Why The Shining is the Best Horror Film Ever Made


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I hold my hands up. Not too long ago, I believed that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was an underwhelming horror film. Don’t get me wrong, the acting is outstanding, the immersing wide shots make the cinematography gorgeous to behold and the accompanying soundtrack creates a truly chilling atmosphere. However, I firmly believe that a horror film should be scary. It should make you check that nobody is lurking in the dimly lit corner of your room. It should make you afraid to go to sleep. When it came to The Shining, up until now I have always held that it simply didn’t meet these criteria. Watching a slightly unhinged man chase his wife and son around a big hotel as he slowly slipped into insanity simply wasn’t scary enough for my tastes. Where were the malevolent spirits trying to haunt the family’s souls? Where were the demonic beings trying to push their way into the lives of the terrified family?

However, after giving it some thought and looking at the film with fresh eyes, I have changed my mind. I now believe it may just be one of the greatest horror films ever made.

In a recent interview with The Verge, Kubrick’s wife Christiane explains that:

“He wanted to make a ghost film. A ghost film! You know, just that – a good ghost film [that was] scary. That’s what he wanted to do.”

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After reading this, I was compelled to watch the film once more and reassess my views. Only then did it dawn on me that The Shining is exactly what Christiane had said it was; a film entirely about ghosts. After all, what are ghosts? Simply beings we cannot see that subtly affect the minds of living people. In The Shining, over the course of the film Jack Torrance is slowly but radically influenced by an unseen force that we cannot see! He gradually deteriorates from a lively coherent individual to a terrifying, psychotic zombie-like monster. What can possibly cause a man to undergo this radical change in such a short space of time? The film gently suggests that Jack’s psychosis is the result of interference from a supernatural force, i.e a ghost or a spirit. What is most terrifying to the viewer is if an everyday guy like Jack Torrence can rapidly fall under the influence of some unknown supernatural force, might it be possible for us to suffer the same fate?

The Shining is far from a simple film. If you want to scratch the surface, Kubrick has included enough ideas and visual metaphors to keep you occupied for a long time. The documentary Room 237 explores a number of proposed theories as to what Kubrick wanted to express through The Shining and while many of the theories may say more about the theoriser than the film itself, some cannot be dismissed so easily. Kubrick was known to be a perfectionist who put an extreme amount of effort into getting his films to be just the way he wanted. Therefore, some of the things pointed out in Room 237 such as the impossibility of the layout of the hotel quite clearly exist for a reason.

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When you start to analyse The Shining in greater detail, you end up diving head first down a rabbit hole that does not seem to have a visible end. At its broadest, the film hints at what it means to be human, with a mind that’s more akin to an endless labyrinth than the clear organised bunch of compartments that we like to think it contains. When it comes down to it, I think The Shining is terrifying because thinking about how our mind works is like thinking about the vastness of outer space or the contents of the afterlife. It is scary because we cannot contemplate it, it is beyond our understanding and therefore it takes on a sort of mysterious aura.

Ultimately, like all of Kubrick’s films and all good films in general, The Shining is as simple or as complex as you, the viewer, want it to be. For me it is simply a deep, invasive probing of the human mind and as there is nothing more paradoxical than something thinking about itself, The Shining is the most terrifying film ever made.

“Joy and Sorrow Can Be So Close Together”

The June issue of National Geographic introduced me to a number of incredible people, one of which is Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. In August 2011 she became the first woman in history to climb to the top of all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter mountains without supplemental oxygen. The magazine contains a short interview with her, a portion of which I have included below:

From National Geographic, June 2013:

What’s the scariest moment you’ve faced?

On Dhaulagiri [in Nepal] in 2007 there was an avalanche one morning, and I was swept away inside my tent. When it stopped, I didn’t know if I was up or down; it was so dark. But I thought, OK, at least I can breathe. I always carry a small knife in my harness, so I was able to cut a hole in the tent. I was terrified that the snow would suffocate me. Slowly, slowly, I made it out. I searched for three spanish climbers who had camped near me. Two of them were dead. In that moment everything seemed to be over. For the first time I just wanted to leave the mountain.

How did you move past that terrible experience?

