The first time I saw The Shining, I was 14. It was the last movie in a sleepover marathon, which means it started late and finished in the dead dark that arrives after midnight.
The only way it could have been scarier is if it had started snowing.
Back then, I viewed the story through the eyes of Danny Torrance (played to perfection by then-6-year-old Danny Lloyd). Not far removed from that age myself, it felt natural to see the child as the hero of that story. Of course Danny would beat back the monsters and escape! I mean … I obviously would.
When I set out to write this essay, I was going to tackle the difference between seeing the movie as a kid and the feeling of watching it as an adult, now with a grade-schooler of my own. I had the premise all worked out: I was going to compare and contrast all the ways growing up made me lose that beautifully invincible feeling of childhood. I thought it was universal, that indestructible feeling of being a kid.
But as I watched, I was struck not by the change in my own feelings but instead the realization that youthful invincibility is a privilege, not a given — privilege enjoyed blithely by those of us lucky enough to grow up in a safe, loving home largely untouched by violence, tragedy or genuine instability. Kids who feel like they can take on the world with no protection only feel that way because they’ve never been in a position to actually need protection. As someone who now worries about a fall from the monkey bars or inattentive drivers in parking lots, I expected to consider Danny’s vulnerability from a parental perspective. Instead, I found myself wondering how I ever convinced myself that my own relative comfort meant the world was a safe place for everyone else.
When it comes to unsettling and disorienting the audience, The Shining is an absolute masterpiece. More of an artistic statement than a story, the entire production is intended to make you uncomfortable. The camerawork is brilliant, from the opening aerial sequence that instantly establishes the grand scope and isolation of the Overlook Hotel to the iconic Steadicam tracking shots that follow Danny and his Big Wheel through the unsettlingly empty hallways. Director Stanley Kubrick and his longtime cinematographer John Alcott use a variety of unusual angles and perspectives to build a feeling of genuine unease.
Between the jarring camerawork and the aggressively discordant musical score, there is never a moment in this film where you can relax and catch your breath. That’s no accident: Everything from the interior sets to the editing to the largely incoherent script is a deliberate attempt to upend convention. Sets are built with impossible proportions, with windows and doors that make no sense and corners that meet at angles just far enough off true to mess with your head while not being a complete distraction. It’s mentally taxing to watch, your subconscious constantly trying to work out what’s so god-blessed weird about what you’re seeing.
The pacing is far different than the usual horror movie rhythms, too. Kubrick affords you no breaks — no comic relief, no gratuitous sex scenes, none of the ways more traditional horror movies vent tension before ratcheting it back up. It isn’t just a film with a scary story, some creepy characters and a couple of big startling moments to make you jump in your seat. It’s some of that, but it’s much more. It’s scary to look at, to experience. The story could be a retelling of Moana and it would still be deeply unsettling because of the care Kubrick puts into making the viewer feel as if they’re slowly going a little bit insane.
I knew all this when I sat down to watch it again. As an adult, it was, surprisingly, a little easier at first to sit back and appreciate this technical mastery. I’ve read countless articles about Kubrick’s obsession with creating that atmosphere, about the complaints from author Stephen King about Kubrick’s deviation from the source material, about Kubrick’s fixation on symmetry and mirrors and so on. As an academic exercise, you could mine The Shining for film school thesis material all day long.
The sense of isolation and discomfort felt as real and effective as the first time, but one difference from teenaged viewings was how much more the story contributed to that discomfort … and not only in ways Kubrick intended. The narrative ofThe Shining is largely incoherent, even more so if you haven’t read the book. It’s part and parcel to the jarring feeling of the technical direction, more about sensory barrage than advancing a meaningful plot. On the most basic level, there’s certainly something psychologically disturbing about seeing a parent shift from protector to monster, and Jack Nicholson’s sneering menace hammers that home. There was more to it for me this time, though, and I think it’s beyond what Kubrick intended with his oddly shaped rooms and rapid edits.
As an unapologetic King fan, I share in his frustration that Kubrick turned his (admittedly overwrought) story of a man struggling against personal demons of anger and alcoholism into a bewildering jumble of ghosts, gore and Nicholson looking vaguely sinister. More than as a fan of the novel, though, I found myself wishing Kubrick did more to establish another level to the story that gave its characters some agency.
