodes, including this one. Johnny sees a clown on the wing of the plane and tries to warn the other passengers; he first starts with the man sitting next to him, who turns out to be William Shatner, who responds "Oh no you don't, not again. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice..." and then ejects from the plane.

In The PJ's episode "Smokey the Squatter", Thurgood exclaims, "There's a gremlin on the wing!" as he looks out the window during a thunderstorm.

In an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun, John Lithgow (as Dick Solomon) was meeting William Shatner (as alien-leader The Big Giant Head) at the airport. Both referenced their roles in the Twilight Zone segments by referring to the strange things that both have seen on airplane wings. Shatner: "I looked out the window... and I saw something on the wing of the plane." Lithgow: "The same thing happened to me!"

In the movie Madagascar 2, Alex, the Lion, voiced by Ben Stiller, sees a small Lemur ripping pieces out of the wing. This Lemur's name is Mort. He snarls and tears at the wing exactly as the gremlin from the Twilight Zone episode. King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) earlier denied Mort admittance to the plane because he was too "annoying". Mort is forced to stow away on the outside of the plane. When Mort notices he has been noticed by Alex, he waves hello. For lack of this handhold he is blown off of the wing. Later he is seen swimming to shore being chased by a shark.

Michael Cunningham, who survived a rupture in the hull of Southwest Airlines Flight 2294 in July 2009, referenced this episode in a following interview with CNN's Campbell Brown.[2] [3]

In issue 4 of Space-Troopers comic, Turtle is tormented by the Gremster on one of the Saturn V's wings in a parody of this episode.

The band Anthrax made a reference to this Twilight Zone episode in their video to the song "Inside Out" (from the album Volume 8: The Threat Is Real), in which a passenger sees the members of the band on the wing of the plane.

In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, the titular character, played by Jim Carrey, parodies the famous line, "There's... something on the wing... some... thing!" while riding on a small private plane.

In the animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the wing of a flying car gets ripped apart by eerie life-size gummy bears.

The episode was lampooned on the March 13th, 2010 episode of Saturday Night Live, with Jude Law playing William Shatner's role and Bill Hader as Rod Serling.


Rod Serling quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion:

Matheson and I were going to fly to San Francisco... It was like three or four weeks in constant daily communication with Western Airlines, preparing a given seat for him, having the stewardess close the [curtains] when he sat down, and I was going to say, "Dick, open it up." I had this huge, blown-up poster stuck on the [outside of the window] so that when he opened it there would be a gremlin staring at him. So what happened was, we get on the plane, there was the seat, he sits down, the curtains are closed, I lean over and say, "Dick"—at which point they start the engines and it blows the thing away. It was an old prop airplane... He never saw it. And I had spent hours in the planning of it. I would lie in bed thinking how we could do this.


  • Zicree, Marc Scott: The Twilight Zone Companion. Sillman-James Press, 1982 (second edition)
  • DeVoe, Bill. (2008). Trivia from The Twilight Zone. Albany, GA: Bear Manor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-136-0
  • Grams, Martin. (2008). The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Churchville, MD: OTR Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9703310-9-0
  1. ^ Richmond, Ray; Antonia Coffman (1997). The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family. Harper Collins Publishers. pp. 124–125. ISBN 0-00-638898-1. 
  2. ^ CNN In the 1995 Movie Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Ace (Jim Carey) impersonates William Shatner while talking to Fulton Greenwall (Ian McNeice) saying "There's something on the wing... some... thing!!", while flipping the window shade back and forth. Then proceeds with his conversation with Greenwall.. "A Lot To Take In". Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  3. ^

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