Friday, March 15, 2013

You Should Be Scared: An Exhumation of The Realism Buried Beneath The Overlook

A few months ago, a friend asked me what book I’d recommend as a strong example of my genre and my view of writing in general. The answer was fairly easy: The Shining. I can’t say this is the best book I’ve ever read, and it’s not the scariest one either, but it’s one of the best examples of what horror should strive to be. I’ve seen the movies countless times, and this is the third time through the book. I read it with a more critical eye this time, and although I found some errors, I still hold this book with the highest esteem. This book gains my respect because it associates the terror of the supernatural with the horror of the natural. The story covers domestic abuse and alcoholism yet disguises them with the analogy of an evil hotel.

When the tale is dissected, the isolation of the oversized hotel becomes a dysfunctional home from a child’s perspective. The kitchen being too large, the halls stretching on forever, the yard being immense--the description of the hotel is the description of a house from an imaginative child. Even in a tight-knit community, a child can see his or her house isolated from the world, especially if the community turns away from what might be going on. In the time of this book, that might have been the case, too, which is illustrated as the doctor just accepts when Jack admits he abused his son. Times have changed, and if Jack were to admit breaking his son’s arm today, Danny would be taken away from the house. Even if Jack wouldn’t admit it, Danny would most likely be taken away on the assumption of abuse. Still, a child can feel as though no one will help.

Alcoholism is also discussed in The Shining. Jack is a reformed alcoholic with a anger-management problem; however, the influence of the hotel becomes a metaphor for his lapse into drinking. His problem becomes the emotional struggle in the story. He loves his family and tries his hardest to get his life right, but the stress of seeing his life swirling down the drain--a failing writing career and a failed teaching career--becomes too much to handle. Although the story explains Jack is corrupted by the hotel, the horror behind this analogy is that men and women can become corrupted and violent by their failing lives. The truths behind the fiction in this story ring true with realism, which makes this book frightening.

Of course, even though the book serves as an allegory for domestic abuse and drinking problems, the book does have some fantasy elements involved. My favorite scene involves such elements. This scene, which was not in either movie, relates to the terror of claustrophobia and kids getting locked in refrigerators, but the fantasy element is the imagination of a living corpse. When Danny is outdoors playing, a small avalanche imprisons him in a concrete tunnel. As he’s digging his way out, he hears sounds behind him and imagines they are coming from the corpse of another child who has died nearby. Corpses don’t come to life, but this plays on the unrealistic anxieties that spin forth when one is trapped in darkness. It’s a good example that the strongest fear is of the unknown--what Danny, and readers, imagine to be crawling in the darkness is more terrifying than being confronted with the creature. I love that scene.

The Shining might be one of the most famous horror stories ever written, and it deserves every bit of credit it receives. Its connections to the real horrors of life provide an excellent example of how horror writers can take the tribulations of life and spin them into fiction for terrifying results. It’s also a fun (if you enjoy being scared) story. It may not be the best or scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s one of my favorites for a good reason.


  1. I also see it as a story about domestic abuse and alcoholism, underneath all the haunted hotel fun. I like you pointed out how the vastness of the hotel is symbolic of how a child views their home, and the isolation is like the isolation children feel as the community turns their back on what's going on. Add to that the hopelessness and the feeling of being stuck there forever with no hope of escape, as a ghost. For a child stuck in an abusive household, the same. Right on.

  2. Maybe it's just me and the life I was luck to have, but I don'r completely agree on the hotel as a metaphor for the the loneliness in a dysfunctional family. A lot of it is the way King uses Danny in the story itself. He is more a MacGuffin than an character in terms of the plot. The Hotel and Jack want him to "stay" while Wendy and Dick fight to keep out of their clutches. But Danny, because of his psychic ability, has more knowledge of the situation than all the other players in the story. If that fact wasn't there, I think it would be easier for me to agree with you because it sets up the whole "fighting over the kid" that happen when a family disintegrates. Children in that situation, who know far less than Danny, act in ways to keep the family together. Danny, on the other hand, has all this knowledge and, while wishing for the same thing as those children, acts completely opposite.

    I wonder if perhaps the metaphor isn't so much through the perspective of Danny, but that of Jack and Danny is really a young Jack providing that section of development we, to good extent, never get to deal with in the flashback scenes?

  3. Danny in the tunnel is also one of my favorite scenes. Another is Danny and the fire hose. I am completely creeped out when the hose comes after him like a rattlesnake. I think one of the reasons The Shining scared (scares) me is the combination of real horrors (an abusive father), fantastical horrors, (the denizens of the Overlook), and the imaginative horrors of childhood. When I was Danny’s age, I refused to ride the carousel at Knott’s Berry Farm; I was sure the horses would take off with me—and this was before the release of the Mary Poppins movie. Danny seeing the hose turn into a snake? Absolutely believable for me. Even if it is the product of his imagination rather than the Overlook’s power, it brings back my childhood fears, and childhood is a scary place.

  4. I think you capture it perfectly by saying that the book associates the terror of the supernatural with the horror of the natural. That is the phrase I will be using to explain what horror is. It sets the stage for what we've talking about so far in the course which such ideas as the fear of the unknown. Unknown, in my opinion, can be exchanged for some thing you don't understand or comprehend fully. And of course, it includes the supernatural, that which cannot be controlled. Excellent point.