Fathom Mag
Article

The Abusive Lens of The Shining

The camera makes you complicit.

Published on:
March 10, 2020
Read time:
7 min.
Share this article:

Something’s unmistakably amiss from the very first moments of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It could be the juxtaposition of the picturesque Rocky Mountains to the rumbling dirge of the Dies irae. It could be the disorienting speed and unnerving tilt with which the camera rushes through the scenery. Or it could be the culmination of all of those elements as, just nineteen seconds into the film, the camera settles its focus on a solitary yellow Volkswagen winding its way up the mountain roads. 

As the Beetle twists and turns through the trees along the lake, the camera sidles closer. Our overhead view hard-cuts to a much tighter shot of the vehicle while still maintaining a “safe” distance. 

Another hard cut shows the Beetle hugging a rock face and coming up on a sharp ninety-degree turn. The camera is closing in now, rushing at a breakneck speed, sure to force the vehicle off the edge. Just as we’re about to make contact, the camera veers off to the left. The camera chooses to stalk rather than devour its prey—for now. 

Something’s unmistakably amiss from the very first moments of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Before we meet any of the unfortunate souls doomed to walk the halls of the Overlook Hotel, the first eighty seconds of The Shining let us know that our point of view is one of the most important characters we’ll meet. Not only does John Alcott’s cinematography stick in our mind’s like an especially vivid night terror, it also informs us the viewers on how to interact with one of the story’s key themes.

A Story of Abuse

The abuse suffered by the various victims in The Shining (Wendy and Danny at the hands of Jack, even Jack at the will of the hotel), has been evident from the film’s release. And it’s further crystallized in the film’s reputation over the years. The abuse has come into especially sharp focus in the #MeToo era, shining a spotlight on hyper-masculine dominance and violence more so than ever before in America’s modern age. 

While it’s easy to see the abuse in the arcs of the characters—Danny’s history with Jack, Wendy’s timidity and suspicion of her husband—or their very actions on screen—Jack relapses with alcohol and verbally assaults his wife several times—there’s a strong case to be made that the camera is ultimately the greatest perpetrator of abuse in the entire film. 

Before we meet any of the unfortunate souls doomed to walk the halls of the Overlook Hotel, the first eighty seconds of The Shining let us know that our point of view is one of the most important characters we’ll meet.

We can first turn to one of the most recognizable techniques in all of cinema—the use of Steadicam. Garrett Brown, the inventor of the groundbreaking technology, worked on The Shining. His long tracking shots of Danny Torrance’s big wheel have become some of the most recognizable (and creepy) in the horror genre. 

But the use of the Steadicam from the viewpoint of the abuser doesn’t start with following Danny on his trips around the hotel. Instead, it starts from Jack’s very first trip to the doomed building. When he approaches the front desk at the Overlook, the camera almost leans against the desk, eyeing him closely and following him as he makes his way to the back room. As he enters Ullman’s office for the first time, the camera peers in through the doorway, spying on their conversation.

The act of spying and stalking is a regular motif we experience while watching The Shining. The audience, whether we want it or not, adopts the camera’s suspicious, paranoid point-of-view. After Jack’s first scenes in the Overlook, we cut back to Danny and Wendy in their Boulder apartment. Before Danny’s first visions of terror, the camera lingers quietly on him as he does his morning routine in the mirror. As Danny’s conversation with Tony progresses, the camera sneaks closer. Later, as Wendy and the child psychiatrist converse about Danny’s fits, the camera pulls away from the two women to settle behind what appears to be a doorway. And later when Wendy divulges key information about the Torrances’ past, the camera stalks in the shadows before cutting to a normal back-and-forth.

The Camera Is a Monster, Too

The camera techniques are, in a sense, an invasion of each character’s privacy and Kubrick makes sure to normalize the subversive invasions from the start. In addition to the use of doorways as framing devices (looking in on a conversation while we, the camera, stand on the outside) and the near-constant Steadicam operation (alternating between slow, plodding creeps and rapid chases), Kubrick chooses a variety of ways to violate the characters’ personal lives. Mirrors are used to get a more intimate glance at Jack and Wendy in conversation when, in fact, the camera positions us behind them. When Danny and Wendy first explore the hedge maze, we zoom out into the sky, only to experience a direct cut to Jack, staring watchfully over the maze’s replica. We have to wonder if we’re meant to be his eyes in that moment, keeping tabs on his wife and child.

The audience, whether we want it or not, adopts the camera’s suspicious, paranoid point-of-view.

If the suspicious wide shots and invasive Steadicam is meant to represent the abusers invasions of privacy and safety, then Kubrick’s violent cuts and insistence on tight shots of faces undoubtedly corresponds with the gratuitous violence (physical and psychological) that fills The Shining.

There are very few medium shots in the film that aren’t centered around a conversation between two or more people. Instead, we’re given purposeful wide shots that obscure faces and details, alternated with extreme close ups of those very faces, often twisted and slack-jawed with horror and pain. Every time Danny experiences a vision, we’re treated with a close-up of his convulsing face. When Jack berates Wendy for interrupting his work, we’re brought close on Wendy’s stunned, if not surprised, reaction. The pain is evident in Shelley Duvall’s face, and Kubrick’s camera laps it up. And as Jack’s mind slowly begins to crumble, we’re given several opportunities to stare into the scarred psyche beneath, the most notable as he watches the grey outdoors, his head tilted and a crooked grin growing on his unkempt face.

