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To Forever Holding Your Peace

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

EssayPart of Issue #13: So This Is Silence

Cinema had no choice but to be silent during its first few decades of existence, yet after the emergence of sound technology, the oscillation between sound and its absence introduced itself as a force to preside over the emotional journey of the viewer – a cinematic structure leaving hints for the attentive ear to catch. Silence can be used in a plethora of different ways. There’s the famous bombing scene in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) whose sudden silence signifies the haunting turmoil of shell shock experienced during World War II. There’s the lack of dialogue in most of Kim Ki-duk’s Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring (2003) that evolves into a form of meditation. And there’s the semi-silent end of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which one can hear nothing but the running water going down the drain – Bernard Herrmann’s string orchestra ceases and the message communicated is the devastating misfortune of a wasted life.

The coupling of silence and sound is ideal for the horror genre. Beyond Hitchcock’s Psycho, there’s another film that has taken advantage of silence to the fullest: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Inspired by Stephen King’s novel of the same title, the film was marketed with the tag: “The tide of terror that swept America is here”. But an average horror film it is not and that’s why it was met with mostly scathing reviews for almost a decade following its release, which then proved that Kubrick was yet another artist way ahead of his time. Pauline Kael, for instance, wrote: “Again and again, the movie leads us to expect something – almost promises it – and then disappoints us,” because “what we get doesn’t tease the imagination”. Kael was essentially referring to the film’s lack of common ghost story elements, but Kubrick has stated that this was his intention. He and his co-writer Diane Johnson built a new type of haunted hotel, devoid of ghouls and sheet-covered furniture, no spiderwebs on the ceiling. At its center, they place an unconventional protagonist, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who, instead of being the benevolent family man, is an abusive father. In other words, it isn’t surprising that Jack is manipulated to kill his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), while taking care of the Overlook Hotel for the winter because he’s already one foot down the murderous rabbit-hole. It’s almost as if the hotel’s demand for bloodshed comes natural to him, and this was partly why King wasn’t pleased with the adaptation of his book – he felt that it was neither convincing, nor scary. What may the “tide of terror” be then?

It’s not spider-walking down the stairs and it’s not the boogeyman living inside the closets; it’s the materialization of the overwhelmingly silent evil of the Overlook Hotel. From scenes that lack dialogue, to those where characters do speak with one another while implying or simply omitting necessary details, sometimes linguistically and others sonically, to destabilizing shifts between complete quiet and extreme loudness, the atmosphere is one that is completely disturbing.

It’s all to forward ambiguity; Kubrick spends the first minutes of the film hinting at an underlying, mystifying threat, as the camera follows a yellow Volkswagen driving up a mountain from a helicopter’s view accompanied by Wendy Carlos’ reworking of ‘Dies Irae’ – a melody that was used for the Funeral Mass – and the first attempts at a semi-answer take the shape of a silent image. Tony, Danny’s supposed imaginary friend, is not too keen on moving to the isolated hotel for the winter. When Danny insists on knowing why, the audience first witnesses a change in the child’s demeanor: his eyes widen, his breathing stops; the emotion displayed cannot be mistaken for anything else, but paralyzing fear. The scene cuts to a hall in front of an elevator. Blood starts flowing down the elevator door, flooding the hall with its violent torrents. It splashes on the white walls and on the furniture – an image that’s momentarily interrupted first by the introduction of the twin Grady girls (Lisa and Louise Burns) and then by a closeup of Danny, utterly terrified, until the blood covers up everything and the scene cuts to a black screen. Right before this, Jack is told during his interview about Charles Grady (Philip Stone) and how due to cabin fever, he committed a murder-suicide. The blood-spattered vision points back to this tragedy. Even if this visual response justifies Tony’s desire to stay away from the Overlook Hotel, it fails to offer an explanation. Instead it adds to the mystery, as the viewers are unsure of what they just witnessed and more importantly, why and how. Further information is provided only when Danny meets Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the hotel’s African American head chef.

