9 Fears that Loom in The Shining
By Theresa Braun
I finally read Stephen King’s The Shining. Why have I waited so long to read a book that came out in 1977? I blame Stanley Kubrick. The movie was so masterfully done and was so scary that I remember not being able to watch it when I was home alone. Suddenly, all the mirrors in the house seemed like they’d show me some horror I’d rather not face. I worried blood might start flooding the hallways, or I might hear an axe coming through the front door.
Then, someone told me to get on Netflix and rent the documentary Room 237, which analyzes some hidden gems in Kubrick’s film. It was then I realized I wasn’t the only one obsessed with the movie. Stumbling through some online resources, I discovered that Manny MassGrave Serrano wrote an incredible article about Kubrick’s masterpiece. (http://moviepilot.com/posts/3292123) But, I digress—back to King’s version.
Stupidly, I was afraid that the novel wouldn’t live up to what I experienced in the motion picture. However, I’m so thrilled when I finished King’s original work. So much more is present in the complete telling of the story, as is always the case. But many of you have probably read the book, so I don’t want to rehash the spooky plot details. What I do want to discuss is what it is that makes this book so terrifying. What fears does King tap into? After all, he’s known as the master of horror for a reason.
Significant Fears The Shining Reveals to Readers:
Nature & Isolation: As humans, we have an innate awareness that nature is a bitch and should be feared. Throughout the novel, we are reminded the elements have the upper hand as the wind is whipping and howling at the windows. Combine that fact with the terror of isolation. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment in prison. We need other people around us to remain sane. Even though the Torrance family has each other, that becomes less and less comforting. King plants that in our minds from the beginning, as Wendy thinks about the Donner Party and what shocking things isolation drives people to do. So when Jack destroys the CB radio and throws the part of the snowmobile’s engine into the snow, we freak out because he is intentionally keeping them captive at the hands of the hotel. That isolation in the midst of not knowing exactly what they are up against is freaking bone chilling.
The Supernatural: We assume the hotel is merely haunted by ghosts of the past. The idea that there are entities that can appear out of nowhere, talk to us and touch us from beyond the grave—that is enough to give someone a heart attack. However, there is something more menacing plaguing the entire grounds. Inside, inanimate objects move on their own, like the fire extinguisher hose. And things materialize out of nowhere, as in the party favors in the elevator, or the martinis Jack pounds back at the bar. Outside, the hedge animals come alive and there is something dark looming at the playground. Obviously, this supernatural phenomenon is more than a regular haunting. That evil force is so powerful that it gets into the heads of all the characters. Something that invades the very essence of ourselves is truly horrifying. The fact that the hotel can do this cranks up the fear factor. And, it also has the power to influence the characters’ actions, particularly Jack’s. This evil is referred to as the manager, which has this vague and powerful sound to it—but who or what is the manager? Is it a demon, the devil himself, or some primitive spirit that has been part of the land since the beginning of time? We aren’t exactly sure. King leaves it that way to make us wonder what diabolical entity is in charge of the Overlook. The not knowing is extremely unsettling
Murder/Violence: Probably the most obvious sign of evil in our midst is the killing or harming of human beings. And, that threat is present throughout the novel. The Overlook’s past is steeped in blood baths, the most notable is the mob slaughter in the Presidential Suite, but we know there has also been the last caretaker who murdered his family and then himself. Jack also embodies this. We see it in the very beginning when we find out he has broken Danny’s arm in a drunken rage, and later when he attacks a student. Sober or not, Jack has violent tendencies. So, it’s not that hard to see him making that final shift to the dark side because he is familiar with it. The hotel takes him one step further, urging him to kill his own family. That frightens us as readers since none of us want to become acquainted with such heinous behavior.
Others/The Ones We Love: We should never fear the ones we love or who love us. That is exactly what Wendy and Danny struggle with regarding Jack. When Jack’s tender and romantic with Wendy and when he’s sensitive and is bonding with Danny, we pray the good in Jack is stronger than the dark. Unfortunately, Jack represents the fact that we need to be afraid of those we love the most. We can’t control how they think, feel, or act. That feeling of helplessness is a very scary thing—especially when it’s at the hands of someone who is supposed to care for us the most.