It helped to talk with my husband, Ralf, who is also a climber and understands me completely. I realised that I couldn’t make the tragedy unhappen and I couldn’t stop climbing – this is my life. A year later I returned to the same spot. There was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. Joy and sorrow can be so close together.

Photograph by Martin Travers

Photograph by Martin Travers

Holy Motors and the Wonder of Cinema

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The average film is made up of over 150,000 individual images or “frames” displayed one after the other at high speed. If it is projected using 35mm film, a shutter will momentarily close between each frame, preventing any light from leaving the projector while the frame changes. This means that if you’re watching a film projected in 35mm, for half the film you are sat in complete darkness!

Despite this, the mind buys into the illusion and we are left watching what appears to be a continuous stretch of moving images. The wonderful art of film is capable of producing from this an experience that we often enjoy very much and occasionally provides something more, something so sublime that we are left speechless by the end. Parts of the film Holy Motors were, for me, the very definition of sublime.

Primarily composed of a selection of wildly different vignettes, Holy Motors is on one level a day in the life of a Parisian man who is chauffeured around in a limousine from place to place as he carries out his daily business. Looked at in a wider sense, it can be seen as a tribute to cinema itself. In its broadest, it is an exploration on the meaning of life.

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By the time the credits begin to roll, your mind begins to race, probing and analysing the previous two hours of film that you have just witnessed. What does it all mean? Does it even have a deeper meaning? The important thing is that it makes you think. In an age when cinema seems to be becoming less cerebral and on the whole taking itself a lot less seriously, this film certainly bucks that trend.

In the middle of the film is an “interlude” that is truly magical. I don’t wish to say too much as I believe it’s best experienced fresh to have the full emotional effect but that one scene says more about what it means to be alive than most films from 2012 put together. The result is three minutes of pure unadulterated joy.

Holy Motors reminded me exactly what films are all about, the reason why we go to the cinema in the first place. Watch a string of mediocre films in a row and it’s easy to get stuck in a film viewing rut but watching Holy Motors reinvigorated my passion for great cinema and made me remember the glorious power that films have when they are at their creative best.

Prepare to laugh, prepare to be overjoyed, prepare to be shocked, prepare to be dumbfounded. Strap yourself in as Holy Motors is one hell of a ride.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about Holy Motors if you are lucky enough to have seen it already.

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Grand Relics of the Soviet Union – Part 2

The second Soviet monument I stumbled across on my recent trip to Germany was at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. It was constructed by the Soviet Union in 1958 to commemorate the estimated 56,545 people who died at the camp during the Holocaust.

As you approach the memorial site, emerging from the trees, it is impossible to ignore the enormous stone tower which stands as the centrepiece of the whole memorial….

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The entire memorial is built on the southern slope of the Ettersberg mountain near Weimar and just in front of the stone tower is a collection of figures looking out at the spectacular vista….

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The sculpture depicts emaciated prisoners as they are liberated from the camp in 1945….

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They help to give a human face to the memorial and remind you exactly what it was built to remember….

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The sculpture was designed by Fritz Cremer and the detailed figures represent resistance fighters inside the camp at the moment of their liberation….

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As you look down the steps to the next portion of the memorial, you begin to realise the immensity of the whole thing….

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Being built on the side of a mountain means that it has a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside and the city of Weimar….

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At the bottom of the huge set of steps is the first of three circular areas that are constructed around natural depressions in the ground. These depressions are where the SS dumped the ashes of people they had cremated in the camp between the end of 1944 and March 1945….

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From here, a large paved area joins the remaining two natural depressions in a giant arc lined with plinths. Each plinth is dedicated to one of the countries that the Buchenwald prisoners originated from….

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The size of the whole site is quite remarkable and must have taken a considerable amount of planning by the Soviet Union….

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The stone tower that forms the centrepiece of the memorial can be seen from the city of Weimar over six kilometres away….

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There is no denying that Soviet memorials were built on a vast scale. Whether this extravagance is justified is questionable but it’s worth remembering in this case that Buchenwald Concentration Camp witnessed the massacre of over 50,000 people. Therefore, any memorial which reminds people of this horrific period in history is in my view extremely important, regardless of it’s size or grandiosity.

