The Shining and the Woes of Writing

The Shining is the best haunted house movie ever made. But it's also a tumble down the rabbit hole of the writing process.

This article originally ran on October 22, 2014. We’re bringing it back in honor of The Shining‘s 36th anniversary!

I’m having a Jack Torrance-like crisis trying to write this little piece about The Shining, one of Stephen King’s best novels — one of Kubrick’s worst movies, if you ask King. But I’m of the pro-Kubrick school of thought. I like the long hallways, the way the director plays with the shot, the close-ups of Jack Nicholson’s mad face…Is this film speak?

I’m not a film writer, and luckily for the both of us, I’m not here to talk film technique/theory. Let’s talk about what makes The Shining so scary strictly from a fan’s POV…

Honestly, even that seems too big of a venture since you’d probably need a big, smart book the size of King’s Danse Macabre (this book is like that film major in college who wouldn’t stop talking about horror films that inspired him) to really get down and dirty about the redrum, whatever the fuck Tony is, and that final, haunting shot of the group picture hanging on the hellish walls of the Overlook Hotel. 

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Nah, we’re going to talk about writing woes. For the next…er…I was told I had 600-800 words to examine how scary The Shining was…So let’s say 500 words…All work and no play, etc.

The evils of the writing process are what scared me about The Shining. Jack Torrance sits down at his typewriter, diligently typing nothing, bouncing a ball off the walls of an empty atrium as the writer bounces through time, his thoughts echoing back at him. King’s long, fantastic canon of writerly pains is perhaps at its strongest in Jack’s story (although Mort in Secret Window and Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half — a film inspired by King’s own pseudonym woes — are a close second). And Kubrick captures all this with a master’s eye:

All those big, empty spaces representing the blank page, the long stretches of narrow hallways that don’t seem to end, the disgusting road blocks that stand in the way of finding out what’s inside Room 237 (the crux of the story). Danny’s imagination runs wild, Jack falls into a trance, writing himself in circles. The veil has been lifted from the shitshow that is the Overlook Hotel, ghosts seeping out of the walls and riding on rivers of blood. 

At the forefront of the film is King’s own struggle with addiction — something he’s been very open about — as Jack tries to distract himself from the job at hand with a drink he hopes will allow him to relax. He’s broken a sweat, after all.

Writing is all about digging up the past, and Jack does a whole lot of that throughout the film, doesn’t he? Hell, the film becomes ABOUT the past by the time Kubrick is through — Jack’s violent, alcoholic past and weakness. But when you’re trying to create something that comes solely out of you, there’s no way to avoid the writer’s abusive relationship with his work.

This all plays out allegorically, of course. Nicholson finds the axe and Shelly Duvall is the scream queen that must endure. Yes, it’s very basic slasher/haunted house fare.

But, as I sit down to describe this ghost story to you and examine what it is that makes such a colossal film scary, what I end up with is one giant hedge maze, a final thought frozen in the night.