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Why The Shining is Just a Ghost Story (And Why That’s Okay)

Eight Behind the Scenes Stories That Would Make Great Features of Their Own jack nicholson in the shining.

Stephen King’s chief influence for his novel The Shining was Shirley Jackson’s classic book The Haunting of Hill House. He speaks clearly about this in introductions to the book and in interviews. More than that, the influence is abundant throughout the work itself. There’s not much room to question it. This is one of the many, many things separating Stephen King’s The Shining from Stanley Kubrick’s film version. Kubrick was a very private person, he never liked to talk to the press. At the time, he was also thought of as much more of an artist than King. After all, King was still a newcomer. More than that, King wrote horror.

That made it all the more surprising when Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel was announced. People were shocked to learn that the director who had done 2001: A Space Odyssey was now directing a horror picture. In fact, so many people were not willing to accept that revelation that they needed it to be something more. In many ways, viewers still need the movie to be something more than that.

By this point I’m sure most people have seen or at least heard of the documentary Room 237. This film, which is interesting at the very least, explores the perspectives of people who have elaborate, passionate conspiracy theories as to what The Shining is actually about. Some claim that it is Kubrick’s confession for faking the moon landing. Others claim it is a portrayal of white guilt about the eradication of the American Indian. There are many other theories.

But if Kubrick’s brief interactions with King are anything to go by, his intent was to make a very scary ghost story. He would call the author with questions about the afterlife and the nature of death. He not only wanted to make a horror movie, he wanted to make a great one. Even with the changes from the source material that have divided fans of the book and movie, Kubrick succeeds in this. It’s a paranormal feature. It’s a very scary one, probably one of the best of all time, but at the end of the day that is still what it is.

Even as a haunted house movie, The Shining works on multiple levels. Given that this version of Jack Torrance is unhinged from virtually the first frame, we’re left wondering how much of what unravels at the hotel is actually happening and how much is simply going on in Jack’s head. Even if Danny Torrance is psychic, he could be picking up on signals from his father and not the hotel itself. We’re teased for some time, wondering which direction the film will take. This has led some people to believe that there is nothing supernatural in the film whatsoever. But this ignores what might be the most important scene in the whole feature.

When former caretaker Delbert Grady visits Jack later in the movie to ask why he has not yet killed his wife and son, it is the first time that the ghost interacts with the environment around him. All the scares we’ve seen before this point were images of ghosts that could have been hallucinations. But in this moment, Jack is locked in the freezer, helpless and defeated and it is the hotel that lets him out. To ignore this moment is to ignore what makes The Shining so scary and in turn devalues the film as a whole.

Wendy Torrance is another great focal point for the spiritual activity that occurs. Her characterization is not nearly as strong as in the book, where she was much more aggressive and defiant. Yet the entire film rides on her toward the end. She has been kept in the dark while the hotel manipulates her husband and son. She has seen nothing like the things that they have seen and this only makes her more and more nervous. It is because of this lack of supernatural encounter on her part that she is treated to a visit from everything at once in the last act. After the hotel reveals itself to Jack by letting him out of the pantry, it reveals itself to Wendy in all manner of macabre forms and visions. She is the throughway for the audience at this point, wondering what is really going on around her and then receiving her answer in the form of manipulative, angry ghosts.

Yet people will never stop arguing whether or not The Shining is a haunted house movie, a horror movie, or even a traditional film at all. This is something that happens frequently in the course of horror history. If a movie is good enough, it receives enough critical acclaim over time, people need to stop seeing it as something other than its genre. It needs to be separate. This is why people adamantly fight the notion that Silence of the Lambs is a horror film. Nobody wants to like a horror feature. The genre is not praised by critics by and large, it never receives awards, so when a movie is good enough to garner this acclaim it needs to be labeled as something else. Thankfully, there are still many who appreciate The Shining for what it did for the genre. Even if people will always look for things that may or may not be there, it will forever be known as one of the all-time classic horror pictures.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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