VIDEO ESSAY: Siding with the Victim, Part I: THE SHINING

Video
by Jed Mayer and Ken Cancelosi
July 10, 2013 8:37 AM
2 Comments
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[The script follows:]

From the time we are little children we like hearing scary stories.  Some psychologists claim it’s because we use these stories to work through our anxieties.  Fairy tales and nursery rhymes expose us to fearful situations, and along with Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, and Little Red Riding Hood, we see our way through to daylight.

But for every little piggy who lives, another little piggy has to die…

Maybe there’s another explanation to why we like scary stories, a darker, and perhaps a richer one than that given by psychologists. Perhaps we don’t identify with the victors so much as the victims.

 

Horror films show us the dark underside of the American dream. As one group rises to power, another is disenfranchised. Often, violence is visited upon those who are in the minority. 

Thrillers and action films celebrate triumph and success. Horror films clean up the mess, mop up the blood, and show us what’s under the rubble after the action hero lays waste.


Many horror movies’ victims, are women and children, as in real life.

The Shining is arguably the greatest horror film because it so movingly bears witness to the suffering of the frightened wife and child of a violent alcoholic.
 

Wendy Torrance’s glassy-eyed smile holds a dark history and a sense of nervous fear. This is revealed by the enormous ash perilously dangling from her cigarette. The film will draw her repressed fears out, writ large in bloody letters across the screen.

If this were a made for TV movie about spousal abuse, a councilor or friend would come to the abused wife’s aid. That person would help her to gain control of her life. 

But the narrative and moral logic of horror films tells us a different story, one that is, perhaps, truer to life: evil never sleeps, and the dead don’t always stay dead.


It is a common story, sadly enough, but like all great horror films, The Shining gives this story the magnitude of a tragic American myth. 

As family tensions mount in the Overlook, each member of the family goes over the edge in their own special way.
 

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”  Poet Philip Larkin’s words are particularly relevant to the American horror film.  Many of the best horror films capture the unique vulnerability of childhood. In the end, the horror movie makes us all as vulnerable as little children.

The tradition of gothic horror has been replete with beings whose monstrousness is as much a burden to themselves as a threat to others.  There is no such thing as a victimless crime in horror movies. Even the victimizers may be said to suffer.

We see Jack Torrance having a nightmare that, the film suggests, is a kind of a vision brought on by the haunted hotel where he and his family live. Such visitations vex him, and we can identify with his anguish. 

Jack can still feel compassion, though, and we sense his torment and anguish as he confronts and eventually turns toward derangement. 

As such visitations increase in frequency and intensity, Jack is transformed into a savage, and yet we continue to see him as a victim driven to madness. And thus, his final transformation and his merciless rampage seem all the more tragic. 


Even in the end, he is no monster. 

This is simply the dark side of human power. 

The waxing and waning of power itself—in cinema as in real life—is merely an illusion.


The horror film: It shows us the dark side of power, and reminds us that we are all, at some levels, powerless victims.

Power, in and of itself, is not a moral virtue, but compassion is.


Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Ken Cancelosi is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Press Play.


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2 Comments

  • JEFTCG | August 22, 2013 2:27 PMReply

    Deep.

  • Patrice B. | August 4, 2013 12:32 AMReply

    Good contrast drawn between action/thriller movies and horror ones. But I hesitate to describe Jack as a victim driven to madness. Victim removes a lot of his own guilt. Did the Overlook Hotel rob him of his sanity and push him to turn on his own family? Yes. But Jack always seemed too open to those influences. Remember when he drives his wife and son to the hotel? His face and words (he mocks his son for using TV to learn about things) express contempt towards his family. And the many scenes afterward (before he loses it) that isolate him completely from the other two or frame him only with his wife (he seems annoyed with obvious statements when she makes him breakfast) or with his son. The family already seems a bit...off. Fractured. And then he all too easily slips into the Gold Room to drink ghostly alcohol and to insult his family. It's a leap from contempt to murder, I know, but Jack (or rather, Kubrick's and Nicholson's take on the character) make the leap seem so unavoidable.

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