Kubrick is not merely interested in the absence of speech altogether; he doesn’t abandon silence, he simply reshapes it to compound the secrecy. Such a directorial decision is evident in Danny and Hallorann’s conversation, during which the chef clarifies the source of Danny’s visions: it’s an ability he calls “the shining” that allows both of them to experience remnants of spiritual energy, and by extension see events of the past and the future. When room 237 is mentioned, there’s a conspicuous shift in Hallorann. Gone is the sweet and caring adult with the promise and delivery of ice-cream; now, he emphatically denies the possibility of any scary abnormality in the aforementioned room, but simultaneously warns Danny to steer clear of it. The insinuation here, of course, is that the room is somehow inherently ominous. Hallorann himself, after all, refers to the Overlook Hotel as a place that shines because certain “traces” of bad things past have been left behind and only those like Danny and himself can see them. This is emphasized by Kubrick’s repetitive use of the dissolve, as the previous scene leaves pieces behind for the next one. Once again, the film points back to this place’s bloodstained skeletons in the closet.

Besides the Grady familicide, construction started in 1907 on top of a Native American burial ground, according to the manager (Barry Nelson). When Wendy jokingly calls the hotel a “ghost ship”, she’s more right than she can possibly imagine. The bloody hallway now has an additional origin story i.e. the too often easily ignored genocide of Native Americans. This kind of disrespect begs a spiritual aftertaste of vengeance. This theme is addressed again, as the film is close to reaching its climax, during another cryptic dialogue between Jack and a bartender who appears out of thin air named Lloyd (Joe Turkel), when Jack refers to “the white man’s burden” – i.e. the responsibility the white man assigned to himself to manage the lives of nonwhite people to save them via colonialism – and Lloyd remains quiet.

The power of suggestion is strong, and each time it emerges as a prevailing technique, Kubrick is diving in deeper to spookiness. While this dark force is undoubtedly destructive, it has a weakness: it needs human hands as an instrument through which it can act. Grady embodied this role a few years earlier, but this time it’s Jack’s turn to be put under this paranormal spell. Jack sits opposite an authority that knows not only how to lure a potential host in, but also when to strike. So, when Jack, an alcoholic, offers to “give his goddamn soul for just a glass of beer”, Lloyd enters the scene and reassures Jack that his “credit is fine”, and that “his money’s no good here” because he has “orders from the house”, the contract is as good as signed. Lloyd may look mundane, albeit somewhat uncanny with his unblinking stare and his uninterrupted smirk, and the conversation might seem inconsequential, yet the audience cannot help but feel a sense of chilling discomfort. How else may viewers respond when confronted by Nicolson’s insanely creepy expression while he’s staring right at them? Besides the sudden breaking of the fourth wall and the flawless male lead performance, it’s the questions this scene raises but refuses to answer that alarms people. Lloyd’s arrival alone is bizarre, yet Jack doesn’t dispute it even though he checked for any remaining liquor upon entering the gold ballroom and found nothing but an empty bar just mere seconds earlier. It’s not just the character’s attitude though; it’s that Lloyd pops up as if he’s always been there, one cut away, no introduction necessary. Further, the fact that Jack recognizes the bartender and that he has a credit with the place indicates that he’s a returning customer, implying a non-elucidated interpersonal history.

This quality of continuation in Jack’s existence within these hotel walls is put under the spotlight once again during his absurd encounter with Grady, the butler. After a fight with Wendy, Jack enters the gold ballroom to find himself amidst a 1920s party. Grady accidentally spills drinks on him, and invites him to the gentlemen’s restroom to clean him up. Kubrick uses a wide angle lens here, though initially it’s unclear why he pays so much attention to this particular setting. But observing the meeting as a whole, leads viewers to the realization that this scene, despite the fact that it remains indifferent to the audience’s need for clarification, is the final flipping point; it’s the moment Jack, hands raised, fully surrenders to his Faustian deal with the hotel and he can no longer turn back. If the 180-degree rule is taken into consideration here, Jack and Grady keep changing positions whenever the sequence cuts from a wide angle shot to a medium shot and vice versa. From right to left and left to right, to who really is the Overlook Hotel’s caretaker debate Jack initiates, Kubrick essentially compliments the constant power exchange of knowledge. That is, of course, until the moment Grady goes from complete obliviousness regarding Jack’s comments, to omniscient awareness, almost suggesting that he’s no longer just Grady with the climactic line: “You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir, I’ve always been here”. While the spectators’ eyes have been following this conversation like a tennis ball match, this moment right here is the turn. The film underlines it further by separating the characters in their distinct close-up shots: Jack puzzled and uncomfortable, Grady stern and authoritative.

