Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the Subversion of Normalcy

Introduction

Previous Kubrick Essays

Stanley Kubrick’s films are so distinct and exceptional that he practically legitimizes whichever genre he decides to work in. Before 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction films were mostly dispensable pulp featuring monsters in rubber suits. Like earlier horror masterpieces The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Psycho, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining elevates the horror genre into rarefied air. In this piece, we’ll look at how Kubrick starts with a mundane story of a family spending a winter alone in a hotel and uses all of his skills as a filmmaker to craft one of the scariest films ever.

The Shining sets forth a seemingly basic story in terms of its plot and characters, but Kubrick is able to manipulate the language of film to slowly fill the audience with an overwhelming sense of dread. Camera movements and shots, curious editing, and the pacing of the story all slowly draw out the terror, ultimately leaving the viewer petrified. By the climax of the film, we’re jumping at the supernatural, the too-human, and the utter mystery of what we’re seeing on the screen.  In the end, it’s hard to say what scared us so – we’re simply certain that we’re terrified.  Now let’s figure out why . . .

The Seemingly Normal – Characters, Story, and Setting.

One of the greatest strengths of The Shining is in how it sneaks up on the viewer, slowly transforming the bland into the extraordinary until we reach a climax full of psychopathic family members and bizarre ghosts. Though we start with characters right out of middle America participating in boring custodial work in an empty hotel, Kubrick’s control of the release of information, especially through pacing, hints that there is something sinister going on.

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Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, perfectly cast as an unraveling man.

The opening of the film suggests this tension. Jack Torrance drives to the Overlook Hotel, and though the opening credits are uneventful helicopter shots of Jack’s drive, there’s an unnerving tenor to the soundtrack. There’s something mystical to the music. Then, when we finally meet Jack, he’s almost absent of characteristic. He’s an author, has a family, and is looking forward to working at the hotel. But that’s it. His wife Wendy and his son Danny aren’t much different. Wendy is a bit of a doting mother, and we learn from her that Jack once hurt Danny after losing his temper, resulting in Jack being sober for the last five months. Even Danny seems like a normal quiet kid with an imaginary friend. Of course, Kubrick teases us with a few visions, and we start to feel that something is weird with this little boy, and maybe with everything else he’s shown us, too.

It’s more than just the family; the story seems boring as well. These three white-bread people are going to live in an isolated hotel for the winter. No one’s going to bother them, they’ll get all the free time they want, and all they have to do it tend to the place. Snooze, right? Except, if no one can bother them, then no one can help them. If they have endless time, they have endless time to fill. And in tending to the place, they start to learn that maybe the place can take care of itself.

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The Overlook Hotel – Very Pretty, but also pretty boring.

Each of these “boring” aspects of the film follows the same pattern – it looks ho-hum at the onset, and then it is slowly revealed that there is something extra beneath the surface. Kubrick expresses this pattern most obviously in the pacing of The Shining. The film is glacial at the outset, with very little happening (and when something does “happen”, it’s usually a quick vision from Danny). But, things ramp up, almost imperceptibly. We get a great hint if we simply pay attention to the title cards of each “section”. They start by describing events, without any reference to time: “THE INTERVIEW” and “CLOSING DAY”. The next card reads, “A MONTH LATER” and then we move to various days of the week (“TUESDAY”, “SATURDAY”, etc). Finally, they start describing the time, “8AM” and “4PM”. Kubrick starts without time, then allows large swathes to pass without incident. But by the end, we’re keeping track of hours. Kubrick ratchets up the pace, subliminally conveying the idea that the stakes are raising, even if we can’t quite understand why.

As mundane as all of these elements of The Shining are, they each obfuscate something a little strange just under the surface. The characters are middleclass – but there’s turmoil between them. The story and the setting seem bland, except we get this warning about a past caretaker who went insane. Tying them together is our one true tip: the pacing.

Kubrick will hide more clues in other stylistic elements of the film.

Subverting Normalcy through Visual Techniques

The apparent blandness of the characters, the setting, and the story create the illusion that The Shining is a snoozefest, but what we actually see on screen suggests something more. Kubrick communicates these feelings in a subtlety, practically bordering on the subliminal: through his specific choices in set design, shot and editing choices, and camera techniques.

