A Grain of Salt and a Shovelful of Earth: On The “Twilight Zone,” “The Grave,” and a Lack of Western Ghosts

My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone opens with a scene that even the narration admits ought to be the end. The audience sees a desolate, windswept village, one that the imagery of westerns has trained us to understand is somewhere in the Southwest, likely New Mexico. A man is gunned down in the middle of the dusty street, the shots fired by several of the village men hiding in doorways. After he falls, his body is carried into the jail, and a witness is sent to fetch the wounded man’s father and sister to be with him before he dies.

All of this happens in just a few moments, and is merely the prologue. As Rod Serling says in introduction:

Normally … this would be the end of the story. We’ve had the traditional shoot-out on the street and the Bad Man will soon be dead. But some men of legend and folk tale have been known to continue having their way even after death. The outlaw and killer Pinto Sykes was such a person, and shortly we’ll see how he introduces the town, and a man named Conny Miller in particular, to the Twilight Zone.

The episode in question is called “The Grave” and it was written and directed by Montgomery Pittman in 1961. It is a wonderfully atmospheric western ghost story of sorts, which is — surprisingly — one of the few examples of its kind. [1]

We pick up the story with gun-for-hire Conny Miller (played by familiar western veteran Lee Marvin) returning to town the following day, and finding a section of the main road fenced off because Pinto Sykes’ blood soaked into it. Which is, you must admit, a unique and unsettling detail.

What follows from there has the feel of an urban legend or campfire story brought to life. The townspeople in the saloon taunt Conny over the fact that they took care of Pinto without him, and say that, even on his deathbed, Pinto accused Conny of being a coward. If he hadn’t been too afraid to face down his foe, Pinto claimed, our hero could have caught up with him at any time. The outlaw died with the promise that even dead, he would grab Conny if he ever ventured near his grave. The other men (and Pinto’s sister Ione, played with a marvelously unsettling vagueness by Elen Willard) goad Conny into going out to the cemetery, and sticking a hunting knife into the grave as proof of follow-through. The next morning, Conny is found dead in the graveyard, having apparently pinned his own coat to the grave in the dark and subsequently died of fright.


I love this shot when Conny first gets to the rough-hewn and ill-tended cemetery, with Ione’s cloaked and ominous silhouette by the grave.

If you think this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. The base story has been used time and again in and out of print. The collection of spooky stories The Thing at the Foot of the Bed (published by Maria Leach in 1959, and still a familiar childhood staple for those of us reading those sorts of things in the ‘nineties) had a tale called “The Dare” where a young boy meets a similar fate. As does a Russian peasant in a Leonard Q. Ross story called “The Path Through the Cemetery,” written in 1941. And, of course, variations always pop up when kids try to scare each other at sleepovers and camp-outs.

It’s the execution that makes the Twilight Zone version memorable.

For one thing, there’s the brilliance of casting Lee Marvin — someone we are primed to believe is brave, stoic, and full of grit. In 1961, he would have been very recognizable to audiences for his roles as grizzled army officers and rough cowboys. No one expects him to be easily shaken. Even as the others are daring him to act (and expressing their own reticence to do the same), we know that he is going to go visit the grave.


Getting a little nervy there, Conny. Though, who among us would not be?

Another interesting note is the inclusion of glimpses of the dead man as a human being. We’re told that both Pinto and Conny are originally from our unnamed town. There’s mention of a grieving father. Pinto’s sister Ione brings a dish he ate off of as a boy to place on his grave. And, thinking of his sister, there’s plenty to say about her beyond just that.

Ione first appears in the saloon to buy a bottle of whiskey for herself, before getting drawn into taunting Conny. The loss of her brother has clearly unmoored her, but she is also a rather disquieting figure in her own right. There’s something almost childlike in her speech patterns, and she is petulant, malicious, and gleeful by turns, but always seems slightly disconnected from the solid earthiness of the characters around her. There’s something about her that removes your urge to sympathy for her loss — something that says she has some power over the events that are about to unfold. Even her costuming — swathed in a dark, flowing cloak — brings to mind the traditional imagery of a witch. When we see her at the graveyard, her silhouetted form looms over the grave like the figure of death. At the end, she gets the last word — jubilantly pointing out that the wind would have blown Conny’s coat away from the grave, as her own cloak billows around her and the men stare at the tableau fearfully.

