Horror Is Other People: Shirley Jackson and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”
The first and most important thing to know about Shirley Jackson is that, at a certain point in her life, she became too afraid of people to leave her own house. She had reasons; she was married to the only Jewish guy in Bennington, Vermont, and the townsfolk plagued them. She didn’t fit in; she was odd in and of herself. (Her sense of humor was so morbid that, when she died in her sleep at age forty-eight, her family assumed for quite some time that she was playing a prank.) She was intensely self-conscious about her appearance, something that she’d learned from her very unsatisfactory mother. But this is what you need to know: Shirley Jackson was afraid to leave her house, afraid of being part of the world, and she spent much of her time as a writer explaining exactly why.
You’ve read “The Lottery,” most likely; it’s one of those short stories that’s often inflicted on high school students. Which makes sense. Its basic premise – a happy town of good old-fashioned values, amongst which some values include picking out a townsperson once per year to merrily beat to death with rocks – should feel familiar to anyone who’s been a teenager. As should the fact that good Tessie Hutchinson is one of the Lottery’s biggest supporters, until
The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.
Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
That was the story’s nastiest take-away, the buried contempt in Jackson’s refusal to make Tessie in any way admirable or special. There’s no-one that we’re allowed to identify with in order to reassure ourselves that we’re good people: No idealistic young townsperson pointing out that, gosh golly gee, these Lotteries are killing people, no Katniss, no virtuous Christ getting nailed to the cross. These Lotteries are our values, they’re what we do. Participating in the Lottery is being a good person, isn’t it? Anyway, the only person who ever objects is the one who’s getting their skull crushed at the moment, and we don’t listen to them; it’s just a bunch of screaming. It’s always fair and right, until it’s you, is the intensely obvious message here, and it’s harsher for the fact that we know Tessie’s killed plenty of people, and never saw a problem with it until the first rock hit her.
In late-1940s, post-WWII America, that message was particularly primed to hit a nerve; the magazine got scads of angrily canceled subscriptions, and more letters in response to “The Lottery” than it did in response to any other story in its history. Of these letters, Jackson later said that, if she thought they represented the reading public at large, she would stop writing.
Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at… People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
But Jackson is being disingenuous here. In her view, people were gullible, rude, illiterate, horrible, and willing to do anything to fit in. That statement alone summarizes the basic thesis of half her work.
Consider: In “The Summer People,” a pair of self-satisfied city people decide to stay a few extra days at their lake house, oblivious to the townspeople’s hints that they normally leave on Labor Day, don’t they really want to leave on Labor Day? They really ought to consider leaving on Labor Day, until suddenly nobody in town has the gas to fuel their car and the letters coming from their families start to sound strange and the phone wires are cut and finally “the radio faded and sputtered, [and] the two old people huddled together in their summer cottage and waited.” In “Elizabeth,” a would-be literary agent who’s reduced to ghostwriting scams finds out her crappy boyfriend is cheating on her, spends a few pages feeling bad about it, and then, just when you’re about to sympathize with her, commits an act of pointless, life-wrecking cruelty with a smile on her face and no more guilt than you would have in swatting a mosquito. In “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” the plot is even simpler: A bright, poor kid is saving up to buy a rare book he’s wanted forever. The bookseller has promised to keep it on hold for him. A sub-literate but well-off couple comes into the store, looking for books they can buy to pad their shelves. What happens next is entirely predictable, but leaves you, the reader, feeling winded by the sheer pettiness and pointlessness of the betrayal.
