(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 12
2. The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick
the second scariest movie I’ve ever seen
Look at this.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I’ll admit it: Even in broad daylight, sitting in my goofy romper-room of an office, with people talking and music playing and all manner of distractingly normal goings-on going on, those pictures beat me. I actually cannot look at them for long without quickly scrolling past, or giggling nervously, or simply looking away. And now, as I type this in our darkened apartment, I’m afraid to look over my shoulder at the doorway to our bedroom. I am a grown man, and three little images, two of which aren’t even of anything inherently frightening, all of which I’ve seen a million times before, have scared me to the point of irrationality.
This is how Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece–and I swear to you those are not words I use lightly–The Shining operates. This film is not content to spook you from behind shadows or gross you out with kayro-syruped viscera. This film wants to scare the living shit out of you, over and over again, and not really for any particular reason. This film is a bully. This is arrogant horror.
“Arrogant”–I struggled for a long time to find a word to describe the mentality of the horror in this movie (yes, we’re ascribing mentality to an intangible quality–why not? this is a movie about an evil hotel, right?). The critical blurb on the cover says “epic,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. This is certainly horror on a grand scale, but I think that word was chosen simply because this wasn’t a skeevy little movie made on the cheap like most horror tended to be throughout film history, whether we’re talking about the Universal classics or the creature-features of the 50s or the new wave of Romero, Hooper, Carpenter, Craven et al. Also, I think “epic” connotes some sort of struggle between mighty opponents–the type of thing we see in The Exorcist. The Shining‘s Dick Halloran is many things, but Father Lancaster Merrin he isn’t.
I stumbled across “arrogant,” finally, when looking at the performance of Jack Nicholson as the deteriorating patriarch of the Torrance family with the same first name. I don’t often focus on this aspect of the movie, transfixed as I am by the imagery seen above. But it’s this aspect that many fans of the film’s source novel, its author not least among them, blamed for what they considered a failed movie. They believe the film doesn’t work because we never feel sympathy or empathy for Jack Torrance–it’s clear from the moment he opens his mouth that he’s about five minutes away from Richard Speck territory. Nicholson, who studied the larger-than-life performance techniques of Grand Guignol actors to prepare for the role, does not exactly attempt to capture the inner torment of a man losing a struggle with his own demons. He plays it like a schtick, grunting and gesticulating, staring and grinning, and most importantly, mocking and sneering. His is an evil that drips with condescension and contempt for everything good. It’s present as early as when he sarcastically echoes his wife Wendy’s assertion that writing is just a matter of getting back into the habit, but it explodes into the forefront during the long pas de deux from the typewriter to the stairs. Jack transparently feigns concern for their son Danny’s health and patronizingly asks Wendy her opinion on what should be done. He mimics her high-pitched weepy voice. In the midst of threatening to bash her brains in, he comically reprimands her for not allowing him to complete his sentences. He sticks his tongue out and makes a goofy voice like a taunting child as he tells her to hand over her baseball bat. When he’s finally put out of comission for the time being, he fakes contriteness and injury so badly that there’s no chance of his wife believing him, so badly that the only possible purpose is to display the extent to which he believes Wendy is a total fucking moron. He’s not just crazy, and he’s not just evil–he’s an asshole.
This is what is terrifying about The Shining. Not just Nicholson’s performance, but those horrendous visions–textbook monumental horror-images one and all–it all mocks our desire for solid ground to stand on. We want a main character with a tragic arc, but we get a smirking prick on a straight shot into lunacy; we want one who fights to stay human, but we get one whose essential inhumanity appears to have been there all along waiting for its chance to escape. We want an evil we can define, in a form we can recognize, with a cause we can identify and a cure we can affect; but we get random, almost arbitrary snippets of nightmare, ranging from a river of blood and a reanimated corpse to a couple of kids and goddamn spectral “furry,” interlaced with a dry drunk who falls off the wagon thanks to the help of a phantom bartender, all of which ostensibly will continue to plague visitors to the hotel site “forever and ever and ever,” and all of which is “explained” in a throwaway line about Indian burial grounds that paradoxically highlights just how arbitrary the entire “explanation” is to begin with. (Actually, there’s a fascinating interpretation of the film which argues that the whole thing is a metaphor for the Euro-American genocide against the American Indians–you can read all about it here. Watch the movie with this in mind and you’ll see it’s all there. Was this intentional and serious, or intentional and a gag, or just the equivalent of playing Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz? I think the film feels we don’t deserve to know for sure.) Perhaps this is best encapsulated by the arbitrary changes to facts established earlier in the film when they’re brought up later on: Wendy tells Danny’s doctor that Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder five months ago, but a month later, when Jack is pouring his heart out to Lloyd the bartender, it’s become two years; the hotel manager tells Jack that the former caretaker who ran amok was named Charles Grady, but when Jack speaks with Grady later on, the man calls himself Delbert. Given Kubrick’s well-deserved reputation for perfectionism, I think we can safely assume this wasn’t the result of the script girl having the day off–it seems to be just another way for the film to demonstrate that it’s making its own rules, and the rules will always be to the detriment of normality and sanity.
