Friday, July 29, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 3: One Step Beyond's "If You See Sally"

Ten months before Rod Serling's Twilight Zone bowed on network TV in the fall of 1959, television audiences experienced another brilliant anthology, John Newland's One Step Beyond (also known as Alcoa Presents). Unlike Thriller, The Outer Limits or Serling's program, One Step Beyond did not concern itself with fantasy, gothic horror or science fiction, instead devoting itself exclusively to the world of the paranormal. Originally titled Imagination, the series attempted to document real cases involving pre-cognition, E.S.P. poltergeists, apparitions, and other phenomena. "It had to be real," Mr. Newland stressed to me in his final interview on the subject, in October 1999, "and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published."

One Step Beyond ran on ABC from 1959 to 1961 for a total of 96 half-hour segments. John Newland directed and hosted every installment of the anthology, and with the able assistance of guest actors such as Warren Beatty, William Shatner, Jack Lord, and Christopher Lee, created a moody, black-and-white classic. The score by Harry Lubin is guaranteed to evoke shivers, even today.

One Step Beyond's 66th episode, "If You See Sally" is our cult TV flashback this week. Dramatized by Howard and Roberta Martin and directed by Newland, it aired on October 18, 1960, early in the program's third season (and shortly before the production team moved to England for the final 13 shows). This episode's story involves young Sally Ellis (Ann Whitfield), a kindly girl who leaves her grieving family after her hard-hearted father blames her for the accidental drowning of her brother, Paul. On her own - and very afraid - Sally moves to the big city for a time, barely surviving as a waitress at a diner, until her Pa sees the error of his ways and tells her to return home. Jubilant to be returning Sally begins her long trek home, but she never makes it. She is killed in a terrible road accident. Despite her death, Sally's spirit keepts trying - and failing - to make it all the way home. Year after year, lonely drivers on isolated country roads encounter her spirit in the isolation and blackness of night. Sometimes, the drivers make it all the way to her house, and drop off her off just feet from the estate. But when her Pa and Ma go out to the car to see her, at the driver's urging, the spirit is gone. Vanished.

This is one of the creepiest and most emotionally moving of One Step Beyond shows, as Pa Ellis (George Mitchell) pays for his sin of cruelty by always just missing a visit from Sally. Others witness her spirit (truckers, traveling salesmen and the like), but she never quite makes it home to him. The episode's final twist (that Sally was never in the car of a traveling salesman - only her ghost) is absolutely haunting, and like the best of OSB stories, has one foot in reality, or rather, in the tenets of paranormal research. The imagining of a traveler on the road has been described (on page 81 of Omni's Catalog of the Bizarre (Doubleday and Company, 1985), as a "hallucinatory event brought about by folklore that lingers in our collective imagination from a time when man first drove horses and chariots. Late at night, exhausted and alone on a dark road, the vulnerable driver may summon the ancient hitchhiker from his subconscious; in his weakened state, he becomes convinced that the eerie fellow is truly sitting beside him."

But perhaps even more interesting than the sociological basis for "If You See Sally," was the response the episode drew when it aired. As reported on page 29 of Gary Gerani's 1977 book Fantastic Television, "This broadcast ["If You See Sally"] elicited a spate of letters - forty five in all - in which viewers described their own similar experiences. In one variation, the man [traveler] lends the child [ghost] a sweater. When he is told that the child is dead, he...immediately asks what happened to his sweater. The garment is retrieved on the headstone of the child's grave."

Boy, if that doesn't give one goosebumps, I don't know what will.

Another scary moment (of a very different sort...), however, actually occurred behind-the-scenes of "If You See Sally," as John Newland told me and I recorded in my book, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond. "It was shot late at night, and we had an eighty man crew shooting on this hill. On the other side of the same hill, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford were filming some war movie. Anyway, we were going along fine when Frank Sinatra sent a messenger over to our side of the hill to tell us to keep it down," Newland recalled. "Well, I gave the guy a message of my own: I said he should tell Sinatra to go fuck himself. The messenger returned to his side of the hill, we resumed shooting on our side, and everybody thought everything was fine. Then suddenly, it got really quite on our side of the hill. I was behind the camera, so I didn't know what was going on, but when I turned around, Frank Sinatra was right there, standing just a few feet from me. 'Johnny,' Sinatra said deadpan, 'I got your message.' There was silence for a second, then everybody laughed...and it was over."

There are any number of One Step Beyond episodes that would prove great flashbacks on this rainy, humid Friday. I've always adored "The Sacred Mushroom," the series' only documentary-style episode, wherein John Newland actually samples hallucinogenic mushrooms to see if they endow him with psychic powers, or "Night of April 14," about the psychic web entwined around the sinking of the Titanic. But there's something special and devastating about "If You See Sally." It's not just the fact that so many people have reported similar stories, and that the myth of the ghostly hitchhiker goes back hundreds of years, but rather that the story is so human. In some sense, we all understand how important it is to get home. To reach that place where we feel safe. But like some ghostly Odysseus, poor Sally never reaches that hearth of safety, and forever walks the byways and lonely, dusty roads of nighttime. It's creepy as hell, and truly haunting.

6 comments:

  1. I never even heard of this show! Thanks, Muir.

    The only One Step Beyond I know starts with the immortal lines:

    HEY YOU!
    DON'T WATCH THAT! WATCH THEES!
    THEES IS THE HEAVY HEAVY MONSTAH SOUND!
    THE NUTSIEST SOUND AROUND!
    So if you've come in off the STREET
    And you're beginning to FEEL the HEAT
    WELL, LISTEN BUSTER!
    You'd better START
    To MOVE YOUR FEET!
    To the ROCKinest
    ROCK STEADY BEAT
    Of MADNESS!
    ONE!
    STEP!
    BEYOND!

    And then we all mosh like idiots.

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  2. Oh. Well, there's another too. From the fifties. Not as cool, probably. But I gander its waaay creepier.

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  3. Anonymous8:32 PM

    I grew up on those shows; and I can remember many nights where I would wake up my brother so he could cut off the lights while I jumped under the covers! George Scott

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  4. Anonymous11:04 PM

    I grew up on these too. I was 5 and 6 yrs old and I spent 30 years trying to force myself to stand under a chandelere, running from a civil war ghost, running from rocks falling from the sky, not panicking when I hear an airplane motor cut out. I always slept with my back to the wall lest something or someone tap my shoulder, nighttime was terror...yeah I remember these and as I watch them again I feel the same terror. And that tune! God forbid that tune pop into my head at night!!

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  5. Anonymous11:04 PM

    I grew up on these too. I was 5 and 6 yrs old and I spent 30 years trying to force myself to stand under a chandelere, running from a civil war ghost, running from rocks falling from the sky, not panicking when I hear an airplane motor cut out. I always slept with my back to the wall lest something or someone tap my shoulder, nighttime was terror...yeah I remember these and as I watch them again I feel the same terror. And that tune! God forbid that tune pop into my head at night!!

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  6. Yes...I watched repeats of this show in the mid to late 70's and the damn music gives me chills to this day! I remember the episode that you just reviewed, great episode. I also remember the mushroom one too. There have been absolutely no shows that gave me more of a sense of dread and impending doom than OSB.

    I also remember a very eerie one that took place in India. Outside of the unbelievably scary music on this show I remember that there were no happy endings to the characters, which was odd considering the sappy era of the late 50's/early 60's. Irony played a huge part and I have always thought that it was one of the creepier and underrated shows. TZ gets all the hype, but IMO, OSB is it's equal in many ways.

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