The Twilight Zone: “The Shelter”–Cold War Terror

MGR-1_Honest_John_rocket

MGR-1 Honest John rocket picture. Photo taken in the 1960s by a U.S. Army employee.

 

In September 1961, at the height of the Cold War, Rod Serling wrote a chilling episode of The Twilight Zone speculating about what might happen in small town America if a missile was fired on the U.S. The episode is called “The Shelter.”

I remember watching this episode as a child and the tension, the fear in this show left a profound effect on me. Following a series of school shootings, American students now have drills to prepare them on how to react if someone enters their school with a gun. When I was a child we had drills preparing us for a possible missile crisis. An alarm would go off in our school. Two children were elected to close and lock the windows and the remaining students would climb beneath our desks, sitting with our knees against our chest and our hands over our heads or faces. Of course, these actions would be of little help if a missile did land nearby, but the drills did serve a purpose. They provided parents and children with a false sense of security, believing the children would be safe in public schools if a missile was fired on the U.S.

In August of 1961, construction began on the Berlin Wall. “The Shelter” aired on September 29, 1961.

Cold War Plot

The show opens with deceptively light birthday music. We enter a home in a typical suburban neighborhood where a group of adults are standing around a table and a half-eaten cake that once said “Happy Birthday Doctor” before it was sliced into pieces. It is the home of the neighborhood doctor, Bill Stockton (Larry Gates). As the group laughs and chatters and prepares for an after dinner drink, one of the neighbor’s suggests a speech. The neighbor, Jerry Harlowe, played by the talented Jack Albertson, honors the “good doctor” for taking care of their children and grandchildren through the years. One neighbor jokingly points out the hammering in the middle of the night as the doctor built a bomb shelter in his basement. “Well, we’ll have to forgive him for that,” Harlowe replies.
Veteran actor Jack Albertson who plays Jerry Harlowe, Doc Stockton’s best friend in “The Shelter.”

As the party starts to move to the bar for drinks, the doctor’s son, Paulie (Michael Burns) informs everyone that the television has gone blank and viewers were instructed to turn on the “Comrade Station.” A few people laugh nervously as if they are thinking, or hoping, it is a joke. The doctor, however, looks nervous as he walks into the next room and turns on the radio. The announcer explains that shortly after 11 p.m. a series of unidentified objects were spotted moving in on the United States. The announcer recommends that those who have shelters go to their shelters immediately and states that those who don’t should gather food, water, and gather in a central place. One by one, the couples grab each other’s arms and run from the doctor’s home to prepare for what appears to be a missile attack. The doctor moves his family to the shelter in the basement.

Rod Serling Makes his Appearance

Various couples are seen running down the street when Rod Serling steps out of the bushes. I love these magical appearances when Serling steps into the picture wearing suit and tie and a serious expression to comment on the show. “What you are about to watch is a nightmare,” he explains. “It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen. It is the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen.  But in this place, in this moment, it does happen. This is The Twilight Zone.”

Back inside the doctor’s home, Grace (Peggy Stewart), the doctor’s wife, is filling containers of water. She drops one and it shatters on the kitchen floor. “Easy,” the doctor says. “Make believe it costs $100 an ounce. Maybe in an hour or so it will be worth more than that.” Thanks, Doc. I’m sure she feels much more comfortable now!

The son is carrying boxes of canned goods downstairs. The doctor tells him to go upstairs for his black bag. The doctor is looking for light bulbs. Grace says she forgot to buy more. She was waiting for them to go on sale. “How much time do we have,” she asks. The doctor doesn’t know. Then the water runs out.

They carry the remaining items to the shelter. Paulie, the son, is sent to the garage for a tool kit. When he leaves, the doctor tells his wife that he doesn’t know what will happen. He is trying to prepare her. She finishes his sentence. “New York is only 40 miles away,” she says. “If they get it, we get it. Then what? We tiptoe through the rubble and the bodies of our friends?” She suggests it would be better, quicker if they just…and this time does not finish her sentence. Paulie re-enters the room. “That’s why we have to survive,” the doctor tells his wife, nodding at their son. “He’s only twelve-years old.”

 

Jack Albertson, who plays Jerry Harlowe, Doc Stockton's best friend in "The Shelter."

Jack Albertson, who plays Jerry Harlowe, Doc Stockton’s best friend in “The Shelter.”

