Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"The Shelter"

"The Shelter”
Season Three, Episode 68
Original Air Date: September 29, 1961

Bill Stockton: Larry Gates
Grace Stockton: Peggy Stewart
Paul Stockton: Michael Burns
Jerry Harlowe: Jack Albertson
Martha Harlowe: Jo Helton
Frank Henderson: Sandy Kenyon
Mrs. Henderson: Mary Gregory
Marty Weiss: Joseph Bernard
Mrs. Weiss: Moria Turner
Man: John McLiam

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on The Twilight Zone, we use a camera like an X-ray and look under the skin of a neighborhood of men and women. It’s a little experiment in human nature and behavior on the night that a Conelrad broadcast shatters their composure with an announcement of terse terror: a bomb is coming. Most of our stores are a little far out. This one is very close in. You’ll see what I mean next week when we present ‘The Shelter.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“What you are about to watch is a nightmare. It is not meant to be prophetic. It need not happen. It’s 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.”

            While a birthday party is taking place for Dr. William (Bill) Stockton in his suburban home, surrounded by his family, friends, and neighbors, Bill’s son, Paul, informs the party goers of an emergency radio broadcast. The President of the United States has issued a yellow alert after unidentified flying objects have been detected heading toward the United States. In the context of the Cold War, this means a probable nuclear attack. The party goers quickly disperse and Bill’s family prepares to enter their fallout shelter, which had been installed the previous summer, by gathering food, water, and various other supplies. Soon, the water and the power shut off in the home, heightening the alarm.
            Though the neighbors have previously teased Bill about the construction of his fallout shelter, they now begin to arrive with their families in tow to seek his aid in this moment of crisis. None of the neighbors have followed Bill’s lead and constructed a fallout shelter of their own. Bill quickly locks his family into their shelter and tells all who come begging at the door that there is not enough space, oxygen, or supplies to let anyone else in. The shelter was designed for the survival of three people: Bill, his wife, and their son.
            The response from the neighbors is shocking anger and violence. The neighbors, in an attempt to be chosen by Bill to be allowed into the shelter, begin to verbally tear each other down, exposing secret prejudices and hatreds. Desperation gathers the neighbors together in an attempt to use a battering ram to get through the door of Bill’s shelter and spoil the Stockton’s attempt at survival. While the neighbors are in the process of breaking down the door to the fallout shelter, another radio broadcast is heard. The previously unidentified flying objects are identified as satellites. The threat is over, yet the damage done through the panic will change their lives as friends and neighbors forever.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
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.”


"So each stood there with a secret thought, while the voice of the radio announcer, quivering with a barely perceptible tension, kept on repeating the announcement over and over again in the same studiedly dispassionate voice - the well-rehearsed ritual of a modern Paul Revere on a twentieth-century night-ride."
           -"The Shelter" by Rod Serling,  New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)

