Why The Shining is Terrifying


as I thought about the film afterwards

and even when it wasn't thinking about

it there were things that bothered me

about it

they became more and more convinced that

there is in this film a deeply laid

subtext that takes on the Holocaust The

Shining that movie was about the

genocide of the American Indian so if

you watch those three things you begin

to understand this deeper story the idea

that Stanley Kubrick was involved with

faking the Apollo moon landings room 237

is a fascinating documentary centered

around Stanley Kubrick's The Shining the

film documents the wealth of conspiracy

theories that have emerged from

different interpretations of the 1980's

horror masterpiece with different

interviewees suggesting that the movie

is everything from a story of sexual

hedonism to an allegory of the genocide

of the Native American people to even a

theory that the entire movie is actually

a coded confession from Kubrick about

how he helps NASA faked the moon evening

it's an enthralling watch but while

hearing so many theories makes it

difficult to buy into any particular one

it does make one thing very clear The

Shining is a special movie it has an

abyss like quality that draws people to

its edges and compels them to stare down

endlessly into its shadowy depths and

I'm very much one of them The Shining

terrifies me and I've briefly documented

the miles childhood trauma the film

caused me in a previous video but what

I'd like to do today is try and dive a

little deeper and shed some light on

what exactly about this movie is so

frightening and why so many people feel

so compelled to try and uncover its

deeper layers based on the 1974 novel

written by Stephen King if you've never

experienced the shining the story of it

goes like this

recovering alcoholic and struggling

writer Jack Torrance is employed to be

the winter caretaker of the snowbound


Hotel a job that will acquire him his

wife Wendy and his son Danny to stay in

the massive building completely alone

for all of winter I think when you

really look at it there's three

fundamental parts to the shining story

that make it so disturbing

the first is the sense of isolation it

elicits and the anxiety that grows from

that the Torrance's are completely alone

in the Overlook and while isolation in

and of itself is unsettling where it

becomes frightening is that were never

more vulnerable than when we're alone

and the shining plays directly into that

fear in the first 20 minutes of the

movie there's so many little subtle

suggestions that something bad is going

to happen we're told that the previous

winter caretaker went insane and

murdered his wife and daughters with max

even casual conversations seem to lead

back to Makar big ideas such as

cannibalism and disturbed Native

American burial grounds there's the

constant idea of violence and murder and

within that anticipation there's anxiety

we know the tolerances will be alone

completely vulnerable to the malicious

force that's coming but perhaps even

more disturbing is how that malicious

force manifests as the week's go by jack

grows more and more an hinged seeing

people that aren't there and acting in

bizarre unsettling ways until finally

his madness escalates to the point that

he makes the decision that he's going to

murder his wife and child

there's no pleasant way of putting this

but at its core

The Shining is a story about a man

harming his family which is something so

unnatural and awful but also something

that occurs every day I think a lot of

people tend to write Stephen King off as

a pulpy horror writer and I think that's

not unwarranted in some cases but he's

at his best when he's exploring the

everyday horror rooted in the human

psyche and Jack Torrance's desire to

harm his family is maybe the best

example of this in his book the Stephen

King companion King wrote about how his

own experience as a parent informed the

writing of Jack

torence the protagonist is a man who has

broken his son's arm who has a history

of child beating who is beaten himself

and as a young father with two children

I was horrified by my occasional

feelings of real antagonism towards my

children won't you ever stop won't you

ever go to bed there are times when I

felt very angry toward my children and

have even felt as though I could hurt

them and so what the character of Jack

Torrance is is this very dark fear taken

to a horrifying extreme and I think this

is what makes him such a genuinely

unsettling character as when you think

about it all he really is is a deranged

man with a sharp weapon and horror

cinema has no shortage of those but it's

his connection to his victims his family

the people he's meant to care for and

protects that makes his gradual descent

into madness and the resulting acts of

violence so frightening and it's the

mere suggestion of this that makes some

of the film's more low-key moments so

profoundly disturbing so if we stop

there these two factors alone are well

enough to create a terrifying story even

separate from anything supernatural but

