A Filmmaker's Guide to the Horror Techniques Used in 'The Shining'

Study, Experience, and Analysis

The Poster to "The Shining"

(This article will contain frames from The Shining and so, in order to gain the best insight, it is recommended that you watch the film at least once). 

The Shining is commonly known as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It has many, many different filming techniques and framing devices that make it what it is and yet, we will only have the time to go through the top five of them. Here are the top five themes we will cover:

  • Normality/Abnormality
  • Blood and Violence
  • Space and Depth
  • Muting and Volume
  • Insanity

We're going to have a look at the following question to do with the themes and frames: 

What is the theme and how is it shown in the film?

The most important thing to look at here is the order of these questions. We'll first look briefly at the theme's purpose in the film as a whole, then we'll take a look at examples that we can see in the film and talk about where they are and finally, what this gives the audience and how it is effective. Hopefully, this is an easy guide to follow and you can investigate this by using them in your own project. 

1. Normality/Abnormality

Danny riding a tricycle through a hallway of the Overlook Hotel

Normality and Abnormality are first explored by having them separate from each other and then, putting them together as "abnormality within normality," this is how we're going to analyse it ourselves. In the film, there is first a sense of "over normality" or a normality that seems uncomfortable because it's "too normal." 

Tension is built up by showing us how normal something actually is. In The Shining we see this perfectly through Danny riding his tricycle down the hallways (which are the frames we will be looking at). This is entirely separate to abnormality. 

The abnormality is explored by having abnormal/unexplainable things/images within this very normal location. This theme is repeated over and over again in The Shining as a form of "haunting" a location. The most famous scene being the dead twins. 

Therefore, there are three main stages in this scale of normality and abnormality: 

  1. Normality and Over-normality
  2. The Shift 
  3. Abnormality and Shock

Let's have a look at some frames then. 

Frame 1 - Normality

Notice the normality

In terms of normality, the most important thing to look at is the way in which the scene shows very "normal" objects in frame as the camera tracks Danny. On Danny's left, there's a waste bin, something everyone sees in a hotel. Above him, there is very average lighting and if you were to look straight past him, there's even a fire alarm. There has been as much effort as possible to make this hotel look like every other hotel, to make it look real and, most importantly, as normal as possible. 

This not only creates a good frame in which to have a small child roaming around by themselves, but it also creates tension purely because there is a small child roaming around by themselves and the audience wants them to be okay. Not only that, but the over-normality of the scene makes the audience anticipate something that they don't want to happen for the sake of the child. 

That changes slightly when the abnormality is put within it, mainly because of the audience's change of feeling. 

Let's have a look at another frame:

Frame 2 - The Shift

Notice the complete change in scene

This shift is so incredibly noticeable as we have a snap change in decor and some random people standing at the end of the corridor. You'll find that many films have imitated the "old wallpaper with someone standing at the end of the corridor" moment including: The Conjuring 2, Annabelle and even The Sixth Sense. The shot is very famous itself as it not only presents us with the shift, but there is also a small child involved, creating empathy in the audience. 

Notice how old the scene is in terms of decor. Danny is wearing fairly new clothing and therefore, doesn't fit in with the scene and stands out. The colours are far more associated with an almost neo-Victorian decor, probably about 20 years before Danny's own time. Even the girls are dressed in fairly old clothes. But since it is only a shift, we can still see the bright red fire alarm in the top left hand corner and the lighting may look older but is spaced out relatively the same as the previous frame. 

Let's have a look at the final frame then:

Frame 3 - Abnormality and Shock

This is what Danny sees after the shift

As Danny moves closer to the twins, he stops and the scene suddenly shifts to "the shock" moment which is that the twins have been murdered by an axe. The main thing we need to notice here is that the reason why the colours on the walls and the girls are so light is to make the shock look more shocking. 

The abnormality is created not only by the shift moving the time of the scene, but the shock of the event that has happened being suddenly put upon the screen. The fact that this is being shown to a young child means it would be highly effective to the audience who would be shocked mainly because a young child is being shown something so horrifying. This is only heightened by the way in which Danny rides his tricycle away at top speed. 

As the characters do not feel the same tension as the audience, the normality would not have felt overly-normal to the characters and therefore, the shift creates more tension for the audience knowing that the characters may now possibly be in some unsuspected danger. 

2. Blood and Violence

The most iconic moment of blood and violence in The Shining comes from the trailer in which the blood does not get off on the second floor. The blood and violence comes across not only through the Noah's Flood that happens from the elevator but also because of the speed at which it happens. You will see this speed repeated over and over again when there is an act of tension/violence about to bring itself into the scene. 

Let's have a look at how this works in the film then: 

Frames

Look at the build up

The build up of the blood is symbolic of not only the violence that will happen in the film but also the way in which the character will go insane. It will begin looking harmless and then, as it progresses, it will become unbearable and very dangerous. 

The colours of this frame are, of course, symbolic of violence and again that's not only because of the blood. If we look at the colour of the elevators, again it's a very bloodied red. The floor and walls are very "normal" colours (see: normality) and therefore, represent what is about to go horribly wrong. 

Look at the way it is shot. It's an incredible normal frame. There's no technicality in it, the camera is completely static whilst all of this is happening and thus, it adds to the reality of it. If you were to watch the scene with the twins, you'd find the same camera shot: a completely static view of the scene. It is as if someone, such as Danny, has stopped still in completely horror. This is used over and over again to present violence to us through the frame. 

3. Space and Depth

Look at the way the levels are created for depth

The first thing we have to notice is the way in which the levels are created in order to show depth. We see the stairs in shot and so we know we are higher than where the character is. But we also see the walkway that is just above the camera (but still in shot) and we see it as being fairly far away from the camera itself, almost directly over the character. This is the creation of depth. 