Grand Relics of the Soviet Union – Part 1

While in Germany recently, I stumbled upon not one but two enormous monuments erected by the Soviet Union to commemorate the huge loss of life in two different aspects of the Second World War.

The first was nestled away inside Treptower Park in Berlin. It was constructed in 1949 to remember the 80,000 Soviet lives lost during the Battle of Berlin four years earlier.

When you first walk into the memorial, all you can see in front of you is a hunched figure on top a plinth surrounded by trees. As you draw nearer, it becomes clear that what you are looking at is a female who it turns out is “the Motherland weeping at the loss of her sons”….

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As you turn to the left, it is now possible to see the rest of the enormous memorial directly in front of “the Motherland”….

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Two huge triangular towers form a gateway into the main part of the memorial. The red granite was allegedly taken from the ruins of Hitler’s Reich Chancellory 4 miles away….

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At the foot of each tower is a Soviet soldier kneeling to those who pass….

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Turning back to look in the direction that you came, “the Motherland” is now a small figure in the distance shielded by trees….

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Walking on through the gateway, past the two kneeling soldiers….

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You enter the vast central area of the memorial. Here, over 5,000 Soviet soldiers are buried in mass graves….

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Surrounding the graves are sixteen stone sarcophagi….

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Each with detailed carvings of military scenes and quotes from Joseph Stalin….

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This particular sarcophagus shows Soviet soldiers charging into battle below the ghost of Vladimir Lenin….

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Watching over the graves and acting as the centrepiece of the entire memorial is a hugely imposing 12 metre statue upon a stone plinth….

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It depicts a Soviet soldier carrying a German child while cutting a swastika in half using a giant broadsword….

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As you climb the steps leading towards the statue, you begin to feel extremely insignificant in relation to the looming figure….

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Inside the stone plinth is a circular room containing a mural of Soviet people….

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From the top of the plinth, the whole memorial can be seen….

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From here, the true scale of the memorial can be appreciated. The enormity of it is at times overwhelming which is likely the effect intended by the architect Yakov Belopolsky….

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As you spend time at the memorial, you begin to realise that the 5,000 soldiers buried underneath the manicured lawns aren’t the only ghosts that haunt the vast space. The spirit of a once mighty empire, now long dead, can also be felt as you walk around. The memorial was built at a time when the Soviet Union was on the rise and well on the way to becoming a world superpower. The grandiose architecture is evidence of this and demonstrates how important grand symbolism was in Soviet life. Today of course, the Soviet Union is no more and the Treptower Park Memorial serves as a reminder of the transitory nature of powerful empires.

On Risk Taking and Exploration

The June issue of National Geographic contains a feature on risk taking and why explorers are prepared to face dangers that most people wouldn’t. The last few paragraphs are about Paul Salopek’s latest project which involves walking over 22,000 miles from Ethiopia to the southern tip of Chile (one of the routes that early Human’s took on their migration out of Africa) over a period of seven years. I include below the last two paragraphs of the article:

From “The Mystery of Risk” – National Geographic, June 2013:

“The philosophy behind this walk is to get readers to focus less on the notion that the world is a dangerous place,” he says. “The world can kill you in a heartbeat, whether you stay at home or leave home.” Instead, he hopes “to get readers to think about the wider horizons, the wider possibilities in life, the trails taken and not taken, and be comfortable with uncertainty.”

Basically Salopek wants to remind people that at our innermost core we are all risk takers, if some more than others. And this shared willingness to explore our planet has bound our species from the very beginning.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer

Photograph by John Stanmeyer

Favourite Photos #5

Shanghai Tower Under Construction

2010 | Photographer Unknown

This photograph shows the concrete foundations of the Shanghai Tower being laid down back in 2010. When completed next year, it will be the second tallest building in the world. There are many things I love about this photograph including actually how much the photographer has managed to squeeze into the composition. My favourite thing about the photo however is the way all of the machines look as if they are thirsty animals drinking from an oasis.

Unfortunately I can’t find who the photographer is but if anybody reading this knows, please let me know.