Horror is a constantly maturing genre, with the definition of what is and is not scary changing as time goes on. Back in the 1940’s, there were kitschy, special-effects laden, monster-flicks that centered on a romance of some sort – like I Walked with a Zombie or The Wolf Man. They didn’t even require violence or gore to make them scary. When older audiences look back on these types of films, there’s less of an impact as viewers have grown more and more desensitised to horror.
It seems every new era of horror needs to increase the intensity, adding more jumpscares, more gore, more torture – recent additions to the genre having beheadings, skinnings, sawing, etc. to make themselves more shocking. Despite this, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining manages to still disturb even modern viewers thirty-nine years after its release. Focusing on a family of three- Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance- that agrees to be winter caretakers for the Overlook Hotel, things go wrong when the son’s psychic premonitions grow violent and the household patriarch starts becoming increasingly hostile. It doesn’t have major jumpscares and is actually quite low on any really gore (unless you include the wave of blood that floods out of an elevator), yet it still retains a timeless, unnerving quality that hundreds of horror films have tried to replicate.
Many factors play into The Shining‘s mystifying creepiness, one of them being the distinct acting from Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. Middling between normal and uncanny, his eerie portrayal of a former schoolteacher and alcoholic creates a tense feeling from the very start of the film. Jack’s intentions and motivations are very unclear, making it ambiguous when – or even if – Jack is possessed. Even the oddly slow pacing of his speech or the inexplicably hostile facial expressions he makes create a character that’s impossible to read. It’s also important to note how much effort Nicholson put into his role, helping write some of his character’s famous breakdown scene and improvising the “Here’s Johnny” line.
Another creepifying factor of this film is its location: The Overlook Hotel. Many have pointed out that the Overlook’s set-up makes no sense. Executive producer Jan Harlan commented, “It’s clear instantly there’s something foul going on. At the little hotel, everything is like Disney, all kitsch wood on the outside – but the interiors don’t make sense. Those huge corridors and ballrooms couldn’t fit inside. In fact, nothing makes sense.” Rooms don’t lead to each other, yet characters seem to have no problem with this. The kitchen has a disappearing and reappearing shelving unit. There are doors that shouldn’t be there. The entrance for the hedge maze shifts location. All of this adds up to create a disorienting and claustrophobic environment impossible for audiences to figure out.
The film’s pacing adds another disconcerting layer to its tension. The Shining is very slow, with most non-Stephen King criticism often attacking the plodding length. However, it’s the movie’s dawdling speed that creates such a unique atmosphere. By having it go so slow, the jarring moments of excitement occasionally interspersed throughout the story become so much more memorable and striking. Within these pockets of inaction, tension is built among viewers who can only wait for something to happen, rather than let the suspense be explained to them. The Shining also ignores typical plot structure by revealing the “mystery” of the film so early on, keeping audiences on their toes as they expect a whole new question to be posed. Though this might make the movie harder to watch due Kubrick providing an atypical viewing experience, it’s essential for creating and developing a state of constant anxiety.
In terms of actual story, the film plays on the average human’s fear of familial dissolution. Wendy, the matriarch of the family, spends most of the plot in denial about Jack’s worsening mental state both during and before the movie. Though something at the Overlook Hotel causes the decline in Jack’s sanity, he definitely had serious problems even before arriving there. It’s stated how he was a heavy drinker and broke his son’s arm in a fit of rage, which evidently wasn’t monumental enough of an incident for Wendy to divorce Jack. Instead, she decides to be secretive about the past event and assure others that Jack is a good father – even at the eventual detriment of both her safety and her child’s safety. Watching the slow disintegration of family due to an unstable father and willfully ignorant mother would scare anybody. Though it’s not exactly terrifying in a typical horror sense, it’s certainly a scary idea in its own unique, relatable way.
What’s scariest of all about The Shining is the lack of answers it gives the audience. Many mysteries are alluded to throughout the film, such as the malevolent spirits behind the hotel, the unexpected scene of a fellating man in a dog costume, or the origin behind the psychic “Shining” powers Danny and Overlook chef Dick Hallorann possess. None of this is explained though, forcing the audience to have to develop their own convoluted theories about Stanley Kubrick’s true meaning. There was even a full-length documentary made called Room 237 that’s devoted to possible interpretations. They range from The Shining being an allegory about the persecution of Native Americans to being a secret apology from Kubrick for helping fake the moon landings.
Regardless of what your assumption is about The Shining‘s true message, no answer can ever be fully confirmed due to Kubrick’s own secretiveness about his motives with the film. He was once quoted as saying, “About the only law that I think relates to [The Shining’s] genre is that you should not try to explain, to find neat explanations for what happens, and that the object of the thing is to produce a sense of the uncanny.” Though this makes it clear that he probably had no real intentions for giving The Shining an explicit narrative meaning, he must’ve had some sort of inspiration or general theme from Stephen King’s original novel. What makes the film such a frustrating, yet intriguing, watch is how much range there is in interpretation and how it’ll always be impossible to determine which theories are closer to the original objective.
Ultimately, it’s the mysterious nature of The Shining that makes it such a thrilling watch. Though the film leaves observers with more confusion than they began with, it remains a truly unparalleled and inspiring piece of horror cinema. Even if it lacks the more shocking types of scares that modern viewers are used to, the viewing experience of The Shining is sure to leave you unsettled and contemplative.