The gothic horror piece. It sublimely explores the paranormal by looking at real world medical and psychological explanations for it. That is, the paranormal as madness. The Shining is perhaps the finest exploration of it on the big screen.
Fear. It percolates in the blood — blinding us on adrenaline and primal survival instinct. Intoxicating, hyper-distilled, animalistic feeling, it drives us unlike anything else, apart from sex and hunger.
But what truly scares us most?
What if the things that scare us and can truly hurt us are not foreign, or unknown, or mystical or mythical — what if they are the people closest to us: our own family even? Melded into something twisted — a dark parody of itself — where parents don’t nurture children, but rather hunt them down and attempt to kill them brutally?
That is the question posed by Stephen King in my favorite book by him: “The Shining”. This piece, however, will not be examining the novel. It will be looking at the terrible glory of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 rendition of King’s tale. Indeed, a perfect horror film if ever one existed.
This is vitally important to note because the book is quite different from the movie — the 1997 television version starring Steven Weber as Jack Torrance is closer to King’s original, although, I would argue, it is nevertheless inferior to Kubrick’s 1980 take.
The book is different enough that it should be treated as something completely separate from the 1980 film. They are truly apples and oranges. In fact, King did not like Kubrick’s take when it came out — his favorite quote to describe it was as a “fancy car without an engine”.
A big part of King’s issue with the final film was the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, the ex-English teacher turned writer who slowly becomes unhinged in the Colorado Rockies — from ghosts, cabin fever, his own demons, or some mix of the three? This question is vital to understanding the brilliance of The Shining… be thinking on the issue of sensory ambiguity as we will address it in greater depth below.
King wanted someone like Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight — both known for totally even-keel characters — for the role. Indeed, “The Shining” as a story does focus on a father and husband who appears normal, having some sort of a psychotic break and finally going down the rabbit hole into attempted spousal and child homicide.
Jack Torrance was not without his demons — King makes that abundantly clear in the novel — with his past issues with alcohol abuse and accidentally hurting his son Danny (Danny Lloyd in the film), who, in turn, is a more-or-less closeted clairvoyant. His parents do not understand the true extent of their son’s visions manifested through “Tony” (the little boy who lives in his mouth).
His visions ultimately look like the sufferings of someone with a dissociative disorder — fugue states almost — whether triggered by neurological, physiological, or psychological factors. More on this as it relates to ambiguity in The Shining below.
For those reasons of character, Kubrick wanted someone who maybe wasn’t so visibly measured in every role they play — someone who could nail crazy but could also handle normal quite well. He first looked at Robert De Niro for the role by watching Taxi Driver — deeming him not psychotic enough. He then looked at Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy, deeming him too psychotic. Even bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) was originally to have been played by the equally incredible Harry Dean Stanton.
Indeed, Jack Nicholson did so much to make Jack Torrance’s descent into madness so real for us the audience. His facial expressions — perfect gesticulations reflected from the abyss of a man who has only his pinky finger still grasping what is real — always do it for me. Not to mention Nicholson’s expert dispatching of the doors behind which his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny are hiding. Nicholson was a volunteer fire marshal, so he had zero issue in going through the doors — ultimately going through more than the production team ever planned on.
All the players in Kubrick’s production did quite a bit to make The Shining the terrible edifice of horror cinema that it is. Danny Lloyd improvised the idea of moving his finger when Tony talks, for instance. But so much of this would not have been accomplished without Kubrick’s direction, manifested especially in Duvall as Wendy Torrance: Kubrick kept her purposely on edge throughout the shoot — notoriously long because of Kubrick’s infamy as a perfectionist (for instance, the scene where Wendy is swinging a bat at Jack on the stairs was shot in 127 takes, a Guinness World Record).
Kubrick would often do things like shoot a blank off from a pistol behind her head without her being aware. Duvall even ran out of tears during shooting — finding it a necessity to always keep a water bottle with her to compensate for that. This treatment by the director later contributed to her suffering a well-publicized nervous breakdown. Harsh, no doubt, but there’s really no way to separate it from the final result of the film.
Of course, Kubrick’s cinematography is incredible — notice the blood red tint to nearly every shot in The Shining, also the multiple instances of yellow or gold figuring prominently in the narrative and cinematography. For example, Philip Stone as the filicidal former caretaker Grady, spilling Advocaat — a gold, Dutch liqueur — on Jack during the hallucinatory dinner party. Yellow is a color quite often associated with insanity — see Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Chambers’ “The King in Yellow”, and all the yellow in the cinematography of the first season of True Detective for other eloquent examples of the insidious nature of yellow.
Take the scene where Wendy finds Jack’s novel, praised by Steven Spielberg for the way Kubrick ratchets up the tension through “counter-intuitive direction” and keeps it there by not having Jack abruptly enter but rather slowly enter through the shot over the pillar — because there is no shock, there is no shock to recover from, keeping the tension high.
Even filming in a 1.35:1 “full screen” aspect ratio, which ultimately crammed more of the action into a tighter area once trimmed, adding to the claustrophobic feeling.
Yet a huge part of what truly makes The Shining such an incredible piece of horror is the sensory ambiguity. Do we ever truly know whether the paranormal occurrences are real or a “folie á famille” — literally a shared psychosis, between the Torrance family and the previous workers and tenants of The Overlook Hotel (based upon King’s stay at the very real Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colorado)?
It is this sensory ambiguity which also makes The Shining a quintessentially gothic tale — examining the psychological aspects of the paranormal and, indeed, violence itself, versus relying primarily on jump scares — whether the specters of The Overlook are real, manifestations of their collective familial demons, or just echoes of a violent and corrupt history imprinted upon the Torrance’s psychology and indeed the very foundations of the hotel.
Gothic ghost stories, on the whole, have a tendency to examine the psychology of the paranormal. What kind of mental states would a character be in who is experiencing ghostly phenomena? Moreover, is the activity real? Or is it a descent into madness? Ergo, gothic treatments of ghosts have a tendency to rely heavily on the concept of sensory ambiguity or ghostly phenomena as potential psychosis.
The Shining hits on all these questions in the most eloquent of ways. Indeed, Kubrick’s writing partner on the screenplay was not Stephen King (Kubrick rejected a draft by King) but rather Diane Johnson (author of “The Shadow Knows”, which Kubrick was considering for his next film before The Shining), who was a Professor of the Gothic Novel at U.C. Davis when she was recruited by Kubrick to help write the screen treatment of King’s novel.
The Shining hits on all these fronts in the most terrifying of ways, tapping one of our most treasured places of security: our family. What could possibly be more terrifying or incomprehensible to our ethical brain than a parent who tries to kill their child?
We see it with what seems to be alarming regularity in the news: child murder by a parent. The Shining examines the phenomena, and indeed violence itself, through a quintessentially gothic, intelligent, and terribly sublime lens. It truly is a film, indeed a story, for the ages.