The next thing that creates depth is the chandeliers. The way in which they're placed in a row makes that depth seem almost uncomfortable. There's only one character in this room and yet, it is more than the length of three chandeliers. It's the opposite of overcrowding, instead it's giving a character a strange and scary amount of space—showing isolation. Most of the depth qualities are about depicting the amount of isolation in the hotel. 

Let's have a look at the symbolism of the scene. This regards what we can see in the frame and what is means for this particular scene. First and foremost we see in the deep background the bloodied red elevator doors that are also seen in the trailer. They are not the same doors but they remind us of the trailer scene.

On your right, we see the artwork on the wall. The large American Indian tribal artwork represents the previous use of the hotel and can only be seen by those actually looking for it. Once you gain access to this symbolism, it has far more meaning for being a part of that scene. 

Now, let's look at the character seated in the depth of the frame. Place your finger on him and run it right, there's a set of pictures roughly seen in frame. If you have done what is said at the start of the article, you'll know these pictures as being fairly important as they show the past occupants of the hotel. We can see, through the American Indian artwork and through these photographs that the past is a very big symbol in this film as it is depicted through physical things. This builds on the fact that most of what happens to Danny had happened in the past. 

On either side of the fire, we have a small clue about how the outside world of the hotel is going. The firewood and how it's piled up shows the audience that on the outside, the atmosphere is probably going to be very cold and therefore, even more isolated as cold usually means snow. We'll see that this is true later on in the film. 

Therefore, without the amount of space and depth that we have in this frame, the symbolism would not have been possible. Just remember, when filming with symbolism, make sure you have enough room to include it or else, it may be tightened into one small space and become clunky. If your symbolism is clunky then you will be accused of being "over the top" with the symbolism. In this case, it's spread out and allows the audience to scan the scene. The amount of space there is adds to the isolation of the film as well and so, it has a double meaning. 

Let's have a look at some other examples of great space and depth:

Frame 2

Danny in the hallways of the hotel 

This amount of depth doesn't only give great space for the characters to interact, but also makes everything seem uncomfortable. Especially in this case as it shows that in this large space, a infant is completely by themselves and without a parent or guardian. It heightens the infant's vulnerability. 

Frame 3

Jack meeting the previous bartender of the hotel

The depth of this scene is importantly created by the table and the way in which this scene is shot makes the table more important in the scene. The camera is almost on top of the table; we get the characters in the shot and it's almost as if we are purposefully obstructed from seeing the other end of the table. 

4. Muting and Volume

Danny on a tricycle

It is well documented that the colour red is very important in The Shining as it symbolises very many things. In terms of muting and volume, we're not looking at sound, we're looking at colour. 

In this frame the muting of the walls brings out the volume of the floor. The creams and browns of the walls are muted so we don't notice them too much, but when the scene comes on the screen the immediate concentration is on the floor. In this case, it is a way of the filmmaker telling the audience what to focus on. The way this scene is shot by using a tracking shot only exemplifies this by having the audience's focus on Danny's tricycle.

Let's have a look at what this effect has on other scenes:

Frame 2

The murdered twins 

Obviously, the colour of the floor in the previous frame tells us the colour we should be focusing on. This tracking shot on the tricycle is followed by the scene with the murdered twins in the old decor of the hotel. Again, the muted colours on the walls and floor are muted because of all the blood. It is still the same colour though, we are constantly told that it is the colour red, which is not a muted colour, is the main colour. Red is always used as a loud colour in the film; it is heavily suggestive throughout and is used as a method of audience control by the filmmaker. We already know by this frame that we should be concentrating on the colour red. 

The fact that is is splattered everywhere in blood shocks the viewer, making is almost uneasy to look at because the colour is so loud and everywhere, which has not been so before. 

The loud colour is no longer in a concentrated place, but is thrown around the scene, making the volume quite loud without any dialogue whatsoever. 

And obviously, the next frame is the most important and concentrated use of loud colours in the whole film:

Frame 3

The flood in the hotel

The muted colours in this scene are obviously told by the filmmaker that they don't matter. There are two main things about colour that matter in this scene. The first is the loud red of the blood and elevators. The second is the brown and red border of the elevators which show us, in pattern, a quasi-American Indian design. It is a strange and uncomfortable foreshadowing of the film, but it is brilliantly used to a purposeful over-the-top effect. 

5. Insanity

Jack oversees the maze

There is a moment of foreshadowed insanity in probably the most iconic way in this scene of The Shining. Jack oversees the maze and we have this character who is locked in this large space without any communication with the outside world. The fact that he is looking at the maze (the same one happens to be outside) he's not reflecting on himself; we can safely suggest that he is memorising it. Either the insanity is setting in, or it already has. This is most likely a build up to the realisation of insanity and the maze is the singular thing that represents that. 

Let's have a look at some more frames:

Frame 2

Danny and Wendy walk through the maze

This is quite important as whilst the frame above this one is happening, so is this one itself. Notice how the greens on the outside are far more muted and the colour red is in the costume, giving the scene focus. But, notice how the maze, even though tight and constricted, has an amazing amount of depth. This is the way in which the insanity is foreshadowed. We are almost directly lined up with the gravel path on the floor, just like in the scene with the table. The thing that is most uncomfortable about this scene is the way in which we are presented with different options of path direction; the stability of the safety of the characters is widely questioned. 

Conclusions:

The Shining is a great movie to explore for horror and there are far more than 5 main themes in the film that depict this. Here are three more themes that you could explore in order to get a greater insight into how the movie uses theme and symbol to create horror before it happens: 

  • Height
  • Straight Lined Designs and Geometric Patterns
  • Character Placement in a Frame
Good luck with your next project!
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