The Shining (1980)

Written by: Stephen King (novel) and Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (screenplay)

It’s Halloween!

So time to talk Horror and all things spooky. And what better way to do so than to bring up one of my favourite horrors of all time, The Shining; which also happens to be directed by one of my favourite directors. It has been just over a year since I last watched it, so maybe Halloween will be the perfect time to revisit it.

I remember a day trip to London with the family when I was a kid and seeing posters on the Tube advertising The Shining. Maybe it was an early indication of the power of the film as it ingrained itself on my memory at such an early age, before I even really knew what it was; and certainly long before I saw it.

Forward maybe 5 years, and I read King’s novel. I remember being drawn into the book and being unable to put it down. I also remember it being one of the few (maybe the only) horror novels I have read that genuinely unnerved me – I suspect reading it in bed, at night was probably not the best plan.

Then, a few years further on, with the benefit of a VCR and bunking off school with some mates one afternoon (sorry mum) I finally got to watch the film of the book. And it didn’t disappoint.

From the iconic image of the elevator blood tidal-wave to the mysterious Red Rum and the spooky twins, Jack’s slow descent into madness within the walls of the Overlook is managed superbly onscreen. I know the book is very different (aren’t they always) and King is not exactly impressed by Kubrick’s take on it, but the film is a fantastic example of how to “do” horror well. Although there are some shocking moments, the majority of the story is told subtly as the Overlook slowly gets inside Jack’s head and turns him against his family.

The Overlook itself becomes alive; a character of its own, the antagonist behind all of Jack’s pain, orchestrating his downward spiral.

Concern and fear for Wendy and Danny build slowly. There is no reliance on gore (save the lifts and poor old Mr Hallorann) as odd things happen and ghosts appear to Jack and Danny, while Wendy is confused by the whole thing. We share in her panic and fear for Danny as things get steadily more odd and the audience’s fear grows accordingly.

The horror in The Shining is also well grounded in reality. The ghosts that appear to Jack could just be his own mind playing tricks on him. Mental health issues can cause people to hear voices and see things that are not there. I am well aware that having mental health issues does not make you “crazy” or a “murderer” but the “sickness” Jack experiences can be very real for some people. By embedding this “reality” into The Shining and by building the dread slowly, Kubrick develops an atmosphere that gets inside our heads and freaks us out as we become as unsettled as the characters onscreen and fear what Jack might see or do next.

While I enjoy the odd gory film from time to time, like Braindead or Evil Dead, they are not necessarily as scary as I find them to be more far-fetched. They do not necessarily get under your skin in the the same way as The Shining does. It builds a world so familiar to ours, that we can’t help but get invested in the story and terrified by things that could actually go bump in the night. Films like The Wicker Man or It Follows do this well by creating worlds in which we can imagine the events actually happening, that make us want to check under the bed before we turn the lights off.

Of course, The Shining is much more complex than that but I do not have the space to discuss it in all it’s glory – and that’s before we even contemplate the secret messages about the Apollo moon-landings! If you want to explore it in more detail, check out Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237.

Perhaps, like other genres, the horrors that work best in terms of engaging the audience do so because they involve characters and worlds that are very similar to ours. Stories that we, the audience, can identify with, making it harder to split reality from fiction?

What are your favourite horror films?

What is it that makes them work for you?

Feel free to comment below and Happy Halloween!



Linked posts:

World Building

Location as Character

Know your Characters – part 1

Know your Characters – part 2


Posted on October 29, 2015, in Films and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great post Mark. I agree with what you say about ‘psychological’ horrors being more scary, and, as you say, its largely because they appear more believable. We all love a bit of ‘Evil Dead’ or ‘Texas Chain Saw’ (I too knocked off school to see these on a mates don’t know how lucky they are with instant streaming, do they?) One of my favourite horrors is ‘The Birds’..I could never holiday by the seaside…


  2. Hi Geoff. Yeah, we are all spoiled by streaming. They also won’t enjoy the delights of watching Star Wars the whole way through…backwards! But that is another post…

    The Birds is an excellent example of that slow-build dread, but then Hitchcock was the master of suspense. I remember watching that one Christmas with my parents after the annual review of the Radio Times; another delight the youth of today will never enjoy!

    Texas Chain Saw is actually a good example. I remember being in HMV when the film had finally been released in the UK and I overhead two “youths” discussing it. One of them wanted to get it because it was, “…well gory, innit…” Which is it isn’t. There is a surprising lack of gore in this particular video nasty. In some respects it is actually quite tame by today’s standards. Where Texas Chainsaw works so well is the fear that is built up slowly in the first half and then the panic that results in the pursuit in the latter part of the film. Again, a reality that we can all identify with (figuratively hopefully, not literally) and that is what makes it so terrifying.

    In fact, first time I watched it was when I was working in the the US. I watched it late at night and on my own… and when I was finished I had to walk across a prairie field to find my colleague who was in another office. Luckily, as it was dark, my dignity was spared as I sprinted across the field like a loon!

    Happy Halloween, and don’t get too scared!


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