It may seem strange to say that the set design in The Shining is communicating some of the horror and mood, but there are a lot of peculiarities to the look of the Overlook Hotel. These come in three flavors: Native American motifs and references, off-putting color choices, and impossible architecture.

It almost seems impossible to read too much into the Native American references in The Shining, because the film itself mentions these references over and over. Navajo and Apache motifs were used to decorate the hotel, and Ullman (the manager) even mentions that the Overlook was built on an ancient Indian burial ground and that the original denizens had to repel Indian attacks. A stereotypical Indian chief adorns the Calumet Baking powder, which is seen when Halloran first uses “The Shining” to talk to Danny. The same product is later placed square in the upwards-facing shot of Jack talking with the ghost Grady while trapped in the storeroom. These motifs and images may contain additional hidden themes involving the genocide of Native Americans, but it is certain that their use at the very least makes the Overlook feel different, foreign, and uncomfortable.

A few specific color choices elevate the discomfort level of the Overlook, none more awkward than the look of Room 237, adorned in psychedelic green and purple with absurdly harsh fluorescent lighting. Even the key hanging from the doorknob has a weird red ornament that clashes with the surrounding decor. Obviously, the naked woman who transforms into a decaying old hag is the lede of Room 237, but the color scheme, layout, and lighting of the room set us on edge before we ever see anything supernatural.

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Speaking of layout, without a doubt the most disorienting element of the set design of The Shining is that the audience is repeatedly subjected to physically impossible architecture. Kubrick refrains from drawing attention to it, but The Overlook is fraught with impossibilities. The very first instance of this occurs right after the title sequence, during “THE INTERVIEW”. Jack approaches the front desk, asks for Ullman, and is pointed towards his office. As he walks through the lobby, a woman some 15 feet in front of him passes his line of vision from right to left, walking down a hallway behind the room he is going towards. Yet, when he reaches Ullman’s office, the back wall is adorned with bright windows with an uninterrupted view to the outside. It is not possible.

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Impossible Overlook Architecture #1 – Ullman’s Office has an Impossible window to the outside.

So, Kubrick’s a moron and messed up his set design? I’m afraid not. When Wendy and Jack are getting the tour of the hotel, we run into at least two more. When they’re walking to their apartment, they pass a door in the hallway on their left. Based on the architecture of the apartment, that door apparently leads to the bathtub, or maybe the kitchen next to the living room. Either way, this door seems to lead nowhere:

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Impossible Overlook Architecture #2 – The Apartment. I guess that other door down the hall opens in the stove and/or bathtub?

Similarly, while touring the kitchen, Halloran first shows Wendy a large walk-in freezer, which takes up a huge footprint (see below).  They then walk around a corner and Halloran opens the storeroom. It’s obvious that the layout of the storeroom would overlap with the freezer; both can’t coexist, they’re much too close together.

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Impossible Overlook Architecture #3 – Overlapping Storage Rooms in the Kitchen.

This entire hotel set was built by Kubrick in England, so these are all purposeful choices meant to convey a subconscious kind of dread to the spectator. No one notices this architectural layout stuff on a first watch – or a sixth – but your brain does a double-take each time something impossible happens up there on the screen. Something’s wrong, but you can’t tell what it is. It’s the perfect way to construct the mood of a horror film. Now, Kubrick just has to deliver on his teases in more explicit ways.

That’s where Kubrick’s cinematographic choices come into play. The Shining is known for extensive use of zoom-in shots, peculiar angles and mirror shots, and the use of the Steadicam. Taken together, these shot choices generate some intensely chilling sequences.

It starts with some weird angles and mirror shots. The skewed angle shots serve to disorient the audience a little, but everyone is accustomed to a Dutch angle or two.  The mirror shots bring the disorientation to a new level. Kubrick introduces them in the scene with Danny talking to “Tony”, where it is obvious that you’re looking at a mirror. Then, in the ONE MONTH LATER section, when Jack is oversleeping and lazing about his day, Wendy brings him breakfast. It takes nearly 30 seconds of screen time for the spectator to realize that the scene is playing out inside of a mirror. When we do realize this, it’s awkward. We thought we were seeing reality at face value; instead, we were only seeing a reflection, everything slightly askew. Maybe Jack isn’t resting and recharging – maybe he’s aimless and bored, and maybe that’s dangerous.

