Directed by Lamont Johnson
Written by Rod Serling
Starring: Larry Gates, Jack Albertson, Sandy Kenyon
Original Airdate: September 29, 1961
Cold War anxieties take center stage in the chilling Twilight Zone episode “The Shelter.” The episode begins with a chipper suburban dinner party. Everyone’s having a nice time until a dreaded bulletin comes across the radio: Unidentified flying objects are heading towards the United States. The government urges all citizens to take shelter immediately and gather survival supplies.
Dr. Stockton, the dinner party host, happens to have the only bomb shelter on the block. As the doctor makes preparations with his wife and son, the neighbors start knocking at his door, begging for a spot in the shelter. Hysteria ensues among the neighbors and everyone turns on each other. One man is singled out for being an immigrant and gets physically assaulted. Eventually, the panic-stricken mob builds a battering ram to break into the shelter. With their hostile takeover almost complete a new bulletin comes across the radio: the warning was a false alarm.
With the danger over the kindly residents stand in shock at their sudden descent into barbaric behavior. Everyone realizes the mask they wear in their everyday life will quickly vanish when a true threat to their survival occurs. It’s a brutal lesson in the potential violence present in everyone.
Serling rushed the episode into production in response to the Kennedy administration’s policy that encouraged Americans to build bomb shelters in case of nuclear attack. Over the summer of 1961 the Berlin crisis had brought both superpowers to the brink. “The Shelter” questions the possible consequences of such a policy: What if only a small percentage of people have shelters? Could it lead to riots and citizens turning on each other if a real crisis ever occurred?
At the end of the episode one neighbor observes, the one who expressed anti-immigrant sentiment, that things will go back to normal before they know it, to which Dr. Stockton replies, “I don’t know what normal is anymore.”
Serling’s closing narration applies directly to today:
No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.