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Who in tarnation put me in that coffin?


The Twilight Zone
3.23: The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank


Finding “straight” representations of the walk-in phenomenon in TV and movies isn’t an easy task. They’re referenced in The X-FilesRed Museum – but only referenced – and garbled in its Sein und Zeit/Closure. There’s more garbling in K-PAX, where it appears to be closer to an exchange programme for prot. And then there’s the assumption of replacing a recently deceased soul/body, which seems to have the highest profile examples. It’s this that can be found in 1962’s The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank, writer-director Montgomery Pittman presenting a case that is less ambiguous than it is oblique.

Orgram: How do we know the man who got up and crawled out of that coffin is really Jeff Myrtlebank?

Because Jeff (none other than Roscoe P Coltrane himself, James Best) has been pronounced stone dead when he is re-inhabited. It’s the mid-1920s, in the southern most section of the Midwest, and Jeff rather alarms the small congregation at his funeral when he sits upright in his coffin and protests his pulse. This is, Rod Serling assures us, “due to a slight fallout from the Twilight Zone”. Jeff had been sick, real sick, and was pronounced passed-on three days earlier (so is quite hungry when he revives). He must thus overcome the doubts of family and girlfriend Comfort (Sherry Jackson), not to mention increasing unrest among the townsfolk.

Jeff: I’m getting sick and tired the way everybody treats me like a vampire.

Notably – or expectedly, given The Twilight Zone’s modus operandi – we don’t get an explicit explanation for Jeff’s condition. He was dead, and now he’s back, and he retains all of Jeff’s memories (which we’d expect from an actual walk-in, rather than a prot). The change that has come over him has quickly been noticed, however. He is keen on hard work, “like he was a year behind”, and “He eats different, works different, always fiddling with things”. What with his being dead, it’s understandable that, rather than assuming he’s Jesus, the locals suspect something decidedly less sanctified (“My grandma, she used to tell me about evil spirits roaming around the world trying to find a body to take over. She said that they’d steal a corpse sometime before a man was good dead”).

Jeff: We’re gonna stay, and that means just two things. One, if you’re wrong about me, then you ain’t got nothing to worry about because that means I’m just a poor ol’ country boy by the name of Jeff Myrtlebank. But on the other hand, if you’re right about me, then you better start treating me pretty nice because you just don’t know all the kind of trouble I can cause you.

When Jeff breaks Orgram’s (Lance Fuller) jaw, having never been a match for him before, Orgram tells the folk who will go to confront Jeff “’cause it weren’t Jeff Myrtlebank I was fighting”. Jeff, being a straightforward kind of guy, isn’t looking for profound explanations for his circumstances, and he doesn’t appear to be remotely inquisitive about the changes others have noted in him. He does, however, show some flair in his rebuke of the gang intent on seeing him out of town. Having secured Comfort’s assurance that she will stay with him, he suggests that everything will either be fine (because he’s Jeff) or they should watch themselves (because he’ll be able to hex them if he isn’t).

Naturally, there’s a twist in this, but it’s one that has nothing to do with the walk-in idea and is simply there for quirky effect. Jeff’s match lights without him striking it. We’re also told their son becomes a US senator, so shades of The Omen. Maybe then, Jefferson Myrtlebank isn’t your walk-in case and has, unbeknownst, been possessed by an evil spirit intent on getting into the White House.

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