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Another iconic mirror shot – Jack is perfectly captured in the glass.

Once we know we’re witnessing something strange, Kubrick prevents us from looking away with a classic camera movement: the zoom-in. Over and over, we zoom in on a character, usually Danny or Jack, but also Halloran in one crucial scene. The zoom-in is classically used to convey contemplation. As we come closer and closer to a character, we are better able to read their face, to consider what they are thinking, and ultimately – to empathize with their condition. Kubrick’s zooms do the same thing. We feel Danny’s horror, then experience his vision of the girls and the blood. We see Jack staring out the cold window, then consider his mindset. We see Halloran sitting in bed, beset with visions, then imagine the horror of his portent. Does Kubrick use the zoom-in only on individuals who “shine”?

True, Jack is not shown as someone with the same abilities of Danny or Halloran. But, he “feels like he’s always been” in the Overlook. He converses with ghosts. He sees the woman in Room 237. Kubrick may be transforming the zoom-in into a kind of supernatural process, allowing the audience to experience the insights of those who can shine.

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Long and slow Zoom-In as we consider Jack’s mindset.

And then there’s the steadicam.

One can argue that The Shining isn’t particularly innovative in the actual genre of the horror film (but I think that’s a fool’s errand), but it’s undoubtedly a trailblazer in the use of the Steadicam. This is a piece of equipment that maintains a level field of view, despite the movement of its operator. The Steadicam had been invented a few years prior to the shooting of The Shining, so when Kubrick learned of it, he knew it could be an essential tool for his story.

We see the Steadicam throughout The Shining, following characters through hedge mazes and hallways, but also bizarre establishing shots like the scene where Jack is having a nightmare about killing Wendy and Danny. Some of the most iconic shots in all of the film are shot with the Steadicam: the sequences following Danny on his Big Wheel.

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Big Wheel tracking shot with the Steadicam – Absolutely Iconic.  Bonus Architectural Impossibility:  check out that stairwell to Danny’s right and the first door on that side of the hallway.

These tracking shots could be seen as the inverse of the same shots that Kubrick employed in Paths of Glory – following the protagonist instead of leading him. It makes sense to retreat in front of a leader like Kirk Douglas, treading through the trenches. In the world of The Shining, where horror may lurk around every corner, it similarly makes sense to focus in on a little boy navigating the halls of an expansive hotel, camera close to the action to obscure whatever may come around each new turn. So, when the Grady daughters greet us around that last corner, it strikes. This is what Kubrick has intended with his setup, set, and shots – to lull the audience and then chip away at their security.

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BAM – A potential surprise around every corner.

But there’s more. What Kubrick captures is subservient to how he transitions between shots. Throughout the film Kubrick transitions between shots in captivating ways. So, while what he captures makes us feel a certain sense of unease, it is the editing that truly delivers that peculiar sense of dread.

There are two major editing techniques used by Kubrick in The Shining to transition between scenes: dissolves and hard cuts. These are simple techniques, but they’re used to perfection here. We’ll look at each of these techniques in general to get a sense of why Kubrick uses them so often, and then delve into some specific scenes to see the master at work.

Everyone who has spent any amount of time watching movies or TV has seen a dissolve. This is where the current shot fades away and is slowly replaced by the shot from the next scene. In general, a dissolve is an editing technique used to connect two different shots in the mind of the viewer, suggesting some commonality between the two subjects. Kubrick uses dissolves this basic way throughout The Shining, but has a few other tricks up his sleeve as well.

