There are very few films that frighten me like The Shining. Other movies may have moments that keep me in more suspense about the characters survival or have more jump scares. But The Shining disturbs me. Makes me look over my shoulder, suddenly feeling like there is someone or something in the room with me. It’s almost like you’re hypnotised by the film. In this post we are going to look at how co-writers Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson approached to writing the film, what they did to set it apart from the popular horror films of the time, and figure out what exactly is so creepy about The Shining. Spoilers ahead.
“Stanley’s approach was to think in terms of time segments in relation to the totality of the film.” – Diane Johnson
A Month Later,
There are 10 different segments in the movie. Each marked with a black screen and the text in white. In the beginning of the film, the titles refer to the subjects of each section. But as the film moves on, the time intervals decrease. From a month later, to days of the week, to specific times of the final day, at The Overlook Hotel.
The decreasing passage of time helps create momentum and suspense for the audience. We know we’re getting closer to whatever inevitable horror awaits, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. In an effort to understand why The Shining affects its viewers in a deep, psychological way, I was on the look out to find differences from other horror films. One thing that stood out to me was its set up. It directly indicates the dangers to come, early on. Rather than giving the audience reasons to doubt whether Jack would ever hurt his family, we’re immediately told that he’s an alcoholic who has injured Danny before.
We’re even told in one of the first scenes that the previous caretaker went crazy and murdered his family with an axe, the very thing that Jack will try to do. The film gives us every reason to suspect and dislike Jack.
But what I always find most surprising, is how early the supernatural elements are revealed and explained. All of this removes the potential mystery of the story, because the audience is essentially told whats going to happen.
But the point is that the frightening part of the story isn’t whats going to happen, it’s how it’s going to happen. From the beginning, Kubrick didn’t want to make a conventional horror film. Instead, aiming to hold themselves to a higher standard.
“It must be plausible, use no cheap tricks, have no holes in the plot, no failures of motivation… it must be completely scary.” – Diane Johnson
Which brings us to the thing that disturbs me most about The Shining. Its creepy.
What is the difference between creepiness, and other kinds of fear?
In a study published in 2013 by Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke from Knox College,
“…creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not and or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat…”
An example of this is, is a popular theory which argues that masks are disturbing for the same reasons. When someone is wearing a mask, you’re unable to make out whether the person underneath is a threat to you. Their intentions cannot be interpreted and are unknowable.
I think this is why I find the two little girls so frightening. When they appear, they’re at a distance which makes it difficult to read their faces. And even when you can, they’re completely expressionless. Their presence indicates they want something from you, but they’re perfectly still and their faces portray nothing.
That same study on creepiness also offers the following example:
You’re walking down a dark city street and you hear something move in an alley to your right. Your brain will first respond as if it is someone or something that intends to do you harm, even if it ends up being a gust of wind knocking over a bottle.
Evolutionarily we’re programmed to assume danger in unclear situations. The filmmaking in The Shining activates the same primal reactions in a few ways.
The music is unsettling and unpredictable. At times, startling when nothing has happened. And other times, doesn’t change despite visual changes. It signals to the audience to constantly be on guard. It’s the noise we hear down the alley that makes us assume, danger is present.
Visually, the hotel is inviting. It’s brightly lit with a lot of natural light. Not at all a stereotypical horror environment. This adds to the unease. The Overlook hides the horror that resides beneath its exterior, like its wearing a mask.
Danny is playing with his toys is one of the most famous, creepy scenes of all time. After a few moments of him playing, a ball rolls up to him. And when he looks up to see where it came from, he only sees an empty hallway. The idea of a ball being rolled is not scary, but once again the uncertainty of the situation is unsettling. Who rolled it? What do they want?
As Danny walks down the hallway he finds the door to room 237 cracked open. The room he was warned to stay out of.
But instead of being dark and foreboding, its lit up, and almost welcoming. The clash of these two things, imply danger and yet no obvious threat, creates unease. It’s not clear how one should react.
The opposite side of this is why The Shining gets less scary for me towards the end, or rather it becomes a different kind of scary for some viewers. The more the film reveals the boundaries and intentions of The Overlook Hotel and the spirits that are present there, the less unclear the threat.
Once Jack is committed to killing his family, the proper reaction is clear.
By the end, it’s simply a crazed man with an axe chasing his family. More suspenseful than creepy.
The Shining is a great example of how film can access and manipulate the psyche of an audience. Kubrick and Diane Johnson show that the most powerful kind of fear doesn’t come from a monster on the screen, but from within our own imaginations.
Kubrick shows how great filmmaking can activate our primal fears, while telling a very simple story. After all, as Kubrick described it,
“Its just the story of one man’s family quietly going insane together.”