Jackson initially considered herself a writer for social justice; early in her career, she wrote stories about real group-think cruelties, about racism. But that died out, as her severe agoraphobia closed in, and her marriage failed, until finally the only thing she wrote about was a world in which all people were terrible and dangerous, and complete isolation was the only safety, and even that didn’t always work. A belief in justice requires a belief in people, and this was something Jackson evidently lost as her life imploded and trapped her between her own four walls, under the weight of her fear, forever.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle is the end-point of this philosophy, her best work and her cruelest. Merricat is one of the Blackwoods, the town’s wealthiest and most privileged family. The townsfolk have always hated the Blackwoods, and vice versa. Coincidentally, the only Blackwoods left are Merricat, her agoraphobic, weak-willed sister Constance, and their senile Uncle Julian; “everyone else in my family is dead,” Merricat informs us. The novel opens with her walking to the grocery store, being harassed by townspeople, afraid to cross the street because she knows a car would willingly swerve or run a light to hit her. It also opens with Merricat visualizing the deaths of her tormentors in alarming detail:
I would have liked to come into the grocery store some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.
It’s this, and the information that the “everyone else” in Merricat’s family was poisoned, and that no-one ever caught the killer, and we know the shape of things. Merricat’s a murderer. She’s entirely without conscience; her family’s fatal offense was trying to send her to bed without her supper. And she spends most of her time engaged in creepy little rituals like taking household objects her victims used to love and nailing them to trees. She’s a little baby Bundy, and the villagers hate and fear her for entirely good reasons.
All of this and yet, over the course of the novel, we come to see the villagers as Merricat does; not even equivalent to Merricat in their capacity for evil, but somehow worse. By the time they’re coming at her with fire like it’s the last act of Frankenstein, we fear them more than we ever did Merricat. The horror is in the villagers’ righteousness itself, their conviction that they’re cleansing their town of evil; Merricat kills out of personal spite, and because something in her can’t see it as wrong, but these people are implacable in their violence, because they do have consciences and they’re absolutely sure they’re doing the right thing. People are all horrible; the villagers are more horrible, because there are more of them. This, in the work of Shirley Jackson, is simply how all those things we like to think we believe – family, community, justice – will always work.
The best horror movie ever made is a drastic re-write of a Shirley Jackson rip-off. The Shining, as Stephen King wrote it, is essentially a bigger, ‘splodier, more dudely version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
The basic plot of The Haunting of Hill House is this: There is a house, possessed somehow with a will and personality of its own, and that personality is purely malevolent. A group of people, two with psychic powers – Theo is telepathic, Eleanor is telekinetic – are invited to stay there. Other things to know about Eleanor: She is lonely, and sad, and strange, and spent her life taking care of her sick mother, and probably killed her. Her mother had an attack in the middle of the night, and knocked on the wall for Eleanor to save her, and Eleanor (she says) slept through it; she often wonders if she woke up, heard her mother knocking, and decided not to help. But if Eleanor didn’t wake up, how would she know about the knocking? As the group settles into the house, its evil – messages that read “HELP ELEANOR” scrawled in blood, disembodied pounding on the walls in the middle of the night – increasingly come to take the shape of Eleanor’s personal demons. Slowly, Eleanor is absorbed into Hill House; it is doing this to her, or she is doing it (remember, she may be able to move things with her mind; she is also clearly losing her mind, starting to hear things and lose time and develop paranoid ideations, as the plot progresses) and either way, it’s not going to stop until Eleanor is part of the House forever.
The basic plot of The Shining is this: There is a hotel, possessed somehow with a will and personality of its own, and that personality is purely malevolent. A group of people, one with psychic powers – wee Danny has the titular “Shining,” a weird precognitive/telepathic/I-see-dead-people melange – are invited to stay there. Other things to know about Danny: His father Jack is an alcoholic, and very definitely abused Danny. As the family settles into the hotel, its evil increasingly comes to take the shape of Jack’s personal demons. It is doing this to him, or… well, no, it’s definitely doing this to him. King doesn’t do ambiguity. And then there are explosions and people walking around with their faces caved in and walking topiary animals and all sorts of pyrotechnics, because King also does not do subtlety. But it’s not going to stop until Danny and/or Jack are part of the Hotel forever.
