Eliciting horror in film is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult tasks a director can take on. Meticulous planning in camera, lighting and pacing and so much more go into leaving an impression on the audience. As a huge fan of horror, I recently gave The Shining a watch, one of the undisputed champions of the horror genre.
Although it lived up to its reputation as being scary as hell, I was left scratching my head by the end of it. I couldn’t pinpoint why I found it so scary. There weren’t any jump scares or tense music cues to reveal an ugly monster or any other conventional horror means of scariness.
It wasn’t until I gave it some time. The more I thought about it the more I understood that the root of The Shining’s horror lay underneath my skin, more specifically, in my mind. What makes The Shining scary isn’t something that one can point to, instead the horror is found in the psyche of the viewer. It’s not “what” makes The Shining scary, it’s HOW The Shining is scary.
To my surprise most of the plot is explained in the first act of the movie. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is chosen to take care of the Overlook Hotel during the winter. Jack is explicitly told that the previous caretaker went mad and slaughtered his family. Additionally, we come to learn that Jack is a recovering alcoholic and has hurt his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), in a drunken rage.
The looming idea of death and danger hover over the characters from causal conversation of cannibalism to the fact that the hotel was built on top an Indian burial ground. From the very beginning the audience is told of the horrors that will eventually happen.
Interestingly enough, explicit plot exposition wouldn’t work in many horror films of today. Imagine if we knew the true identity of Jigsaw in the first Saw or if the body count was revealed in our favorite slasher. With most of the plot given away, The Shining can focus on unraveling its horrific story and how it plans to scare us.
After the explicit exposition, the film becomes a montage of surreal and odd imagery. But the images are not the focal point of the fear, it is the ambiguity behind them that really unsettles the viewers. Danny begins to see visions of the murdered twin sisters, but we are not told how we are supposed to feel about them.
Sure, witnessing a couple of murdered siblings may prove to be scary but they don’t become a physical threat to Danny. Are they then supposed to be a warning? On the other hand, Grady the mysterious waiter tells Jack he must kill his family. But is he a manifestation of Jack’s mind or an entity that exists in the real world?
Both ghosts and visions of madness can be scary to an audience. But where I find true horror is in their undefined “boundaries of influence”. Lets take Michael Myers from the Halloween series for example. We are all familiar with the extent of his capabilities. He chases, gets impaled or shot, shakes it off and continues to chase.
In the case of ghosts: they make noise, appear when least expected and may or may not be capable of physical harm. More or less, we understand their boundaries and what they are capable of. But the spirits, visions and madness in The Shining do not have those same clear boundaries. We are unable to “get a hold” or process what we are witnessing. It is that ambiguity that creates anxiety and, in turn, the horror.
A perfect example of the film’s unique brand of horror is when Wendy is running away from Jack near the end. As she runs through the hotel, surreal imagines flash before her eyes. She is startled by Grady as blood drips from his head as well the infamous dog-masked individual and his male partner.
Her reaction is one of horror and confusion. This short scene perfectly mirrors the jarring experience of the audience. Throughout the film we are exposed to scenes that don’t quite make sense at the very least and frighten us with its ambiguity at most. Our reaction to the film perfectly mirrors Shelly’s horror in this scene. For a brief moment we see our own horror manifest on screen.
The Shining takes a chance by outlining its plot and only gives bits of information thereafter. The audience fills in the blanks with their own scary conjurings as to what is going on. Less is definitely more. And if horror films today trusted audiences more they can elicit that sought-after feeling of horror.
What do you make of The Shining? Be sure to leave a comment in the box below on whether you think it still holds up today.