Tuesday, April 10, 2012

From the Archives: One Step Beyond: "Night of April 14"


“What you are about to see is a matter of human record. Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We simply invite you to explore with us the amazing world of the unknown, to take that One Step Beyond…”

- Host John Newland’s introduction to Alcoa Presents, or One Step Beyond (1959-1961) 

The second episode of One Step Beyond remains one of its weirdest, most chilling and most dramatic, even several decades after it first aired on American television.  If you've seen this episode, chances are, you've never forgotten it.

“Night of April 14,” written by Collier Young and directed by John Newland concerns a young couple that books a honeymoon trip on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in April of 1912.   Leading up to the sea journey, the bride-to-be, Grace (Barbara Lord) dreams of drowning in icy water.  "I could feel the water," she reports to her mother.  "It was like ice."  Grace's husband-to-be, Eric Farley (Patrick Macnee) chides Grace for allowing a bad dream to dictate the shape and direction of her life, and Grace is properly chastened.  "The Titanic...our honeymoon...it's once in a lifetime," she realizes.

Once the Titanic has set sail with the happily married Farleys aboard, strange things begin to occur.  Another concerned passenger aboard the unsinkable liner reports hearing a strange "grinding sound" -- as if the ship has struck something -- but nobody else seems to have heard it

Meanwhile in Winnipeg, Canada, a Methodist preacher unexpectedly changes his congregation's hymn for the evening of 04/14/12 to "Pray for Those in Peril on The Sea" after a vision of the incident. 

Also, a magazine cartoonist in New York City, Harry Teller, sketches specifics of the Titanic disaster well before the news of the disaster comes.  His concerned wife reports that his hands feel like "ice" after painting the catastrophe.  "The water was cold," he reports.

Finally, the Titanic sinks and Grace survives on a lifeboat, but Eric perishes.  And then, in the episode's coda, John Newland gives viewers the final kick in the pants.  He reveals the existence of a real book that diagrammed almost precisely the details of the Titanic disaster.

But here's the rub. That book was titled Futility, and it was written in 1898.  A full fourteen years before Titanic's maiden voyage.

Airing originally on January 27, 1959, the black-and-white “Night of April 14” remains creepy as hell today because it ends on that spooky and unsettling note.  

Host John Newland approaches the camera with that trademark, cat-ate-the-canary grin of his and speaks of the “novel" written in 1898. Our "guide to the world of the unknown" then claims that this book -- this work of fiction -- accurately predicted many specifics about the 1912 disaster.

When I wrote my book An Analytical Guide to TV’s One Step Beyond in 1999, I knew that this story was a turning point of sorts in an understanding of the series. If I could find that book and verify Newland’s claims, then the show's argument that it was based on “fact” was at least plausible. On the other hand, if the prophetic novel was but a calculated fiction created for One Step Beyond, then I knew that any claim of veracity was likely suspect.

Well, the book existed (and is extant), and I've written about it on the blog before (in relation to The Lone Gunmen and the 9/11-styled pilot episode, I believe.). The novel is indeed titled Futility and it was written by a novelist named Morgan Robertson. Futility’s plot concerns the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night – in the story – this fictitious vessel (described in the text by the adjective “unsinkable”) strikes an iceberg and because there are not enough lifeboats aboard over one thousand passengers die in freezing waters.

The name of the ocean liner in Futility is…Titan. 

In fiction, the Titan could travel 25 knots; the same speed as the real Titanic. In fiction, the Titan was 70,000 tons to Titanic's 66,000 tons. But the big similarities are plain: a disaster on an April night, an "unsinkable" ship, the striking of an iceberg...and over 1,000 casualties because of a paucity of life boats. Plus the similarity in vessel names. One or two such similarities you could easily and immediately write off as coincidence...but the exact month of the incident? The ship's top speed? The reason for the huge number of casualties? 

To turn a phrase, it boggles the mind...

Watching John Newland describe (accurately) the book Futility and the novelist's accurate prediction of the Titanic disaster to the moody strains of Harry Lubin's atmospheric score..you'll get a serious case of the creeps. 

My research, I should also point out, verified other aspects of "Night of April 14," particularly those claims of a "psychic web" surrounding the tragedy. A professor at the University of Virginia, for instance, collected nineteen documented reports about the Titanic sinking. Six were of the precognitive variety, like the one experienced by the heroine, Grace, in "Night of April 14." One report involved a crew member on Titanic who fled the ship because of persistent dreams of drowning.

I sometimes wonder, after watching this episode, whether the Titanic disaster had such an impact (even psychically, speaking...) on so many people, because it was perhaps among the first truly "global" tragedies.  


Countries across the world shared in the news first of Titanic's unique nature, and secondly in its horrifying destruction.  The disaster preceded World War I, World War II, and of course, the media terror of 9/11.  Was the Titanic's sinking the first really "worldwide" story of mass suffering and death?  I don't know for certain, but Titanic's tale has had an imprint not just on the generation that witnessed the disaster, but on all the succeeding ones, even a century later.

In some ways, this episode serves as a template for One Step Beyond.  Night of April 14" is not alone in attempting to accurately dramatize reports of paranormal incidents surrounding historical events. "The Day The World Wept: The Lincoln Story" gazed at President Abraham Lincoln's recurring visions of his own demise while in the White House. "Where Are They?" involved a strange story about rocks falling from the same sky -- every day at the same time -- in the city of Chico, California. The events were reported in the San Francisco Examiner in March of 1922, and so on.  

Still, few of the above-listed stories match the shattering impact of "Night of April 14."  It's one thing to refer off-handedly to newspaper reports of a disaster, it's quite another to point out a detailed, meticulous account of tragedy from a book written more than a dozen years before that tragedy occurred.  

The Futility story of the Titan/Titanic may represent a coincidence and not precognition, but hell if it isn't a one of the eeriest coincidences ever.

1 comment:

  1. One of those creations from my earliest childhood memory. It was an influence along with,The Outer Limits and still takes me back in a very real and spiritual sense. The imagination soars when the strains of "Fear" quiver in the air around me. I am given wings to fly to beyond the beyond. Godly indeed...James in Palo Alto,Ca.

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