What Jackson accomplishes by tethering us to Eleanor’s point of view as it unravels – the most chilling part of the novel is not the ghostly manifestations, but the part where she asks how long they’ve been in the house and learns that it’s only been a few days; it feels to her like months, so it’s felt to us like months, and suddenly we realize that what we’ve been seeing is far more wrong than we ever suspected – is something King, a clumsier and more realistic writer, has to accomplish with explosions and cuss words and lots and lots of explanation of why ghosts are bad. King’s fans, and King himself, objected heavily to Kubrick’s adaptation; he gutted the story, starting with all the ploddingly literal explanations, and left only glacial, ominous silence and unanswered questions, punctuated by rivers of gore. Also: No killer bushes. Very sad.
But Kubrick’s Shining adaptation, while not a faithful rendering of King’s source material – which is the only reason we’re still watching it, honestly – is actually closer in spirit to Jackson’s book than even its excellent official adaptation, The Haunting. (The original, not the ’90s remake. We’re not going to discuss the ’90s remake. The only thing I remember from the ’90s remake is Owen Wilson saying he was scared of Teletubbies, and also I think somebody got killed by a harpsichord.) There are plenty of little touches that seem to pay homage to the source – Hill House disorients its inhabitants because it’s built with no right angles, so that everything is imperceptibly off or off-balance; the Overlook Hotel is built out of Escher-esque impossible spaces that don’t line up or connect – but, most importantly, in its coldness, its refusal to answer questions or provide context, its basic misanthropy, it speaks horror in Jackson’s voice.
I used to think that, of all the horror movies I watched, The Shining was the movie that men unilaterally reacted to more strongly than women. If you watched The Shining with a dude, he would lose his shit on you; teenage boys, obviously, got into jump-up-on-the-couch-screaming terror mode in the scene that transitions from “here is a naked lady with her naked vagina” to “here is a rotting corpse” territory, but I once had to go into the bedroom and keep my boyfriend company because reading about that movie made him unable to sleep.
Now, I think that it’s not a question of men reacting more to The Shining – not that any gender is going to like the same movies in the same ways – but of women reacting less, or less directly, possibly because no woman on Earth would reasonably wish to identify with Wendy Torrance as played by Shelley Duvall. She’s a wreck from the moment we meet her, all quavery voice and shaky drags on cigarettes and nervous smiles and excuses for her husband. Well before the killing starts, Wendy is a broken and terrified person.
And Kubrick got her there, forced her there; the making-of documentary details his bullying, isolating her (“don’t sympathize with Shelley!”) and making fun of her when she complains and ripping all of her choices to pieces and setting impossible standards for her to meet so that he can castigate her when she fails, setting up an obvious dynamic of favoritism with Nicholson (who has nothing but good memories of working with Kubrick) and arranging for Duvall to fuck up and then yelling at her for it, putting her through a seemingly infinite number of not-good-enough takes until she, as an actress, is actually losing her entire shit. Up the stairs crying again, now again, now again, now again, until in the finished scene she’s shaking and sobbing so hard you can’t understand what she’s saying, waving the bat so weakly that it looks like her arms are about to give out.
Kubrick did this to Scatman Crothers too, racking up a world record of 148 takes for him – it happened in the scene where Crothers explains the “shining” to Danny, in which he is meant to look terrified, and you believe that he is terrified, mostly of the fact that he might be saying these words until he literally dies right there at that fucking table; “what do you want, Mr Kubrick,” he broke down and cried at one point, “what do you want?!” – but Duvall gets the most on-screen hysteria. She cried so hard making this movie that she literally ran out of tears and had to start super-hydrating herself. It’s ugly to watch, and a lot of people fundamentally dislike Wendy, think of her as weak or whiny. It’s admittedly hard to see the Final Girl quality of a person who spends the most memorable part of the movie choking out her lines from between snotty, wheezing sobs. But it’s ugly in a way that’s real, and that anchors the movie. Nicholson is so manic, tap-dancing around and doing celebrity impressions, that if Wendy weren’t this fucked-up, this evidently destroyed, you’d start laughing. All that blood would start to look like corn syrup. But Wendy seems broken and frantic – in large part because Shelley Duvall was at the very, very frayed end of her own personal rope – and so you believe that people might die.
