Warner Bros.

Why does The Shining still scare us?

A large part of its appeal revolves around a simple fact, it is utterly terrifying

Artillery Row

Even though cinemas have been closed for months now, horror films remain perennially popular. Perhaps, at a time when the news seldom fails to bring real-life terrors into our lives, there is something oddly comforting about being confronted with the supernatural and the grotesque, and seeing it defeated by the powers of good. Even The Exorcist, for all of the horrors depicted within it, ends reassuringly, with the demonic forces vanquished and the power of faith triumphant. However, Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, first released 40 years ago, has no such comfort or certainty. Instead, it is a controlled and perplexing exercise in ambiguity and fear that initially repelled critics, although not audiences, but has gradually been reassessed as little less than the Citizen Kane of horror films, sparking endless discussion and controversy along the way. What is it about Kubrick’s picture that fascinates, and horrifies, us so much?

Stephen King published his novel The Shining in 1977. It was his third book and first bestseller, and took as its story an updated version of the old haunted house tradition, as aspiring writer Jack Torrance takes a caretaking job at the Overlook Hotel and slowly finds himself possessed by the malevolent spirits that occupy it. It was a terrifying, inventive narrative, full of innovative ideas, not least the psychic abilities of Torrance’s son Danny – the so-called ‘shining’ of the title. It established King as one of the pre-eminent horror writers of his day, and it was widely expected that it would be filmed successfully, much as his first book Carrie had been by Brian de Palma.

Kubrick insisted on 70 takes of a wordless scene in which Hallorann was seen sitting on a bed

One of the least likely figures to adapt it, however, was the legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick. His previous film (and masterpiece) was the Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon, which had been released in 1975 to faint disappointment from both critics and audiences, who were expecting a more visceral experience, as in his previous film A Clockwork Orange. As Kubrick had an unprecedented deal with Warner Bros that guaranteed him 40% of his films’ gross profits, he wished his follow-up to be a conspicuous commercial success, and so decided that he would embark upon something more popular. His secretary gave him a pile of recent bestsellers, and quickly became accustomed to hearing a steady thudding in the next room, as he threw book after book at the wall in disinterest. Finally, the banging stopped, and she walked in to find him engrossed in The Shining. This, he decided, would be the ideal project for him, combining a recognisable book with the opportunity to explore one of his favourite themes: man’s innate capacity for evil. 

After casting Jack Nicholson as Torrance, Robert Altman regular Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy and the six-year old Danny Lloyd as their son Danny, Kubrick began production in England. It proved to be one of the most protracted film shoots ever, lasting over a year and reducing the cast to exhaustion and, in the case of Duvall, near-breakdown. Kubrick was already notorious for his insistence on making his actors perform virtually endless takes of the same scenes, so that he was able to have a wide variety of options when it came to editing the film together, but the cast alternately relished the challenge and found it frustrating. At one point, the actor Scatman Crothers, who played the sympathetic janitor Mr Hallorann, was reduced to saying ‘What do you want from me, Mr Kubrick? What do you want?’ after Kubrick insisted on 70 takes of a wordless scene in which Hallorann was seen sitting on a bed. 

There were other issues and innovations as well. Kubrick pioneered the use of a new camera, the Steadicam, which could be held to a cameraman’s body and gave the effect of smooth and constant movement, which was vital for the long, dread-filled scenes in which Danny drove his tricycle around the Overlook, with the expectation of something vile around virtually every corner. This proved similarly time-consuming. Because the director refused to leave England, an enormous set was constructed at Elstree studios, which was damaged in a fire and caused further delay to the production. And Kubrick and King had a difficult working relationship, not least because Kubrick would call the author in the middle of the night to ask him enigmatic questions such as ‘Do you believe in God?’ and ‘Is there a hell?’ (Kubrick apparently stated that the presentation of the supernatural in The Shining, terrifying and violent though it was, could be interpreted as good news, as ‘anything that says there’s life after death has to be optimistic’.)

The film finally premiered in America in May 1980, but the critical reaction was scathing. There was a tendency in film criticism at the time to try and bring down directors who were seen as arrogant, not least in the New York Times’ memorable comment on Michael Cimino’s flop Heaven’s Gate that ‘[the film] fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.’ Although Kubrick was spared quite such career-ending opprobrium, and the film was a notable commercial success, a director used to routine critical acclaim was surprised to be pilloried for having made a film that was said to be slow-moving, boring rather than frightening and riddled with plot holes. The Washington Post’s comments were typical: ‘Stanley Kubrick’s production of The Shining, a ponderous, lackluster distillation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel, looms as the Big Letdown of the new film season. I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie.’ 