           It seems unavoidable but to view Rod Serling’s “The Shelter” in the context of his enduring first season episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” There is no denying the many similarities. Both episodes present a Middle-American neighborhood sent into hysteria over a perceived threat, one a series of tricks (and the instigation of an imaginative child), the other a false alarm. Both feature similar American archetypes designed to represent the American “everyman” or “everywoman” (though, with one exception, noticeably lacking minority representation). Both episodes present moments of mob violence which must have been shocking to see on early 1960's American television (until the arrival of footage from the Vietnam war, that is). Both episodes tackle the ugly problems of middle century America head-on in an unblinking manner, most especially the inner prejudices each of us secretly harbors and keeps hidden from our neighbors and friends.  
            Rod Serling often revisited previous material on the series but rarely did so without presenting a new way of looking at the subject matter. “The Shelter” is no exception, and the episode has achieved a reputation for quality drama independent of its connection to the earlier episode. Martin Grams, Jr., author of The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), notes that reprint rights for the one-act play were quickly bought by Charles Scribner’s Sons for inclusion in a contemporary textbook. Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" has been a staple of American textbooks since the late 1960s. "The Shelter" was also one of the show’s best reviewed segments at the time of its initial broadcast and viewer response was immediate and enthusiastic. During a radio interview with Bob Crane, Serling stated that the episode received 1,300 letters and cards over a two day period after the initial broadcast. Listen to the full interview here.  It provides fascinating insight into Serling’s impetus for writing “The Shelter” as well as a contemporary discussion on the topic of fallout shelters.
            Whether or not “The Shelter” would have been written and produced had Serling not first had success with “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is something we will never know. "The Shelter" did allow Serling to approach elements of the earlier episode and make changes to better suit the timely treatment of the theme. It is interesting to consider what the view of the two episodes would be had “The Shelter” been first to air. One of the fundamental differences in the two episodes is that by the third season of the series, Serling no longer felt the need to cloak his socially conscious episodes in the trappings of science fiction in order to camouflage the message to the viewer and elude the ire of corporate sponsors. The steady ratings and the Emmy Awards ensured the show could be plainly bold in its approach to sensitive social matters.
           “The Shelter” offers nothing as trite as the “little green men from space” invasion backdrop of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Besides a flyover sound effect near the beginning of the panic, and the use of the term “unidentified flying object,” “The Shelter” offers no such imaginative removal from the issue at hand. Serling was attacking the real anxieties of the American public with a realistic doomsday scenario. In “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” the viewer intuited what Rod Serling was really talking about when he talked about alien invaders: the red scare, irrational prejudice, unwarranted paranoia, fear of the outsider among us, a horror of cultural assimilation. “The Shelter” requires no such interpretation. It spells out its message clearly and in relative terms, even to a viewer removed from the initial broadcast by more than half a century. It is this quality and the immediacy of the topic which gives the episode its power to stun the viewer, even upon repeat viewings. Though Serling’s closing narration states “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract,” he immediately states the episode’s moral and message: “for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.”
            Serling was drawn back to the themes of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” because the anxiety over imminent nuclear war had greatly increased even in the two years since the broadcast of that first season episode. No longer were Americans only frightened by a silent, insidious Communist invasion (the "sixth columnists" of the earlier episode) but also by the threat of sudden, spectacular apocalypse. The main ingredients missing from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” are the threat of immediate doom and the symbolic image of the fallout shelter and what they represented to the average American at the height of the Cold War. The fallout shelter was a powerful enough symbol to prompt Serling to revisit the earlier material by exploring what would happen during a panic if only one person in a neighborhood possessed a fallout shelter. Would we hold it together or would we, when faced with our own deaths, collapse into violence and savagery? What would be the ethical answer to the problem for the one family that possessed the shelter?

"Let us take a hard look at the facts. In an atomic war, blast, heat, and initial radiation could kill millions close to ground zero of nuclear bursts. Many more millions - everybody else - could be threatened by radioactive fallout. But most of these could be saved. The purpose of this booklet is to show how to escape death by fallout." 
         -Introduction by Leo Heogh, Director of the Office of Civil and Defense                                     Mobilization, to The Family Fallout Shelter (1959) 

            By 1961, the fallout shelter had grown into an emblem of the American way of life. An entire manufacturing industry grew up around the anxiety of atomic war and many Americans with the financial means to do so seriously considered the construction of a fallout shelter on their property. Sundry items were being marketed based on their effectiveness in a fallout situation.
            “The Shelter” offered Serling an opportunity to present a timely episode about a looming social and political issue as well as revisit previous material in an attempt to mold it differently and see how it behaves. One of the key differences in “The Shelter” and the earlier episode is that, in “The Shelter,” Serling juxtaposed the inherent tension of the episode with moments of levity, which served to heighten the horror as it unfolded. Once viewed, even the episode’s simple title takes on a blackly humorous double meaning. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” doesn’t present such a juxtaposition. Instead, the tension begins immediately with a flyover sound effect and only increases to the violent conclusion.
            Serling chose to begin “The Shelter” with a birthday party, a universally identifiable event that displays the close connections between the residents of the neighborhood in order to present a stark contrast to the manner in which the episode will play out. Serling understood that to better bring home the impact of the theme the viewer must be made to see the characters together in a pleasant social setting. We must believe that these characters have long enjoyed agreeable relations. Moments in the script allude to frequent get-togethers and barbecues. As an added measure of plausibility, Serling makes the birthday party one characterized by drunkenness, which can logically explain at least some of the impulsive and irrational behavior after the panic begins.
           Even when the tension mounted to the near breaking point, Serling and director Lamont Johnson take a moment to show two children secretly partake of the half-eaten, forgotten birthday cake on the dining room table while their parents discuss desperate solutions to their dire situation. It is a wonderful moment that lends the episode a frightening verisimilitude. 
            Another difference in the two episodes is the logical catalyst that propels the panic. However believable the viewer finds the likelihood of a young boy’s imagination, together with some unusual electrical phenomena, igniting a panic, there is little doubt that such an emergency radio broadcast as depicted in “The Shelter” was something very likely to be on the minds of most adult Americans in 1961. That, along with the pervasive presence of the party goers’s drunkenness, present a very likely scenario for panic, regardless of time or place. It is the sharp contrast between a joyful party and the sudden onset of very real physical danger that lends “The Shelter” an alarming, disorienting quality. Serling suggested that when frightening events happen quickly, people may seek the temporarily recourse of an emotional state in which one can react on a purely instinctive level.

