What is scary? An analysis of “The Shining”

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I decided to look into what makes something scary.

Stephen King is the reigning expert on that, so I thought I’d get a few of his books that were recommended to me.

The Shining was always a favorite movie, and It and Pet Semetary were recommended. Maybe a few other ones. Night Shift, I think?

Got the books on order from the library and started scanning the cable channels to see if any the movies were coming up.

I had seen The Shining before, and it had just always been one of my favorite scary movies. If you asked me about the scariest movie I ever saw, I would have to say that’s it – but I haven’t seen it in a long time. Probably more than 10 years.

Hmm. Did The Shining hold up?

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I don’t remember for sure, but I think I read the book after I saw the movie, so that fills in some gaps sometimes in ways that are a little bit like cheating. Some of the work doesn’t have to be done by the author because you already know the story and you know what to expect and you don’t want to be scared or you know what something already looks like.

That’s what I think.

On the other hand, it’s been probably longer since I’ve read the book than it has been since I saw the movie, so checking them both out again will be a bit of a fresh experience.

The key was to try to figure out: when did I feel scared?

How soon in the story did I feel scared, and why?

What was it that was making me apprehensive?

I think different things scare different people, so this was going to be what scared me, I guess…

What really gets me on edge is knowing something bad is going to happen and being powerless to prevent it.

I know watching Jurassic Park with the T-Rex attacking the kids in the car, that was scary because it was such a big monster – but also because the children were so helpless. We were not as concerned about the two adult scientists in the other car as we were the children. And by way of note, the little girl screaming and going bonkers with fear is what really sells that scene. It’s all well done, but she put it over the top.

And I know that children evoke more sympathy than adults.

Maybe there’s a hierarchy, like kittens evoke more sympathy than children.

Maybe baby humans evoke the most sympathy…

So in The Shining, there are a lot of scary things that are going to happen, I remember that. But I had forgotten that there was an innocent little boy. A preschooler, I think he is. And him being potentially threatened is going to probably sell the scariness of this.

Anyway, in the movie, the “hook” gets set very quickly.

In the interview to become the hotel’s caretaker, which happens immediately after the opening credits, the main character is told what happened in the hotel ten years ago, and we are now slightly concerned.

The prior caretaker a decade earlier went berserk and killed his family with an ax – and stacked them like firewood in one of the rooms – and then put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth.

The very next scene, or nearly the next scene, is with the young child Danny, about age four, talking to his mother. He has a little friend named Tony that “lives in his mouth.”

In his mouth? That got my attention.

When Tony talks, Danny moves his finger up-and-down, like it’s working an invisible puppet, and Danny talks in a different voice.

That’s all well and good until a few minutes later

when Danny is asking Tony – well, Danny is brushing his teeth – and he asks Tony why he doesn’t want to go live at the hotel, and Tony doesn’t want to talk. They kinda argue about it. Then we see Danny has passed out and a doctor is examining him as he lays in bed in his pajamas. Danny’s mother is very nervous in the background.

The doctor and the mother talk and we learned that five months earlier is when Tony came on the scene,

right after a drunken episode where Danny’s father dislocated the child’s arm

after coming home late and seeing the boy had scattered some of his papers on the floor.

Shelley Duvall, as the mother, says, the father grabbed the child by the arm.  “It’s one of those things you do 1000 times at the park or at the playground, but this time he just used a little too much strength…”

So we see the child is vulnerable and we see the child has an invisible friend who is psychic. Tony knows the father already got the job and is about to call the mother, Wendy.

Which happens about 10 seconds later.

And I think about that point, we have been an introduced to everything and hook is set.

This guy’s family about to go spend an isolated winter in an empty hotel, with him as the caretaker, and we are told something bad happened there, and the boy doesn’t want to go, and the boy’s imaginary friend is warning him not to go, and the father has done bad things to the son already. Once, at least.

I don’t think we need to much more, do you?

The hook is set – but are we scared?

I think we’re getting there. We’re apprehensive. I am.

Finally, Stanley Kubrick did the movie, so we’ll have to see what King does in the book, but as Danny is looking in the mirror, one of the iconic images from the movie happens. Danny is looking in the mirror and there’s a cutaway shot to the elevator doors of the hotel opening and a dark red liquid comes gushing out like there was a swimming pool inside filled with blood. Then a brief glimpse of the two bizarre looking girls who are dressed like twins, then back to the elevator, filling the hallway with blood until it obscures the view from the camera.

That’s when we come back and see Danny no longer brushing his teeth laying on his bed being examined by the doctor.

You can get away with that in a movie. I’ll have to follow up to see what King does in the book.

But either way, I don’t think there’s many things left to set up for us to be completely hooked and for us to be starting to be scared.

What book or movie scared YOU?


Published by Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 50+ titles published in more than 120 countries and over a dozen languages.

7 thoughts on “What is scary? An analysis of “The Shining”

    1. There were a lot of bizarre things in the movie – bizarre visually. One scene, when Jack Nicholson is already chasing everyone with an axe and Shelly Duvall is running for her life with a knife, she sees an open door and two people engaging in some sort of fact. One of them is wearing a dog costume – head to toe, with a dog head – and they stare back at her. Verrrrry creepy.

      It’s the reactions, though, that make it scary. You see something scary, that’s scary. The music, which we don’t usually get to use in books, tells you it’s scary. But the character reacting to what they saw – their eyes getting big and their face contorting, jaw dropping as they back away, saying “No, no, no!” – that’s the stuff that makes everyone get on edge (or go over the edge). Not that the viewer/reader believes in the monster, but the audience believes the character believes in the monster.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. For a book, Carrie, by Stephen King was one that scared me. Even when we were set up, I wasn’t expecting her change. The movie series Alien for whatever reason has scared me. Again, you know what will happen, but unaware when. What makes it intense, they are in space where no place to escape.

    Liked by 1 person

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