Here’s Horror: Why ‘The Shining’ Still Terrifies Us

Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’/Image © Warner Bros.

“The Shining” may have been released thirty-six years ago, but it still occupies as much real estate in our cultural imagination as it did when it first lurched into theaters on a wave of gushing blood and geometric wallpaper. The documentary “Room 237” (2012) explored the myriad theories and rumors surrounding the hotel horror flick to a groundswell of ballyhoo. Earlier this year, mainstream news outlets reported that a paranormal expert had claimed he’d seen two ghostly figures in a photo taken at the Colorado hotel where the film was shot. And a pivotal moment in this season’s finale of “Girls” referenced the film’s classic “Heeere’s Johnny” scene. There may be no clearer indication of zeitgeist status than a hat tip from Mz. Lena Dunham.

Unlike many cult favorites (hello, “Lebowski), “The Shining” knocked most everyone’s socks off from the get-go – even when they acknowledged its flaws. It was that rarest of things: an improvement, rather than a shoddy adaptation, of a Stephen King novel, not to mention a Stanley Kubrick film that eschewed the director’s characteristically icy elegance for over-the-top violence. The film vibrated, really, with a red, red rage. Or was that red rum?

As an ‘80s kid, I knew about “The Shining” for years before I ever got to see it: You only had to growl “red rum” at a slumber party, and no one was going to sleep a wink. But when I finally saw the film on a small television, its grandeur got lost in the shuffle. Only when I had the opportunity to ogle it on the enormous screen of the Hudson Valley’s Bardavon Theater in the late 1990s did I understand everything Kubrick had achieved.

Apart from “The Shining,” I’ve never drunk the Kubrick Kool-Aid, which is generally too tart for this girl. My detachment doesn’t stem from the misogyny of which he’s often accused; it is his misanthropy – his apparent distaste for the muss and fuss of bodies and emotions. Such blanket rejection of humanity renders his social observation too much of a piece for me, too smooth (if gorgeously rendered), too unexamined. But when placed in the context of horror, that savage beauty suddenly roars to life at a scale and sonic range never before conceived.

Placing Jack Nicholson and forever-Olive-Oyl Shelley Duvall front and center was brilliant, as well. Though this was the vehicle that transformed Nicholson into a star – cinema’s first rockstar, really – back then he still channeled the nebbishy menace that made him such a plausible louse in “Carnal Knowledge” (1971). That quality made him perfect for Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and foundering writer who’d moved his wife Wendy (Duvall) and extra-sensitive young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to a snowbound grand hotel during its perilous off season. You could feel Nicholson’s barely masked irritation with his domestic scene – whiny wife, weirdo kid – even before the evil spirits of the building worked their way into his consciousness. And something in Duvall’s wheedling tones and pale, boneless limbs helped connote the most loathsome of helpless femininity; I used to say that only directors who secretly hated women cast her in their films.

One of Kubrick’s wiliest moves may have been to suggest Torrance’s lurking anger and unsatisfactory home life made him receptive to possession. The pure genius, though, came from how visual that psychological exploration was. Style, not substance, was the director’s strong suit, which made him a perfect foil for King, whose fascinating themes of the supernatural lurking in the banal (and the banal in the supernatural) were sometimes eclipsed by the breathless redundancy of his prose.

Swooping above these characters via Kubrick’s expert film work, we felt rather than merely saw the scope of the horror at hand – the soaring ceilings and staircases, the swelling crimson of the sumptuous décor, the room after room after room containing God knows what. By the time young Danny was pedaling his tricycle down the wrong carpeted hallway, we were already primed for the (twin) horror of Room 237 he’d been warned about by hotel chef and fellow intuitive Hallorann (Scatman Crothers, falling prey to the “black character gets offed” curse, which, for the record, does not take place in the book). Rest assured nobody has ever viewed a multiple birth the same way again.

At heart, this is not a film about metaphysical horror so much as it is about the horror within us that can, at any point, be writ large. This is a movie about space and intimacy – about the ties that not only bind but blind us, and the vast structures that dwarf and drown us, too. It was the perfect match of men (not women) and material, and its well-appointed fury has only grown more relevant as we skulk alone and together in the cozy aggression of our online isolation.