In the book, you see Jack Torrance start to lose his lifelong battle with alcohol, rage and inadequacy as the ghosts of the Overlook play into his weaknesses to force aside his humanity and love for his family. As a father, the book terrifies you by forcing you to observe a “regular” guy becoming a monster who focuses his rage and violence on the people he loves the most. The book also gives you a moment of redemption when the “real” Jack is able to fight off the ghosts long enough to allow his family to escape. Kubrick instead wants you to be a little afraid of Jack from the start and, as a result, Nicholson is never sympathetic. You never look at Jack Torrance onscreen and think “That poor guy.” You never even sense that he likes his wife or kid that much before they arrive at the hotel.
Kubrick keeps one of the details from the book — a story about a drunken Jack breaking Danny’s arm sometime in the past — but we have no sense of Jack’s guilt or regret. When we see Nicholson’s grimace of frustration with Danny’s questions in the next scene, it just fits the pattern. As a result, when the madness takes hold and Jack becomes the monster, there’s no sense of surprise. The ghosts are almost a secondary consideration; there’s a real sense Jack’s axe-murdering madness is simply emerging because the snowbound hotel is a convenient place to get away with it. He’s not a good guy becoming bad, he’s a bad guy finally indulging his worst instincts. And whether it’s a credit to Nicholson’s performance or a failure of Kubrick’s storytelling, what struck me most about that “bad” guy was that there are countless bad guys just like him in real life.
That unsettled me in a completely different way than I expected. The tension between Jack and his wife didn’t feel like insanity, it felt like inevitability. When Jack finally breaks (the legendary “All work and no play” scene), it’s barely a surprise. Shelley Duvall is a bad actress and Wendy Torrance is a terrible part to play. Kubrick’s oeuvre doesn’t exactly scream “I respect women as people,” and this is an especially egregious case of a vapid woman character with no agency and no redeeming qualities. Still, Wendy’s shrieking terror here is compelling. As she backs away up the stairs, sobbing and ineffectually waving a baseball bat as a relentless Jack confidently stalks her, the feeling isn’t “ghost story” or “demonic possession.” The feeling I couldn’t shake was “Who would believe her?”
It’s telling that the only laugh line in the whole damn movie, the one moment where Kubrick allows Nicholson to indulge his gift for dark comedy, is at her expense: “Wendy. Darling. Light of my life. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just going to bash your brains in.” It plays as a joke, even though there’s nothing funny about it, because Kubrick has made Duvall as unsympathetic as she could possibly be. She’s a non-human, a foil for Nicholson’s anger, something he’s not supposed to hit because it isn’t nice to beat your wife … but who could really blame him?
When I was 14, I thought that line was hilarious. I’m so ashamed to write that, but it’s true. It was quotable, like something from an Adam Sandler or Mike Myers movie. It was funny to me and my friends because — to us — it was all pretend. There were no monsters in our lives. We hid under our beds from imaginary boogeymen, not raging parents with real fists. Ha ha, he’s not going to hurt her. Because of course he’s not, not in real life. Not in my house, not with my dad. It’s just the movies. It’s just pretend.
Just before that “joke” line is a moment that was the most uncomfortable for me to watch now. Wendy wants to take Danny to the doctor, as he’s been badly hurt. They’re snowed in, so leaving in the ATV to get him down to civilization would mean leaving the hotel and Jack’s job as a caretaker. It’s this suggestion that brings out not the axe-murdering psycho who graces so many dorm room walls, but the simple and terrifying specter of a husband who isn’t trying to hide his anger or his disregard for his wife:
“Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities?” Jack begins. “Have you ever thought for a single, solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the First? Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a contract, in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principle is … do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?”
It’s terrifying in its familiarity: Sure, you’re scared, but what about me? Our son might be hurt, but I’m important and I have important work to do. What about my principles? What about what I want? What about MY future?
Here’s what The Shining most left me with today: I’m a grown man watching the world wake up to the idea that sometimes the terrible things do happen, and that we have to listen when people try to tell us so even if those terrible things haven’t ever happened to us. I thought I was going to write about how weird it is to watch a 6-year-old kid and identify that character with my kids instead of with myself. As a teenager, I saw a bad guy to be beaten because the good guys always win. As an adult, I see a kid escaping with his life but not much else and a man who feels entitled to do real damage to the people who trust him because someone has dared suborn his authority. The Shining and I are both 38 this year, and with all that time gone by a lot has changed. It’s still scary, but in 2018 it feels less like a ghost story and more like a story about a man who does what he wants and lets others pay the price.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness
The Child’s Play Series — Salem