The most important thing, however, is the atmosphere. What little we see of the town is tiny, desolate. It’s a few battered buildings and a lot of dust, clearly quite isolated from anywhere, and always windswept. The wind is, for me, the part that truly makes the episode memorable. There is no moment where you are not slightly aware of it. Even indoors (at night, in the dimly lit saloon, and I love that too), the conversation is underscored by the muffled whistling of the wind outside. It’s so ominous and claustrophobic as to automatically up the tension of the conversation. Let’s face it: a clear, calm night with the sounds of crickets and and peepers and other peaceful wildlife would not be nearly as spooky.

There’s a distinct pacing to The Twilight Zone. It’s a little slow, a little off the expected beat. We could debate endlessly how well it’s aged, but it is recognizably made with a different sensibility than a modern horror story. As much as I love the original, I would love to see a remake of “The Grave” (perhaps as a full-length film, ideally directed by Guillermo del Toro or James Wan, because I am predictable like that). That said, there’s something to the strangeness of the original that adds to its overall effectiveness as a ghost story.

Honestly, I just want more western ghost stories in general [2]. Ghost stories, for me, occupy such a specific corner of horror sphere — one that is a little quieter, a little sadder, a little more uncertain — and they pair so naturally with the hardscrabble uncertainty of many western narratives. As most writers of genre theory have pointed out, it’s a really hard thing to quantify what constitutes a given genre. You know it when you see it. As for the western ghost story… well, I know it because I don’t see it. I see the spaces where it could be. And many of those spaces are uncomfortable.

I know Chloe has some thoughts on the co-opting of Western themes into horror, and the racial politics therein, so I will leave a lot of this in her expert hands. But that doesn’t give me permission to ignore the elephant in the room (nor would I want to).

So, let’s talk a bit about the ways that western and horror usually intersect in popular fiction.

The first is cannibalism. Gross, but true. Cannibalism is, after all, a quick route to knee-jerk horror and revulsion from your audience; and the spectre of the Donner Party looms large as a sort of anti-image of the American pioneer dream. (The 1999 movie Ravenous definitely deserves its own article, so it is merely being given a tip of the hat here.) Beyond the obvious and easy gross-out of it, the western cannibalism narrative taps into some interesting insecurities: privation and desperation in the promised land of plenty, what evil lurks in the hearts of men, how easily we can lose the trappings of supposed civilization. And, to be perfectly blunt, it doesn’t have to be terribly smart to bank on those fears.

Besides, our theme here was intended to be ghosts. Cannibal stories tend not to fit the bill.

Another theme we see is the implied aftermath. I know this sounds a bit like a stretch, but bear with me here.

Land is one of the main markers of western fiction. Which is, obviously, an oversimplification, but so much of it is about white settlers pushing westward that things dealing with the after effects of those settlements are the natural descendants of westerns. Which leads us to the Indian burial ground.

As Colin Dickey eloquently pointed out in his book Ghostland:

The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans—specifically white, middle-class Americans—live. Embedded deep in the idea of home ownership—the Holy Grail of American middle-class life—is the idea that we don’t, in fact, own the land we’ve just bought. Time and time again in these stories, perfectly average, innocent American families are confronted by ghosts who have persevered for centuries, who remain vengeful for the damage done. … If you’re willing to see this conflict over land as the basis of many of our ghost stories, then it won’t be surprising that so much of America is haunted. There’s precious little land in the United States that hasn’t been contested, one way or another, through the years. Americans live on haunted land because we have no other choice.

There is an underlying discomfort with the idea that modern settlements are built on the bones of the people who lived here before — and this sort of narrative makes that a very literal statement. And yet, the “Indian burial ground” story doesn’t give us unquiet ghosts of specific wrongfully murdered residents, it gives us an unthinking cosmic punishment on unsuspecting suburbanites. It’s sort of a get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of contending with American history. After all, this suggests, if they’ve already been punished for the crimes of the past, do they really have to feel guilty anymore? It’s not like they, personally, killed anyone for this land, and they’ve suffered enough. It’s also deeply dehumanizing — “Indian burial ground” ignores not just the personal stories of the dead, it also dumps all of the indigenous/First Nations cultures into a single, mystical pot that can’t be parsed and consigns them firmly to the past. [3]

Don’t get me wrong: I think Poltergeist is a great movie (and, despite how often it’s linked with this trope in satire, I am also aware that the graveyard in it was just the regular, non-mystical town graveyard that had been moved; but popular perception has linked the two anyway). I just think that the tension implied by the trope could be dealt with more directly, and actually in an historical setting.

