When I first saw The Shining, I saw it in California at a public channel. By public, I’m not talking about a public access channel. I’m talking about a private broadcasting company that the public can access.
And The Shining was billed as their horror masterpiece of the night. This was the Monday Night at the Movies special. It’s a 2-hour time block every Monday night.
I was all of 14 years old when I saw The Shining, and believe me, I could not figure it out when I first saw it because I was trained to size up horror films of the classic vein.
Usually, these horror movies featured like a scary looking vampire. There was a lot of blood, there was a lot of standard horror elements that you can spot a mile away. In other words, I was looking for a “safe” horror movie because in my mind, the more formulaic the movie was, the safer it is.
When somebody shows up in a white face with bad makeup and with obviously fake plastic fangs playing Dracula, I still get scared, but there is a sense of relief. At the back of my head, I can quickly tell that this is fake.
This person is an actor. This is a Dracula movie. The suspense is still there, but it really doesn’t quite cut into my soul, so to speak. I know that this is a formula and that they’re just playing out yet another installment of the Dracula vampire movie series.
Well, with The Shining, it didn’t work that way. With The Shining, I was looking at people who could be my neighbors.
This could be the struggling writer down the street. He was wearing normal clothes, talking normally, looking normal. His wife looked just like every other middle class suburban housewife in a 4-block radius. It was completely nothing out of the ordinary with the cast.
And what really got to me with that movie was the skillful use of dead silence.
Another great thing about formulaic movies from the 1950’s is that you know that some scary stuff is going to happen just by the score of the movie. When you hear the organ playing or the rapid staccato pace of the music, you know that something’s up. The music itself clues you in.
Well, with The Shining, there was a lot of dead silence, and that really got to me. That’s what made the movie so scary on a psychological level.
And believe me, if you’re looking to get scared, get scared on the psychological level because it really creates nightmares. They use scary images not based on what’s familiar or what’s even formulaic because that can be easily comical.
For example, seeing Frankenstein with bolts sticking out of his neck, that’s comedy. Sure, when you really get into the movie you can still get scared, but at the back of your head, you know that this is fake. You know that this is playing out according to a script and, at the end of the day, the lights will come on and you would realize that it’s time to go home. It’s a movie.
Not so with The Shining because The Shining puts you in an emotional space and doesn’t stop. It delivers a payload, and the payload is very, very uncomfortable. It’s very haunting even. The payload is that crazy people can do crazy stuff anywhere.
And it doesn’t really require some sort of magical deus ex machina shenanigan or trick to unleash this deep, profound existential horror that you feel in your bones. That’s what really scared me. That’s what really unsettled me. Because the deus ex mechina technique is very simple. It’s very easy to spot a mile away.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, a deus ex machina is a device used by Greek playwrights to introduce gods into their plays. Basically, once the Greek deity is introduced, it changes the flow or the plot line of the play.
Horror movies do this all the time, and that’s why you can kind of step back and laugh because you got taken in by the deus ex machina. You can tell by that device that this is not real.
The Shining doesn’t do that. A lot of that stuff is psychological and a lot of that stuff can be explained in a non-superstitious and non-supernatural way. That’s what makes it so gripping and so disturbing.
Current horror flick directors can learn from The Shining because they can carve up that internal psychological space to come up with all sorts of scary scenarios. They can still do that today, even in light of the fact that the internet has made us so much more culturally sophisticated.