Is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining a horror film or a film about horror? When the film was advertised on television, the viewer was led to expect a nasty slasher movie with Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, the winter caretaker at an isolated hotel, a lunatic determined to break down the door with an axe and get at his wife Wendy and child Danny. The film is based on a Stephen King novel, and readers would have known even in 1980 that the novelist was one of the major genre writers of his time, and well on his way to impacting on cinema too: Carrie came out in 1976, Salem's Lot was adapted for TV in 1979, and the early eighties saw not only The Shining but Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine and Firestarter. A couple of these were adapted by genre experts, Tobe (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper made Salem's Lot; John Carpenter Christine. King was so vocally disappointed with Kubrick's film that "Kubrick returned the adaptation rights to the novel in exchange for a hefty fee, and on the condition that King stop criticizing the film publicly." (Sense of Cinema)
One can say with some confidence that Kubrick isn't much interested in the genre mechanics and perhaps doesn't understand them he certainly doesn't utilise them. Here we can think of a couple of examples. The first is where the general janitor at the hotel, Halloran, who at the beginning of the film told Danny he has a special power, that he can see things others cannot, returns to the hotel on a hunch. Hallorann has the shining too, and Kubrick cuts away from the main story at the hotel to show us Hallorann spending his winter in Florida. He knows something is up and he travels all the way across the country to Colorado where the hotel is situated. Kubrick doesn't just cut from Hallorann leaving Florida and arriving at the hotel, he cuts back to the journey more than once, making clear it would seem that Hallorann's visit will be important. His journey also coincides with our full awareness of how unhinged Torrance has become. Wendy discovers page after page of his writing which says no more than that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", and, when he comes after her, she hits him with a baseball bat and locks the unconscious Jack in the food store. As we cut back and forth to the hotel and Hallorann making his way there in the most treacherous weather conditions, we might expect when he arrives that he is going to become central to Wendy and Danny's rescue. But no sooner has he walked through the door, he is promptly killed. Usually, we would expect one of two things; that Hallorann is just another figure in the mounting body count or that he is a hero likely to come and, if not save Danny and Wendy, at least hang around for a bit trying. A film that shows how hard a character has tried to get to the destination where he can be of help, only then to be immediately dispatched, can seem inept: that when you focalise on a character we expect a throughline or at least a devastating surprise when the character is killed sooner than we expect.
It is hard to quantify this and has little to do with someone surviving the full length of the film, but if for example Jamie Lee Curtis's central character were killed off before various other figures in Halloween, the film would have lost its impetus, just as Hitchcock brilliantly risked doing so in the film in which her mother Janet Leigh starred, In Psycho, Hitchcock focalises our attention on Marion Crane as she escapes with the money and we expect a film about a woman on the run, with Norman Bates the motel man who is merely a supporting character in her narrative. But, of course, it doesn't work out like that and Hitchcock shifts our allegiances and puts us into Norman's perspective without losing the attention of the audience. Perhaps John Carpenter could have done the same with Halloween but it would have structurally altered the film: it wouldn't be a punctuated horror with a series of killings, before arriving at a conclusion where the Final Girl (to use Carol Clover's term in Men, Women and Chainsaws) grapples with the villain, before the doctor shoots Myers dead. If Hitchcock subverts expectation, well knowing the viewer will be expecting to follow Marion's story through to the end of the film, and Carpenter conforms to it as Halloween would become the epicentre of the slasher, skilfully modulating the tension as we wonder who will next be bumped off, then what is Kubrick doing with Hallorann? That is a question we needn't answer but only ask to comprehend Kubrick's generic failure or resistance. He is not using Hallorann conventionally even he sets up the convention.
Another example could be the walk-in freezer Hallorann shows Wendy and Danny. As he opens the door, Kubrick positions the camera inside the freezer while the janitor explains why they needn't go hungry. Hallorann steps inside but Wendy and Danny stand by the threshold, and the camera slowly moves in on them as the three chat. It is a foreboding camera shot that in another film would indicate foreshadowing: one might expect that it will be utilised later in the film but Wendy instead of locking Jack in the freezer puts him inside the storeroom. This makes more psychological sense, with Wendy a sympathetic character, but she is also presented as a deeply frightened one, and a primal desire to protect her son would have given plausibility to her extreme gesture, and would also have conformed to the viewer's expectation that we ought to fear the worst. It doesn't get much worse than being locked inside a walk-in freezer, and the horror genre, surely, is all about having one's nightmares realised. It would have also given urgency to Jack's desire to escape; he wouldn't only be determined to attack his wife and child; he would also be keen to avoid an impending death by ice.
