The Shining 2017 Update: Freud’s Uncanny and The Concept of Scare

The genre of horror has always been a mind game between director and audience; what techniques they can use to scare? The majority of horror films are based around scary ideas; the killer, the ghost, the monster and so on. However horror that stands the test of time do something more than this. Rather than simply having scary ideas that will only effect certain audience members. They use concepts that differ from the norm scaring 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) summarises this idea by stating “The history of the horror film is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century. In the way that fairy-tales, 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.” If you want to see more about this check out Belated Media’s video where he links horror tends with societal scares.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has been topic of many debates primarily around the films true meaning; as the film can be interpreted in many different ways. The film is very unconventional not following many of the rules established by the horror films of the 60s and 70s. However this is what Kubrick was quite notorious for, creating films that break genre rules. If you look at Kubrick’s filmography you will find a strange mix of genres that you do not see with many other filmmakers. Also a running theme through his filmography is the breaking of conventions and this is no coincidence. Kubrick knew that to break the rules; you had to know the rules. He had a very diverse taste in film and was very well read. Studying a lot before making a film is partly what caused his filmography to as short as it is. But this level of study and attention to detail allowed him to create masterpieces like The Shining.

The Shining has 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. So why did he decide to do this and 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 due to it being a feeling of dread. A strangely familiar feeling of something not quite right. A good example for explaining this is Mashiro Mori’s use of the subject for his hypothesis the uncanny valley. The hypothesis is that as human replicas become closer to real humans they hit a low point in there familiarity or realism (see below). Most people would not be able to point out directly what is causing effect. This being partly why it is as powerful as it creates a sense of dread we just can not identify with.


The Shining is great at this; it does not just scare the audience in the traditional way of a scary subject. Instead drills a sense of horror and dread into them that they cannot quite understand or identify with primarily through atmosphere. The film from start to finish has a feeling of something just not being quite right. This links into the next idea around 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 but there are so many more. (see images below)

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 below). 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.


Another example of the use of the uncanny in The Shining is re-animation of the dead.  Freud (1919, p.13) states “Many people experience the feeling (the uncanny) 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 employment of the uncanny that makes The Shining stand out from other horror films. Causing the audience to not be able to rationalize with what they are being afraid of, making it much more effective.

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 once again adding to the idea of mirroring. 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 reaffirm this idea of the maze like hotel (see images below). 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. To my knowledge Rob Ager of was the first to document them and has said much more than I ever could.

The most obvious example of this is when Halloran opens the freezer door, the door hinge switches sides between shots (see image below). By doing this Kubrick is subtly messing with the mind of the audience, many will not even notice this it 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.


The films maze like properties even protrude into its themes. It has led the film to be the subject of a lot of analysis, with a huge range of interpretations. Jack moving back and forward in time creates an odd structure, which confuses the audience. A huge community has arisen 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.

Thematically the film is very smart in its use of the supernatural. Kubrick (1982) stated that all that the supernatural events leading up to Grady letting Jack out of the pantry can all be explained as part of Jack insanity. Some even believe that Danny lets him out and there are no supernatural elements to the film. 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 to further add to the sense of unease. 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.” 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 the genocide of the Native American population and how it has been “overlook”ed. The manager even states that the Overlook hotel was built was constructed on an Indian burial ground. If you would like to read more in-depth articles on this subject so just google it as it is not something I will be exploring.

In conclusion we have looked at the three ways in which The Shining uses concepts to scare the audience. 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) 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 with its ability to switch from literal to metaphorical. This next level of psychological scaring is what makes The Shining the masterpiece that it is.


4 thoughts on “The Shining 2017 Update: Freud’s Uncanny and The Concept of Scare

  1. As a hardcore Kubrick and The Shining fan, as well as a student of Freudian psychology I really enjoyed this. Do you ever share your articles and analyses on any film sites?


    1. Thanks mate, I had one article featured on a site for a while but other than this no, I’m not against the idea, if people want to use my work its fine as long as they link back to my blog.


      1. What was the site, out of curiosity? And if you’re interested, I’m actually a content manager over here at and we’re always looking for new contributors. You could publish this on our site and naturally link back to your original site!


      2. I would definitely be interested just let me know what you need from me and we can get it sorted. And it was my “Exploring no dialogue introductions as a story telling and cinematic technique” on


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