Night Gallery: “The Sins of the Fathers”

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Welcome to Supernatural Television and the A to Z Bloggers Challenge. I’m glad you’re here–thank you for reading! If you enjoy the post, please leave a comment. I love talking TV!

Tonight we are watching one of the scariest shows I watched as a teenager, and it starred John Boy Walton! It’s true. On February 23, 1972, Richard Thomas starred in a terrifying episode of the Night Gallery: “The Sins of the Fathers,” a show that gave me nightmares for weeks. I was only ten years old the night it aired, and most likely slipped out of bed, crept up the stairs and lay on my belly on the kitchen floor to watch the show (believe it or not, my parents did monitor my television viewing, but I was very sneaky!)

Richard_Thomas_John-Boy_Walton_1973 Richard Thomas who starred in The Waltons, also starred in Night Gallery: “The Sins of the Fathers.” Night Gallery is a supernatural classic anthology that ran on NBC from 1970 to 1973. The show was hosted by Rod Serling and many of the scripts were by Serling, as well, but it lacks the class of his earlier works. Even as a child watching this show I could tell it was often a bit on the ridiculous side.

SerlingZeroHourRod Serling, Creator of Night Gallery

The show opens with Serling walking through an art gallery at night. The works of art are all spooky and macabre. Sometimes the art has a comic book quality, which may have added to the negative criticism of the show. Generally the paintings hint at the plot of the segment, but a few of the paintings actually appeared in the episode.

Serling introduces the show as he walks through the gallery. He does not appear on the scene as in The Twilight Zone. He wrote some of the scripts, but was not allowed control of the content or tone that he was on The Twilight Zone and by the time they show ended its run he was so tired of the criticism of the show that he tried to disassociate himself from it completely.

Series Introduction

The series’ pilot aired on November 8, 1969, and was the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg, as well as the last performance of Joan Crawford. Night Gallery was originally intended to be part of a rotating anthology, or what was called a “wheel series,” rotating with McCloud; San Francisco International Airport (SFX); and The Psychiatrist. Night Gallery did have some outstanding writers, though. In addition to Rod Serling there were episodes by Robert Bloch and Jack Laird and numerous episodes were based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, who should be considered one of the greatest American horror and science fiction writers. 

“The Sins of the Fathers” is one of the few “Night Gallery”shows I enjoyed watching, even though it’s rather short and was shown in tandem with another short episode. Although Rod Serling is often credited with writing this show, according to the credits (I am watching the show now) the show was actually scripted by Halsted Welles and is based on a story by Christianna Brand, who also wrote the Nanny McPhee book series.

“The Sins of the Fathers”

“The Sins of the Fathers” first aired on February 23, 1972. The story takes place in Wales during the 19th century. There is a famine and the people are starving. However, there is also a common religious practice in this community of eating the food placed around the body of the deceased so the Sin Eater takes on the sins of the person who died, and the deceased can move on to Heaven free of the shackles of his crimes. It is a terrible thought, taking on the sins of others, but starvation is a terrible, painful experience and when a person is starving there is little he or she won’t do for food.

At the beginning of the show we see the wealthy Mrs Craighill (Barbara Steele) arguing with her servant (Michael Dunn) who just returned home after spending three days on horseback searching for someone to eat the food lying on a table beside the deceased Mr. Craighill’s body. The food must be eaten in a sin-eater’s rite in order for Mr. Craighill to be free of his sins and go to Heaven.

Sin-Eating

The practice is considered a form of religious magic performed in Wales, England, and Scotland until the late 19th century. It is also believed that sin-eating was performed in the Appalachian Mountain villages in the United States. The process generally involved finding someone who was starving, a beggar or poor person, but some towns, such as the one in this story, had a village sin-eater who followed a family tradition of taking on the sins of the town so the deceased villagers could rest in peace.

During the ritual, the sin-eater is brought to the bedside of the dying or deceased relative and a crust of bread is placed on the body while a bowl of ale is passed to the sin-eater across the corpse. The sin-eater recites a prayer, drinks the ale, eats the bread, and removes the sin. In wealthier families a variety of foods are placed the body or on a nearby table for the sin-eater, perhaps assuming the more food that is eaten, the greater chance that all sin will be forgiven.

Mrs. Craighill’s Dilemma 

In “The Sins of the Fathers,” Mr. Craighill dies during a time of famine and disease and there are few sin-eaters or even beggars left who are able to consume the food and take his sins upon them. Her servant (Dunn) finally arrives at the farm of sin-eater Dylan Evans, only to find that Evans is also dying.

