In honor of approaching Halloween, I offer some views on my favorite horror movie, The Shining.
The Shining is an all-time classic. It elicits love, hate, even boredom but it certainly elicits a reaction. It is an absolute masterpiece of the genre, helmed by an absolute master of the camera, Stanley Kubrick. It happens to be one of my all-time favorite films. Many people have tried for years to explain its allure. From theories that it's a treatise on the plight of Native Americans to the theory Danny is driving his father to the ritual sacrifice people have teased clues out of camera shots, props and words.
The beauty of a Kubrick film is that they are all correct. Kubrick was a master of semiotic messaging and honed this craft shooting images for magazines and advertising. There's an old saying about semiotic messaging ('message meaning in symbols'. An example is every woman in a laundry detergent commercial will be wearing a prominent wedding ring) within the advertising world:
"If the medium makes you feel that way, it was intentional'.
So If the Tide commercial makes you wanna have babies, it was intentional. If it makes your husband want a beer, also intentional. This is a little bit hagiographic towards advertisers and their power of suggestion, but it's mostly true. I worked in that industry for almost 10 years.
Kubrick loaded his films with winks, nods, and tricks. He knew what he was doing. For example, Full Metal Jacket is shot entirely from a point of view of a soldier. No above air shots, no slow pull-away. everything is shot from the action or near it, in a place where soldiers would be. This intentionally keeps you in the tension for the duration of the film. It's very unnerving and you can't put your finger on it. It creates a sense of dread.
Kubrick intended for you to have a myriad of feelings about The Shining as well.
Kubrick made the first horror film that is different for every person based on who you identify with. That is, the horror film changes the nature and depth of the horror based on your perspective. Women see this film differently than men, children see it differently than adults, blacks see it differently than whites. This was intentional, and unique. Think of Halloween (another hit horror film from the same time). We are all meant to experience that film the same way. We are all meant to be afraid Mike Myers is going to chop us up. Not so with The Shining. Kubrick purposely broken that film down into events that could be interpreted differently based on your persona, or archetype. Here are 4 personas and a dissection (ew!) of the horror behind them.
WENDY - (The Wife) - Wendy is trapped in a horror that is all too familiar to women. She has subsumed a part of herself to be a mother to Danny and in doing so lost a key portion of what made her a lover and equal footed partner to Jack. She has sacrificed her hopes and dreams to take on the hard task of raising Danny and occasionally caretaking for Jack and all she gets in return is derision and scorn from Jack. The harder she tries (being submissive, compliant, agreeing to take a job locked up in a ski lodge so Jack can finally write his novel), the more he resents her, the more he belittles her, the more the inherent violence of his nature bubbles up to the surface. Every day she grows more isolated, more marginalized. Every action she does in any direction seems to feed Jack's rage. She's trapped in a place shrouded in perpetual night with an abusive husband who also happens to be a dry drunk. In losing a part of herself to raise a family and be a wife she runs the very real risk of total annihilation by her husband. The unfairness of his authority, the unfairness of him being born stronger in a world that expects her to adhere to gender roles in silence is the very crux of her fear.
DANNY - (The Son) - Danny begins to see what all children in dysfunctional families see at his age: His parents are not perfect. He retreats wholeheartedly from them and into a shell for protection. Danny sees that underneath his father's ruffled exterior there is a boiling rage. A rage directed at him. Danny doesn't understand that the rage stems from the loss of the life Jack had before Danny, but he understands he is the cause of it. As a child seeing this film, I could instantly connect to the moments I made my Dad so mad that veins appeared on the top of his head and for a split second I could see him picking up an axe and going after me. (Note: my Dad was a good fella and didn't chop me up to bits, but you know as a child we have all aggravated our Dads to the boiling point). This movie taps into something lying just underneath the surface: Our parents are not superhuman, they are animals like any other and capable of violence.
DICK HALLORAN- (The Help) - Dick is arguably the smartest person at the Overlook hotel. He's also the most spiritually valuable. And his reward for being important? He's the cook. The single most talented person at that entire place is reduced to a super polite servants' role. Welcome to the horror of being black in America. Knowing more, understanding more about how the world works and being placed in a menial job and told to be thankful for that.
Despite all of this, he is the most selfless person there. He genuinely cares for Danny. The true horror is knowing, as he must via his ability to shine, that he is going to be the first to die, and yet he chooses to travel all the way there to save Danny. Black audience members must've inherently felt both marginalized and insulted by the magic negro trope, and terrified at knowing Dick would be the first killed and having their fears confirmed.
JACK - (The Father) - Finally Jack. The horror of Jack is not that he is a monster, but that you identify with him. First off Wendy IS annoying as hell. This was deliberate. Kubrick would let Nicholson off with one take but would make Shelley Duvall do take after take after take with little to no direction. She would get progressively whinier and more desperate as she could see the crew and other actors becoming restless and pissed off at her inability to get the scene right. Kubrick did this intentionally to make her come off as pathetic and desperate to please in the scenes. The more you see her in her frumpy bedclothes, hear her passivity and nasally whine the more and more you dislike her.
Danny is worse. Jack opens up to him in the beginning, hugging him and telling him how much he loves him. Danny sits there like a lump. He gives nothing to his father. In fact all he has ever done was practically ruin an almost finished book. This is the time alluded to in the film where Jack broke his arm. Jack has tried and tried to get forgiveness, to reconnect with his son and all he's gotten for it is a court case, REDRUM on the walls and a kid so detached he only talks through a finger. Oh yeah, and the kid (in Jack's mind) faked choking and beating injuries to drive a bigger wedge between Jack and Wendy.
So what's the Horror there? The horror is you find yourself hoping Jack gets them. At some point during the course of that film you find you are not only identifying with the monster Jack has become, you're kind of rooting for him. I think it's why even though Jack failed in his mission, he clearly got what he wanted. Kubrick chose to end the film not with a scene of Wendy and Danny getting back to normal, or Jack's frozen face, but a long slow pan to a picture from 1921, showing Jack at the center of a big party. Jack won. Jack is forever at the Overlook, and has always been. The most amazing thing about this is that the ghosts are the most forgiving and accepting characters in the whole film! Why do that unless Kubrick wanted you to see the monster in yourself? Kubrick wanted you to think 'good for him!' as the very last thing in the film, or at least 'Well I'll be damned.' Congratulations, you've just said hello to the monster inside us all.
Beyond that, there aren't that many more characters in the film. Delbert Grady is the same theme as Jack, but already fulfilled, Lloyd is a ghost, Stuart Ullman a middle manager. Kubrick kept it intentionally sparse, so he could focus on just those archetypes. And in doing so he made a horror film for every man, woman and child out there.
The same film and yet different. Like twins. Maybe in a hallway.