This movie may be Grand Guignol imbued with the Theater of the Absurd, but it’s lower-case-“a” absurd, too. It has a wickedly black sense of humor that, for once, heightens the horror, not deflates it. I still laugh when the music builds to a crescendo only to have the chords crash frighteningly upon the appearance of the word “TUESDAY”–scariest Tuesday ever!; the cut to Danny’s horrified doctor as Wendy tells the story of Danny’s injury is just priceless; you’ve got to think that even Wendy and Danny noticed the, ahem, appropriateness of the Road Runner cartoon they watch; and what can we say about Dick Halloran’s interior decorating? That last bit is, I think, particularly telling: Kubrick takes one of Stephen King’s great everyman heroes (I actually am quite fond of them) and turns him into both a dirty old man and a blaxploitation parody. It’s very funny, and very mean. It’s a kick in the teeth of the notion that anything in this movie will be capable of heroism, capable of creating sense, capable of defeating evil. This evil knows our hopes and, to paraphrase Lou Reed, pisses on them. It’s the proverbial boot stamping on the human face. It’s a dead man with a bleeding head saying “Great party, isn’t it?” It’s wrong.
I truly had to debate with myself as to where to rank this film in my countdown. For years, this was the scariest movie I’d ever seen, no question; The Exorcist came close, but the horrible purposeleness of this movie, as well as the unparalleled terror of those images, kept The Shining in a class by itself–the class of movies that can still keep me up at night, afraid. Eventually, I saw a movie that beat it. I saw that movie under just the right circumstances, though, and I don’t know if it’s worth arguing whether it really is “scarier” than this one. All I know is that any time I think of those two little girls, I believe that pound for pound, scene for scene, horror–arrogant, arbitrary, absurd, cruel, evil horror–comes no more horrifying than this.
Except, perhaps, for…
(to be concluded)
Postscript: I did a lot of writing about The Shining back in my film studies days. Kubrick films hold up under close reading better than those of any other director, in my opinion, so it should come as no surprise that I actually manged to pull off two separate close readings, separated by three years. The first was a study of the film’s employment of duality, and especially mirrors and mirroring–you can download it here, and I truly do think you’ll be surprised to see just how much thought went into every shot in the film, as evidenced by just this one trope.
The second took place in the context of my senior essay on the monumental horror-image, this time focusing on the countless appearances of such images in the film. You can access the whole senior essay by clicking here, but once again I’m reprinting the relevant part in an effort to offset all the waxing poetic I did up above with some hardcore textual analysis. Again, it’s simply astounding how rational was the planning of this, a film about the complete failure of rationality. Enjoy.
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Analyses of The Shining often focus on its psychological horror, in particular the madness of Jack Torrance, its central character. This detracts from the painstaking manner in which Kubrick sets up monumental horror-images (particularly those of the first type) so as to overpower characters and audience alike with the horror of the “unreal.” In a way, the confines of the Overlook Hotel come to define a new world, one where old conceptual frameworks of time, space, and human behavior are mercilessly hacked to pieces. Jack’s insanity is simply his method of adapting to this systematic violation of his old world – a violation for which the indelible monumental horror-image stands.
The first encounter we have with such an image is fleeting, yet unforgettable – an almost subliminal flash of the twins seen during Danny’s vision/episode before he and his family move to the Overlook for the winter. They pop out at us unexpectedly in the midst of a slow-motion shot of a torrent (Torrance?) of blood gushing forth from the hotel’s elevator doors, accompanied by ominously low, droning music, and mirrored by a subsequent flash cut to Danny screaming. However briefly they appear, the twins are presented as a concretization of the fluid, a personification of the forces of violence, fear, and death present in the rest of the vision. Further, since we have already heard the story of how the twins were slain by their father, one of the Overlook’s winter caretakers, we know that seeing them at all is a violation of physical reality.