The “CLOSING DAY” sequence is rife with dissolves. From the drive up the mountain all the way through to the abrupt “A MONTH LATER” title card, Kubrick returns to the dissolve again and again. Jack is discussing the Donner party with Danny; DISSOLVE to helicopter shot of the car; DISSOLVE to establishing shot of the Overlook Hotel; DISSOLVE to interior of the Overlook; DISSOLVE to the Colorado Lounge; DISSOLVE to the Hedge Maze; DISSOLVE to the Gold Room; DISSOLVE to the Kitchen. Etc, etc, etc. These dissolves have the effect of connecting every scene to the next, stretching out the exploration of this mysterious place. Each dissolve brings us deeper into The Overlook, finishing in the Kitchen – where the first undeniable supernatural act will occur later (O’Grady lets Jack out of the locked storeroom).

Kubrick uses the dissolve to zero-in on the mindset of the characters as well. While Dick climbs the mountain to get to the Overlook, there are again dissolves aplenty, even between shots that are essentially the same (Dick in the Snow Cat). Here, the dissolves can be read as obsession, as focus on the task at hand. But, we also get dissolves to Jack throughout the film, sometimes hard at work in the Colorado Lounge, sometimes just staring out the window, and sometimes to an empty lounge. This too shows an obsession, and it is only upon the ultimate reveal of the true insanity that Jack is experiencing that we understand the full purpose of these dissolves. Like with the Overlook, Kubrick is stretching out our contemplation of Jack, allowing us to consider his thoughts over long periods of time and from many angles. Ultimately, when we realize what he has been up to, the full context of his insanity slams home for us, and we share Wendy’s horror, complicit in the discovery.

When Kubrick isn’t dissolving in The Shining, he’s employing hard-cuts for specific effect. Cuts are even simpler than dissolves: they are simply abrupt movements from one shot to the next, sometimes in the same scene and sometimes across scenes. Here, we’ll look at two scenes where Kubrick exclusively uses specific types of cuts (and the cinematic rules that govern their use): J- and L-cuts in the interview with Ullman, and the breaking of the 180º rule during the discussion in the bathroom with Grady

L-Cuts and J-Cuts are cuts where the audio of the film continues, present on each side of the visual disturbance of the cut. In an L-cut, the audio starts from a source we identify on screen, a cut occurs, and the audio from the previous shot continues through the cut. A J-cut is just the opposite: off-screen audio starts, a cut occurs, and then the source of the audio is shown on the screen. For you visual learners, realize the cute naming convention: the shape of the letters gives a hint as to where the majority of the audio occurs: L for the shot before the cut, J for the shot after the cut.

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Lots of J- and L-cuts in this sequence.

In practice, L- and J-cuts are used to make two shots more cohesive, blending the visual aspects together using audio. They can be used to show the dominance of a speaker who is able to sustain our attention through an otherwise abrupt cut. They can also draw attention to whichever part of the statement is bifurcated by the cut. Whatever their use, they are a central part of cinematic language, and Kubrick takes full advantage.

We’ve already discussed the architectural impossibility of Ullman’s office, but Kubrick is also making fascinating use of L- and J-Cuts during this interview. There are many examples of each, but the crucial observation is that all L-cuts are from Ullman to Jack (with Ullman’s dialogue bleeding over the cut) and all J-cuts are from Jack to Ullman (with Ullman’s dialogue starting before he is on screen). Every word of Jack’s is spoken with him onscreen.

The dialogue itself is also telling: “doing repairs / so the elements can’t get a foothold”, “solitude and isolation can / of itself become a problem” and “a kind of claustrophobic reaction which can occur / when people are shut in together over long periods of time” are all examples of L-cuts where Ullman’s words continue despite the cut to Jack (by convention, the / represents the cut). Hence, these words, delivered with Jack listening intently, become a kind of disturbing portent: the elements do gain a foothold, solitude and isolation are a problem, and claustrophobia does occur.

The severe consequences of the effects of “cabin fever” are directly contrasted by the blasé attitude with which Jack approaches the position, all captured in the J-cuts, where Ullman interjects with relatively boring statements about recommendations, skiing, and then whether the people in Denver told Jack anything about the Hotel beforehand.

