With a new Jordan Peele-helmed reboot on the horizon, fans of The Twilight Zone can look forward to the return of the anthology series’ O Henry-style twists – even when it comes to their holiday specials. Christmas episodes have long been a television tradition, and The Twilight Zone was no exception: Its original run certainly had a handful of segments aired in the spirit of the season – including “The Night of the Meek” and, to an extent, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”
Its 1985 revival had something similar in the works: A dark Yuletide fable called “Nackles,” based on a short story of the same name. First published in the January 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it was written by “Curt Clark” – one of several pseudonyms used by Donald Westlake, a bestselling novelist well-known for his mystery and crime fiction, and who had penned films like The Stepfather and The Grifters.
It tells of an abusive father who, after he can no longer beat his wife, instead begins to terrify his children with tales of a shadow counterpart to Santa Claus he dubs “Nackles”–a cruel way to keep his kids on their very best behavior. As the antithesis of jolly Saint Nick, the titular Nackles is a looming, skeletal specter robed in black. And while Santa delivers presents with his flying reindeer on Christmas Eve, Nackles travels underground in a carriage drawn by blind white goats to steal away misbehaving children.
The father is so pleased with himself for thinking of this disciplinary tactic that he spreads the word to other parents in the neighborhood…only to discover too late, in a twist of poetic justice, that the faith of children can be a powerful thing. Every god needs a nemesis, after all, and Westlake’s story posits that Santa Claus is, in some ways, akin to a deity–all-seeing and all-knowing, answers prayers (or letters, as the case may be), and fueled by belief.
Big names were attached to its adaptation for The Twilight Zone: George R.R. Martin was tasked to write the teleplay. He’s said “Nackles” is his “…favorite anti-Santa Claus myth.“ Ed Asner was to be in the leading role, while Harlan Ellison – then the creative consultant for the show – was to sit in the director’s chair in what was to be his directorial debut. Later in development, Martin took over a different episode, “The Once and Future King”, while Ellison worked on a treatment for “Nackles”. Only one of them would make it to air.
In November 1985, “Nackles” was axed during its pre-production by network censors, who had reservations about Ellison’s radical take on the tale and its unapologetically overt themes about race, class, and prejudice. His teleplay reworked the story around a bigoted welfare worker in the city who, after gleefully inventing Nackles to torment black children under his care, finally gets his comeuppance at the bony hands of Nackles himself. Like the source material, this retelling underscored how belief can be weaponized but it also doubled as cutting social commentary.
Ellison, understandably, resigned in protest over the network interference soon after and The Twilight Zone lost its creative consultant and the brilliant force of nature behind classics like “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich” while audiences missed out on seeing Westlake’s “Nackles” brought to the small screen, which no doubt would have gone down in the annals of pop culture as a kind of modern-day Krampus. The episode may have never hit airwaves, but at least it still exists in teleplay form and is well worth a read, which can be found in Ellison’s book, Slippage.