 

Someone is banging on the door. It is their neighbor, Jerry Harlowe. He points out that the Harlowe home is new, they don’t have a shelter. He wants to bring their family into the doctor’s shelter. The doctor tells him they can use their basement, but there is no air space in the shelter. Harlowe becomes hysterical and attacks him. The doctor stops him, apologizing. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I tried to tell you, but you didn’t want to listen. Now you have to face something far worse.” He slams the door. The doctor and his family are locked in the shelter.

Neighbor Marty Weiss (Joseph Bernard) and his family arrives. Marty is begging the doctor from the stairwell to allow his family into the shelter. Marty’s wife and baby are crying. The doctor refuse. “I can’t and I won’t,” he shouts through the door. “You probably will survive, but you’ll have blood on your hands. You’re a doctor. You’re supposed to help people,” Marty screams. “That was a million years ago,” the doctor mumbles, then he screams for Marty to get out of his basement.

The neighbors are slowly gathering upstairs. “Ask him again!” the wives beg. Harlowe sees this as futile and suggests they stop wasting time and pool their resources then gather in a basement. Another neighbor suggests they break down the door. They then ask Harlowe, the doctor’s best friend, to plead on their behalf. In the midst of the discussion, Frank Henderson (Sandy Kenyon) turns on Marty and makes racist comments. “That’s the way it is when the foreigners come over,” Henderson says, shouting at Marty.

Inevitable Chaos

The radio is making more announcements. Planes are heard overhead. The men run down the stairs and tell the doctor he can either figure out how many people can come in or they will bust down the door. The doctor tells them they are wasting precious time. The neighbors decide to find a battering ram. Then they realize other neighbors will see and want to come. “This isn’t their street, this isn’t their shelter,” one woman says. Harlowe points out that it is not their shelter either, and that they are acting like a mob. Marty agrees. The racist neighbor punches Marty and makes more racist remarks. The sirens go off and the men run for a battering ram.

Inside the shelter, Grace is upset. “Who are those people,” she asks stunned. “Those people are our neighbors. They’ve lived alongside us twenty years,” the doctor replies. The family begins to move furniture to block the shelter door. The neighbors bring a large metal post in and start banging on the door. They are hysterical, sweating, angry, and damaging the door.

Suddenly, the radio comes back on. The President has announced there are no enemy missiles approaching, the state of emergency is called off, there is no enemy attack. The sirens go off to announce the emergency has ended. The couples hold each other, comfort each other. Frank Henderson, the racist neighbor, tries to apologize to Marty. “Oh, I don’t think Marty is going to hold it against you, Frank,” Harlowe says, “Just like I don’t think Bill is going to hold all this against us,” and we now see that Bill and his family are coming out of the shelter. “We can have a block party tomorrow night to pay for the damages,” Harlowe suggests. “Yes, Marty says. “A big celebration. I think we raise one now.”

“Anything to get back to normal,” Harlow says. The doctor stumbles past him, stunned. “I don’t think we know what normal is,” Doc Stockton replies. “I thought I did once. I don’t anymore.”

“I told you we’d pay what for the damages, Bill,” Harlowe says with a pleading tone. “Damages?” Stockton replies. “I wonder. I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal. The kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us, a lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder, I wonder if we weren’t destroyed, even without it.”

Rod Serling always has the last word in these plays. “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract,” he says. “Just a simple statement of fact. For civilization to survive the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from The Twilight Zone.”

Who Would you Save?

When I was in school in the 60s and 70s there was a popular debate question: In a national crisis, who would you save? The elderly politicians? Young couples with babies and the ability to have more children? Scientists? Doctors?

In the situation presented in “The Shelter,” my first thought was that the doctor should tell the neighbors to leave all their food, water, and children and that he would take their children into the shelter, but leave the adults outside. At first, I thought the doctor should sacrifice his life for the children, too. However, he is also a doctor, and he had obviously studied possible crisis scenarios, so his value increases. He could teach survival skills to the children. In a situation like this one, I know I would send in the children and I would leave the shelter. I would sacrifice myself so others could live and the human race could continue on.

Sources:

  • “The Shelter.” The Twilight Zone. First aired on September 29, 1961. Season 3, Episode 3. Dir. Lamont Johnson. Writer: Rod Serling. Players: Larry Gates, Joseph Bernard, Jack Albertson. Running Time: 25 min.

Comments

  1. DarlaSueDollman says:

    That’s fantastic! A bit of help and trivia at the same time! I was wondering what they were talking about, but I couldn’t quite understand the word. I kept replaying it to see if I could make it out, but apparently I was wrong. I began to think it was a fictional station! Thanks so much for the information, it is greatly appreciated.

  2. DarlaSueDollman says:

    Really? Now I’ll have to do some reading! This is great–thank you so much!