Sensory Ambiguity, Gothicism, and ‘The Shining’ (1980)
What has a tendency to scare us more than anything else? Ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, serial killers? Or might it be something closer to us? Something we associate with safety, love, that, when turned on its head, becomes something completely monstrous?
Indeed, it’s October, and that means Halloween for much of the western world: a time for us to dress up as the things that scare us, that maybe we as a culture will have the opportunity to purge and conquer those very fears.
But, what if the things that scare us and can truly hurt us are not foreign, or unknown, or mystical or mythical — what if they are the people closest to us: our own family even? Melded into something twisted, a dark parody of itself, where parents don’t nurture children, but rather hunt them down and attempt to kill them brutally?
That is the question posed by Stephen King in my favorite book by him: “The Shining”. We will not, however, be looking at the novel: we will be looking at the terrible glory of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic 1980 rendition of King’s tale.
This is vitally important to note because the book is quite different from the movie — the 1997 version starring Steven Weber is actually closer to King’s original, although, I would argue, it is nevertheless inferior to Kubrick’s 1980 take.
The book is different enough that it should be treated as something completely separate from the 1980 film. They are truly apples and oranges. In fact, King did not like Kubrick’s take when it came out — his favorite quote to describe it was as a “fancy car without an engine”.
A big part of King’s issue with the final film was the casting of Jack Nicholson as the ex-teacher turned writer who slowly becomes unhinged in the Colorado Rockies — from ghosts, cabin fever, his own demons, or some mix of the three? This question is vital to understanding the brilliance of The Shining… be thinking on the issue of what is ostensibly sensory ambiguity as we will address it in greater depth below — Jack Torrance. King wanted someone like Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight, known for being totally even-keel, for the role: indeed, “The Shining” as a story does focus on a father and husband who appears normal, having some sort of a psychotic break and finally going down the rabbit hole into attempted spousal and child murder.
Jack Torrance was not without his demons though — King himself makes that abundantly clear in the novel — with Torrance’s past issues with alcohol abuse and accidentally hurting his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who, in turn, is a more-or-less closeted clairvoyant: his parents, not understanding the true extent of their son’s visions manifested through “Tony” (the little boy who lives in his mouth). His visions ultimately look like the sufferings of someone with a dissociative disorder — fugue states almost — whether triggered by neurologic, psychiatric, or psychological factors. This is but one example of ambiguity in The Shining.
For those reasons of the character’s back story, Stanley Kubrick wanted someone who wasn’t so visibly measured in every role they play, someone who could nail crazy but could also handle normal quite well. He first looked at Robert De Niro for the role by watching Taxi Driver, but deemed him not psychotic enough. He then looked at Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy, deeming him too psychotic. According to King, Kubrick also briefly considered Harrison Ford before settling on Jack Nicholson as his final choice for the role.
Indeed, Jack Nicholson did so much to make Jack Torrance’s descent into madness so real for us the audience. His facial expressions — perfect gesticulations reflected from the abyss of a man who has only his pinky finger still grasping what is real — always do it for me. Not to mention Nicholson’s expert dispatching of the doors behind which his wife (Shelley Duvall) and Danny are hiding — Nicholson was a volunteer fire marshal, so he had zero issue in going through the doors (ultimately going through more than the production team ever planned on).
All the players in Kubrick’s production did quite a bit to make The Shining the terrible edifice of horror cinema that it is. Danny Lloyd improvised the idea of moving his finger when Tony talks, for instance. But so much of this would not have been accomplished without Kubrick’s direction, manifested especially in Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance: Kubrick kept her purposely on edge throughout the shoot — notoriously long because of Kubrick’s infamy as a perfectionist, even running out of tears during shooting (she kept a water bottle with her at all times to compensate for that) — the scene where Wendy is swinging a bat at Jack on the stairs was shot in 127 takes, a Guinness World Record. Bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) was originally to have been played by the equally incredible Harry Dean Stanton. Kubrick had the cast view David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and Friedkin’s The Exorcist to help get into the correct frame of mind for filming.
Of course, Kubrick’s cinematography is incredible — notice the blood red tint to nearly every shot in The Shining, also the multiple instances of yellow or gold figuring prominently in the narrative and cinematography (like Grady, the ex-caretaker of the Overlook who brutally murdered his twin girls and wife with an axe and then blew his brains out, played by Philip Stone, spilling Advocaat, a gold liqueur also known as “Dutch Egg Nog”, on Jack during the hallucinatory dinner party), yellow is a color quite often associated with insanity (see “The Yellow King” and all the yellow in the first season of True Detective for another eloquent example), or the scene where Wendy finds Jack’s novel, praised by Steven Spielberg for the way Kubrick ratchets up the tension through “counter-intuitive direction” and keeps it there by not having Jack abruptly enter but rather slowly enter through the shot over the pillar: because there is no shock, there is no shock to recover from, keeping the tension high; even filming in a 1.35:1 “full screen” aspect ratio, which ultimately crammed more of the action into a tighter area once trimmed, adding to the claustrophobic feeling — yet a huge part of what truly makes The Shining such an incredible piece of horror is the sensory ambiguity. Do we ever truly know whether the paranormal occurrences are real or a folie á famille — literally, a “circus of family” in deviant psychology or a shared psychosis between the Torrance family and separately between the previous workers and tenants of The Overlook Hotel (based upon King’s stay at the very real Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colorado)?
It is this sensory ambiguity which also makes The Shining a quintessentially gothic tale — examining the psychological aspects of the paranormal and, indeed, violence itself, versus relying primarily on jump scares — whether the specters of The Overlook are real, manifestations of their collective familial demons, or just echoes of a violent and corrupt history imprinted upon the Torrance’s psychology and indeed the very foundations of the hotel.
Gothic ghost stories, on the whole, have a tendency to examine the psychology of the paranormal. What kind of mental states would a character be in who is experiencing ghostly phenomena? Moreover, is the activity real? Or is it a descent into madness? Ergo, gothic treatments of ghosts have a tendency to rely heavily on the concept of sensory ambiguity or ghostly phenomena as potential psychosis.
The Shining hits on all these questions in the most eloquent of ways. Indeed, Kubrick’s writing partner on the screenplay was not Stephen King (Kubrick rejected a draft by King) but rather Diane Johnson (author of “The Shadow Knows”, which Kubrick admired), who also was a Professor of Gothic Studies.
The Shining also hits on all these fronts in the most terrifying of ways, tapping one of our most treasured places of security: our family. What could possibly be more terrifying or incomprehensible to our ethical brain than a parent who tries to kill their child?
We see it with what seems to be alarming regularity in the news: “filicide” or child murder by a parent. The Shining examines the phenomena, and indeed violence itself, through a quintessentially gothic, intelligent, and terribly sublime lens. I highly recommend watching it again this Halloween: it truly is a film, indeed a story, for the ages.