One’s fear of something can sometimes be about repeated occurrences. Seeing something once that sends a shiver up your spine – that’s one thing. Seeing something more than once – worse yet, coming at you in concert: that’s something altogether horrifying. A singular greeting to horror, multiplied by two, one can likely think of nothing worse. It’s a promise to horror. And it’s two-fold.
Now, I’ll admit I saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining earlier than I should have in my young life. Luckily, my parents at least had the foresight that I wouldn’t see it until it aired on national TV, but no amount of censorship can really transform The Shining into a family-friendly film. One wouldn’t imagine that the cannibalistic Donner party could be made prime time appropriate either, but that doesn’t stop father Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) from momentarily talking about it with his son Danny (Danny Lloyd). And that’s alright too, because Danny had already learned about it on his own by watching about it on the television. And Jack assures his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), “It’s all right. He saw it on the TV.”
Everything is alright on the TV.
When it came to The Shining, network TV cut from the film much of the blood that came crashing through the elevator doors, washing over the Overlook Hotel’s lobby floor tile. It cut away when Mr. Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) served as a catcher’s mitt for an ax in the hands of an enraged Jack. It certainly blurred out the woman’s naked breasts in room 237, but the network couldn’t easily remove the Grady twins from the film, and they were more frightening to me than anything that had to be cut out. Seeing the film for the first time, I was as alarmed as anyone when little Danny rounded that hallway corner on his three-wheeler to discover the spectral Grady girls waiting for him, and for me – and likely for others – the two were a central source of dread.
Yet unlike the other elements of the film that needed to be censored for prime time TV, all that made the Grady twins frightening was their portent. What made them terrifying was not an ounce of blood nor the insinuation of violence. It was what the Grady girls introduced to the film, what they beckoned to Danny and the viewer, seemingly echoing to him before the Torrance family moved to the Overlook. “Well, let’s just wait and see,” she says to him. “We’re all going to have a real good time.”
And we would have a good time, over the course of the film.
We would also have an absolutely horrifying time.
From memory, I can’t write that my parents allowed me to watch the film for its full duration. But they didn’t have to let me watch more than the film’s first 30 minutes to traumatize me, in large part due to the Grady girls. They remain one of the most haunting ingredients of the production. There is something scary about the image of the girls’ dead bodies in that hallway. (Few filmmakers have captured the realistically unnerving collapse of bodies like Kubrick, outside of Coppola or Scorsese.) But more alarming than the image of the girls’ violent demise is the invitation that they first provided to me and the rest of the audience. That’s what remains so haunting about Kubrick’s production. It wasn’t about the more surreal images in the hotel that visit us (and few could discomfit us more than the man dressed in the dog outfit). It wasn’t about the circuitous garden maze that we – like Danny – ran through, trying to escape a murderous father who promised would never hurt us. It’s not even about the nature of the maze itself, an ordinarily juvenile house of seek and discovery, which was only made more terrifying because the playground was suddenly ruthlessly real, even if it was meant to be nothing more than some gravel, landscaping, and subterfuge.
When I saw the film as a child, the fright of Kubrick’s movie had much more to do with that first glimpse of two girls – not one, but two – in that wallpapered hotel hallway early in the film. It had to do with the manner in which those girls gently usher the audience into the film’s mounting terror. While unexpected, their emergence – welcoming the viewer into another two hours of horror – should have seemed harmless, especially since I saw it like so many other people did on the television.
Even when Jack Torrance tragically promised us: it’s okay as long as we saw it on the TV.