Why You Should Watch: The Shining

The Shining (1980)

From IMDb: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.

Here I was trying deliberately not to chose a film that was too on the nose about the Coronavirus pandemic. Then, as Stuart Ullman tells Jack about a sordid story (it turns out to be one of many) about the Overlook hotel’s past, Ullman says the following:

The police eh…they thought that it was what the old-timers used to call cabin-fever, a kind of claustrophobic reaction which can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time.

The Shining

My wife just turned to me and said “hmmm.” This is also the same day we found out we will both be working from home together for at least two weeks. But in my defense Jack goes on to say:

As far as my wife is concerned, I am sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.

The Shining

So clearly my wife is the Jack Torrance in this situation.

But I digress.

If you were only going to watch one horror movie ever and asked me which one it should be, I would say The Shining without much hesitation. It’s not just an iconic horror film, but an iconic film period. Which is a distinction even I don’t believe many honest to goodness horror films possess. I get that you feel like you’ve already seen this film with all the references and parodies made to and of it over the years. And to be completely honest, if you watch this, you might be underwhelmed on the first viewing given how well-known the movie and some of its key scenes are. It goes against a lot of what I find effective in horror films – it is a hard situation to imagine myself in, it seems like Wendy is married to a nut job from the get go and is just starting to realize it, and there is a shockingly low death count. Yet…

There’s something hypnotic about this movie. The atmosphere is so pervasive, giving you the sense that you are experiencing the psychological gift of “the shining” alongside Danny. This is expertly done using a high pitched tone followed by an incredibly effective ominous music tone to indicate when something supernatural is happening. It locks you firmly into the sense of dread and isolation the characters are feeling.

This is also the first film I ever did a presentation on for college, so it holds a special place in my heart. It was during my prep for that presentation that I noticed the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and Danny) are only shown altogether four times in the entire film – on the drive to the Overlook, when they first arrive, when Danny circles back to his parents while they are on that initial tour, and later when Danny emerges from the infamous room 237. The film is so effectively in throwing you off-kilter, it can be easy to miss just how distant the family has always been from one another.

There’s something new I notice each time I watch this movie – in this viewing it was how restrained Jack is when reacting to the story of the previous caretaker going insane and murdering his family with an ax. We believe initially this is because he is in a job interview for a job he desperately needs so he has to remain professional. Afterwards we aren’t so sure.

There is another moment when Jack has a terrible nightmare, and Wendy comforts him while he sobs. It is a fleeting moment of tenderness between them that we are almost relieved to see given how cruel Jack is to her. Then Danny walks in with bruises, and they are immediately at odds again.

I feel like a common (and valid) criticism of this film is the way Wendy is written. It is frustrating to watch her reactions to Jack if you cannot identify with her at all. Fortunately, I have never been in an abusive relationship like Wendy. Unfortunately, I do identify with her tendency to freeze up, try to pacify, and to people please. It is a defensive reaction that is upsetting to see but realistic, which makes the movie all the more horrific and tense.

The most similar movie I can think of to The Shining is Hereditary. The Shining was not entirely well-received when it first came out, and gained a more favorable critical following over time. Even though Hereditary was critically well-received out the gate, it has a more mixed audience reaction than The Shining. I think this will change for Hereditary over time as the two movies have a lot of similarities in what makes them successful, not the least of which is how rich they are even after multiple viewings. There are also great parallel scenes between Jack/Lloyd and Annie/Joan that really cement their similarities in my mind.

The bathroom scene, and the ghosts Wendy encounters in her run for survival still make me close my eyes by instinct. I got chills rewatching the movie again tonight. This is a film that deserves to be taken seriously and watched alone when you first view it. Even if it doesn’t become your favorite horror film of all time, I hope that you can appreciate how artful it is. And if nothing else, you won’t have to be embarrassed if someone says “I can’t BELIEVE you’ve NEVER seen The Shining!”*

*I don’t know if this would actually ever happen, but after watching it you can rest assured YOU will not be caught off guard by someone being incensed you have not seen this movie.

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