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A Brief History of the Theme From The Twilight Zone

From the Grateful Dead to KoЯn, each new version of the Twilight Zone theme was more terrifying than the last.

A sign on the red carpet at the premiere of the Twilight Zone displays the show's original logo.
Next stop?
Valerie Macon/Getty Images

In the opening scenes of the 1983 film Twilight Zone: The Movie, Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks pass the time on a car trip by playing a trivia game in which they try to guess TV shows from their theme songs. It’s the kind of scene that makes you want to yell the answer at the screen, because Brooks immediately recognizes the theme from Hawaii Five-0, and can even sing along to Aykroyd’s rendition, but can’t quite come up with the name. But there’s one TV show everyone knows the theme to:

The theme from The Twilight Zone is one of the most easily recognizable pieces of music of the 20th century, a four-note motif for electric guitar with hair-raising dissonances that conjure up the uncanny and the unknown in an almost Pavlovian way. Its creepy-crawly charm transcends all cultural barriers; in Twilight Zone: The Movie, it even ignores cross-species boundaries, much to Albert Brooks’ dismay. The problem is that the music we all know as the theme from The Twilight Zone isn’t, in fact, the theme from The Twilight Zone. It’s two pieces of music spliced together from a stock library CBS built as part of a cost-saving and union-busting campaign. Marius Constant, the original composer, was unaware for years that he’d accidentally written the theme to a popular television show, and for decades was paid nothing beyond his original fee, even as the show lived longer than Walter Jameson in syndication. The original theme for The Twilight Zone was written by legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann, but was sent to the memory hole for decades in favor of a new introduction with Constant’s royalty-free music. Here’s that original version—the theme from The Twilight Zone that nobody knows how to hum—as seen in the show’s pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody,” on Oct. 2, 1959:

CBS didn’t love the theme or the accompanying animation, and by the first season, they chopped a glissando or two off the music and replaced the original UPA titles with a new sequence featuring a close-up of the human eye, a version that was chiefly notable for how half-assed it looked. Here’s its debut, in “Mr. Bevis,” on June 3, 1960.

That version of the theme and intro didn’t even last a month: The season finale aired on July 1, and by the time the show returned on Sept. 30, the whole thing had been thrown out. CBS asked their preferred composers for their best shot at a new theme, commissioning work from Jerry Goldsmith and Leith Stevens, and even hiring Herrmann to take another crack at it. But they didn’t like those results any better than the original theme, so director of music Lud Gluskin came up with a plan that CBS executives were sure to love: getting what they wanted without paying anyone any more money by exploiting nonunion labor.

It wasn’t Gluskin’s first rodeo. In 1956, the American Federation of Musicians took the extraordinary recourse of fining him $5,000 and expelling him from their membership for a related violation of union rules. At the time, AFM’s contracts with television stations were built around a live music model—a holdover from radio days, according to Gluskin—and specifically forbade networks from building reusable music libraries that could be shared among shows. Gluskin was accused of recording music under false pretenses, ostensibly hiring session musicians to make a commercial record, but then using the recordings as television cues instead. He denied that he’d done anything wrong, but his incentive to do so wasn’t hard to understand, because he helpfully explained it in a 1956 congressional hearing: Recording music for television cost too much money because the AFM required studios to contribute to its pension fund. Gluskin and CBS responded by seeking out cheaper, more easily exploitable labor—first, allegedly, with whatever happened that got him kicked out of the union, and then abroad. Throughout the late 1950s, Gluskin traveled to Europe, where the AFM’s rules didn’t apply, commissioned musical cues from European composers at cut-rate prices, recorded them there, and shipped the tape back to CBS with all rights secured in perpetuity and no need to worry about providing workers with a dignified retirement. If that sounds like something out of The Twilight Zone, well, where else would the theme have come from?

On one of those trips, Gluskin hired the Romanian-born composer Marius Constant, who was struggling to get by in Paris at the time. “I received a phone call from a producer, and he said, ‘We’re doing this TV show and I’ll give you $200 to write a theme by tomorrow. If your work is accepted, you’ll make another $500, ’ ” Constant recalled in a 1997 interview. Feeling like the offer made him “as good as Stravinsky,” Constant wrote a collection of cues, waited three months before getting paid, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Sometime during the summer of 1960, faced with a pile of unusable music, Gluskin had the idea of Frankensteining together a theme from the stock music cues. He took two discordant pieces Constant had written, originally entitled “Milieu No. 2” and “Étrange No. 3,” spliced them together, and made television history on the cheap. Here’s the first time Constant’s theme for The Twilight Zone appeared, from the second season premiere, “King 9 Will Not Return.”

