After a three-week writing hiatus, apparently, I need to make up for lost time. Despite writing a considerably long piece on key scenes from The Shining last night, I feel pressed to continue my analysis tonight, at the expense of working on final papers. I should mention, right now, when it comes to grad school, I’m operating under the dangerous dictum that “it always gets done, eventually,” which I’m hoping doesn’t backfire horrendously. And anyway, my Thursday afternoon class is cancelled, which means that tonight is practically a weekend for me – the perfect time to write about horror. I can’t explain why I enjoy looking so carefully at the most unsettling – albeit sometimes most unrealistic – elements of life, only that I do. And in that vein, I’ll pick up where I left off yesterday, and continue to compile a sort of cinematic, scene-by-scene “close reading,” of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, my favorite horror movie of all time, and one of my favorite movies of all time, period. (Ironically, it’s competing with The Sound of Music and Goodwill Hunting for that title). If you haven’t read the first or second segment of my analysis, consider doing so before you read on.
We left off having just escaped the wildly unnerving Torrance family car ride up the Colorado mountainside to The Overlook Hotel, during which the family nonchalantly chats about members of the Donner Party consuming each other in a ruthless Colorado snowstorm. As I mentioned in my last post, our transition, then, to the location of all the ultimate mayhem, is surprisingly relieving; we enter The Overlook with Wendy, Jack, and Danny, while the hotel still belongs, in part, to the living, insofar as it ever does. Employees are walking around, packing up for the winter, and critical character Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) will show Wendy the kitchen and initiate Danny into the starkly unreal reality that is The Overlook Hotel.
Before Dick and Danny’s hallmark conversation (an exchange that is absolutely one of my favorite scenes in the film) we get a foreboding shot of Danny playing darts in the game room. This is an exciting scene for the enthusiastic horror moviegoer, because it’s the first scene during which we get to glimpse the supernatural in non-vision form (we do see the ghost sisters in one of Danny’s visions, described earlier). And it’s weirdly sweet and endearing that Kubrick eases us into the land of the “unliving” so gently, even though Danny’s encounter with the ghostly twins is undoubtedly creepy. Danny is lining up his dart shot, aiming for a bulls-eye, when odious music lingers in the background and he turns around to glimpse two pallid, near-identical girls of similar ages, holding hands and clothed in reasonably fancy dresses. Thanks to Danny’s earlier vision, we know these eerie almost-twins are ghosts, despite the fact that they stand, staring at Danny, looking remarkably alive, and then turn in unison and saunter out the door like a pair of living sisters might do. Of course, the music becomes more alarming in the background, and part of the trepidation the viewer experiences toward these girls during a first viewing lies in what they may do, or what they have the capacity to do, as they stand and stare at Danny – not what they actually do, which is practically nothing.
I think, though, there are some other things that make this scene – and the prevalence of these two startlingly porcelain, eerie little girls – so unsettling. There is Kubrick’s obvious ability not to transgress any boundaries that would move his work into the realm of the blatantly “un-scary.” I’ll use the more contemporary Insidious film as an example, here. The glimpses of ghosts that we get throughout Insidious are terrifying until they come together in a sort of supernatural spectacle during a culminating séance scene. When we see them all, interacting, creating a sort of undead ruckus, we become notably less afraid of them. Kubrick always lets his ghosts linger at a distance; they are rarely too active, and they never become so personified that we cease to be afraid of them. To that end, part of their ominousness lies in what they don’t do, not what they do – and what we don’t see, not what we see.
I think our good friend Sigmund Freud might also give us some insight into why these two sisters are so damn creepy. Now, I’ll preface this by saying I’m not going back and re-visiting his work, “The Uncanny,” to write this, because as I’ve said before, it’s the equivalent of a weekend night for me and I’m far too lazy to re-read theory right now. But in “The Uncanny” Freud seeks to elicit the components of stories that make us feel the uncanny, make us feel that strange, uncomfortable, frightened feeling (which he sometimes describes as a simultaneous feeling that a thing’s happened before). Freud is particularly interested in dolls, and the way they encapsulate the human form while remaining inhuman. In the right context, Freud argues – not in fairytales, per se, but when the mood is set appropriately – dolls can provoke incredible feelings of the uncanny because they linger between the human and the inhuman, because – especially in a good horror movie (I would add) – they can be both human and inhuman at once (see Annabelle or The Boy).
The near-twin sisters in The Shining embody this phenomenon perfectly; they are just stoic enough, just porcelain enough, to seem slightly inhuman, even doll-like, despite their human form. Instead of being dolls with human capabilities, they are human ghosts that look like dolls, and their doll-like essence, combined with their serious faces and our nauseating knowledge of their backstory – makes them something between a bit frightening and absolutely terrifying (in part dependent on the viewer). And it’s also interesting to note that they become evil by default, as the dead often do in horror movies. These little girls were not killers in their day; they were victims of a brutal axe murder rampage. But in their life-in-death in The Overlook Hotel, they will later chide Danny, will tell him “Come play with us Danny, for-ever, and ever, and ever” as he receives visions of their death. They may not have much agency, per se, but Kubrick makes it blatantly clear throughout the film that they are ill-intentioned.
