Gimme “Shelter”: The Perils of Survival At Any Price

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
― John Wooden

The fifth-dimensional equivalent? I’d put it this way: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when he believes his life is in danger.”

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Case in point: “The Shelter,” Rod Serling’s sobering look at a neighborhood full of average families who are happy to treat each other well … until the day when a nuclear bomb is apparently headed their way, and only one family has gone to the trouble and expense of building a bomb shelter. (If you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while, go here.)

Serling excelled at entertaining us, but he never flinched from asking some tough questions. And here we’re left with two big ones:

1) If you had a shelter only big enough for you and your family — that had just enough supplies for all of you — what would you do if a missile was bearing down on you, and your neighbors were pleading for you to let them in?

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2) If you were one of the families who had ignored all the warning signs of the nuclear age, and never bothered to take precautions against the worst-case scenario, how would you react when that missile was airborne? Would you accept your fate? If not, what would you do if the neighbor who did have a shelter refused to let you in?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure which side of the door I’d least like to be on.

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And that’s Serling’s point. In a radio interview with Bob Crane around the time “The Shelter” was broadcast, he freely admitted he didn’t have the answers.

But Serling had a finely-tuned conscience and a true sense of humanity. So he poured this dilemma into one of the most searing half-hours that The Twilight Zone had yet attempted. He held up a mirror — to all of us, himself included.

Anyone who doesn’t at least flinch at the reflection that stares back at us must lack a pulse. Because the ugly attitudes that erupt in the face of imminent destruction look like something we’d see on Maple Street.

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Serling may not hand us an answer, fully wrapped and ready to use. He poses, in effect, another question: What are we saving?

Is it just our lives? Is that it? If so, will we sacrifice anything to save it? A strong desire to preserve our own lives is perfectly understandable, but does it justify any behavior we believe serves that end? Will we knock everyone else aside? Trample anyone who gets in our way?

Because if the answer is yes, we’re not saving anything. Nothing worth having, anyway. That’s what Serling is telling us.

What good is a living body if it houses a soul so corrupt that it jettisons, at the first sign of danger, the humanity that makes it worth anything in the first place? When we tiptoe through the rubble after everyone else has been blown to smithereens, what have we gained?

What is life in a graveyard? What is victory when civilization has been stripped away?

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Some critics consider Serling’s writing too heavy-handed in this episode. “The people are clearly cardboard cutouts being moved around as the story dictates,” Marc Scott Zicree writes in “The Twilight Zone Companion.”

Even the director, Lamont Johnson, had mixed feelings: “That was Rod in one of his messianic moods. It was too uptight with its own self-righteousness, I think. I found it an interesting idea, I think the thesis was excellent, but I think its devices and its general style of writing were a little too pompous.”

If “The Shelter” lacks subtlety, though, let’s consider a couple of factors. One is that it was forged during a time of genuine national fear and dread. The Cold War was in full swing. The very month that the episode aired, President Kennedy authorized the Community Fallout Shelter Program. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just one year later.

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Secondly, Serling was dealing with a very serious issue — the direst one imaginable, in fact, and one that had left him in knots — and doing it within the confines of a 25-minute teleplay, not a two-hour feature film. A little bluntness, I believe, is forgivable.

I’m with Larry Gates, who played Dr. Stockton, the character who’s built the shelter in question: “It was a first-rate script.” And I like what Tony Albarella, editor of “As Timeless as Infinity,” said about the episode:

The lives of the Stockton family and their neighbors are spared. This is not salvation, however, but merely destruction of a different sort. These once-tranquil suburbanites have revealed the ugliness and brutality of their true selves; were they instead to have perished in a fiery holocaust, the conclusion could not be more chilling.

That’s because they faced the “true test,” and they failed. What about the rest of us? Serling’s challenging script encourages us to find out — before it’s too late.

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 09/29/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. NotAPunkRocker

    I remember this episode making me cry; just what we can resort to (as written, of course) is so sad.

    • I can see that. Sure, it may be not touching in the usual sense, like “Walking Distance” or “Night of the Meek,” but it deals with a very tough issue.

  2. I remember watching this and I remember people (grown ups) talking about it. We had shelter drills in our school (along with duck and cover). It was a very scary time. We we’re bring told the a nuclear strike was survivable. In retrospect, it seems silly to think that my school desk could protect me from anything. I look back on it and I don’t see it as heavy handed. Serling often hit us with the truth that just might be.

    Great job as usual and a great episode to feature.

    • Thanks, Dan. I missed duck-and-cover drills, but I can imagine what a frightening time it must have been. That’s why I wanted to put it in context for viewers, so they realize why this episode hit home — it was dealing with some very raw and deep fears.

      So yes, Serling DID “often hit us with the truth.” And God bless him for doing so.

  3. Am I right in remembering that there’s no supernatural, fantasy, sci-fi “twist” to this one — just that the attack was either called off or mis-announced? Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get more love; it’s not typically “Twilight Zone.”

    While it’s not one of my all-time favorites, I’ve never actively disliked this episode, either. Sometimes the blunt word is exactly what’s required. It’s easier to criticize Serling as the messenger than to engage with the message, but you have not only wrestled with the message but once again shown the messenger’s skill in this fantastic post. Thanks for it, Paul!

    • You’re right, Mike. “The Shelter” doesn’t involve any supernatural element — unlike, say, its thematic TZ cousin, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” But yes, as you say, sometimes you have to be blunt. That’s why I don’t blame Serling for not being Mr. Subtle here. Harsh times call for harsh truth-telling. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. This is definitely one of the best episodes the Twilight Zone has to offer. Whether it makes someone’s top 10 list of favourites or not, it should still rank high on the list of most important and well-executed messages.

    “Heavy-handed” and “pompous”. *snorts* It’s the people like THAT who are the truly self-righteous ones. I can see why they’d balk at this script though. It IS difficult when Serling holds up a mirror to us all and shows us a wild animal staring back. But this is what I love best about Serling — he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

    I must say, I enjoyed our experiment, Boss. It felt extremely unnatural to not share anything while we worked on these posts, but it was so interesting to see the final outcomes. And not ONE pic the same! I know I provided 70+ pics to choose from, but I know we were both expecting to see at least SOME overlap! :)

    I very much enjoyed your take on “The Shelter”. This is an excellent post, my friend. Nicely done. :)

    • “It IS difficult when Serling holds up a mirror to us all and shows us a wild animal staring back.” — No doubt. Here’s a question for you and Paul (and anyone else who cares to chime in): Do you think the Zone’s take on humanity is basically positive, negative, or somewhere in between? Maybe Serling wouldn’t even have patience with such a question, I don’t know. It seems like we have far more episodes like “Shelter” and “Maple Street” than we do “Night of the Meek” or “One for the Angels.” On balance, I’d say the Zone is a pretty pessimistic place about the human race… What say all of you?

      • It’s positive. And here’s why I give that entirely counter-intuitive answer (because I agree with you: on the surface, things are pretty grim in the Serling-verse). Think of why he was writing in the first place. It’s because, as bad as we ever get (and man alive, can we get bad), he believed we can be called back. He knows there’s a core of decency he could appeal to — a higher purpose that, however far we fall, is never ENTIRELY obscured.

        It’s still there. And he wants to call us back to it. To inspire us. To shake us up. Otherwise, why not simply give up? Why bother to write at all, if only to write us off?

        “The destiny of all men is not to sit in the rubble of their own making, but to reach out for an ultimate perfection,” Serling said in a 1968 speech. Exactly. And that’s why I think, in the end, it’s positive.

      • “Why bother to write at all, if only to write us off?” — Yeah, I think you’re right! Thanks for answering – your reply did me a world of good!

    • I agree. “The Shelter” may not be “fun” in the same way that “It’s a Good Life” or “To Serve Man” are, but it’s such a powerhouse script by a world-class writer that it can’t be ignored or dismissed.

      I think you’ve hit on something here: those who decry its alleged pomposity may really be recoiling from the reflection we see in this episode. And well they should.

      And you’re right, it was definitely an enjoyable experiment. It took real self-control not to read your post before I finished mine (naturally, you were done first, Miss Type A!), but it really bowled me over when I did. As I said in my comment on it, you dove deep and came up with some thought-provoking observations.

      It was a great experience — as always! And yes, the multiple pics you provided were a godsend! It’s nice to have so many good ones to choose from every time. Thanks! :)

  5. Renowned composer William Goldstein has released his original music composed for the 80’s Twilight Zone episodes.

    Here’s the link:

    Thank you for your support!

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