Moving forward, the butler knows that Danny lights a beacon in the form of shining to call Hallorann for help. He informs Jack by questioning him, almost accusing him: “Did you know Mr. Torrance that your son is attempting to bring an outside party into this situation? Did you know that?” Once again, how does Grady have access to omniscience? Further, Hallorann’s presence is unwanted; it’s actually a threat to the hotel’s wishes. So, either Jack did know, and by not putting an end to it has breached his contract with the hotel, or he didn’t know, and has been fooled by a boy. Either way, he has failed to be a proper caretaker and the time has come for his mistake to be fixed. The dialogue that ensues revolves around the concept of correction: Grady spurs Jack to correct his family due to their alleged disobedience. The film circles back to the “white man’s burden” as Jack has to correct two people, a kid and a woman, who he feels are beneath him. Though words do fill this screen-time, they end up perplexing the audience to such an extent that they feel unsettled beyond any point of reason. The most significant part of these two interactions, however, is that Lloyd and Grady’s characteristics aren’t the embodiment of conventional haunted house regular guests.

The Overlook Hotel, with its lack of apparitions and demons, doesn’t look haunted; its dread is preserved by its elusive and unpredictable nature, as Kubrick maintains the secrecy around it, not only via cryptic discussions, but also by taking advantage of the soundtrack. He decides to abstain from impressionistic set clichés and opts for an appearance of realness. Accordingly, the hotel, and especially the Colorado Lounge, is well-lit, beautiful and stylish, covered in colorful designs inspired by Navajo and Apache motifs. The dominance of patterns is important to note, since their presence signifies the quality of an intricate maze and by extension an excruciating aura of entrapment only discernible to the viewer at first. This awareness is unwillingly gained through auditory perception with the emergence of Béla Bartók’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’. It’s a non-diegetic piece of music that renders the seemingly happy moment of a mother walking with her son in daylight utterly menacing, but nobody understands why, since the visual and auditory components mismatch. While Wendy and Danny get lost inside the hedge maze, the image dissolves once again and cuts to Jack first wandering through the Colorado Lounge and then staring over the model hedge maze with a malevolent expression. The scene cuts to an overhead shot of the maze, slowly zooming in only to find miniature versions of Wendy and Danny walking around the actual hedge maze. The audience cannot possibly consider that Jack is the one literally looking over them. Kubrick seems to imply that something else, perhaps something that defies spatial rules, is surveying the area. With Bartók’s score dominating the soundtrack, the unnamed entity hovering over the Torrances is one of literal evil.

Bartók’s piece, and its suggestive eeriness, resurfaces the second time Danny rides his tricycle within the labyrinthine halls of the hotel, before coming upon room 237. Despite the warning to stay away, his adolescent curiosity wins. The soundtrack plants the seed for the idea that the hotel is calling upon him to enter; that it has a power that’s inexplicably irresistible. Assistant music editor Gordon Stainforth edited Bartók’s score in order to employ the technique known as Mickey Mousing. An outdated technique, even back in the late 1970s when The Shining was coming into existence, Mickey Mousing originated in the late 1920s: Mickey Mouse cartoons were syncing the soundtrack with the actions on screen to achieve a comic effect. The sound accompanying Mickey’s belly being stretched like a rubber band in Steamboat Willie (1928), for example, helps people’s suspension of disbelief to be sustained because they’re amused. Here, however, the synchronization is meant to achieve an effect of terror – to signify an invisible presence, or what Stainforth called the “manifestation of Fate”. This technique is also used to agitate the viewers, when Jack throws the tennis ball against the wall, or when he throws a fit walking toward the gold ballroom, or when he rips off a page from his manuscript. It’s employed almost every time a title card emerges to indicate different segments, which function as a temporal structure that gradually shortens. From integral moments, to specific days, to distinct hours, the audience is led to a climax of increased, anticipated stress. Ultimately, it’s about throwing the viewers off balance because an inanimate building seems to be having an objective whose silent nature is sinister. Without a clue of what it is, it becomes difficult to discover a way to defeat it, and consequently a paradigmatic illustration of the fear of the unknown concept.