of course there is a supernatural

element to the shining the Overlook

itself it's the hotel that seems to be

slowly twisting Jack's mind and

tormenting the family with visions of

blood filled elevators and dismembered

little girls but I think an important

aspect to the Overlook is the unusual

way it interacts with the Torrance's

unlike a lot of the more typical haunted

houses of horror cinema the Overlook

never directly engages with the family

it never performs any physical actions

or harms a member of the Torrance's the

only exception being the bruises Danny

suffers from visiting room 237 and the

door that opens by itself food cellar

but even those happen off-screen and

could be explained in other ways rather

what the hotel does seem to be trying to

do is directly attack the sanity of its

occupants showing them things they don't

want to see and quietly whispering to

them in a variety of lurid ways and it

seems to be doing this with a distant

distinctly mockingly as it's not trying

to murder the family it's trying to get

them to murder each other and that is an

infinitely more disturbing goal like the

hotel is some massive unknowable alien

creature taking delight in slowly

crushing the life out of its inhabitants

and I think this is a more effective way

to think about the Overlook it's not

really haunted as much as it is alive

there's a malevolent consciousness to

the hotel

nearly a Lovecraftian quality to it as

if the various entities that inhabit it

aren't individual ghosts as much as they

are tendrils of a much larger more

unknowable being and that to me is

infinitely more frightening you would

think with such a strong premise that

when combined with Stanley Kubrick's

expertise in filmmaking you'd have an

instant horror smash hit but unusually

this wasn't actually the case as The

Shining was not especially well received

when it released in 1980 the film

suffered a lukewarm opening weekend

grossing significantly less than both

the Ullman and alien and was even panned

by several prominent film critics with

Variety magazine writing in their review

of the film Kubrick has teamed with the

jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that

is so terrifying about Stephen King's

bestseller the film was even nominated

for two Golden Rose ease with Kubrick up

for worst director and Shelley Duvall

for worst actress but that was nothing

compared to the film's biggest detractor

Stephen King himself who loaded the film

saying it carried none of the heart of

the novel and that it destroyed the

character of Jack and Wendy Torrance

calling the film cold without heart and

misogynistic but the quote that's always

stood out to me the most is one king

reportedly made of Kubrick after for

seeing the movie in which he stated I

think he set out to make a

film that hurts people and I don't think

at the time King had any idea just how

right he was

The Shining is not an easy movie to

watch it has a slow creeping dread to it

that's quite difficult to get a hold of

something about it just feels wrong and

to find an answer to why this is the

case I think we have to look at the very

particular way The Shining was created

generally there's two rules of thumb

when shooting horror cinema use of tight

angled close-ups to limit the audience's

view of scenes making them wonder what

might be lying beyond the edge of frame

as well as lots of quick cuts to keep

things feeling frantic when the scares

actually do happen and one thing that's

so unusual about the shining is how it

leans away from both these conventions

nearly the entire film was shot with an

extremely wide angle 18 millimeter lens

which makes the spaces of the Overlook

Hotel feel gigantic and overpowering in

a lot of the shots the background

completely engulfs the characters

drowning them in large amounts of empty

space and constantly visually

reinforcing the idea that these

characters are alone which ties back to

the sense of isolation we talked about

earlier but it also means that when

something does appear it's far more

shocking and frightening one of the

reasons the hallway scene with the two

little girls is so shocking is that were

confronted with something that shouldn't

be there at this point in the movie the

film spent nearly 40 minutes

visually assuring us that this hotel is

empty except for the Torrance's only to

then shatter that assurance and this is

a fundamental fear The Shining plays

upon viennese that comes with people

appearing in places they shouldn't be

but is also key in understanding the

unease of how the shining scares us

through subtle visual horror

while the film does have its more

traditional scares a lot of the unease

of the movie comes from the very nuanced

ways it shows us things in most horror

we experience this scare at the moment

of impact usually at the same point the

character does but in the shining the

characters will often notice something

before the camera reveals it to the

audience which creates these little

moments of intense dread and suspense

just check out this first scene in the

play room and watch how long we hold on

