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Three Reactions to Shelter Life

Office of Civil Defense


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Many civil defense films address the problem of fallout radiation, the lingering side-effect of an enemy attack with nuclear weapons which would have forced millions of citizens across the United States to seek shelter for an undetermined length of time.  The vast majority of these films, however, focus on the physical dangers of radiation and the science behind stopping its harmful effects.  Government filmmakers devoted precious little screen time to the host of other problems likely to arise from confining large segments of a population into the cramped quarters of a public fallout shelter. 

The few films which demonstrate how life in a public fallout shelter would look are quick to explain that emotional outbursts and uncooperative attitudes can be solved with bureaucratic procedures and calm discussions.  Three Reactions to Shelter Life, released in 1964 by the Office of Civil Defense, offers an exception.  By presenting the negative experiences of three shelterees, the film highlights the mental suffering likely to occur even when the occupants of a public fallout shelter remain physically safe.  Interestingly, Three Reactions to Shelter Life leaves each scenario unsolved, suggesting there can be no easy answers to the problems of human interaction.

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In the first segment presented, illiterate handyman Charlie Kerry seeks public shelter in the affluent neighborhood where he works.  Stress of his missing mother and sister, combined with jabs from other occupants about his intellectual inferiority, finally breaks Charlie who begins to harass women and pick fights.  He is forcibly restrained by the shelter manager as the screen fades to black.  The second segment introduces Mary Dennis, a spinster and bookkeeper who manages supplies for her public shelter.  Ms. Dennis brings petty jealousies into the shelter with her, continually arguing with other women. Unable to comprehend the severity of the situation, she makes plans with 

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people known to have perished in the attack.  Her friend (who can be seen spreading anti-government theories in Occupying a Public Shelter) tries to keep her calm.  Growing increasingly annoyed with her fellow occupants Ms. Dennis steals a checkerboard and assaults a young child who offers her candy.  When confronted, she suffers a breakdown and her segment ends as she cries out for her home.

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The third and final segment of the film features Arnold Sweeter, a business man in a heartbreaking position.  Sweeter has taken shelter in an industrial basement near his office, however, the whereabouts of his wife Evelyn and son Robert are unknown.  Understandably distraught, Sweeter frequently checks in with the shelter manager to seek updates on survivors in other buildings across the town.  He is comforted by a woman who strictly warns him against venturing outside to find his family.  The same actress can also be seen in Information Programs Within Public Shelters and Occupying a Public Shelter, portraying in both instances a mother separated from her children.  Unable to stand the pressure of not knowing their fate, Sweeter sneaks out to search for Evelyn and Robert. 

not knowing their fate, Sweeter sneaks out to search for Evelyn and Robert.  Shortly after his exit, word arrives that they are safe in a public shelter across town.  The film concludes by explaining how, with proper instruction, most shelter occupants will remain calm and docile.  Incorporating scenes from many other Office of Civil Defense films, the narrator reiterates how some citizens may react negatively to the confines of a public shelter.  Reviewing the three scenarios presented, the audience, likely comprised of trainee shelter managers, is asked how they would handle each instance to achieve a better outcome.

Three Reactions to Shelter Life may be viewed in its entirety HERE.

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