Published on July 12th, 2012 | by Mike Nugent0
The Twilight Zone: The Shelter
The Shelter is a classic episode of the iconic series The Twilight Zone. The premise is based on one idea; nuclear armageddon is imminent, and only one man in the neighbourhood has a bomb shelter. Out of this premise comes some of the best television ever made.
What makes it such fantastic viewing is not the story, but the character interplay. When the episode begins, there’s a dinner party underway in a picturesque American suburb, hosted by a middle aged doctor and his family. It is the very pinnacle of the idealised nineteen-fifties experience. A child interrupts the party, as a broadcast has gone out warning of an impending nuclear attack.
The doctor gets his wife and child into his new shelter. But then the neighbours come. At first they ask calmly to be let in. The doctor refuses, pointing out that there is only enough water for him and his family. But as time passes, the fervour of the neighbours gets harsher. They turn on the doctor and each other, revealing hidden prejudices and losing their suburbanite veneer. Finally, they fashion a battering ram and break down the door to the shelter. Then comes the Twilight Zone twist; the alert was a false alarm.
This episode is chilling viewing. The episode begins slowly and peacefully, with long shots of pleasant people. By the end, there are jump cuts enough to rival Edgar Wright’s work. Through such subtle means, the viewer is drawn into the frantic nature of the episode. You know that the characters are doomed, no matter what they do. When the ending twist hits, you breathe a sigh of relief, but remain left with the question; what would I do?
Narrator: “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.”
Its place in history
This episode touches upon a few important threads, the most interesting being the rise of American suburbia.
The rise of suburbia began out of necessity. The postwar baby boom led to a massively increased demand for housing, that couldn’t be met easily. In 1947, the architect William Levitt designed Levittown, a suburb built on the idea of mass production. By building a small variety of houses en masse in a controlled location, they could be made cheaply and quickly enough to satisfy demand. Each house featured room for a car, as well as being set up for the latest appliances. Furthermore, by building these houses in pre-planned arrangements it was possible to build them around a centralised commercial area, accessible via one’s new automobile.
These developments created a new consumerist culture, where one’s house and land was an extension of oneself, available for all to see. In order to maintain status, one needed the latest consumer products. Marketing departments played to this new social dynamic, and politicians began to court these new suburban voters.
But this suburban shift also bore a darker side. Many of these early suburbs were segregated, either by neighbourhood policy or by virtue of their housing prices being inaccessible to much of the African American population. This phenomenon became known as “white flight,” wherein white Americans no longer lived in urban environments, but fled to the perceived safety provided by the homogeneity of the suburbs.
While subtle, this is perhaps the biggest social change of the twentieth century, to the point where living in a suburb is now considered “the norm”.