            This brings to mind another episode of broadcast history which may have inspired Serling in constructing both “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter.” This was the October 30, 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air. Presented as a news bulletin, this radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel caused controversy as it convinced some listeners that the Earth was actually being invaded by hostile extraterrestrials, presumably causing panic in the streets. Though reports of the mass hysteria caused by the broadcast have been exaggerated in the ensuing years, due mostly to contemporary newspaper attempts to discredit radio in the latter medium’s early days, the myth of the Mercury Theatre broadcast quickly became a permanent part of American popular culture, to the point of attaining something close to the status of folklore. If the reader is interested in learning more about it, they would do well to read Slate's article on the persistent myth of the broadcast, written by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow.
             Though a child is partially responsible for the initial paranoia in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” children are even more prevalent in “The Shelter,” as the subject of saving the children becomes a point of both strength and fear, and is one of the chief catalysts of violence as the tension increases. “The Shelter” presents the story in the form of a ticking clock, a countdown to Armageddon, which serves to better justify both the fast pace of the half-hour program and the sudden change in behavior of some of the characters. It all happens a bit too quickly in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and the events cannot quite justify the quick pacing. Another important similarity between the two episodes is that Serling chose darkness as the moment when the panic really heats up. He suggested that it is easy to continue to be rational as the lights remain on, but once we are cast into darkness we begin our descent into madness and savagery. This is by no means a new idea or an outmoded one if the viewer will only recall the panic of the Y2K scare at the beginning of the 21st century, when the idea of a new Dark Age briefly placed the world on edge.
            Serling wisely chose to set “The Shelter” within the home and shows the viewer only small glimpses of the panic on the street, whereas “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” takes place wholly outside on the street and we are not privy to the sanctuary of the characters’s private lives. In the earlier episode the houses are like fortresses whereupon the people stand guard on front porches. The change is fundamental to the impact of the story, as seeing the destruction within a home, the most private space of the family, is more forceful than a confrontation on a street in an American neighborhood.

            The preceding is not an attempt to present “The Shelter” as a superior example of the theme first explored in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," or to present the episode as wholly dependent upon the other, but only to suggest that “The Shelter” is deserving of being viewed in a positive light outside the shadow of the earlier, and more famous, episode. Of course “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” has the advantage of originality of concept as well as, despite the Emmy Award-laden talent in front of the camera for “The Shelter,” perhaps the most talented ensemble of character actors of any episode of the series. Actress Mary Gregory, who portrays Mrs. Henderson, wife of Frank, in “The Shelter,” is the only cast member to appear in both “The Shelter” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” The latter episode remains one of the jewels in the crown of Rod Serling’s efforts on the show and was a rich enough concept to produce a second take on the theme that is nearly as powerful as the original.