But Wendy’s broken well before she enters the Overlook. So is Danny: Removed, strange, already pulled out of school. This is the part of the movie that King objected to the most strongly; the casting of Nicholson as Jack Torrance, Wendy’s evident Stockholm Syndrome, Danny’s un-adorable trauma. And he did this for entirely personal, entirely understandable reasons. The Shining was his novel about being an alcoholic, about his own personal fears that he would destroy his family. And in his version, Wendy is essentially a happy wife, and Jack is essentially a good man, who just happens to get the Devil in him when he starts to drink. In King’s version, Jack saves everyone at the end, by resisting the hotel’s/his alcoholism’s will.
And Kubrick doesn’t buy it. Before the story begins, Jack’s already broken his son’s arm; he’s already crossed the line, with no ghosts to help him along. So, in Kubrick’s take, Jack is not a good man. Jack is a very bad man, and he hates his family from the beginning, and he is always already a danger to them. The scary thing about The Shining is not that the hotel convinces Jack to go after his wife and child with an axe, but that he might have done the same thing even if they’d all stayed home. And the only reason his family is willing to be alone with him, to trap themselves in the “Overlook” hotel (the grindingly obvious symbolism is King’s, the graceful use of it is Kubrick’s) is that they can’t quite make themselves believe it. They love him, and they want to believe they are loved by him, and that fact alone is why they place themselves in obvious, mortal danger.
Plenty of critics have outlined Kubrick’s Jacksonian use of the unreliable narrator in The Shining: In every scene where Jack sees a “ghost,” there is a mirror, except in a scene where he’s trapped in a food locker, and only hears the “ghost” speaking to him, as if it were his own voice. The ghosts definitely speak to Jack in the language of his own fears and beliefs; there is always a party going on, with an open bar, and his wife and kid won’t let him attend it, and as a man and a white man he has the perfect right to “correct” the women, children, and people of color who try to thwart his will.
And of course, the cottage industry of “Shining” interpretations is well-known enough to have its own documentary; the takes on what the movie is really, “secretly” about, ranging from believable (it’s about Manifest Destiny!) to pure wacky-town (Kubrick faked the moon landing! Illuminati!) proliferate all over the web. But it’s hard not to think that many of these interpreters are working overtime not to see the actual, and very obvious, message: “Abusive drunks don’t make very good fathers or husbands.” Despite all the creeping dread and ominous visual tricks, The Shining tells a very simple story: A bad man hurts his family. They forgive him. So he tries to hurt them worse, and again.
Ghosts, demons, witches, haunted houses, killer bushes: In Kubrick’s Shining, and the work of Shirley Jackson, these are all distractions. The real horror lies in being human, in the things we believe to keep ourselves going. We believe we can get a fresh start if we move. We believe Daddy really loves us, he just gets mad sometimes. We believe that she would have died anyway, that there was nothing we could have done. We believe that our community has strong values, that we’re doing this in the name of justice, that we’re expelling the monster, that there’s no need to listen to a few malcontents. We believe that it will all be different if we can just get him away from the booze for a while. We believe, and believe, and believe, and the river of blood keeps flowing. Horror isn’t something outside or supernatural or Other: It’s us. It’s all that believing, and the truths we use belief to run away from. At a certain point, Shirley Jackson became too scared of other people to leave her own house. And she spent her life outlining what the world looked like, to a woman with those fears; telling us that, if we really thought about it, we’d do the same thing.
Consider, for example, this final little story about Shirley Jackson’s fan mail: “One of the few positive letters Shirley received after the publication of The Lottery came from a man whose name Shirley was sure she had seen in print,” wrote critic Jack Sullivan. “Assuming he was a fellow writer, she wrote back, ‘Thank you very much for your kind letter about my story. I admire your work too.’”
“Later,” Sullivan said, “she found out he had been accused of murdering his wife with an axe.”
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