Danny's reaction before cutting to the


The Shining doesn't try to surprise us

rather it clearly tells us something bad

is going to happen and then it shows us

and I think the reason this approach

works so well is that often what it does

show us is something really genuinely

horrifying and one of my personal

favorite instances of this is the

infamous typewriter scene where Wendy

discovers what exactly Jack's been

writing pages and pages and pages of the

words all work and no play makes Jack a

dull boy and it's a moment that so

brilliantly visually conveys something

so horrifying that the person Wendy

loves and the only other adult in the

hotel has gone truly irrevocably insane

this same penchant for deeply unsettling

visual horror carries through even to

the portrayal of its actors if you look

at the big film stars of the 70s and 80s

many of them had a clean crisp polished

look to them with an acting style that

tended to be far more reserved than what

you'd see today but by contrast Shelley

Duvall and Jack Nicholson have an

upsetting nearly disheveled quality to

them and this was very much an

intentional decision by Kubrick many of

the close-ups were shot with the same

eighteen millimeter lens that the wide

shots were done in and when a wide-angle

lens is used to shoot a close-up on a

face it has this effect of a long gating

the focal plane of the image making the

facial features look distorted and

strange and the film's use of this

technique creates an uncomfortable

nearly uncanny look to the actors and I

think this is so interesting because so

often horror movies will cast very

conventionally good-looking actors in an

effort to add to the voyeuristic or

fantastical elements of horror cinema

button consciously distorting the

appearance of its actors The Shining

takes away that element of fantasy and

replaces it with a quality that feels

uncanny and strange and this disquieting

feeling is only enhanced by the

performances of the

there's an upsetting quality to the

acting of both Nicholson and Duvall in

this movie parts where Nicholson comes

across as genuinely hateful and arranged

and Duvall seems legitimately terrified

and the reason for this can be found in

an interview with Ray Lovejoy the editor

of The Shining where he talked about how

Kubrick would shoot dozens and dozens

and dozens of takes of each individual

shot some going well into the triple

digits and later on when Lovejoy was

going through take after take he'd watch

the actors grow slowly more and hinged

as they became exhausted and ran out of

conventional ways to portray their

actions until around 30 or 40 takes in

they'd start acting in bizarre

unbalanced ways speaking in unusual

voices and contorting their faces into

unsettling expressions and invariably

these were the takes that would get used

in the final cut for the movie and I

think this is apparent in the film

itself there's a genuinely unsettling

aspect to the acting of the shining and

I think this is why both Nicholson and

Evolved were heavily criticized on the

release of the movie being seen as

unrealistic and cartoonish but also why

their performances come across as so

disturbing and so well remembered today

so what this comes down to is every part

of the Shining's visual direction is

specifically designed to unnerve us and

when combined with the film's soundtrack

the unique haunting atmosphere that's so

synonymous with the film is formed a lot

of the tracks of the shining barely even

resemble music as much as they do a

cacophony of lurid sounds designed to

seep into our subconscious and whisper

to us that something is very wrong


there's one instance of this towards the

middle of the movie that I really love

it's about an error in when the hotel

really starts to take control of Jack

and there's this deep thudding heartbeat

mixed beautifully into the creepin

background ambience and it really gives

way to that feeling that the hotel is

some massive living pulsing entity

you mean just leave the hotel the sound

of the shining is uncomfortable it's

hard to listen to but this is emblematic

of hair the film was made when Stephen

King called The Shining a film to hurt

people he was right as every piece of

music every camera angle every subtle

inflection of dialogue is engineered

towards causing its audience emotional

distress and as a results it creates a

kind of horror completely alien to

anything else in the genre and I think

this is the reason why it garnered such

a critical backlash when it was first

released people just didn't know how to

process it and I think even a slightly

different take on the source material

could have resulted in a dramatically

different piece of media and thankfully

for our purposes that piece of media

exists Stephen King's The Shining is a

three-part made for TV miniseries

released in 1997 the goal of which was

presumably to create an adaptation that

fell more in line with the original book

which i think is a fair objective

Kubrick's version of The Shining

dramatically altered major parts of the