It will of course be the fate he meets by the end anyway, as though Kubrick wanted thematically to invoke a later moment but not dramatically. The same might be true for most of the film, with Kubrick looking for resonances more than demanding reactions, seeing in the horror film a constant anxiety that permeates the material rather than a series of immediate shocks keeping the viewer on the alert. "It was like they had never seen a horror movie before" King proposed of Kubrick and his team. He might have been right, or at least could see that whatever type of horror film Kubrick made, it didn't indicate a familiarity with the genre. Yet whose naivety is this: Kubrick's or King's? Perhaps while King is a master of harnessing horror, Kubrick feels more pessimistically that it cannot be a question of tangible evil but an encompassing dread. Kubrick often drops his films into despair greater than any narrative can contain, and whether it is the Vietnam war (Full Metal Jacket) a troubled marriage (Eyes Wide Shut), gangland violence (A Clockwork Orange) or space travel (2001), Kubrick proposes that no story he tells is greater than the primal threat it contains. When Rene Girard says in Violence and the Sacred that "I have tried to demonstrate that generative violence penetrates all forms of mythology and ritual" and "that there is nothing in the whole range of human culture that is not rooted in violent unanimity", he is talking more specifically about the importance of sacrifice and utilises Freud's Totem and Taboo as a key work. But for Kubrick no less important, and most obviously for The Shining, would be another of Freud's essay, where the psychoanalyst says of the uncanny, "many people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts. As we have seen, many languages in use today can only render the German expression "an unheimliches house" by "a haunted house." ('The Uncanny')
The Shining is of course a haunted house film but rather than suggesting how specifically the house is haunted, revealing a specific sin of the past, he wants the past vague and dense rather than clear and shallow. In a typical haunted house film like Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr Hitchcock, the titular doctor takes a new wife and she doesn't feel comfortable in her new abode. Sure enough, we discover why: the diabolical doctor is not who he seems and his ex-wife returns, it appears, from the grave. The film can justify the heroine's paranoia and resolve the story. One might say the same of The Shining except the haunting is too indistinct to be nailed down by plot, as though Kubrick wanted from the horror genre not the revelation of the mystery but the accumulation of human history as violent palimpsest, evident in Girard's claims.
Kubrick may have added the reference to the hotel having been built on sacred Indian ground, but that doesn't lead to ghostly Native Americans coming out of the earth. It must remain a way into the film but it isn't a way out for the filmmaker: he refuses to literalise that possible horror for dramatic effect. It remains a colonial subtext, a way of reading man's inhumanity to man. Other readings are available. "It can be read as a possible meditation on Genesis 22," Nathan Abrams proposes, "known as the Binding of Isaac, where Abraham (Jack) is willing to carry out the sacrifice of his only son (Danny)." (Senses of Cinema) But while such readings are available they must remain exactly that: probes into the mystery rather than a description of the plot. The sort of religious aspects to The Exorcist and The Omen are clear: they become part of the story as a priest needs to drive out the demon in the possessed Regan, and it is revealed that Damien has 666 marked upon him. The stories may be grandly ambitious in their absorption of the theological, and the former a fine film initself, but they contain their terrors more than Kubrick does within diegetic explanation.
This leaves The Shining Janus-faced: a film that can be read as a semi-incompetent horror that neither tells its story clearly nor understands its genre well, or a work that insists on proposing the violence in the human is so omnipresent that it would be an act of bad faith to feel it can be contained within yet another chiller. Kubrick sees that film "...succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension." (The Film Director as Superstar) The filmmaker was speaking specifically about 2001 but it's a comment pertinent to much of his work, and the sort of remark that would see the rhythms of the horror movie, the punctuated violence that demands one death after another, or a revelation of singular past sins, inadequate to the horror he seeks to explore. It is indeed a film about horror rather than a horror film.
© Tony McKibbin