Perhaps stung by the comments, Kubrick removed nearly half an hour of footage before the film premiered in Europe in the autumn of 1980, mostly of scenes outside the Overlook Hotel. (It has since been restored for TV screenings and DVD releases.) It did not help that King was publicly scathing about the adaptation of his book, describing it as being like ‘a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it’, and criticising Wendy as ‘one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film’. The final, damning insult came when the film was not nominated for any Oscars – the first Kubrick film not to have been recognised since Lolita in 1963 – but was instead nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards, or ‘Razzies’. It seemed clear that The Shining  – loathed by critics, hated by the original author and lapped up only by undemanding audiences in search of a Saturday night fright – was a major misstep by a once-great director and destined to be remembered, if at all, as a punchline to his career. 

A large part of its appeal revolves around a simple fact: it is utterly terrifying

That is not entirely how things have worked out. Today, it is arguably Kubrick’s most famous and best-regarded film, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and has long outstripped the novel in regard. Many moments from it have entered the cultural lexicon – the lift doors in the lobby opening to disgorge endless tides of blood; ‘Here’s Johnny!’; the ghosts of the murdered daughters of the previous caretaker – and, like Michael Powell’s similarly misunderstood Peeping Tom, it is justly regarded as a classic of cinema. While King has never been reconciled to it, its continued status was best demonstrated by the way in which Mike Flanagan’s long-awaited sequel Doctor Sleep, released last year, carefully paid homage to its visual and narrative innovations, with the lengthy finale revolving around a painstakingly recreated Overlook Hotel.

Yet a large part of its appeal revolves around a simple fact: despite what some of the earliest reviews suggested, it is utterly terrifying. Due to a combination of the nerve-janglingly uneasy score, largely using discordant music by modernist composers such as Bartók, Penderecki and Ligeti, and sudden moments of inexplicable but horrifying revelation about the past horrors of the Overlook, it remains a frightening experience to watch, no matter how many times one has seen it before. There is no cathartic conclusion or happy resolution here, and the greatest horror of all is saved for the final chase around an icy maze: a father pursuing his son with an axe, desperate to kill him. Nicholson’s performance, which was originally criticised for being hammy and theatrical, is perfectly suited to the material (just as Ryan O’Neal’s restrained, almost blank appearance in the title role of Barry Lyndon was similarly misunderstood), just as Kubrick forced a perfect encapsulation of neurotic terror out of Shelley Duvall, even if it seems as if she was barely acting at all. 

And then, of course, there are the many, many interpretations of the film’s subtext and hidden allusions, some of which were entertainingly, if often unconvincingly, explored in the documentary Room 237. It seems likely that Kubrick was offering some scathing political commentary, as he often did in his other films. It is noted that the Overlook is built over a Native American burial ground, implying that its very construction is a form of imperialism, and that all the ‘best people, including presidents’ have been previous guests. The presence and agency of the supernatural has been debated since release, although it seems clear that Kubrick believed that the film was ultimately a ghost story, rather than something more ambiguous, a la The Turn of the Screw. And the way in which the spectral butler Grady assures Torrance ‘You’ve always been the caretaker’ is apparently confirmed by the famous closing shot of a July 4th party at the hotel in the Twenties, which seems to suggest that there is something unending and cyclical about the relationship that the characters bear to the Overlook – and which was indeed borne out by the ultimate sequel Doctor Sleep

All of these are fascinating and endlessly debatable ideas, which give the film an intellectual interest that is perhaps absent from, say, Halloween, let alone any of its endless subsequent imitators. Yet what remains so compelling about The Shining is that it does not offer any definitive answers. Just as neither King nor Kubrick could agree about the existence of an afterlife, or purgatory, so viewers of their creation will never be able to find a definitive explanation for the horrors contained within this most disturbing and unsettling of films. It is an intentional feature of the set design that rooms have windows that lead nowhere, or impossibly vast ballrooms appear inexplicably. The constant feeling of subconscious unease that this breeds translates into a viewing experience quite unlike any other. Still, audiences have embraced this challenge for forty years now, and their continued willingness to frighten their imaginations by doing so is perhaps best epitomised by a saying from another Kubrick protagonist, Alex deLarge from A Clockwork Orange: ‘Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.’      

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