“Wendy. Darling. Light of my life! … I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just gonna bash your brains in.”
Characteristics of the horror genre that have distinguished the good, the bad and the best have always surrounded the elements of darkness, suspense, gore, and an intricately layered plot. Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining does away with all these elements and still manages to be one of the greatest horror flicks of all time. With a relatively simple story concerning a family of three staying at the prestigious Overlook hotel, the plot turns as the family falls victim to supernatural forces as well as insanity caused by isolation. Kubrick emphasises primarily the use of the absurd and the eerie, consequently arousing madness to grip his audience in a trance. Through this venture into defining horror using eerie elements, he creates a sort of anxiety due to the audience’s unfamiliarity with this alien version of horror. Drastically different from the original novel written by ‘The King of Horror’, Stephen King, Kubrick’s version of the story moves away from the active involvement of the supernatural that the book is characterized by and instead deploys mise en scène in an innovative manner to instil fear within his audience. This article will highlight how Kubrick insinuates horror using ambiguity and madness in his movie The Shining by highlighting his alienated characters, eerie soundtrack, cinematography, and most importantly, mise en scène.
The most notable aspect of Kubrick’s adaptation is in how he immediately makes the audience aware of the source of horror, who the villain is, and how the action will develop. This unveiling of the plot and the primary threat creates tension as the audience waits for the action to start. The very first scene, of the interview, already foreshadows the events that will take place in the movie as the protagonist is predicted to descend into madness and attack his family. This, in turn, normalises his hysterical mannerism and establishes him as the main threat and the centre of the action.
Suspense ceases to exist the moment we are introduced to the protagonist, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), as he already shows the characteristics of a sociopath. His hysterical laugh, the demonic ‘Kubrick Stare’ and quirky hand movements make it easy for the viewers to identify him as the source of evil. Torrance’s son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), shows supernatural abilities through the various hallucinations of death and gore he witnesses. Once Kubrick establishes the abnormal characters, audiences are forced to empathise with the only other prominent (and “normal”) character left, Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall), the wife of Jack and the mother of Danny. But even the character of Wendy becomes problematic according to the popular ‘Wendy Theory’ that suggests that Wendy was the real sociopath, and the events regarding Jack losing his sanity and her son being characterised by supernatural powers were figments of her hysteria. This discredits Wendy as a reliable character and thus shows Kubrick’s narration to be deceptive, leaving viewers perplexed without any point of credibility. The inherent ambiguity caused by the realisation that you believed what Kubrick wanted you to believe and its subsequent subversion questions your very understanding of the events that have unfolded.
This, coupled with a very eerie, high-pitched soundtrack, develops tension as each scene progresses. What is unique about Kubrick’s choice of sound is how his score creates peak tension to absolute nothingness at times, while at other times the frame shows a shocking reveal while the score is subtle. This forces his audience to not rely on the score to prepare them for the surprise and be alert at all times. Ambiguity resulting from this causes anxiety of massive proportions as not only is the score misleading, but it is eerie and develops tension as well. The Shining is also characterised by its long, stretched tracking shots in symmetrical frames, which also creates tension. The wide frames with empty spaces and singular subjects emphasise the isolation felt by the characters. In a way, the repeated use of tracking shots personifies the Overlook Hotel as a living being that constantly observes the family.
The way Kubrick deploys mise en scène is perhaps the most crucial component of his movie as it exemplifies the eeriness and creepiness of his work. The costumes and sets he creates incorporate contrasting images and colours that heighten the audience’s senses. The use of mirrors in all the scenes where Jack displays his mad eccentricities, the use of the Overlook Hotel’s bush maze as a metaphor for the complexity of the mind, the exotic designs on the walls and floors of the hotel with a vivid and bold colour palette, etc., are examples of the different components Kubrick uses to enhance the feeling of eeriness and discomfort. The setting in itself contrasts from very wide halls to narrow hallways, with the narrow hallways depicting the thin line of sanity. Another clever use of mise en scène by Kubrick is in how the same shot shows different objects in different frames. This singular inconsistency in object placement is what the Wendy Theory is based on; that the inconsistency in objects from Wendy’s perspective is because of her hysteria, making her the madwoman.
Kubrick’s brilliance is established in this simple plot twist, which is subtly hinted at by particular objects being at different places at different times in the same frame. Some critics argue that the object displacement is done so as to personify the Overlook Hotel as a living entity, further adding to the eeriness. However, the movie’s most horrific scene is that of the final zoom shot showing Jack in a picture, taking part in a gala at the Overlook Hotel almost 60 years ago, even before he was born. This end to the movie adds to the ambiguity and confusion, leaving audiences searching for answers. Kubrick’s constant search for truth in human existence results in ambiguous endings for existential scenarios. This leaves much to the imagination of the audience, creating subconscious dread in their minds. Thus making the movie timeless.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.