These cuts all lead to a feeling of domination by Ullman. His words start before he is onscreen, and linger after he has left. All the while, we only hear Jack talk when we can see him, perhaps encouraging us to pay more attention to what he says. We certainly sense the irony in his statements – everything will be fine, he’s actually looking for isolation, and his family will love it at the Overlook. This subtle manipulation of the dialogue, bending it around L- and J-cuts reveals far more than the words themselves: Kubrick cuts for foreshadow, and cuts for irony. Regardless, his editing subconsciously conveys something sinister and strange underneath the surface.

But that’s nothing compared to his wanton deconstruction of the 180° rule during Jack’s conversation with Grady.

The 180° rule is one of cinema’s clearest rules, discovered early on in the art of editing. Essentially, it draws a line between two actors in a scene and prohibits the camera from passing that line during a cut. It’s clear why – if two different characters are both looking to the left in separate shots, the viewer loses the geography of the scene and feels a sense of confusion. This is precisely why Kubrick breaks it – three times in one scene.

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Simple diagram of the 180 Degree Rule: keep the camera on the same side of the Line of Action in between cuts (or, re-establish the line of action first).

It begins when Grady spills drinks on Jack and the two go to the restroom to clean it up. At the start of the conversation, the scene is oriented with Jack on the left, Grady on the right, and the camera capturing them both in a two shot. Then, he introduces himself: “Grady, sir, Delbert Grady”. After an abrupt cut, we’ve hopped to the other side of the invisible line, and now Grady is on the left and Jack on the right. They talk for a little longer until Jack reveals where he knows Grady from: “You chopped your wide and daughters up unto little bits. And then you blew your brains out”. Bam! Kubrick crashes through the line again, and we’re back to how we started: Grady n the right, Jack on the left. Grady has no memory of this, but Jack insists: “Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here” and Kubrick leaps the line for the third and final time into a shot/countershot of Grady and Jack discussing Danny and his powers.

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Grady and Jack in the bathroom.  The 180 degree rule is not safe.

This flaunting of the 180° rule is purposeful, introducing extreme confusion and addling the audience with repeated shifts of geography – and always at key moments. At the end of the scene, we’re on the opposite side of where we started, considering the murder of Danny and Wendy right along with Jack, whose sanity is just as broken as this cinematic rule. From here, the film descends into violence, insanity, and the psychic strengths of The Overlook Hotel.

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And we’re broken.

Themes Straddling Reality and The Supernatural

Loosed from reality, the themes of The Shining start to reveal themselves. Kubrick dispenses with the outright supernatural ending of the source material, and instead allows the climax of the film to adopt a more cryptic feel. The film contains ideas about isolation, insanity, and a kind of psychic power derived from trauma so powerful that it reverberates through time and space.

These themes fall into two broad categories: the humanistic and the supernatural, and horror can be found in each of them. The relationships among the Torrance family, the isolation they feel, and the slow growth of Jack’s insanity introduce a realistic kind of terror. There’s the fear of being alone and isolated, the fear of someone you love changing into someone who could kill you, and the realization that you’re not in control anymore. These are the ideas that are playing out on the surface, especially through the early parts of the film. But there’s also a dark supernaturalism evident in most of what’s happening. Halloran’s “Shining” is the obvious example, but there’s also the visions we see from Danny and Jack (and, at the height of the craziness, from Wendy).

Part of the genius of The Shining lay in the way that Kubrick uses specific and coordinated filmmaking techniques to suggest these themes, as we’ve seen. The normalcy of the surface is slowly eroded as we notice impossible architecture, bizarre editing techniques, and uncomfortable camera movements. By the end, as the full supernaturalism of The Overlook Hotel runs rampant, we hardly even recall how we got from this white-bread family from Denver to a bunch of ghosts having an orgy in the middle of a blizzard.

It’s easy to see how so many viewers feel that The Shining is boring, dull, and slow: it’s the first ingredient of Kubrick’s masterful recipe. The mundanity encourages the spectator to relax, and provides the perfect slab of marble for the director to chip away at while he looks for the sculpture hidden within. Here, Kubrick’s chisels and hammers are J- and L-Cuts, long shots with Steadicam, and other camera movements. They are impossible architectural designs, brackish color schemes, and bizarre supernatural references. And the result of Kubrick’s chiseling is a thing a beauty: a fully-realized form of terror.

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