Danny, of course, is not incredibly vocal throughout the movie. We may attribute this to the fact that he is a child, but given the chattiness of some children, this answer is not wholly satisfying. It is interesting, if not technically ironic, that the Torrance who is forced to see the most in the hotel says the least, and during his first visitation from the ethereal ghost sisters, his eyes register some alarm, though he more or less maintains his cool, and he joins his parents soon after the appearance happens. The scene is scary, at the very least, as a harbinger of worse things to come, and you hardly need to have seen a horror movie, let alone this film specifically, to reach the conclusion that more horror is on the horizon after the Grady sisters appear in the game room.
If Danny is alarmed with a vision that he knows is troubling and supernatural, he is at least somewhat lucky (if we can really use that word to describe him, given the circumstances) to meet the hotel’s head cook and fellow clairvoyant Dick Hallorann, who is able to initiate Danny into the diseased location that is The Overlook by telling him what he is likely to experience and how to handle those experiences. Danny and Dick commune in The Overlook’s giant, corporate-sized kitchen while Danny nibbles at a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Food is often social in literature and film, and can be used to express certain types of communion. I think this tactic is especially evident in The Shining, which inverts everything we’d expect from a meal scene.
First, when we picture a meal bringing people together, we picture a warm hearth, a kitchen table – perhaps small, perhaps large – with a variety of delightful edibles in a nicely decorated, relatively domestic kitchen. Okay – at least, that’s what I pictured the first time I read a chapter on meal scenes in the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor. But what seems so telling about the meal scene in The Shining is that the kitchen seems to suggest communion between Dick and Danny, who sit across the table from one another, talking, even as it emphasizes their indelible separateness. Wendy remarks, when she enters the kitchen, that she’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find her way out – suggesting that the kitchen is daunting, forest-like, and perhaps hostile, like the rest of the hotel and the imminent Colorado winter. They sit at no sort of hearth that suggests warmth and community; they are surrounded by metal and large devices, a fact that seems to intentionally invert the presumptive “hominess” of the stereotypical meal scene and remind us that we are not home. The kitchen’s sheer power is a reminder of The Overlook’s power, of Dick’s ultimate inability to protect Danny in the presence of such a powerful edifice, a building that is alive, in most every sense of the world. And only Danny eats – and then only a small dish of ice cream – a fact that sits coldly and irrefutably in the middle of the connection that Dick forges with Danny.
To Dick’s credit, as Dick tells Danny about “the shining”—the ability to see things others can’t see and know things others can’t know, an ability he and Danny share – he is able to connect with Danny. Despite the fact that Danny will later disobey him and enter the dreaded room 231 (probably out of child-like curiosity), there is a sense of mutual trust and respect between Dick and Danny in their first and only conversation together. But the viewer can only begin to conceive of what Dick’s mind is telling him in this scene. First, we know that Dick and Danny have the power to see more about the past than they’d like – to see remnants or traces of violence, death, and tragedy – but we’re never sure how able they are to see the future, and how much Dick suspects, let alone knows, about the trial Danny will endure. There are, then, two ways to read this scene: through one lens, Dick is a concerned clairvoyant who is preparing a fellow clairvoyant, and a child, to live in a haunted hotel for the winter, a hotel that shines, where the ghosts come alive. I’m inclined to take the latter view, however: I think Dick suspects – to the extent that he’s not fully aware – that Danny’s about to enter an amalgam between a living hell and the icy jaws of potential death. The large, overwhelming kitchen, the fact that only Danny picks at a scoop of ice cream and Dick doesn’t eat, the overall isolated sense that the kitchen emanates, all point toward the fact that Dick at least suspects Danny’s fate but has absolutely no power to put the kibosh on the situation. He’s only a cook, after all – what could he possibly say, especially given the unusual situation? Of course, Dick – one of the film’s heroes – will try to rescue Danny, later, but the famous kitchen scene results in a degree of hopelessness, as Dick realizes he’s speaking to a child who will enter traumatic, and perhaps lethal, circumstances, and all he has is a 15- minute window of time before the hotel closes for the winter to prepare him for it and to pre-emptively curb some of the damage. Dick appears very casual for Danny’s sake, but I imagine he is quite fearful about the situation.
I feel like there is, perhaps, more to be said about this scene – not its setting, specifically, but the conversation that ensues between Dick and Danny. Dick has a remarkable way of explaining the essence of “the shining” to Danny so that it simultaneously assuages Danny (we think) and obscures some of the reality about the dangers of a hotel in which traces of the dead remain – in which, in fact, the dead come alive and possess agency. But I will leave such speculations for another post; it is late, Late Night with Stephen Colbert is on, and I just got a good book in the mail that I want to read. Stay tuned for a continued “cinematic close reading” of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and feel free to share your thoughts below!