It’s not an entirely passive technique either. In fact, the camera is most active (one could argue, most aggressively masculine) during the film’s most violent moments. When Jack kills Hallorann, we violently cut to the axe buried in his chest and his face twisting with pain. The screen flashes between the bloody act and Danny’s wide-eyed, unhinged screams—a synthesis of physical and psychological cleaving. Even before, when Danny encounters the Grady twins, or when Jack is haunted by the ghost of the nude woman in Room 237, the camera takes on a more active role, pushing and pulling in on faces, soaking up the reaction.

The Face of Anguish

Through its insistent focus on faces—particularly in moments of anguish—the camera assumes the role of a physical abuser. It seemingly feeds off of fear, particularly the fear of the vulnerable. Danny is most often the victim of these terrifying tight shots and only when he is experiencing violence. Wendy is also victimized, but more often in moments of verbal abuse. Even Jack suffers under the lens of the camera as it exults in his shattering mind. Abusers often steal power and control from the vulnerable, and all of the Torrances are vulnerable at some point in the movie—some more often than others.

In addition to the use of doorways as framing devices (looking in on a conversation while we, the camera, stand on the outside) and the near-constant Steadicam operation (alternating between slow, plodding creeps and rapid chases), Kubrick chooses a variety of ways to violate the characters’ personal lives.

The climax of the film treats us to one final form of abuse—one that specifically applies to Wendy Torrance. Throughout the film’s narrative, Jack’s treatment of Wendy is unpredictable and wavering, switching quickly from supportive to hostile to frightened to murderous. The gaslighting wears on her, bringing her to the point of no escape as Jack breaks down the door to reach his hysterical wife. However, when he leaves to chase after Hallorann (and later, Danny), Wendy is left to fend for herself in the Overlook.

It’s noteworthy that throughout the majority of the film, Wendy is the only one of the four major characters to not have any supernatural experiences. However, her final trek through the hotel offers some of the most dynamic filmmaking the movie has to offer. As Wendy slowly experiences a variety of ghostly encounters (from the sexual congress between a bear and a waiter to the ghostly sitting room), we see her from a unique perspective. In these scenes, actress Shelley Duvall is shot from a variety of angles and lit with a variety of color shades. In great contrast to the stalker-camera, however, they’re almost always in a medium shot and her features are highlighted, no matter what the lighting situation.

In those scenes and thanks to Duvall’s exquisite acting, we get a fresh look at Wendy’s terror through her striking visage. Her eyes are bulbous and the shadows underneath drawn out. Her arms are rigid at her sides, but loose and ineffective in protecting her from the dangers closing in around her. She visibly shakes and runs like a woman who has been running for days, weeks, even years. The moments in the scene are some of the most sensational we get in The Shining (literal skeletons, psycho-sexual cosplay, absurdist horror), yet they all pale in comparison to the terror on Wendy’s face. For just a moment, the abuse she’s suffered becomes the greatest horror in this haunted house, and Duvall’s portrayal offers us the briefest of glimpses into the broken world of the victim.

The Camera Makes You Complicit

The Shining’s final minutes put a fitting cap on the case of camera-as-abuser. As Jack chases Danny through the maze, we’re presented with two contrasting points of view: Danny who is often viewed as small, scampering, and running away versus Jack who is portrayed as large, lumbering, and running toward us. In those moments, Jack is the one with the power. By allowing him to dominate the frame—as he does throughout many of the film’s climactic scenes—the camera affords Jack some of its power, the power that it has drawn from its victims.

For just a moment, the abuse she’s suffered becomes the greatest horror in this haunted house, and Duvall’s portrayal offers us the briefest of glimpses into the broken world of the victim.

However, abusive power is fleeting, undone by the person the camera underestimates—Danny. As Danny retraces his steps and hides in the thicket, our perspective of Jack shifts. He is now the one moving away from our gaze. Not only that, but his lumbering stride now looks a lot more like a staggering limp. His cries for Danny slowly decay into animalistic howls and he grows smaller and smaller within the frame until he collapses. Instead of Jack, the stalking camera—and we the audience—become the invader one last time as it soaks in his twisted, frozen visage, revealed in the cold morning sun.

From beginning to end, we’re treated to a symphony of horrors in The Shining, and the camera tops them all. As it skulks and strikes its victims, we the audience are forced to confront our terrible role as abuser-by-proxy. Our conscience may be comforted by our sense of disgust, but the thrills we receive offer an active, sobering reminder—you don’t need to be haunted to have darkness hiding in your heart.

Josh Matejka
Josh Matejka is a freelance writer and editor working out of Morganton, North Carolina. When he’s not spending time with his wife and son, he’s either passionately engaged in a conversation about film, writing about his beloved Missouri Tigers, or consuming podcasts at a breakneck pace. Follow him on Twitter or his personal blog for more work.

Cover image by Nicolas Thomas.

Sign Up Today

You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.

Already a subscriber? Log in here

Next story