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The Shining (1980)

Fear challenge #3: The fear of family.

Key quote for this challenge: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

It’s an odd turn of phrase, the fear of family. Family-phobia: what kind of goofy sitcom fear is that? But in some of King’s early work as a writer (see also the 1978 short story “The Boogeyman”), there is a definite theme of men wanting to unburden themselves of responsibility and be free of their families. Like Misery, however, The Shining is not bound by one perspective. It works from multiple angles on the fear front.

The character of Jack Torrance, as embodied by Jack Nicholson, clearly resents his wife and son. An important element of his backstory is an injury he inflicted on his son when the boy got into his papers and made a mess of them. When his wife interrupts one of his writing sessions at the Overlook Hotel, he also lashes out at her viciously.

For Jack, family is an object of fear, to be reviled, insofar as it is capable of endangering his work. His barely repressed anger comes from the way he perceives his wife and son as interfering with his duties as writer and caretaker. Though what we see in him is obviously warped, that sense of aspirational drive might actually be relatable to anyone who has ever had trouble juggling their professional life with their home life.

A busy adult who still clings to personal ambition could easily find their parental and spousal obligations weighing down on them like hindrances. There are only so many hours in the day, and when a person does not have enough time to pursue his or her dream, family relationships and other social obligations like friendships might come to be regarded — rather irritably — as human obstacles on the road to success. So it is that Wendy and Danny Torrance would, from Jack’s perspective, seem to impede his goals.

He may not have invented the term “ball and chain,” but he certainly wears them like one. Simply put, Wendy and Danny take all the fun out of Jack’s life. He can’t drink when he’s around them. He can’t write. He’s got to work to feed them. “All work and no play …”

The problem is, Jack is a monster.  We see it in Wendy’s eyes as he catches her flipping through his typewritten manuscript, with pages and pages of the same quote, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” written in different margin settings.

“How do you like it?” he asks, creeping up on her from behind, his voice piercing the heavy silence in the Overlook’s lounge.

Only now does Wendy realize her husband has lost it completely…if he ever really had it to begin with. And there is a sustainable argument that he didn’t, at least in Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, which strayed from King’s original intent. To paraphrase a quote, the Overlook didn’t change who Jack was; it revealed who he was. It showed that his writer act was all a big sham, and he was really just using his family as an excuse for why he had failed in life.

The slow walk up the staircase — Jack gibbering beyond reason, Wendy swiping at him with the bat — is unbearably tense. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Jack says. “Wendy, darling, light of my life.” He is saying all the things that a loving husband should be saying, but the tone is all wrong, cruel and mocking. There is something wrong with him as a person.

Here again, we see the fear of folly — self-delusion, misplaced trust in people, whatever form it takes. Wendy’s own blindness betrays her. She married a monster; she sees that now. But it is too late. She is trapped with him under the roof of this place. It’s the perfect metaphor for a bad marriage. To say nothing of the abuse aspect.

That is what makes it so scary when Jack goes after Danny in the hedge maze at the end of the film. Because Danny was born into this family. Unlike Wendy, who could have chosen to leave her husband, Danny had no choice in anything. Maybe Dick Halloran could have hooked him up with a lawyer who would give him some sage counsel about the emancipation of minors. But Dick Halloran took an ax to the chest, leaving Danny on his own to contend with the person who was supposed to be his protector.

That is the other way The Shining taps into the fear of family, by showing us the horror through Danny’s eyes, putting us in the shoes of a kid running through the snow from his father. As one commentator in the documentary Room 237 points out, it is only by retracing his steps, going back over his footprints in the snow, that Danny can escape what his father represents. A parent is a provider, but they can also be a conduit, revisiting the sins of the past on their children. Is it any wonder that the Danny of Doctor Sleep, King’s literary sequel to The Shining, wound up alcoholic, like his dad?

The fear of family is a fear, not just of faulty DNA, but of cycles of behavior, the vicious circle that often perpetuates itself through families across generations.

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Last month, I wrote a whole Unpopular Opinion article about the TV version of The Shining and how it is a worthy companion piece to Kubrick’s film. I would have very much loved to include a scene from that miniseries on this list: specifically, the scene that plays out in the forbidden Room 217. I still maintain that the moment when the little boy tries to will or wish his fears away by closing his eyes — only to pull back the shower curtain and see a woman’s living corpse lying in the bathtub — remains one of the more terrifying things to have been shown on network television in the past 20 years.

“Hello, Danny. I’ve been waiting for you. We’ve all been waiting for you.”

Here, as in the aforementioned “Boogeyman” short story, King expertly manipulates the fear that the nightmare is real. Your fears are valid; the monster is there, peeling off the mask of a trusted therapist, to reveal the boogeyman underneath. The way the woman in Room 217 rises up out of the bathtub, the way her decomposing foot touches down on the bathroom tile, is absolutely mind-boggling when you think about it in the context of an impressionable teen watching it at home on a school night, circa 1997 (and again, on network TV, not cable or a premium channel).

Those are the subjective circumstances under which my 16-year-old self experienced that scene. In the final analysis, maybe viewing conditions are as much a factor in being scared as the actual content of some horror films. It all depends on where you are (if you’re alone, if it’s dark) and who you are (if you have any deep-seated fears or personal hang-ups, how young and impressionable you were when you watched a given scene.)

So what are your picks for the scariest Stephen King moments?

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