One person who didn’t get to appreciate the first appearance of The Twilight Zone theme over the air was Marius Constant, who wouldn’t find out until years later that his music had been used as a theme song. Although the underlying animation changed from season to season—the floating door didn’t appear until the fourth season—the theme for The Twilight Zone stayed more or less the same from then on. Whether it was an attempt to give the series a consistent look and sound or an attempt to avoid paying royalties to Bernard Herrmann, the original introduction was unceremoniously cut from the Season 1 episodes and replaced with a short introduction that used Constant’s music. That introduction, with no trace of the Herrmann theme, was used for reruns, syndication, and Twilight Zone UHF marathons: You couldn’t see the Herrmann version for any price until DVD releases in the aughts. So history did what history does, as people all over the world combined well-known and well-documented facts to reach a completely erroneous conclusion:

• Bernard Herrmann wrote a theme for The Twiight Zone.
• Since the summer of 1960, every time an episode of The Twilight Zone was broadcast, it opened with Marius Constant’s theme, for which no one was credited.
• Therefore, Bernard Herrmann wrote the theme for The Twilight Zone.

This mass delusion reached its apex in 1979, when light jazz group the Manhattan Transfer released their album Extensions. The third track, “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone,” wasn’t just a terrible disco arrangement of Constant’s theme—it also had terrible disco lyrics about how great the song was to begin with:

Out of nowhere comes this sound

This melody that keeps spinning ’round and ‘round

Pyramidal locomotion from a mystic unknown zone.

But the band’s appreciation of Constant’s work only went so far, because their record credited the song to Bernard Herrmann. Why, yes, there was a terrible disco music video!

In the Manhattan Transfer’s defense, almost nobody outside of CBS realized that the Twilight Zone theme that everyone knew wasn’t written by Herrmann. It wasn’t until 1983, when Warner Bros. Records was preparing to release the soundtrack to Twilight Zone: The Movie, that Constant’s name came up. “Cleffer Gets Due for ‘Twilight Zone,’ ” Variety reported, but what Constant didn’t get was any money. CBS believed it held the worldwide copyright to the song, and in January of 1984 sued Constant in federal court to establish their rights. The eventual settlement secured Constant future rights to his composition, in exchange for relinquishing all claims to anything he might have been owed for the last few decades of royalty-free exploitation.

And speaking of exploitation, in 1985 CBS decided to bring the series back to television, and commissioned a new version of the iconic theme from the one band terrifying enough for The Twilight Zone: the Grateful Dead of the mid-1980s. Executive producer Philip DeGuere was a fan and set up a meeting with the entire band; only Mickey Hart showed and, according to DeGuere, opened by announcing that he lived in the Twilight Zone. The Dead got the job despite this demonstrable lack of interest, but Hart’s enthusiasm, punctuality, and willingness to attend a meeting he’d previously agreed to attend took him the extra mile: He was hired as the new series’ sound designer. The 1985 version of the theme was recorded by the Grateful Dead plus keyboardist Merl Saunders. Here’s how that went:

Well, it’s better than the Manhattan Transfer. And it’s also better than the next reimagining of the theme, for its second television revival in 2003. As you may recall, that was a year full to bursting with terrible ideas, so it’s not too surprising that UPN’s one-season Twilight Zone, hosted by Forest Whitaker, has mostly been crowded out of our collective memory. It’s a kindness, really, because that means we’ve also forgotten that the 2003 version of Constant’s theme was arranged and recorded by none other than Jonathan Davis of KoЯn. Next stop, the nu-metal zone:

What a terrible year! By the time Jordan Peele got around to bringing the show back again, tastes had changed: Classicism was back and “fuck it, let’s just hire KoЯn so we can all go home and watch the Iraq war, which will certainly be over very soon” was out. So the 2019 version of The Twilight Zone starts very much like the 1960 version, with a faithful arrangement of Constant’s theme by composers Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts.

Now that’s a Twilight Zone theme that everyone except for Bernard Herrmann’s heirs can enjoy! It remains to be seen, however, if Mr. Jordan Peele, Mr. Marco Beltrami, and Mr. Brandon Roberts—three ordinary men who are about to have an extraordinary experience—have truly paid the past its full due. Because when they spoke to the press about rerecording the distant music of yesterday for the television reboots of tomorrow, they left the distinct impression that the theme for The Twilight Zone was, quote, composed by the maestro Bernard Herrmann, end quote, a misconception that should have died with disco. Now they have a can’t-miss appointment with a vengeful ghost. The location for this fateful meeting? Dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee …