Mob Scene: “The Shelter” (The Twilight Zone)

In this 1961 episode from season 3 of The Twilight Zone, a birthday party for a beloved doctor is interrupted by a sobering report on the radio: the government has detected unidentified objects rocketing towards the U.S. A state of yellow alert is promptly declared, and citizens are advised to take shelter. Soon thereafter, Doctor Stockton’s frantic friends and neighbors return, begging him to admit them into the bomb shelter in the cellar of his home (the very refuge they previously ridiculed him for building). Regretfully, the doctor cannot oblige them, since the shelter is designed for three people only (Stockton, his wife Grace, and son Paul). And thus the fallout begins before any bomb drops.

Turned away, the desperate neighbors quickly turn on each other. One of them, Frank, exhibits an ugly anti-Semitic streak, railing against “foreigners” like his friend Marty Weiss, “pushy, grabby semi-Americans.” The line between self and other gets sharply etched; when the idea of obtaining a pipe (to use as a battering ram) from a man on an adjacent street is raised, the group bristles at the thought of letting anyone else know about the existence of the shelter. “We’d have a whole mob to contend with,” one neighbor forewarns, “a whole bunch of strangers.” Ironically, these people don’t realize that they have already degenerated into a mob themselves, acting irrationally and violently amidst their fear. Knowing they all can’t fit inside the shelter doesn’t stop them from trying to bust it open (and ensuring that nobody ends up protected).

In a not-unexpected twist, a second news report (sounding just as the group savages its way into the bomb shelter) announces a false alarm: those were satellites, not nuclear warheads, that had been picked up by military radar. The tension diffused, the group recovers from its momentary lapse into lunacy. The neighbors offer to pay for the damages to the doctor’s property, and even propose throwing a block party the next night to celebrate the return to normalcy. The shell-shocked-looking Stockton, though, scoffs at the notion:

I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once. I don’t anymore. […] I wonder if any one of us has any idea of 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 if we weren’t destroyed even without it.

“The Shelter” is certainly a period piece, addressing the dread manifested by the Cold War. But it also illustrates the timelessness of The Twilight Zone. The episode is just as relevant six decades later, in these chaotic–and sometimes seemingly apocalyptic–times. Right now, we need to take heed to Rod Serling’s concluding comments: “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. 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.”

 

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