Kubrick, King, and the Ultimate Scare Tactic

by Michael Dare

When Stephen King saw the film version of Carrie, he couldn't help but notice that the single most terrifying moment -- the one that made all audiences jump -- wasn't even in his book. After Carrie's death and the climactic destruction of the high school, director Brian DePalma added a little epilogue where one of Carrie's chums visits her grave. Just as she bends down to place some roses, a hand comes shooting out of the gravel and grabs her arm. A second later she wakes up in bed, screaming. The epilogue was a nightmare. The end.

A cheap shot? Yep. Effective? You bet, and a perfect example of the Ultimate Scare Tactic in film: build an atmosphere of tension, release it, and just as the audience gets relaxed and is sure that nothing else is going to happen, hit them with the real punchline. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Omen, Alien, Deliverance, and Jaws are but a few of the films that exploit this technique, and they're all worth studying. It works so well that Stephen King has incorporated the Ultimate Scare Tactic into his novel writing. It's in The Shining, one of the most frightening books ever written, and a perfect property for film, that he first succeeded in brilliantly combining cinematic and novelistic scare tactics. Any director could have shot it exactly as written and come up with a terrifying film of phantasmagorical proportions.

Of course Stanley Kubrick is not just any director, and The Shining might appear to be his most ambiguous work. By asking more questions than it answers, the film entices you into its world just as the Overlook Hotel lures Jack Torrence into its maze. Alien makes less sense the more you think about it, but the closer you look at The Shining, the more the pieces fit, the more hidden meanings reveal themselves.

Most horror films aren't very suspenseful on second viewing; you know where all the surprises are. But in refusing to rely on any of the cinematic shock effects currently in vogue, Kubrick has made a film that gets more frightening every time you see it. This, combined with the fact that he twisted King's sardonic tale of possession into a comment on American television, makes The Shining a perfect home video horror show.

Take the scene where Wendy Torrence (Shelley Duvall) is crouching in the corner of the bathroom as an ax comes crashing through the door. Any filmmaker on earth could have guaranteed a scream from the audience with that scene by using the old Ultimate Scare Tactic: Build the suspense until Wendy finds sanctuary in the bathroom; have her relax a moment till both she and the audience feel safe; then suddenly, without warning, have an ax come crashing through the door. Surprise! Everybody jumps. Big deal.

But Kubrick is not after any cheap rush of adrenaline. In his version, we see Jack Torrence outside with the ax. He takes a mighty swing. Cut to the inside of the bathroom where the ax comes crashing through the door. Wendy screams, but the audience doesn't because they knew it was coming.

In this same way, Kubrick deliberately undermines all the most frightening moments in the book. He's still trying to scare you, but not the way it's usually done. Jack Torrence is trying to kill his wife with an ax. Isn't that frightening enough? Isn't violence terrifying all by itself? Kubrick feels no need to cheat you by not showing what's on the other side of the door.

To Kubrick, Ozzie and Harriet is the ultimate snow job, and a man, woman and child trapped alone together is the most horrifying prospect imaginable. Since no one was expecting The Shining to be an incisive commentary on the effects of television on the nuclear family, most viewers who saw it in theaters were disappointed. Kubrick seemed to deliberately change things from the book for no other reason than to irritate Stephen King fans. He also inserted images like the blood in the elevator or the final picture on the wall. If you search the book looking for an explanation, you won't find one.

The Shining is chock full of details you couldn't possibly notice on first viewing, things that might appear to be mistakes. So once again, here's a film that's much better as a home video. Rent it or buy it, and watch for the following items you probably didn't notice the first time through:

  1. During Jack's opening drive up to the Overlook, there's the slight sound on the soundtrack of Danny's tricycle going over the floor of the Hotel.

  2. During the second drive to the Overlook, Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrence get into a discussion about the Donner Party. Wendy tries to protect her child from hearing this sordid tale of cannibalism, but Danny says he already heard about it on TV. Jack finds this amusing and says "See, it's all right. He heard about it on the TV." Later, Wendy clubs Jack over the head with a baseball bat and drags him into a storeroom. He finds himself locked in a room full of nothing but nationally advertised products. When he escapes, he speaks in nothing but lines out of television. ("Honey, I'm home!" and "Here's Johnny.") He's on a murderous rampage, but it's all right -- you've heard it all on TV.

  3. Every time Jack talks to certain characters, he's actually talking to himself. This is most apparent in the scene with the waiter in the bathroom, where he never looks at the waiter. Look closely and you'll see that he is actually staring at himself in the mirror throughout the entire scene. There's also a mirror behind the bartender, behind the lady in room 316, and on Jack's side of the door in the storeroom. Be on the lookout for characters who always have windows behind them and tell me what it means.

  4. In one scene, Jack notices his wife trying to read over his shoulder while he's typing. He tears the sheet from the typewriter and throws it on the floor. When Wendy leaves and Jack turns around to begin typing again, there's a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter. Kubrick doesn't make mistakes like that. The Overlook is actually feeding Jack paper.

  5. Danny sees bodies of two dead girls at the end of a hallway. We assume it's a flashback to the twins killed by the waiter. But if Jack has always been the caretaker, as several scenes suggest, we know who really killed them.