On January 13th, 2018, Hawaiians got an emergency alert on their phones. There was a ballistic missile threat, it was not a drill, and they needed to seek shelter immediately. For 38 minutes, people were horrified, confused, taking to social media to try and piece together what was going on because it wasn’t being covered in the news at all. Finally, they got an alert that all was fine, and it turns out it was a big old accident. But it all made me wonder about the implications. What really happened in those 38 minutes? How did those Hawaiians, and those on holiday in Hawaii, respond to their families, friends and neighbors during this agonizing time of uncertainty and dread? Were long kept secrets told because people thought they were about to be killed? Were people at each other’s throats while immediately seeking shelter, as the warning instructed? And when it was all over, how would they go on in life with their loved ones and neighbors if they were blowing up relationships during this short window of impending doom? Those 38 minutes during this false alarm had the potential to drastically alter people’s lives and relationships forever.
Which brings us to The Shelter. It all begins with a dinner party amongst friends and neighbors, celebrating the birthday of physician Bill Hawkins. His brother-in-law, two former college roommates, and their wives and children are there to celebrate the occasion with Bill, his wife and child, and are having a gay old time, until the Civil Defense system makes an announcement that unidentified flying objects are coming towards them and they need to take shelter immediately. Bill had the foresight to build a bomb shelter in his basement, but with only enough supplies and air for his small family. And that’s when the shit hits the fan.
Jerry arrives first, asking to be allowed in with his wife and kids. Bill says no, he can use his basement, but that’s it. That he kept telling his friends to build a shelter and they didn’t listen. Then Marty arrives, with wife and kids in tow. The shelter door is already bolted, and he can’t and won’t let them in. Marty pleads that he’s a doctor and he’s supposed to help people. But to Bill, that just doesn’t matter anymore. Then Frank comes with his wife and kids, and wants to break down the door. Jerry begins to act like a bit of a middle ground, saying that not everyone can fit down there, so perhaps they could draw straws or something. And that’s when the ugliness really comes out. Frank flings racism at Marty, about him being semi-American due to him being an immigrant, and that’s how these types always arrive: wanting everything for themselves. He even ends up punching Marty in the face. Jerry ends up suggesting they all get a battering ram and they bash the door down, just as the CONELRAD system says that those unidentified objects were just harmless satellites and that state of emergency is called off.
Frank apologizes to Marty, but it doesn’t seem to be worth a damn. Jerry pipes up that Marty won’t hold it against him, just like Bill won’t hold it against them for losing their heads and bashing down the door. They’ll take up a collection and rebuild his bomb shelter, and have a block party tomorrow night, even. But Bill, he doesn’t care about those damages, because he doesn’t think anyone has any idea what those damages actually happen to be. That they went deep into lizard brain territory just to get into a bomb shelter that wouldn’t have fit them, and just because they were spared a bomb doesn’t mean they were spared deep damage.
This, to me, is one of the most terrifying episodes of The Twilight Zone. The ones based in reality typically are. The episodes that show the true depth of human depravity. Those people, so eager to survive, were willing to destroy their friends. And not just destroy them, but do so in front of their children. And for what? So you could crawl out of the rubble in the small chance that you survived? What were you even hoping to survive for?
Back after this episode aired, Bob Crane interviewed Rod Serling, and he asked him if he planned on building a bomb shelter. Rod said he thought about it, but he and the wife decided against it. The reason? Because there’s no point. If the water is poison, the food is inedible, his family has to live like wild animals, then no, he absolutely did not want to live in that kind of world. And I have to agree with him. I personally have always found it to be a highly irritating conversation whenever people talk about how they’d survive a hypothetical zombie or nuclear apocalypse. Why would you even want to? What would the reason be? There has to be something to live for, and in situations like that, there simply would isn’t. Existing isn’t living, and going day to day in search of food and supplies like the man and his son in The Road is no kind of life. To jump back to my first review, would you honestly want to be like Henry Bemis from Time Enough at Last? That sounds like absolute hell.
-If you want to hear that interview with our lord and savior Rod Serling, you can right here.
-Next week, we’ll take a look at a grandmother urging her grandson into suicide so she can be with him in the afterlife with Long Distance Call or The Beginning of Creepy Billy Mumy.
-The series can be watched on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and DVD/Blu-Ray.