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How Stanley Kubrick film 'The Shining' slowly drives you insane

“It’s just the story of one man’s family quietly going insane together.”—Stanley Kubrick.

The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic psychological horror, is regarded by many as one of the greatest and most influential horror films ever made.

The 1980 picture, co-written by Kubrick and Diane Johnson is famously based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name—even if the two haven’t particularly seen eye-to-eye regarding the adaptation. The film, which tells the story of Jack Torrance [played by Jack Nicholson], follows an aspiring writer who is attempting to recover from a serious bout of alcoholism. In the search of new work, Torrance accepts a position as caretaker of the isolated ‘Overlook Hotel’ which is located in the Colorado Rockies. The stipulation, however, is that the job role is off-season which means Torrance and his family would be seemingly trapped in the hotel amid a severe winter. 

Battling the extreme winter conditions with his wife Wendy Torrance and young son Danny, the boy then possesses “the shining” which is the terrifying abilities that allow him to see the hotel’s horrific past. It is these supernatural forces, combined with the winter storm leaving the family trapped in the hotel, that leads Jack’s sanity to deteriorate.

Speaking about the theme of the film, Kubrick once stated that “there’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly”.

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Tapping into that concept, Kubrick became infatuated with the idea of creating a horror film like no other, focusing on the timing on the events and the finer details of the depth plot. Diane Johnson, Kubrick’s co-writer, once said: “Stanley’s approach was to think in terms of time segments in relation to the totality of the film” which resulted in the film being split into ten different segments.

Johnson would later explain that Kubrick wasn’t interested in creating a generic horror film with The Shining, rather one with genuine realistic fear, one that could not be picked away with gimmicks or mistakes. “It must be plausible, use no cheap tricks, have no holes in the plot, no failures of motivation,” she said before adding: “It must be completely scary.”

Below, a video essay by Lessons From The Screenplay explores how Kubrick’s desire to break the horror mould led to significant core elements transforming The Shining.