‘The Shining’ – What makes it so terrifying?


Over Halloween, I decided to finally sit down and watch ‘The Shining’ after years of saying I would. I watched it probably the scariest way – alone at night, in my room with my headphones on, and I experienced every facet of the ‘creepy’ this film had to offer. After watching it, a few times during the night I thought I saw the twins in the corner of my bedroom.

Undeniably, most people have heard of ‘The Shining’, or at the very least recognise that iconic image of Jack Nicholson’s face in a door or the tidal wave of blood from the elevator. I, as a somewhat amateur cinephile, knew of the undisputed icon that is Stanley Kubrick‘s ‘The Shining’, but honestly, hadn’t watched it in its entirety until recently. I had heard of the numerous cultural references, the iconic performances by Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and young Danny Lloyd, but you can’t really know the profound echoing of the scary unless you watch ‘The Shining’ for yourself. I know this now. But what makes it so scary? Why does Rotten Tomatoes name it the 4th scariest film of all time? Is it the screeching soundtrack, the terrifying arch of Jack Torrance’s eyebrows? Or is it the ever-building ambiguity that leaves your stomach in that strange feeling of being half-suspended, half-dropped, the constant questions of ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘why’?


via IMBD

The consistent fear of dread is why I, personally, found ‘The Shining’ particularly more scary than other horrors I’ve seen. There is so much fear in the unknown, in the strange in-between of being scared and only sensing it. In ‘The Shining’, there is an unsettling feeling from beginning to end. The feeling of anticipation starts immediately and does not cease – as an audience we are constantly expecting, fearing, waiting. From the beginning I felt the main character, aspiring writer Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), always felt slightly skewed. There was something about his manner, the way he spoke to his wife and son that just didn’t feel right. As an audience member, I felt Jack balancing on the line between sanity and insanity, wondering and expecting when he would lose balance. The ‘snap’ we expect, is what firstly, holds our attention, but also fuels our fear. We always find ourselves asking these frantic questions, ‘Is this when he’s going to snap?’, ‘What will he do if he does?’. This dread that we doubt will even come to fruition is part of the reason ‘The Shining’ is so frightening. We expect to be scared, but we never know when – we are constantly on the edge of our supposed seat.


This mystery is also laced in the unanswered questions. There are so many unanswered questions, easter eggs and small details that create the strange world of the Overlook Hotel, which generates even more mystery than the characters and their spiralling can offer. Questions that, after first watch, I could only find the answer to after a re-watch or a deep-dive into numerous video essays on YouTube. Even as I write this, I still don’t fully understand the naked woman in Room 237 or what “the shining” is, or what the Hotel wants; is it vengeful, what are its motivations? The reason, in my opinion, ‘The Shining’ works so well is because of its mystery. The unanswered questions, the consistent suspense of ‘what’ and ‘why’. We, like Wendy (Duvall), do not understand the circumstance she finds herself in. One day, she has her family – the next, she’s being chased with an axe. In horror films, we typically hear a loud scream or ‘bang’ that causes us to jump out of our seats. ‘The Shining’, however, is filled with this eerie quiet. In between the jarring shrieking cellos that erupt out of nowhere, there is just absolute quiet. The quiet is not comforting or relaxing, quite the opposite. Rather, it exaggerates the madness bubbling under the surface – the silence is ominous, haunting, and waiting to morph into frenzy and murder.


via IMBD

In some ways, ‘The Shining’ is so terrifying because the film is about a family quietly descending into madness which could potentially, happen to anyone. I mean, it’s not the everyday that you spend 5 months alone in an isolated, evil hotel in middle of a blizzard, but the spiral into quiet madness could to anyone. In this case it happened to Torrance family. Arguably everyone fears losing their grasp on reality, and in ‘Their Shining’, we watch it unfold before our very eyes.


‘The Shining’ depends on the dread of the audience, and if you tell me that you didn’t feel even an inkling of dread in the two hour run time, I’ll think you are lying. The very fabric of what makes this film so scary is the dread and vagueness that it feeds on to propel the story forward. The foreboding that aches in every corner of this film is the very reason so many people, for decades have hailed ‘The Shining’ as one of the scariest films of all time. We, as humans, are naturally paranoid of the unknown; of the potential danger that can lurk in the corner of a dark bedroom or on a murky walk home at night. ‘The Shining’ is that feeling personified – it is resurrected and expanded. So, like me, watch ‘The Shining’ on your own in the winter. Happy watching!


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