No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.
Man was made in the image and likeness of God, which means that we have the ability to reason, to use logic, to divide Truth from Falsehood, and to choose to Love or to Hate. It’s a battle which rages inside each and every one of us daily. Because deep down, we’re all fighting against the same thing.
Animals live by instinct. They can’t reason, they don’t rationalize. They just react. And under the right set of circumstances, man can become nothing more than a beast of instinct too; rejecting his ability to choose. And when that happens, the consequences are often quite severe.
There is no greater instinct than the drive to survive.
In 1961, future “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane was hosting a California morning radio show at KNX CBS. Crane served as host between 1957 and 1965, and just a few weeks after The Twilight Zone’s third season episode “The Shelter” aired, Rod Serling was his guest on the show.
“The Shelter” is a frightening illustration of what happens when the instinct to survive overtakes your ability to think (and therefore act) rationally. This Serling-penned script is one of TZ’s finest, and boasts an important lesson that packs quite a wallop.
The story opens innocently enough with a birthday/dinner party for physician Bill Stockton. A few of his friends and neighbours have gathered to wish him many happy returns. But their toasting and reverie comes to an abrupt halt when they hear a disturbing radio announcement: The president has declared a state of yellow alert after confirming radar evidence of unidentified flying objects, and urges that those with prepared shelters get to them.
This breaks up the dinner party fast, sending the neighbours scrambling to get back to their homes. But as it turns out, only the good doctor has had the foresight to build a shelter in his basement. As panic takes over, the neighbours, with children in tow, all come clamouring for a spot in Bill’s shelter — a shelter that’s only big enough for Bill, his wife, Grace and their son, Paul.
What unfolds next is a living nightmare. A complete degeneration into chaos. The neighbours work themselves into a mad frenzy, and decide that if they can’t use the shelter to survive, then neither will Bill and his family. They begin pummeling the door, determined to break it down, as a shocked and terrified Bill, Grace and Paul listen from inside to the mob’s screams of wild lunacy.
As fear mounts among them, the angry neighbours finally succeed in smashing through the shelter door. Bill has had the radio on the entire time, and just as they break in, an important message starts: “The president of the United States has just announced that the previously unidentified objects have now been definitively ascertained as being satellites. There are no enemy missiles approaching. They are harmless and we are in no danger. The state of emergency has officially been called off.”
The relief among the neighbours is palpable, as they all turn to each other, apologizing for the things they’ve said and done while they were so frightened. It’s only a matter of moments before one of them suggests a block party to pay for the damages they’ve done to Bill’s house and shelter. “Anything to get back to normal,” one of them says. What follows is some of my favourite dialogue from the entire series. Only Serling could pen this so perfectly.
Bill Stockton: “Normal? I don’t know. I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once. I don’t anymore.”
Jerry reiterates that he and the others will pay for the damages to Bill’s home.
Bill Stockton: “Damages? I wonder. I wonder if any one of us has any idea 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 neighbours to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder. I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.”
Serling received 1300 letters and cards in just two days after “The Shelter” aired on September 29, 1961. When we watch the episode today, in the year 2014, it’s easy to forget that this aired during a time when people lived in constant fear of attack — either from other countries or from outer space. If you were a child growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, you’ll likely remember bomb drills in school. People WERE building shelters in their basements and backyards, and they were most certainly afraid.
The episode in and of itself really makes you sit up and take notice. Like all of the greatest TZs, it gets you thinking: What would *I* do if I were in this situation, either as the person with the shelter, or the person without?
I want to highlight what I found to be the most interesting part of Crane’s short interview with Serling.
Crane asks him if the finished episode was the ending Serling wanted, or if he had wanted to end it more strongly.
“No, because I’m not one of those knowledgeable men. I don’t know. I was up in the air about it morally and ethically. I didn’t know how to end that thing. I didn’t know what position philosophically I could take.”
Crane then asks Serling if he himself is building a shelter. And this was the part that really struck a chord with me.
“No, we’re not now,” Serling begins. “Were you?” Crane asks. “For a while we thought very seriously of it. Yeah, we did. And now we’ve decided that no, we’re not going to build it.”
Serling: “Well, for very realistic, stringently realistic reasons, it’s my feeling now that if we survive, what are we surviving for? What kind of a world do we go into? You know, if it’s rubble and poison water and inedible food, and my kids have to live like wild beasts, I’m not particularly sure I want to survive in that kind of world.”
Think about that for a while. The inherent instinct in man is to survive. At all costs. But as Serling postulates, it can’t just be about surviving. What ARE you surviving for? Does there not come a time where circumstance and situation favours an end rather than a continuation of nothing?
Is this not what separates us from the animals? Reacting based on evidence and reason rather than on a primal, emotional feeling?
If there was destruction on a massive scale, would you really want to survive? Would you want to be like Henry Bemis, shuffling through the rubble? Let’s not forget that there would be bodies among that rubble — your friends, your family, your neighbours. Would you want to leave your children alone in a world where as Serling says, they have to live like wild beasts? Fighting other people for food and water (if it’s even edible), fighting every day just to survive?
Existing is NOT the same as living. And I don’t want to simply exist. But these are not easy questions to answer, are they? What would *I* do? But it’s good to think on them sometimes. And the reason The Twilight Zone is such a special show is because Rod Serling, perhaps more than most people, wanted to LIVE. He wasn’t satisfied to just exist either. So he asked those tough questions; he illustrated these scenarios and put forth ideas; he got people talking and thinking and questioning. Living requires thought and growth, and you can’t grow without learning, and questioning, and ultimately doing.
How ironic that a man so full of life would live such a short one. But what he did in that short time is amazing. Here we are, 53 years later, still talking about what he wrote, and the ideas he put forth.
For those of us who are Christians, we don’t fear death, because death is not the end. Survival in a world that’s been terrorized and destroyed would only delay us from getting “home”. Now, I’m not saying that as Christians we should have a death wish! No. But like Serling, I too might be tempted to skip the shelter. I’m not sure. I just thank God that I’m not in a position right now where I have to make that choice.
One thing I DO know for sure, though: I do NOT want to become an animal. I don’t want to ever be like Bill’s neighbours in “The Shelter”, running roughshod and out of control. These things CAN happen. It IS reality. And this is why it’s good to be reminded of them. So that we might remind ourselves that we are not animals of instinct. We are human beings. To quote from another Serling TZ: “Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in The Twilight Zone, but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.
You can listen to Bob Crane’s interview with Rod Serling here.
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As a fun Boss/Gal Friday experiment, Paul and I decided to each write our own blog post today about “The Shelter”. Normally, we share early drafts and discuss what we’re writing about as we’re doing it. But this time, we thought it would be interesting to see how differently we’d each approach the same topic. We both completely finished our piece before sending it along to the other to read/edit so that neither of us would influence the other’s perspective.
And Paul’s post certainly didn’t disappoint! It’s a wonderfully thoughtful look at this episode and the issues it presents. So be sure to head over to Shadow & Substance and read Paul’s take on “The Shelter” in his post, “Gimme ‘Shelter’: The Perils of Survival at Any Price“.