Original Air Date: January 31, 1962
Writer: Richard Matheson
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Based on a Richard Matheson 1962 short story of the same name, “Mute” begins in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1953. A group of couples have decided to launch a radical new experiment in telepathic communication which will be used on their children, though some are hesitant about the ethics of the project. They believe that humans naturally have the capacity for telepathy but many centuries of verbal communication have dulled the senses. One couple moves with their daughter Ilse (Ann Jillian) back to a remote part of the United States from Germany.
“What you’re witnessing is the curtain-raiser to a most extraordinary play; to wit, the signing of a pact, the commencement of a project. The play itself will be performed almost entirely offstage. The final scenes are to be enacted a decade hence and with a different cast. The main character of these final scenes is Ilse, the daughter of Professor and Mrs. Nielsen, age two. At the moment she lies sleeping in her crib, unaware of the singular drama in which she is to be involved. Ten years from this moment, Ilse Nielsen is to know the desolating terror of living simultaneously in the world and in the Twilight Zone.”
Nearly a decade later a house-fire suddenly engulfs Ilse’s family home, and she alone survives. Sheriff Harry Wheeler (Frank Overton, he also played a Sheriff in To Kill A Mockingbird) tries to ask Ilse some questions but she is unable to speak, so the Sheriff takes Ilse home to his wife Cora (Barbara Baxley) where Ilse’s telepathic ability reveals to the audience that Cora is grieving over the loss of her own daughter. Cora and Ilse slowly develop a close maternal bond. Meanwhile, Sheriff Wheeler has been drafting letters to various constituencies regarding Ilse, but Cora has been secretly destroying them. She hops to adopt Ilse.
As time passes and the Wheelers speculate on what may have happened to this mute girl at the hands of her eccentric parents, Harry decides to enroll Ilse in a normal school led by Miss Frank (Irene Dailey). He hopes she will finally learn to speak. However, Miss Frank is a harsh and strict teacher who was also raised to be a medium so she catches onto Ilse’s telepathy –and she intends to break Ilse down byy dulling her telepathic capabilities. Day after day, Miss Frank forces the other children to speak to Ilse and think certain thoughts directed at her intended to blunt her telepathy. Eventually, Ilse’s special power is finally broken down. She returns home at just the same time that a German couple –the Werners (played by Claudia Bryar and Oscar Beregi)– arrives with the secret hope of harness Ilse’s unique abilities but they witness that she has tragically lost all her power in school so Ilse remains with the Wheelers. It is hard to tell if Ilse’s assimilation is any semblance of a satisfying ending in this episode.
“It has been noted in a book of proven wisdom that perfect love casteth out fear. While it’s unlikely that this observation was meant to include that specific fear that follows the loss of extrasensory perception, the principle remains, as always, beautifully intact. Case in point, that of Ilse Nielsen, former resident of the Twilight Zone.”
Fred Seiner’s score for this episode, coupled with striking cinematography and a terrific story by Richard Matheson, make this an alluring episode in the series albeit with some pacing and plot challenges –not an uncommon complaint that dogged much of the fourth season. Nevertheless, the notion that our modern sensibilities have prevented us from embracing our true telepathic capacities is a fascinating concept.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- In Richard Matheson’s original short story the child in question is a boy (the genders were switched for the show). The short story was initially published in Richard Matheson’s 1962 collection entitled The Fiend In You, which was edited by fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont.
- Ann Jillian’s name is actually misspelled as “Ann Jilliann” in the credits for this episode.
- The peaceful village shown at the outset is actually not Düsseldorf, Germany on the River Rhine but rather Passau on the River Danube in Bavaria.
- The main street used in this episode was the MGM backlot also used in “I Sing The Body Electric.”
- This episode features Bill Erwin in an uncredited role. He also appeared in other episodes such as “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” “Walking Distance,” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”