But, mostly, I want ghost stories.

There’s so much that could be done with ghost stories set in the old west. As Nikki Vanry said of westerns, they are full of “a certain determination of character, survival in a harsh environment, a journey of the self that occurs alongside the physical one, and a sense of leaving something behind in order to find something new. Often, there’s the archetypal theme of good versus evil, but just as often a look at how the lines between the two aren’t as clear-cut as we hope.” And a great many of them begin with grief, with losing (or having already lost) someone to violence, greed, the vagaries of life. Tell me that’s not everything you already need for a good ghost story.

Think of the dangers inherent in long cattle drives or building the railroad. The isolation of ranches or mountain passes. Think of the variety of characters living cheek by jowl in the boom towns, how quickly their fortunes could be made or broken. Think of the people who lost everything, and the ones who had the chance to recreate themselves from the ground up. The majesty of the scenery. The greed and calculation that led people to do terrible things to one another. The bravery that led people to test their own limits. Imagine cowboys being trapped with something otherworldly in a box canyon or a snowed-in mountain pass. Imagine a gunslinger or robber baron having the misdeeds of their past catch up to them. Imagine a lone farmer hearing something more than the wind whistling across the fields at night. Imagine, imagine. Horror gives us such an interesting perspective to deal with what we, as a culture, are afraid of in new and thought-provoking ways. Within horror, ghost stories allow us to explore sympathy and empathy in ways that are unique even to the overarching genre. And these stories can be populated by such a wide range of people! What we view as the “west” stretches from Canada to Mexico, from the Mississippi to the Pacific. There are options beyond counting.

There is so much room for beautiful, scary, sad, and important ghost stories if we just let ourselves write more than the same stories we have seen again and again — and, for that matter, give ourselves room to rework the stories we already know.

I don’t want to end this article on a negative note. For all of their complications and implications, I love westerns — we can enjoy something and still contend with its problems. If we say that part of the American fixation with the western narrative is the potential embodied by ever further horizons, then I think we ought to embrace the potential of expanding the narrative.

One way or another, we’ll let Rod Serling have the last word:

Final note: you take this with a grain of salt or a shovelful of earth, as shadow or substance, we leave it up to you. And, for any further research, check under ‘G’ for ‘Ghosts’ in the Twilight Zone.


[1] “The Grave” was not the only time that The Twilight Zone took a trip to the Old West, but it was the only time it was particularly in the horror vein. “Mr Garrity and the Graves” is the next nearest thing — in it, a charlatan convinces a town that he can bring back their deceased loved ones, only for them to balk and pay him to leave when he points out how many of them are directly responsible for those loved ones being dead in the first place. The last scene does show the dead coming back after all, but it feels more like a joke than a scare — one even comments on how Mr Garrity underestimates his own abilities. A couple of the others (such as “Execution” and “Showdown With Rance McGrew“) are time-travel stories, there are a few fantastical Civil War stories (including a dreamlike and unsettling adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“), one (“Dust“) is a bit of an O. Henry-esque morality play, and “Mr Denton on Doomsday” is — by Twilight Zone standards — downright cheerful. In terms of western horror as a genre outside of The Twilight Zone, I could come up with Ravenous, Bone Tomahawk, and this IMDb list that I am intrigued to explore.

[2] I am going to use this moment to recommend that people read Téa Obreht’s brilliant novel Inland. It is not a horror story, but it makes very unique use of ghosts. And, beyond that, is a beautifully written book. I do not want to give too much of it away by offering a lengthy description. However, if you are less picky about spoilers, there’s a lovely interview with the author over at the LA Review of Books, a quick overview at NPR, and an excerpt from the novel available on The Cut.

[3] As a reminder that there are a great many living, breathing indigenous people/communities/cultures in modern America, may I direct you to: Project 562, Native Appropriations, and the book Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Please also note that, as living people have living spirituality, dumping all of their beliefs into the Mystical Native trope is… gross. Jessica McDonald writes a bit about this (through the lens of sci-fi/fantasy) here. This trope also bleeds grotesquely into the mystical othering of most non-white groups that happens a lot in historical fiction.

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