Want to see something really scary?

The horror genre is much bemoaned for its tendency toward artistic bankruptcy. Filmmakers are content to adhere to cliché in the form of gore, scare chords and contrived suspense. If these cinematic temptations are defied by a sophisticated auteur who understands the nuances of audience manipulation, the result is a film to be remembered. Indeed, meticulous attention to detail is among the most celebrated aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s legacy. Even for a Stanley Kubrick film, the production of The Shining was long and painstaking. The film took almost a year to shoot at 51 weeks, while it was only intended to take 17 weeks, and it had very long workdays — rewrites of the script would happen several times a day.

The sense of space is a basic subconscious instinct that all human beings have and rely on every day. This is the pressure point that Kubrick chooses to strike at in order to disorient and ultimately disturb viewers on a level that conventional horror technique cannot approach.

An obviously intentional example of this is the scene where Halloran is leading Wendy through the kitchen. The Steadicam precedes them as Halloran winds through counters and tables, taking twists and turns that that camera and the gaze of the audience moves with. Ultimately, we see him from behind opening the freezer with his right hand – we cut to the camera inside the freezer, and Halloran is seen opening what is supposed to be the same door with the other hand, and the door is now hinged and swinging from the wrong side. When they exit, they, the door swings from the original hinging, giving the impression that they are on the same side of the hall, but this time the kitchen is flipped in front of them and they walk towards it in the wrong direction. In the scene where Jack is interrupted by Wendy, we have a depth of field shot there is a chair clearly in-focus behind Jack. The camera cuts to Wendy then to Jack, and the chair is gone. Geoffrey Cocks notes in the documentary film Room 237 that this disappearance could have been intentional, or could have been just been a continuity error. A third intriguing possibility is that it could have been a continuity error that Kubrick chose to keep. A similar phenomenon occurs with the typewriter changing colors between shots. The third possibility raises interesting insights into the nature of The Shining and of choices in films in general, where even films with meticulous production are fertilized by the unintentional. The interior of The Overlook hotel itself is replete with physical impossibilities, which are, in line with the movie being a psychological horror, instinctually disturbing on a less than conscious level to the viewer. The constant spatial challenging of the psyche is noted by Juli Kearns in Room 237:

The casual viewer isn’t going to see so many things in Kubrick’s films and, although I think they may register unconsciously, you know, but they’re not going to, you know, perceive perhaps these things because as I’ve said, he presents them as being real… Jack has entered and you can see… [Kubrick] shows you this lobby and you get [to] see as jack moves across the lobby, you see the elevator beyond and you see beyond that, a hallway…. you have an impression that this place is towards the middle of the hotel. And you go from the lobby into the general manager’s office, and then into Ullman’s office, and there’s this window. And the window’s A powerful window… there’s something wrong with it and I think it registers as something wrong. This is an impossible window. It’s not – it is impossible. It is physically impossible. It cannot be there. It should not be there. There’s no place in the hotel for this window to exist.

We later see Wendy in that hallway, which does indeed extend behind the impossible window. These physical impossibilities and spatial anomalies, for the most part, simply cannot be continuity errors because they could not have been overlooked, and it would in fact require time and effort to produce most of them. Even if we are to ignore Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, which was particularly apparent during the production of The Shining, we are faced with the reality that there were multiple people involved with the design, rendering and construction of models of the set. The film’s cinematographer of John Alcott confirms this in an interview with American Cinematographer:

What we did at the very beginning was to have all the sets built in the form of cardboard models… I could light the set with ten windows and then with five windows and photograph it with my Nikon still camera, using the same angle we would use with our motion picture camera. That would give us a basic idea of how it was going to look on the screen. We went all the way through the film like that, even for sets which were built perhaps two months after we started shooting. All of the major sets – the hotel lobby, the lounge, the ballroom and the maze – were built in model form first, so I was able to do some careful planning… I would make a point to visit the sets at least once a week.

The hedge maze scene, which was a carefully planned set as admitted by the cinematographer, has blatant spatial anomalies that can be overlooked in the chaos of the snowy chase scene.  The hedge maze that we see during daytime, before the horror begins, has an entrance facing perpendicular to the hotel, while in the horror shots, we see the entrance facing an entirely different direction. This is similar to the concepts in Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut the real, Christmas-light world, and the world of the dreamy cinematic gaze, which in this case is delivering the horror of the irrational directly to the audience.

Occam’s razor tells us that at least many of the continuity errors and spatial impossibilities in Kubrick’s horror masterpiece are nuanced and wholly intentional innovations to the toolset of horror. It is the fact that these aspects of the film made it to the big screen that The Shining is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time and has remained in the popular psyche to this day. Its impact has nothing to do with scare chords or contrived climaxes. It is the subtle wrongness of things that linger in the back of the mind of the observer.

This is practically an untapped resource in horror. Drama films, or a least the good ones, craft a narrative atmosphere to transfer a nuanced experience to the viewer.  There are horror films that do engage in this type of conscientiousness and restraint, such as The Mothman Prophecies or The Thing, but these occupy a big chunk of that list. A good strategy for a Hollywood hopeful might be to buck the trend and dedicate themselves to an uncompromising type of horror.

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2 comments

  1. The game ‘Eternal Darkness’ does this to you. If your ‘sanity’ is low enough, you might walk into a room and fall through the floor. Then in a moment, you never entered the door at all.

    The hat trick is when it pretends to have reset your console.

    Like

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