There are moments when Kubrick ups the ante on this crescendo of menace by coupling it with silent sequences to set a completely deranged tone. The epitome of this decision is Danny’s tricycle scenes. Gliding from corridor to corridor, Danny rides the hellish paths, rolling on carpets and on naked floors, and so creating a mix of silence and blaring sound in a few second intervals. The scenes themselves don’t have an arc in the sense of traditional narrative, but that’s not their purpose. The camera has dropped on the ground level and Danny is followed close behind by a Steadicam handled by Garrett Brown himself, the inventor of the device. From this point of view, the audience’s perspective is limited, and as Danny keeps rolling in circles, the environment feels as if it’s populated with hidden horrors just out of sight. All these visual and auditory elements combined, build certain expectations. So, when Danny goes on another expedition, The film changes the rules. Still on ground level, but left way behind, the camera doesn’t record what Danny sees. It then cuts to a hallway right behind Danny’s back and before the spectators get a chance to compose themselves, they’re confronted with a loud noise and the twins standing down the hall, both bloody, butchered yet standing alive with vacant expressions; it’s a veritable embodiment of horror.

Whereas in the beginning Kubrick allows a bit of clarification, it’s always about affording people the necessary tools to decipher a tiny fragment of the plot which will get them further hooked rather than providing a clearcut response. For instance, one needs the exposition offered by Hallorann regarding the shining in order to be scared of the hotel’s silent malevolence. As the movie progresses, it becomes all the more unsolvable and frightening. The Overlook Hotel is a space where doors open without a human hand pulling the storeroom door, and yet the hostage Jack can roam the corridors again to run and kill. It’s a place where a kid is seduced by a ball that comes its way without an apparent physical and tangible source of the kinetic energy behind it. It’s a host of rooms wherein a naked woman cackles maniacally and literally changes her skin. And on and on it goes, just like the final shot zooming in on a photo of a smiling Jack partying in 1921 suggests. But even in his final shot, Kubrick doesn’t resolve his conflict; it’s on the viewer to decide what Jack’s presence stands for in this photo.

Overall, Kubrick takes a rather simplistic plot, and molds it into a project of sheer terror, as his breaking away from conventional gothic haunted house tropes is the basis of his triumph.  He decided that the threat can be both something bigger than people can possibly perceive and something that’s fundamentally human, seeing that the hotel has to recruit Jack to do its bidding. For Kubrick, the hotel’s influence is so strong because the nature of man is inherently corrupt – that’s why it’s so easily tempted – and The Shining is an indirect way of facing that wicked part of humanity without the dreaded consequences. Wendy and Danny definitely do – though it’s improbable they escape unscathed – and perhaps this is where Kubrick’s sardonic sense of humor may be detected. Mother and son are perceived as weak and naive throughout the film. Jack, on the other hand, considers himself the paragon of masculinity in his ability to be authoritative and capable. It should be noted here that twice during the film’s runtime, one may hear the theme song of The Road Runner Show (1966-1973), wherein a prime predator hunts a naive bird with no success, and constantly finds itself utterly humiliated and dead. As Jack fails to murder his family, perhaps the parallel can be drawn that he’s the over-confident coyote, who loses his life in embarrassment. Since the finality of death isn’t an option for Jack, or for Wile E. Coyote for that matter, perhaps next time, who knows? The Shining is essentially a film of eternal ambiguity with an open-ended final shot, which Kubrick never really addressed. After all, it’s commonly known that he felt that he should never explain the meaning behind his works – one could even argue that he took a sadistic vow of silence.