The servant (who I recognized immediately as the co-star of the Bonanza episode “It’s a Small World” and many other films and television series appearances) describes the feast laid out beside the body in great detail to Mrs. Dylan, played by Geraldine Page (1924-1987), (who was nominated for eight Best Actress Academy Awards during her career and awarded one, and who I also believe is the reason this episode is so eerie. Page is often seen in classic supernatural anthologies.) Mrs. Dylan, who is also starving, is tempted by the feast, but tradition holds that the sin-eater’s task must be handed down to the eldest son. We soon learn, however, that it is not the food that is tempting Mrs. Dylan.

Geraldine-pageGeraldine Page (1924-1987)

Mrs. Dylan has a son, Ian, played by Richard Thomas, who became famous playing John Boy in the popular television series The Waltons. Ian appears to be mentally slow, but he also appears to comprehend the consequences of what he is asked to do. However, his mother (Page) makes an odd request. She specifically instructs Ian to insist that all mourners at the Craighill home leave the room, then he is to hide all of the food in his cloak and bring it back home without eating so much as a crumb in the presence of the corpse. Of course, as a viewer, we assume she is doing this to protect her son from taking on the sins of Mr. Craighill.

Ian is so weak from starvation he can barely stand, but he rides through a misty forest (the atmosphere in this episode is perfect) to the Craighill home on the servant’s horse. Mrs. Craighill suspects Ian is too young to perform the ritual, and in fact he does seem to know the words, so the mourners believe him. They do object when he insists that they leave the room, but he refuses to eat unless they allow him to perform the ritual alone, and Mrs. Craighill, desperate to have her husband’s sins removed, finally obliges.

Ian begins to recite a prayer while he is stuffing the food in his cloak and gagging at the sight of the body of Mr. Craighill. He pauses on occasion to shriek as if he is absorbing the sins of Mr. Craighill. He runs from the house as if he is terrified of the sins he has seen and Mrs. Craighill throws three gold coins after him.

The Feast is Prepared

When Ian arrives homes his mother removes his cloak. Ian is drooling over the food, but she does not offer it to him. Instead, she takes the food into the next room. Ian is confused, but she continues to remove the food and carry it into the next room. Mrs. Dylan finally tells her son that the feast is prepared. Ian walks into the room and finds the food spread out around the corpse of his father.

Ian is terrified. He does understand. He knows that if he eats this food he will take on the sins of his father, and his father’s father. He understands very well, but he is starving. He tries to resist, but his mother–and it is here that Geraldine Page truly shines as an actress–pleads with her son, begging him to consider that unless he eats the food, his father will spend eternity with the sins of the village on his soul. She reassures him that some day he, too, will have a son to eat his own sins, but Ian knows this is doubtful as he is mentally slow and already nearing adulthood.

Ian finally realizes that he is doomed to the life of a sin-eater. He begins to eat the food, shrieking and sobbing as he recites the prayer. Ian’s mother stands proudly in the background, pleased that her beloved husband will pass into the next world with a clean soul, clearly unconcerned by the suffering she has inflicted upon her child. It is a chilling, terrifying scene and I believe it is the best horror scene in the Night Gallery series. Have you seen this episode? If so, tell me what you think. I’d love to hear from you! –Darla Sue

Source:

  • “The Sins of the Fathers.” Night Gallery. Screenwriter: Halsted Welles; story by Christianna Brand. Dir: Jeannot Szwarc. Perf. Richard Thomas, Geraldine Page, Barbara Steele, Michael Dunn. First aired February 23, 1972.  

Comments

  1. DarlaSueDollman says:

    Thank you! I enjoyed your site, as well!

  2. Jama says:

    Oh This was also my favorite one and it scared the crap out of me as a kid. I never forgot it! When Ian starts eating and then shreaking wow! what a scene!

  3. I am a HUGE Twilight Zone fan! I have been watching since I was a child and whenever the Sci Fi channel plays the marathon, I stay up a good 24 hours watching them all, even though I have seen them over and over again. THAT is what I call brilliant screen writing back in the day. They just don’t make quality shows like that anymore. They didn’t need gory graphics or sex to sell their stories–TZ got into your head and tapped into every human being’s worst fear. When Night Gallery came on the air, I usually watched it between my fingers because it was so scary. I’m familiar with the episode you are discussing but my all time favorite comes from the pilot episode—the one of the thief who visits the museum and wants to disappear into the fishing picture but ends up stepping into a picture of Jesus suffering on the cross. BRILLIANT show, just like TZ.

  4. DarlaSueDollman says:

    I agree with you completely! Twilight Zone still is the best. It set the standard for science fiction/fantasy/drama and writers and directors who try to deviate from that standard now just end up with gore. You don’t need horror to frighten people or make them rethink their lives. We have imaginations. Twilight Zone allows us to use our imaginations. It is inspiring. And yes, that was the best show! Thanks for reading my blog, and for commenting!