This “violation of reality” is reinforced when the twins next appear, in the rec room scene described at length above. Though there is nothing particularly special about the way the twins are presented or shot, they are clearly out of place in this quotidian setting. A careful look at the shot structure of the film reveals why they make us feel so uneasy: throughout the movie, the camera has been in constant motion. We begin with a breathtaking fly-over shot of Jack’s car as it snakes through the mountains toward the Overlook; we are constantly following characters with Kubrick’s trademark tracking shots, made even more fluid by the recent invention of the Steadicam; even simple close-ups are usually made mobile with slow, barely perceptible tracks or zooms into the characters’ faces. But in monumental horror-images of the first type, such as that of the twins, the camera comes to a jarring halt. Kubrick has accustomed us to movement, subtly training us to be uneasy when this movement ceases. In the rec room scene, the jarring nature of this contrast is highlighted by an uncharacteristically rapid zoom-in on Danny just as he turns to see the twins in the doorway. Their presence, standing there like twin tombstones, is a violation not only of the physical laws of the film, but in this movie’s case, a violation of the physical laws of film.
The usefulness of the movement/stasis contrast in making the spectator uneasy is even clearer in the twins’ final appearance. We follow Danny on his Big Wheels as he glides through the corridors of the hotel, until he turns a corner and comes to a screeching halt, finding himself face to face with the twins once more. As mentioned earlier, this scene highlights the Freudian “uncanny” aspects of the girls, one such aspect being the compulsive repetition in their speech. But the phrase they repeat – “forever and ever and ever” – calls to mind the concept of overwhelming infinitude central to both the sublime and to cosmic fear. Danny reacts by covering his eyes to block out the horror of what he is seeing, then using Tony to tell himself that, “like pictures in a book,” the twins can’t hurt him. But his uncertain tone of voice belies this claim. The twins have hurt him, but through his mind’s eye, which no hands can cover. They have shattered Danny’s feeling of safety, both physical (they were slain by their father – might he fall victim to a similar fate?) and metaphysical (they are dead, and yet they are standing at the end of the hall and beckoning to him – what other cracks in the fabric of reality might threaten to swallow him up?).
By the time the film reaches its climax, dangers of both types have reached enormous proportions. Jack turns violent, chasing his wife and son with an axe. His total transgression of behavioral norms is mirrored by the hotel, which in turn unleashes its most numerous and large-scale violations of reality – many of them, naturally, in the form of monumental horror-images. Indeed, as a terrified Wendy, having become separated from Danny, runs through the hotel to find him, she is practically bombarded with such images. After climbing a flight of stairs, she looks into a bedroom down the hall, where a man dressed as a dog kneels and performs fellatio on a man in a tuxedo. They sit up and stare at her, unblinking. Minutes later, after discovering the body of the Overlook’s chef Dick Halloran (who has been slain by Jack), she turns to find another tuxedo-clad man at the end of the hallway. His bald head covered with blood, he raises his glass and says merrily, “Great party, isn’t it?” Like the dogman and his friend, he is isolated in the distant center of the frame (his central position is accentuated by the presence of a chandelier hanging directly above him, just as the dogman and his lover’s position was highlighted by their framing in a doorway), where he stands like a monument to the malevolent party being held in the hotel.
It is important to note that as these sequences unfold, we are also tracking Jack as he chases Danny out into the snow-covered hedge maze on the hotel grounds. We know that Wendy is no longer in physical danger, as the axe-wielding madman that is her husband is no longer inside the hotel with her. This does not detract from the horror of her situation, however. The presence of these spectral “guests,” unthreatening as they may seem, proves incontestably that much more is wrong with the Overlook Hotel than its caretaker. By the time Wendy sees the final, truly monumental image of the elevator (which she approaches as if she knows what is going to happen) gushing blood, it is clear that the Overlook itself is a “monument,” a physical embodiment of undying evil capable of warping both time and minds. In this sense, Jack’s demise is fitting: frozen and immobile, he becomes a monument himself, a physical embodiment of the cosmic horror of the Overlook Hotel.