I think we’ve forgotten what real horror is. In contemporary times, horror films are crammed from beginning to end with jump scares and shock reveals. They’re made to provoke a reaction, and they do. But more often than not, these effects don’t linger. There aren’t too many recent horror films that remain in the back of my mind, haunting me long after I’ve left the theater. Rewatching “The Shining” recently, I was reminded of how a master director can stretch the limits of the horror genre to find new ways of terrifying us.
The first thing that I noticed about the film was how much of a slow burn it was. There are some creepy moments, such as Danny’s vision of the elevator of blood, but for the most part, “The Shining” goes through its first act without much of an indication that it’s really a horror film. This works well within the confines of the story because it allows you to situate yourself within the world before the scares start.
Many horror films like to front-load themselves, essentially trying to scare the audiences early and fast. What this does, however, is implicitly distance them from the atmosphere and characters. In “The Shining,” we are allowed to get a feel for the entire Overlook Hotel. We’re basically given a walking tour of the entire place. This is so that, when the horror elements start coming into play, we really feel like our sense of place is being invaded.
Another fascinating aspect is Kubrick’s use of camera movement. While “The Shining” wasn’t the first film to use a Steadicam, it was the film that really popularized the technique. This is because Kubrick often called attention to the camera technique by utilizing it as a tool for detached voyeurism. We don’t necessarily feel as though we are in the minds of the characters. Rather, we feel as if we are a second party observer, watching these events unfold just outside of the frame. Kubrick’s films are notoriously cold for this reason. We never really get to identify with the characters. But, as a result, we are given a greater deal of immersion because we are able to put ourselves in the film, without having another character’s psychology act as a barrier.
I think what really makes “The Shining” stand the test of time is what it implies rather than what it shows. There have been multiple fan theories about what the film is really about, some are fascinating (as shown in the documentary, “Room 237”) and some are flat out insane (“Room 237”).
There’s one theory that really fascinates, which is the idea that “The Shining” is secretly a metaphor for how civilizations try to bury past atrocities. There are a lot of plot elements that would support this idea. For one, there’s the fact that The Overlook Hotel was built on a Native American burial ground. Here already we have a literalization of this idea, that something that was ancient and spiritual, which probably alluded to the many atrocities that were committed in the name of Manifest Destiny, is basically paved over for a flashy consumer product.
Another aspect that lends itself to this idea is the racism that is woven through the spirits’ interactions with Jack. For one, when Jack requests a drink at the bar, he simply states “white man’s burden” completely out of context. Another scene involves Jack speaking with the butler who’s revealed to be the previous caretaker of The Overlook. They discuss Dick Halloran, an African American man, and drop the N-bomb. It’s no coincidence that Dick is the first, and only, person to be killed by Jack.
There’s one key scene that’s always stuck in my mind just for how bizarre it is. It’s a scene where Wendy suddenly finds a man in a bear costume fellating a wealthy party guest. Yeah, it’s that kind of arthouse movie. It’s a total non-sequitur and has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. More than the other plot elements in the film, this really feels like a digression. So is this scene just there for shock value? Probably not. Kubrick has always been more interested in making us think rather than making us feel.
I think this scene is supposed to point out the hypocrisy in the upper-class society that The Overlook paints. They’re inherently a prejudiced group, excluding people of color and holding lavish parties over a gravesite. However, they’re able to get away with taboo acts-even something as bizarre as having sex with someone in a bear costume. Here, Kubrick illustrates that taboos are just a construction by high society. Things are immediately permissible when the bourgeoisie does it, less so for anyone else.
Kubrick has always been paranoid about authority. “The Shining” takes this paranoia to a metaphysical level. As the final shot implies, authority is at its most terrifying when it reveals itself to be an unending cycle. Jack has always been The Overlook’s caretaker. And as the caretaker, he will always be the one in charge. A shotgun to the face couldn’t stop him. A freezing blizzard couldn’t stop him. He is the representation of authority: omnipresent and unstoppable.