book story and the novel itself is a

fantastic piece of horror writing and

for what it's worth the 1997 version is

actually successful in this regard it's

a far more faithful adaptation but it's

also a far weaker piece of horror if we

were to boil down the key differences

between the two versions it would come

down to two factors atmosphere and

ambiguity the 1997 version was shot in

the Stanley Hotel the actual hotel

Stephen King stayed at that originally

inspired the story of The Shining and

while I'm sure that means a lot to King

personally it's

all cramped spaces just don't elicit

that same sense of isolation and

emptiness that's so palpable in the

original film it looks more comforting

and cozy than anything else and likewise

with the actors well Nicholson and

Duvall were both styled to look

unnerving the new casts well


you get my point and you know make these

aren't the most important aspects of the

miniseries to focus on but atmosphere is

created through detail and nuance and

the total lack of either in the more

granular aspects of the miniseries

production leads to an adaptation that

feels flat without depth or subtlety and

a lack of subtlety leads us directly

into our second factor the ambiguity

ambiguity is what drives a lot of the

horror in Kubrick's The Shining the

concept of ghosts and the supernatural

is used so carefully and in such a

particular way that it leaves room for

you to question if the hotel is actually

haunted at all or is the family just

going collectively insane but the 1997

version does not leave the same room for

interpretation possibly the best

examples of this is how both versions

interpret these sections of the book

featuring the man in the wolf mask in

the 1980s version he appears towards the

end of the film just as the tension is

reaching its climax and this happens

it's a bafflingly out of place shock to

the system given no context or even a

hint of explanation it just appears and

then it's gone now check out this same

scare interpreted by the 1997 version


and for the record this is much closer

to how it is in the book but what really

strikes me about this interpretation is

how hard it's trying to establish the

Wolfman as a direct physical threat

Danny and the results is that it's so


it's nearly kind of comical whereas in

the 1980s version the threat is so

hidden and so ambiguous that our brains

go into panic just trying to identify it

the miniseries is more committed to the

act of violence as opposed to the threat

of violence Jack's even successful in

harming both Danny and Wendy at various

points in the miniseries which is unlike

Kubrick's version in which Jack never

actually inflicts violence on either

member of his family but it's the threat

of that violence and how clearly it's

conveyed that the 1980s film actually

ends up feeling like a far more violent

version despite there being only two

instances of it on screen and by

contrast the way the 97 version

communicates its horror just feels

clumsy and excessive they're spooky

furniture that moves by itself the

actors wear silly ghost makeup and

there's some really truly unfortunate

Hedge monster CG and it ends up feeling

so much more safe neutered and dated

than the film that came 17 years before

it if the 1980s version of The Shining

was made to hurt people then this

version just feels made-for-tv but I

think it also highlights what makes the

original so special that ambiguous

intangible atmosphere that's the results

of every tiny part of the movie working

on such a granular level which creates

this amazing feeling but there's

something more to the story of The

Shining something sinister and

unknowable lying just out of reach and

personally I think it's people trying to

understand this feeling this intangible

second layer that's resulted in a lot of

the bizarre theories that surround the

shining and I'm not here to debate the

validity of these conclusions because

what's more interesting to me is the

sheer facts that they exist at all

the fact that they're still to this day

people trying to break down this movie I

think the effectiveness of a piece of

horror can be measured in how long the

experience stays with the viewer after

the credits have rolled and The Shining

is unparalleled in this regard it's a

film that haunts people a movie that

through its meticulous construction

creates a tiny makar big world that's so

easy to get lost in and I think this is

why people like myself and so many

others are equally terrified and

captivated by this movie its ability to

creep into our subconscious and

manipulate us on the subtlest possible

level creating a kind of horror that

stays with you trapping us in its dark

corridors and never letting us go


friends thank you for joining me today I

really hope you enjoyed the first of our

horror themed videos for October also a

small announcement if you're in Dublin

on the 11th of November I'm gonna be

attending Jake on who are kind enough to

invite me as a special guest so if

you're around do come by and say hi I

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