            “The Shelter” features the debut of director Lamont Johnson on the series. Johnson was a mainstay on the third season and directed some of the finest episodes of the show, including “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” and a pair from writer George Clayton Johnson, “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can.” Lamont Johnson also directed Charles Beaumont’s excellent fourth season episode “Passage on the Lady Anne,” his sole directing credit on the series beyond the third season. Johnson also directed “One More Pallbearer,” a Rod Serling-penned episode that is thematically related to “The Shelter” in that it revolves around a fallout shelter, though the episodes differ radically in their approach to the subject. With the departure of Douglas Heyes after the second season of the series, it was fortunate for producer Buck Houghton to acquire the talents of a director like Lamont Johnson, a former actor who well understood the requirements of dramatic storytelling. Much like with Douglas Heyes, many of the best scripts would be funneled to Lamont Johnson.
            Johnson (1922-2010) was born in Stockton, California and began his acting career in 1951 performing on syndicated radio programs, portraying characters as diverse as Tarzan and Archie Goodwin, assistant to actor Sydney Greenstreet’s Nero Wolfe. Johnson made the move to acting in films and television before finding his niche behind the camera in the director’s chair, working almost entirely in television. His efforts yielded eleven Emmy Award nominations and eight Director’s Guild of America Award nominations. Johnson finished his career with two Emmy Awards and four Director’s Guild of America Awards. Despite the fact that Johnson’s efforts on The Twilight Zone were very successful, he rarely worked within the fantasy genre outside of the series and was never called upon to helm episodes of similar programs.
            Unfortunately, Lamont Johnson did not think highly of “The Shelter,” or, more specifically, of Rod Serling’s script for the episode. Author Marc Scott Zicree quotes Johnson in The Twilight Zone Companion (Bantam, 1982) as saying: “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 general style of writing were a little too pompous.” This low opinion of the episode is one shared by Zicree as well. The episode is certainly pessimistic (one might say realistic) in nature and perhaps this quality engineers a negative response from those more in tune with the lighter, reassuring episodes. Uncomfortable truths, after all, are designed to make one uncomfortable. Perhaps, as Serling noted in his preview narration, it is a little too “close in” for some viewers, lacking as it does that comforting barrier of fantasy found in most other episodes. Stephen King, in Danse Macabre (1981), his survey of mid-century horror in media, described the episode this way: "rarely has any television program dared to present human nature in such an ugly, revealing light as that used in 'The Shelter,' in which a number of suburban neighbors along Your Street, U.S.A., are reduced to animals squabbling over a fallout shelter during a nuclear crisis." "The Shelter" revels a side of ourselves that we would rather forget, or worse, believe doesn't exist at all.
            In any case, “The Shelter” remains a powerful episode that still speaks to many societal problems being experienced by Americans in the 21st century, nearly sixty years after its initial broadcast. If it is derivative in places it is equally original in others. It is interesting to contemplate the personal impact on the viewer of “The Shelter” during its initial broadcast, as little of American television was willing to be as dark, daring, and blunt as was The Twilight Zone when Rod Serling turned his talents to tackling a timely social issue. Serling would by no means be finished with the concept after “The Shelter,” as he would approach the themes at the heart of the episode in later episodes such as “The Midnight Sun,” "Dust," “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” “The Old Man in the Cave,” and “I Am the Night-Color Me Black.”

Grade: B


-Academy Award and Emmy Award winner Jack Albertson (1907-1981), best known for the sitcom Chico and the Man and the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, also appears in the fourth season episode “I Dream of Genie” as well as in “Dead Weight,” a segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

-Sandy Kenyon, born Sanford Klein (1922-2010), also appears in the episodes “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” from season two, and “Valley of the Shadow” from season four. Kenyon also has credits on Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits. Kenyon was an accomplished voice actor for animated television late in his career.

-Jo Helton also appears in the season four episode “On Thursday We Leave for Home.”

-As stated before, actress Mary Gregory has the distinction of also appearing in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” as well as the second season episode, “The Lateness of the Hour.” She appeared on Rod Serling's Night Gallery in "The Different Ones."

-John McLiam also appears in the fourth season episode “Miniature,” as well as in uncredited roles for the third season episode “The Midnight Sun” and the fifth season episode “Uncle Simon.”

-Despite the fact that Rod Serling adapted “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” into a short story for his 1960 collection Stories From the Twilight Zone, he felt confident enough in similar episode “The Shelter” to adapt it into a short story as well for his 1962 collection New Stories From the Twilight Zone.

-“The Shelter” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Ernie Hudson.



  1. A very thoughtful post! I remember this episode but of course I don't remember it as well as "Monsters." I wonder if you have the same experience that I do when working on these old anthology shows. Sometimes the first viewing is disappointing but then the second (or third) reveals things of more interest. It seems like I get the plot out of the way the first time and am then able to look at details on repeat viewings.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Jack. I often find a lot more to like when I go back over an episode that I haven't seen in a long time. Of course, it sometimes works the other way as well and I often find that an episode is not as good as I once thought it was. With the best episodes of the Zone I feel like I see something new every time I watch them, no matter how many times I've watched them.

  2. The Shelter has never worked for me. I agree wholly with its director, Lamont Johnson, in regarding it as too full of itself and pompous (no fault of the actors). Once the panic begins it starts to feel like a civics lesson. It does capture the zeitgiest of the period in which it was made, roughly the Eisenhower-Kennedy era cusp of the Cold War. What holds my interest throughout is the natural, intelligent, totally credible performance of Larry Gates as the doctor. His low key authority sells his character and predicament, and to a degree the episode.