Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining (1980) is terrifying for multiple reasons. First and foremost, it deals with two taboos: parricide and filicide. What's terrifying about Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) isn't that he's a homicidal maniac; it's that he's a husband and a father who takes that aggression out of his family. In some horror films, such as Halloween (1978), Se7en (1995) or, in the case of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the killer is a homicidal maniac but to the point where he (and sometimes, she) is unable to mask their appetites. While these films are scary in their own way, they also provide a way-out as we, as viewers, can rationalize that "it will never happen to us." Sure, serial killers and masked murderers exist in real life, but they are strangers whose chores thankfully occur few and far between. Yet, this ignores the obvious fact that most murderers know their victims, a chilling realization that death can be waiting in the living room, in the form of a loved one.
The Shining begins with the faltering writer, Jack Torrence, en route to the Overlook Hotel. Having recently lost his job as a school teacher, Jack has decided to gain employment at the Hotel. Due to its secluded location, the snowy, mountain-kept Hotel is closed for the winter months, requiring that a seasonal groundskeeper be hired to keep up maintenance. This sounds like the ideal job for Jack, as he can bring his family up with him to enjoy the winter while focusing his energies on his latest writing project. Even when the hotel's manager (Barry Nelson) informs Jack that the job isn't for everyone---one former groundskeeper suffered from cabin fever and killed his entire family (FORESHADOWING!)---he accepts, which brings me to the second aspect that makes The Shining so frightening: man's destiny owes more to fate than to free-will in the film.
This issue of fate vs. free-will comes across in the opening moments of the film, as Jack's job interview is intercut with the mundane existence of his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny, who suffers a lonely existence, has taken to engaging with an imaginary friend, Tony. When Danny brushes his teeth, Tony informs him that Jack has gotten the job and will be calling home at any minute with the good news. When the phone rings and Jack tells Wendy that his family will be moving up to the Hotel will him for the winter, we cannot help the foreboding atmosphere of the walls slowly creeping in on the family. The film and Kubrick continually return to this theme, through Danny and Dick Hollorann's (Scatman Crothers) "shining," the dialogue between Jack and the ghost of the former caretaker, Grady (Philip Stone) in which Jack is informed that he has always been the caretaker ("No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I've always been here."), and the final image of the film, a still image of Jack impossibly attending a ball at the Hotel in 1921 (on, ironically enough, Independence Day). The message is clear: even if the Torrences knew the outcome of their stay at the Overlook, the evil powers of the Hotel, coupled with Jack's psychological disposition, would make free-will a near-impossibility.
Intersecting with this notion of fate is Kubrick's camerawork, most of which involves the first prolonged use of Steadicam (performed by the device's inventor, Garrett Brown). The space of the Overlook is not dissected into individual shots. Rather, Kubrick gives us investigations of long passages, both temporally and spatially, that feel spectral. Again, the cinematography highlights the sense of foreboding: no matter when Danny turns on his big-wheel, the Overlook is always watching (a similar effect is present in Gus Van Sant's Elephant). Moreover, as James Naremore has observed, the camera can mislead us: objective reality continually gives way to something more subjective. When Jack enters initially enters the ballroom in search of a drink ("I'd give my Goddamned soul for just a glass of beer!"), we notice that it is first clear of inhabitants and then occupied. As Roger Ebert asks in the opening to his review of the film, "[the film] challenges us to decide: Who is the reliable observer? Whose idea of events can we trust?" As we discover, it sure as hell isn't Jack.
The two final characteristics of the film worth noting for their contributions to the film's atmosphere are Kubrick's use of cinematic time and the performance of Nicholson. The film is a long-haul, clocking in at over two-hours (long for a horror film). During that time, only one person is killed and the shit doesn't really hit the fan until the final twenty minutes. This can make the film boring to some contemporary viewers, but it adds so much more to the foreboding theme of the film: this situation is initially inescapable. Jack Torrence is a monster wherever he is (as the dialogue regarding Danny's previously fractured arm attests to), driven on by his own failure as a writer and his indulgence of drink. Nicholson plays this role in a way that stands as the antithesis of realism (you can see where Daniel Day Lewis got his inspiration for There Will Be Blood): those demonic eyebrows are always working; there is always a malicious intent behind his words with his family. All the while, Kubrick's cinematography brings out the worst in him: hovering below him as he attempts to scheme his way out of the dry goods closet, falsely pleading with his wife. Jack Torrence and The Shining are frightening because of the paradoxical dynamic between the natural (Torrence as being a father, able to mask his true nature until the last possible second) and the supernatural (his transformation is inevitable, driven on by both the natural cause of cabin fever and the supernatural cause of the Overlook's ghostly inhabitants).
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.