The Shining and Freud’s Uncanny

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 https://stephenonfilms.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/the-shining-2017-update-freuds-uncanny-and-the-concept-of-scare/

The genre of horror has always been a mind game between director and audience as to what they can do to scare. The majority of horror films are based around scary ideas; the killer, the ghost, the monster and so on. However horror films that stand the test of time do something better than this. Rather than simply having scary ideas that will effect some audience members more than other. They use concepts that differ from the norm and scare the audience in new and interesting ways. It is this form of psychological scaring that works on a much more complex level as the audience struggle to identify with what they are scared of. Paul Wells (2007, p.3) explains how many modern horror function when he states “The history of the horror film is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century. In the way that fairytales, folktales and gothic romances articulated the fears of the ‘old’ world, the contemporary horror film has defined and illustrated the phobias of a ‘new’ world characterized by a rationale of industrial, technological and economic determinism.” It is this technique of using a simple idea in a film to represent and make a statement about something much lager that is most interesting.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining been topic of many debates primarily around the films true meaning as the film has been interpreted in many different ways. The film is a very untraditional horror not following many of the rules of the genre. However this is what Kubrick was quite notrious for, creating films that break genre rules.

The Shining has some very large connections with Freud’s concept of the uncanny. It is clear from the amount of similarities that Kubrick must have read some of Freud’s work and tried to incorporate the ideas into this film. Some may ask why he decided to do this, what would it add to the film. To answer this we must look at Freud’s (1919, p.1) definition “The subject of the “uncanny” is a province of this kind. It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread.” Freud himself here states that the uncanny can be hard to define this is due to it being a feeling of dread. The Shining is great at this; it does not scare the audience in the traditional way of monsters or a scary subject, but instead drills a sense of horror and dread into them that they cannot quite understand primarily through atmosphere . The film from start to finish has a feeling of not being quite right and this links into the next idea round the uncanny; the double.  Freud (1919, p.9) describes it as “These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of the ‘double,’ which appears in every shape and in every degree of (the uncanny) development. Thus we have characters who are to be considered identical because they look alike. This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another — by what we should call telepathy —, so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings and experience in common with the other.” This idea of the double can be seen throughout The Shining for example the twins, the elevators and many uses of mirrors through the film. (see image 1-3)

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The film also uses mirror imagery across different characters for example Danny and Halloran mirror each other when they sit and talk in the hotel. (see image 4) This idea can be taken further as Freud states that character who look alike hold the power of telepathy something that Danny and Halloran both possess. The final point however not the last as the film is loaded with examples of the uncanny; is re-animation of the dead.  Freud (1919, p.13) states “Many people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts.” These are some of the primary themes within The Shining as Danny, Jack and Wendy all experience the dead coming back to life in different ways. Danny sees the two girls while Jack and Wendy see the re-animations of guest from a party in the 1920’s. It is this use of the uncanny that makes The Shining stand out from other horror films and causes the audience to not be able to rationalize with what they are being scared by, making it much more effective.

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The maze plays a very big role in the films attempt to scare the audience. However this is not only referring to the hedge maze on the outside of the hotel. The hotel itself of can be seen as a maze. Wendy even states that “this whole place is such an enormous maze”. The long corridors with many right angle turns in either direction appear similar to a real maze. The tricycle scene and Danny running through the maze have very similar shots to help create this idea of the maze like hotel (see image 5-6). In both shots the camera chases young Danny around in a very ghostly manner. Nelson ( 2000 ,p. 209) also made these connections stating “Below, on a winding mountain road, Jack’s diminutive yellow Volkswagen journeys through a tree-lined maze (the film’s second shot), resembling on of Danny’s toy cars or the yellow tennis ball seen later from another overhead shot on the maze-patterned carpet in the corridor outside Room 237.” The set even reflects this maze like idea as it holds many spatial anomalies. Doors and Windows that cannot possibly be there due to other rooms.

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The most obvious example of this is when Halloran opens the freezer door, the door hinge switches sides between shots (see image 7). By doing this Kubrick is subtly messing with the mind of the audience to a point that many people will not notice and this will simply add to the sense of unease. Kubrick’s brother-in-law and executive producer on The Shining, Jan Harlan commented on the errors in set design in an interview with Brooks (2012) “The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside. The audience is deliberately made to not know where they’re going.” The idea that the audience does not know where they are going adds to the maze like feel of the film and overall feeling of the uncanny.

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Due to the films maze like properties, it has led to the film having a huge range of interpretations. The films odd structure of Jack moving back and forward in time confuses the audience and has caused a huge community to arise around trying to discover the films ‘true meaning’. A documentary entitled Room 237 (2012) was created that consisted of interviews of interpretations of The Shining. The films structure is very interest in that as Kubrick (1982) states himself that all that the supernatural events leading up to Grady letting Jack out of the pantry can be explained as part of Jack insanity. This is a clear indication that similar to some of Freud’s work not everything should be taken literally. The film mixes the symbolic and the literal in a way to add further sense of unease to the audience. Kubrick (1982) goes on state that “If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist.” Due to this idea it has caused many to look at film from a non supernatural perspective. By removing the supernatural elements the story changes from one about ghost to one about a man going insane and murdering his family. This leads many to interpret the film in different ways. For example Cocks (2010, p.81) states that “When the camera pulls back, up, and away from the typewriter Jack is hurling—not tossing—a tennis ball in an angry and mechanical way against a wall decorated with Native American designs. The direction of this sequence is into the past: from Jack in the present to the booming German death machine and back to European decimation of Native Americans. Jack’s repeated throws symbolize history as repetition and thus also Nietzsche’s eternal return into the future” The sound of Jack throwing the ball and echoing around the hall also sounds very similar to Jack chopping down the door with his axe. These two ideas can fit well together if The Shining is not about the supernatural, the true horror is of genocide of the Native American population and how it has been “overlook”ed. This is supported by the film taking place at the Overlook hotel which according to the manager was built was constructed on an Indian burial ground.

In conclusion we have looked at three ways in which The Shining uses concepts to scare the audience rather than subject. The first is the Use of the uncanny, doubles and re-animation of the dead create a sense of unease in the audience, which makes the film uncomfortable without the audience being able to understand why. This is far scarier than traditional techniques of scaring as many of them can be rationalized. Kubrick (2010) even stated that “In his essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life.” This displays his motive for using the uncanny. The second is the films maze structure that adds confusion to the uncanny. Due to this it is a lot harder to figure out what is going to happen next creating a sense of the unknown even when re-watching the film. Finally the films use of the supernatural and its ability to switch from the literal to metaphorical, sets it up for a far scarier structure than many other films.

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2 thoughts on “The Shining and Freud’s Uncanny

  1. One thing I have actually noticed is the fact there are plenty of myths regarding the financial institutions intentions while talking about foreclosure. One fairy tale in particular is always that the bank would like your house. The bank wants your dollars, not the house. They want the funds they loaned you having interest. Keeping away from the bank will only draw a new foreclosed summary. Thanks for your post.

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