Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Twilight Zone: 'The Shelter'

Many bunker narratives take on the attributes of the siege or prison drama because entering the bunker is in the end a mode of self-incarceration. In this respect the bunker narrative works as a means of playing out broader anxieties about the ways in which everyday life, at least since World War II, has been commandeered by the militarized state. The continuation of life in these narratives is predicated upon access to a technologically-mediated environment that is itself an outgrowth of a militarized society. Being inside the bunker brings no relief from the terrors produced by it and the deceptions generated by a withdrawal from the outside world’s continuities of time and space instead cause a disorientation that is recognizable not as the exceptional condition of emergency but as an intensification of the conditions of control that the very idea of a bunker makes possible. Even as it offers a tentative promise of protection from assault, the bunker violently interrupts and destabilizes the state of security it is supposed to preserve.

This sense of the bunker as a weapon is evident in a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone called ‘One More Pallbearer,’ where the wealthy Paul Radin invites three people from his past to the bomb shelter he has built in the basement of a New York skyscraper. Radin’s objective is to terrify the three, against whom he holds a grudge, into begging his forgiveness by simulating a nuclear attack. An apology wins a place in the bunker while a refusal is certain death. All three refuse and leave, preferring an honorable death; Radin has evidently always been rotten. The elaborate ruse, however, turns out to have anticipated real events as a bomb blast shakes the shelter and Radin discovers that war really has occurred. In a further twist, however, the wreckage Radin wanders through above ground turns out to be all in his mind; the world has not ended and he has gone mad.

While the bunker seemingly gives Radin power over life and death, conventional values of right and wrong neutralise the grip he believes he has over those who have allegedly persecuted him. The imagined apocalypse clearly marks Radin as mad but the single-mindedness with which he has used his wealth to construct an environment of terror and coercion suggests that he -- and by extension, a culture that deploys civil defence a means of social control -- is a genuine threat.