The Twilight Zone: The Shelter

All forms of art and specifically popular culture constitute one of the most significant markers of the different eras in the history of any given society (Lunney). As much as most of the content on television is all fiction, it does not occur in a vacuum, but in a context of events that inspire and shape the thoughts of the creators of the said works. Between 1959 and 1964, an anthology television series titled “The Twilight Zone” played the role of social commentary ideally, tackling various then-current events in each of its episodes (Grams). The third episode of the third season titled “The Shelter” appeared to be one of the most prominent ones throughout the life of the series.

The episode begins on a very jovial note at the birthday celebration of Dr. Stockon in his suburban home. He is a well-liked and admired character, whom every person in the room owes gratitude for some form of treatment (Serling 00:02:00). The topics of discussion include his work and late night escapades that he spent building a fallout shelter (Serling 00:02:16). However, events take a dramatic and adverse turn soon as the announcement of the sighting of an unknown flying object headed for the USA cuts the party short (Serling 00:03:36). Somehow, every character knows that it is a nuclear bomb. Everyone scrambles to their homes only to return and beg Dr. Stockon to accommodate them in his shelter, which he does not (Serling 00:12:01). Consequently, the panic turns into anger among people who decide to break the door in the doctor’s shelter. As soon as they do, they discover that it was a false alarm and they all have to face the consequences of their action in that desperate time (Serling 00:21:10).


The full weight of the episode and the entire series can only be understood fully if placed in the context within which they were aired. During the time when series developed, the world was still fresh from the World War II that was decided by an atomic bomb (Lunney). Although the war was over, the air was still palpable with tension not just because of the recent fighting, but also of the ongoing cold war that pitted the two world superpowers, USA and USSR against each other (JFK Library). The power struggle threatened to escalate into a war at any time.

Two events made instrumental influence on the creation of the shelter. One was a false alarm in Schenectady, New York, July 1957, that was similar to the events in the episode (Lunney). Only one family had responded to the sirens signaling an air raid. The second, more relevant event was the escalating tension between the two superpowers indicated by the Soviet president’s visit to the USA. Shortly before the episode was aired, Nikita Khrushchev had issued a threat of Nuclear war should the USA not vacate Berlin. In response, US President John F. Kennedy replied emphasizing his focus on ensuring that every citizen has access to a fallout shelter in the eventuality of a nuclear attack on the country (JFK Library).

Nevertheless, the writer’s intention of making the episode was more apparent. First and foremost, he aimed at contributing to the national discourse given the stark reality of the possibility of nuclear war (Grams). As indicated by the contribution of the president, talk of fallout shelters was chiefly prominent among people. Serling captured this significance by the manner in which he included talk about the shelter in the dinnertime banter at the doctor’s party. Additionally, the importance of the shelters becomes central as the episode rises to a crescendo. When the threat is announced, everyone runs to their homes, but they return to the doctor’s place upon realizing that he is the only one prepared for the danger. They dismissed the necessity of the shelter despite all warnings. As the doctor reminds Jerry, they chose to continue living as usual, holding barbecues, and making merry (Serling 00:11:50). At the time of reckoning, they had to bear the consequences of their carelessness. The doctor and his family, on the other hand, are ready for the apocalyptic attack. The episode uses excessive dramatization applying various means, such as the punching of Marty amid the desperation to heighten the need for the shelters (Lunney).

Rod Serling uses the events of the struggle for survival by accessing the fallout shelter to represent possible consequences of the ongoing struggle between the superpowers (Lunney). The men, presumably the heads of their families, are struggling so hard to ensure the survival of their families by getting them inside a shelter. Dr. Stockon also intends the same by locking the others out as that can give his family the best chance to survive. Similarly, the two countries fight to be supreme and ensure the best life for their citizens and future generations. However, the struggle is escalating fast. The confrontation between the doctor and his “friends” finishes when the safe space for which they were fighting is destroyed (Serling 00:20:00). Had the bomb been real, they would have all lost what they were trying to protect. Similarly, escalation of the confrontation between the US and USSR posed the risk of leaving the two countries destroyed. The episode ends with the witty remark that civilization would only be sustainable if the human race maintained its civility (Serling 00:24:05). Obviously, war is not the most civil way to solve a conflict.

The episode uses musical and visual effects in order to capture the message of the writer. For instance, there is silence as the state of emergency is made, but as soon as people disperse, eerie music begins to play to depict the panicky mood as everyone runs towards their houses. At the same time, the camera zooms out to have a wide view of the doctor’s compound (Serling 00:04:46). The view of people running out towards different directions contributes in capturing the mood at the moment. Women and children serve to foster the mood of helplessness throughout the film. For instance, during the deliberation outside the doctor’s shelter, the crying women and children can do nothing but stand aside and watch how events unfold (Serling 00:17:10). This is an allusion to the state that the rest of the world would be in, once the two superpowers commenced a war. Towards the end of the episode, the panic continues, but the mood is not quite the same as before. Every man and his wife stand away from the others as the doctor walks out of the shelter. It is a scene of divided people, and the camera captures them all to depict the divisive aftermath of the panic. Sombre music plays after the doctor finishes addressing people, and all this embodies the gravity of the situation (Serling 00:24:04). Truly, despite surviving the bomb panic, the doctor’s words sound true, since people are no longer as united as they were before.

Although this episode was aired over half a century ago, the overarching message about the need for civility for peaceful existence is as relevant today as it was then. The cold war is over, but there still are many conflicts today. For instance, there is Iran’s arming of the nuclear warheads, the conflict in Syria, and most recently the escalating tension between Russia and the USA. The message about the need to take preventive measures, if only for self-preservation, is vital under these circumstances. Additionally, the conflicting men in “The Shelter” had to face the unpleasant consequences of their savagery after the alarm proved false. The doctor poignantly observed that despite being spared by the bomb, the community may still have been destroyed by the people’s deeds in the time of despair. This is a message that applies to all people today: to be careful and thoughtful in their actions, since they will have to encounter their results in the end.

In conclusion, “The Shelter” proves to be an episode that is laden with relevant symbolism and social commentary that retains relevance to date. Conceived in the face of the cold war, the episode captures the need for preparedness in the form of having a fallout shelter in the event of a nuclear attack. This episode could become real due to the standoff between USA and USSR. As much as the message can be applied to the event of war, the underlying message of the episode (that of the need for civility in human actions) is very applicable to everyday life. People must be careful in their actions in spite of the circumstances, since they are eventually responsible for cleaning the mess after themselves.

Apr 28, 2020 in Research
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