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The Twilight Zone (Episode #68): “The Shelter” (airdate 9/29/61)
The Plot: A dinner party is interrupted with news of an impending nuclear attack, but only one family planned ahead and installed a bomb shelter. The party goes downhill fast from there.
The Goods: Dr. Bill Stockton (Larry Gates) is a reasonable and rational man. He doesn’t like surprise parties, but he puts up with them when thrown by his friends and family. He’s no fan of sloppy, emotional outbursts, but he’ll make exceptions for drunken friends celebrating his birthday. And he fully expects those dirty Commie bastards could start a nuclear war any minute, so he’s built a bomb shelter in his basement big enough to support him, his wife, and his son for two weeks or more. His friends rib him about it, but he’s content feeling better safe than sorry.
Especially when the radio’s emergency broadcast system warns the public that missiles are heading their way, and the end of the world seems imminent.
“Those people… those people are our neighbors. Our friends. The people we’ve lived with and alongside for twenty years.”
His party guests all rush to their respective homes as Stockton and his family start bringing water down to the shelter. As they get ready to close and seal the door however, the first of their friends start returning. Begging and pleading for access to the room soon turns to demands and threats of violence. People who’ve known each other for years turn against one another as they place their family’s safety above everyone else. Their true colors pour out in a rainbow of racist and xenophobic fear-mongering as the once civil neighbors descend into a mob mentality.
Mob thinking isn’t really thinking at all, it’s knee jerk reactions, and that’s made abundantly clear here as the group decides to break down the shelter’s door in their effort to gain entry. They never once stop to consider that a bomb shelter with no sealed front door is just a basement.
The actions of the outside mob are only half the story though as we also share in the suffering and hard fought decisions that Stockton is forced to make. His shelter is designed to sustain his family, and his family only, for two weeks or more. Every additional person he lets in is another mouth sucking up their food, water, and air. He knows this, but how do you weigh that knowledge against the sound of a baby wailing on the other side of that door? (That’s a rhetorical question as there’s no way in hell I’d bring a crying baby into my one-room shelter.)
The episode shares echoes of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” in its dissection of the false suburban calm and civility that goes out the window when confronted with fear. It stands slightly taller than that far more well known episode though as it has a much stronger foundation in reality. There’s no science fiction twist or zinger at the end of the episode to take some of the heat off of humanity. The monsters on “Maple Street” are us, but there was alien manipulation afoot that could shoulder some of the blame.
“The Shelter” offers no such easy out (or body part metaphors) and instead makes its conclusion very clear. Humans, for all our good will, party planning abilities, and willingness to accept inter-racial relationships… are still assholes.
What do you think?
The Trivia: Jack Albertson survives this episode without having to resort to belching even once.
On the Next Episode: “Near the end of the Civil War, a Confederate sergeant stops at the remains of the home of Lavinia Godwin who has been watching hundreds of wounded soldiers parade by.”
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.