Ourselves/Our Minds: Jack represents the deterioration of self-control, something that haunts us all. Will we do the right thing, or will we give into temptation? Not only that, but Jack’s journey is also about our perceptions. What are our real thoughts? What are we really seeing or experiencing? What is a dream and what is real? We see that Jack wants to be triumphant over himself. He struggles with wanting a drink for most of the novel—and he resists. He never breaks down and consumes the cooking sherry. It isn’t until he is seduced by the hotel’s liquor that he succumbs. Jack also continues to wrestle with what he sees and doesn’t see, which we notice in his denials to his family. For example, he refuses to tell them about the lawn animals or what he experiences in room 217. He denies it because he doesn’t want to believe, or maybe because he’s afraid he’s losing his mind. Either way is mortifying. None of us wants to lose our grip on ourselves or our reality.
Psychic Ability: As cool as it sounds to be able to see things no one else can, having the shining is apparently a horror in itself. When Danny starts to see all of the nightmarish visions regarding the Overlook, we are immediately afraid for him and his family. Overall, these sightings are more disturbing than they are helpful. We feel better for Danny when Hallorann is able to talk to him about his gift. Thankfully, it’s their psychic connection that saves Danny and Wendy in the end. However, Danny has to go through hell in the meantime, knowing what his father is going to do. But, most shocking of all, it’s Danny’s powers of sight that the Overlook wants. If only the hotel can keep Danny forever, it might just be able to absorb his talent and use it. In the end, it’s the shining that puts a target on Danny’s back. So, when we consider wishing for psychic powers, we quickly retract that wish—better to be in the dark.
The Past: There is a constant feeling in the novel that the collective past can haunt us. We see this when Jack finds the scrapbook in the basement with the clues to the history of the hotel. Even though Jack agrees to keep the hotel’s demons private, those demons are still in his midst while the family stays there. Not only that, but history is a constant menace, as Jack echoes the horrible crimes that Grady committed against his family while caring for the hotel. Furthermore, our personal pasts can destroy us as our minds regurgitate it over and over again. It’s always alive. This manifests in Jack. He’s riddled with his guilt over his past mistakes, mainly hurting his son and losing his teaching job. Wendy and Danny can’t forget either. The hotel knows that we can go certifiably nuts when we can’t move on from the past, so it constantly reminds Jack of his. The Overlook’s macabre mission: trap everyone forever in its past.
Being a Failure: This is probably one of the more subtle and realistic fears in the entire novel since we’ve all had it. That’s what makes it so monumental. Jack represents the fear of failure since he’s had several of them leading up to his caretaking of the Overlook. It’s his need to succeed that motivates Jack to stay. He needs to be redeemed by proving to himself and to Al that he is a reformed alcoholic who is fit to teach again. He also needs to prove to Wendy that he can be a husband and provider. If he allows the hotel to get the better of him, he has failed. He reminds us of this as the novel progresses. One of the reasons he goes into perilous situations, such as room 217, is because he says it’s his job. His future depends on the completion of that job. We cringe as his possible redemption slips through his fingers. As he fails, we are reminded of our failures.
Death: Impending death is all over this story. Jack is disturbed that he and Al may have killed a bicyclist one drunken night—so much so that he and Al quit cold turkey. The hotel itself is packed with dead people, a reminder that the Torrance family could perish at any moment. Hallorann also confronts his mortality. However, it’s the loss of Jack’s life that hits us really hard. He bashes his brains in with the mallet because he knows he’s already dead to his family and must sacrifice himself to the hotel. It’s grotesquely heroic. When he’s gone, we miss him as much as Danny does. Probably the most interesting scene is when the Overlook’s existence is put in jeopardy. The hotel uses Jack’s battered and deformed body to save itself, hoping to prevent the final explosion. But the supernatural forces are no match for the real-life machinery that dictates its imminent destruction. Death itself has the final word as Jack and the hotel go up in flames. Ultimately, none of us can escape our final end—and that is truly frightening.
One thing I’m glad King was not afraid of is a happy ending. Now, there is a tragedy at the end of the novel; however, there is clearly hope for Hallorann, Wendy, and Danny to go on with their lives. Next book on my list: the sequel to The Shining—Doctor Sleep, published in 2013.
Theresa Braun was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and has carried some of that hardiness with her to South Florida where she currently resides. She enjoys delving into creative writing, painting, photography and even bouts of ghost hunting. Perhaps growing up in a haunted house in Winona, Minnesota is to blame. Traveling as often as possible is one of her passions—in fact, her latest adventure took her to Romania for a horror writers’ workshop where she followed in the steps of Vlad the Impaler. She writes horror fiction and her latest short story “Shout at the Devil” appears in Under the Bed Magazine.
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