How Stanley Kubrick Created Terror In “The Shining”

Often deemed as the creepiest film of all time, “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick is based on a novel by Stephen King that is scarier and delves more into the supernatural than the film does. And King has bashed the film multiple times for not being true to the novel and changing the character’s motivations, and making the story about the inner struggles of Jack rather than the outer supernatural elements, making him do what he eventually does. But something which even King couldn’t disagree with was the aesthetic appeal of the film in how it managed to create that sense of claustrophobia through its storytelling. Kubrick’s film just teases the supernatural element and doesn’t depend wholly upon it to create that sense of tension and horror. “The Shining” is the type of film that will terrify you at all points, messing with your head but not leaving you gasping for breath as other horror films do. And in that manner, the film creates more terror than what we understand as horror.

Kubrick approached the horror genre differently by not falling into the genre tactics of jump scares and high-tensing music. The music in “The Shining” is no doubt loud, but Kubrick places it in such a manner that it ends up giving a totally different appeal to the film. The music is there in almost every frame, right from the first few scenes, which work to bring us into the world of the film. As a car runs through some picturesque locations of mountains and lakes, the drone shots give it an almost surreal feeling, and the music adds the eeriness which stays for the entire two and a half hours of the film. There are squealing bats and other strange sounds that we hear, pulling us slowly into what is going to come next. Kubrick works on giving us an overall feel of terror, the early seeds of which are sown in this beginning sequence of Jack going to the hotel for the interview. This pattern is repeated throughout and merged with the narrative by giving some bits of information about the characters and the hotel, which increases that sense of fear that something bad is going to happen. We learn about Jack’s history of violence and alcoholism, as well as how he ‘accidentally’ dislocated his son Danny’s arm one day. Then we see Danny himself talking to his imaginary friend in a strange voice. His mother, Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall), seems to be the only sane person. But Shelley has such a ghost-like appearance with her long slim face and teeth protruding from her lips. Her face itself creates a sense of mystery and uncertainty. It adds to that feeling that Kubrick wants to create. All these early elements start preparing the ground for the terror that is to follow.

Kubrick keeps showing us glimpses of the climactic event right from the start, inducing within us a sense of anticipation. We wait for things to happen, and the entire film works on this anticipation of something big that is going to take place. The camera’s sneaking behind walls and following the characters, sometimes tailing from the back, reinforces the fear. When Jack and the family come to the hotel on its last working day, the manager shows them around the hotel. Through them, we even get to know the space, and a sense of familiarity is built upon it. The hotel is cinematically brought to life, and when the camera traces the actors from behind, it’s as if there is someone looking at all of them. The magnanimity of the hotel space is reflected in the symmetrical framing and striking set design, a trademark of Kubrick.

“The Shining” explores the themes of how evilness is a part of being human and how it resides in each one of us before it explodes. Kubrick deviated from this aspect with the novel, which focused more on the supernatural. The film, on the other hand, just teases the supernatural elements, and that too towards the end, not giving complete explanations of everything. Jack loses his mind due to the isolation of the hotel initially, but it’s only later that the hotel starts interacting with him. His entire act reeks of domestic violence more than of horror. It sure is horrifying for his wife and son, but the weight given to elements of mystery and psychological shortcomings start to create a conflict altogether. This is something that bothered Stephen King in his disliking of the film. The book by King was slightly autobiographical, as King wrote it when he himself was facing alcoholism. In the book, Jack is an alcoholic, and it is through his perspective that the entire story is told, as opposed to in the film, where we see it through the eyes of Danny. Kubrick has just taken the basics from the novel and spread them on his own canvas. That is why “The Shining” also appears to be a psychological thriller at times, and then the supernatural elements start to pop up, giving it a twist. This can also be one of the reasons why it seems different from traditional horror. Kubrick builds on a foundation that contains the spices of terror. It is the kind of horror that is not on the face but works on a subliminal level. It goes deeper. Instead of using dramatic lighting or shadows, Kubrick designs his sets in accordance with the colors. The iconic bathroom sequence with Grady, has the walls painted red and white, the colors we associate with danger and even murder. Grady had axed off his family at one point in time, as we get to know, and now he plants a similar idea in the mind of Jack. The red on the wall reflects just this. It seeps into you, creating a sense of urgency. Packaged with the enigma of Jack Nicholson, who spreads evil just with his eyes. In another scene in the much talked about room 237, we see the walls painted green. The light green evokes a supernatural feel, a kind of a prelude to just some seconds later, when an old woman with green bruises on her body gets up from the bathtub. There are many more examples of terror brought about by making such decisions in the set design.

Jack Nicholson is terrifying as the writer who wants to do “some work.” His lurches in the climax as he follows Danny with an ax will scare the living hell out of anybody. Kubrick uses the dynamics of Nicholson’s face to create discomfort and terror with the way he moves his eyeballs around and spreads his lips into a wicked smile. When he speaks of love to his son, we see deep down how evil his intentions are. In creating that rhythm that evokes horror, Nicholson gives the film feet to maneuver upon.

“The Shining” is known today as a distinguished feat in the career of Kubrick. It is widely studied by film students for its striking visual appeal. Fans of the book are, to this day, polarized over Kubrick’s interpretation of King. King himself remained dissatisfied with it and still remains so. But the film is important to understand the aesthetics of Kubrick and also to understand the nuances of cinema while it continues to terrify people through its filmmaking.

“The Shining” is a 1980 Horror Film streaming on multiple platforms with subtitles.

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Shreyas Pande
Shreyas Pande
Shreyas is a screenwriter who likes contemplating on cinema. That is when he is not writing a poem or quoting some Urdu couplet or posting excessively on his Instagram.

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