When I moved into my university bedroom, I unpacked my belongings and attempted to make the small, cramped, bare space a little more reflective of myself. It started with laying out my favourite rug, a large, scruffy looking thing decorated with the striking red and orange circular pattern which so famously decorated the Overlook Hotel. It’s strange that iconography from what, to me, is the scariest film of all time, could make me feel much more comfortable, but The Shining has its place in my heart. It’s a classic masterpiece in the way few things ever are.
The first time I saw the film, I was about twelve years old and quietly confident in what I thought I knew I found scary. Clowns, heights, perhaps more strangely, escalators – all things I could check off on my ‘to avoid’ list. From the first second of The Shining, however, I felt a change in my psyche. As the ominous music and that famous, disorienting aerial tracking shot of the car traversing those lonely mountain roads kicked the film into motion, I felt a new kind of fear. Not quite claustrophobia, but perhaps the closest comparable sensation. It was a very jarring psychological strain which tore my preconceptions of fear apart.
I later discovered that Kubrick had masterfully crafted a film which was designed not just to engage viewers in one specific vision of horror, but any number of them. If I initially found myself unnerved by the sense of isolation and cabin fever the film touches upon initially, that shifted into a concerned self-reflection on art, and artists themselves. The act of creation, both physical and mental, is a tricky process. Whether it’s art, writing or music, there are any number of mental hurdles which require to be jumped through to be productive. These, in addition to the burdening insecurities felt by anyone analysing their own work, can be exhausting. I was starting to understand this for myself as I began to venture into writing for the first time, but watching Jack Nicholson masterfully act through the stages of decomposition his character Jack Torrance goes through in his rotting away in the vast, empty Overlook Hotel – that shook me to the core.
Only Nicholson seems capable of giving the portrayal of anger as much nuance and range as he does here, losing his temper with his wife, son, sense of confinement, stagnation and his own lack of sanity. Gritting his teeth with every line, it’s clear he is angry with everything, for everything is an inconvenience. It’s perfectly terrifying, and utterly believable that the natural course of progression would result in his axe-wielding breakdown in the third act.
Kubrick used some of the best resources in film – his notoriously sparse editing, offbeat, jarring sound effects and disturbing imagery being the most effective in this case – to animate his own specific vision, and in doing so, hit on a number of subconscious fears on varying levels of intensity. In addition to his genius direction of Jack Nicholson, Kubrick has a cast of wonderful supporting actors to bring this to life. Shelley Duvall, in the performance of her career, is the deeply affected emotional weight of the film, absorbing and expressing every trauma and rejection with an innocence which is truly fearful when examined alongside Nicholson’s palpable fury.
Fear is memorable. It can be definitive of a specific point in time and the emotional context surrounding how, and why, something made you feel a certain way. Writers might feel a burning relation to Jack’s mental block whereas those who dislike the idea of isolation are going to inevitably pick up on the loneliness which permeates the film throughout. Those with a dark sense of humour might find that they’re intimidated very little by Kubrick’s strange, twisted filmmaking and Nicholson’s maniacal performance, instead finding the combination of the two hilariously absurd.
The Shining presents a mixture of unsettling, claustrophobic, silly weirdness, charged by an incredible sense of wit, beautiful and knowing cinematography, a soundtrack which can turn blood cold and some of the best acting I’ve yet to see in my life to this day. It deserves its place on my bedroom floor.
By Maisie McGregor