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The horror of stasis: Why The Shining is the most unsettling quarantine movie

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May 22, 2020, 12:30 PM EDT

The routine is the same each day, or it feels that way. You wake up, you get out of bed, you eat some of the processed food in the pantry, you try to get to work but end up being interrupted by your spouse and children, and then you go to bed. Most of the time, it's best that you stay inside. Oh, and you're not able to see any of your friends. That may sound like it's just another day in the life of any of us quarantining against the coronavirus. But it's also the description of a large chunk of Stanley Kubrick's chilling adaptation of The Shining, turning 40 this month.

The Shining, at first blush, feels like the apropos horror film to discuss at this moment in time. It's a story not only about people trapped in a house by themselves, but it's about how those people — in one way or another — basically lose their minds. One of the three leads of the film goes around the bend to the point where he wants to kill his wife and son, but the wife and son leave the Overlook Hotel with at least one or two screws loose themselves (just read — or watch — The Shining's sequel, Doctor Sleep, for proof).

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Perhaps the most horrifying thing about The Shining now, four decades later in the midst of a global pandemic, isn't that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) loses his already unstable grip on sanity and becomes murderous. It's not that the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel exploit and terrorize a 5-year-old boy. It's not even that the Overlook Hotel is home to a vast number of ghostly figures inexplicably willed to life over one nasty winter.

No, what's especially scary now is that the Torrance family willingly goes into isolation.

The Shining is arguably the most rewatchable film in Stanley Kubrick's career, a hypnotic and unnerving descent into madness. The notion that Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance are stuck in the Overlook Hotel for a few months while the Colorado winters besiege the resort is only so horrifying, though. Realizing that Jack literally signed a contract to get his family stuck in the middle of nowhere compounds the terror.

The Torrance family has it a lot easier than you might think, at first: Though they are painfully alone with each other, they're not cooped up in a tiny apartment or even a moderately sized house. One of the many distinctive charms of The Shining is the slick, smoothly handled Steadicam photography, exemplified in scenes where Danny (Danny Lloyd) rides a low-to-the-ground tricycle around the main floor. These shots drive home just how huge the Overlook Hotel is, and the Torrances perhaps are able to stave off supernatural terror a little while longer simply because they're not stuck in extremely close quarters.

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But Jack is indeed ready to lose his mind, or so it seems through Nicholson's terrifying but not terribly subtle performance. (Even before Jack is lured to the dark side, gleefully leaping off the wagon thanks to a spectral bartender, he's on a knife's edge of frustration and fury.) Jack quickly gets frustrated with Wendy for interrupting his work, even though it's evident that he's not doing any writing at all. Though that's confirmed in a horrifying moment as the third act begins — when Wendy rifles through a massive pile of papers and sees the sentence "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" written over and over and over again — we all but know Jack's playing and not working at all.

Earlier in the film, we see him throwing a tennis ball against a Native American woven tapestry in the cavernous hall where he's set up his typewriter, and then staring at a miniature version of the hedge maze outside the hotel, with Kubrick's careful camerawork and editing implying that the demented man is watching over his wife and child with nefarious plans in mind. He's got nothing better to do.

The only time Jack Torrance seems alive is when he's drinking. Throughout the first hour of The Shining, Jack is sober. Once he stumbles into a haunted ballroom called The Gold Room, Jack reveals that his sobriety is only a few months old and forcibly so. He's broken up his new routine by embracing the old one, the same behavior that led him to dislocate his young son's shoulder in an alcohol-fueled fury when Danny was just a toddler.

Wendy and Danny try to spruce up their time in isolation in more exciting ways, with the mother leading her son through the hedge maze during a bright and sunny day. But they, too, are stuck. Danny ends up watching TV all the time, in part because it's more exciting than riding his bike through the abandoned Overlook Hotel, and in part because when he does ride his bike through the hotel, he's attacked by ghosts of all shapes and sizes. Wendy's ennui is much less pervasive because she's the most innocent character in the film. (As the youngest, Danny should be the most innocent person among the trio, but his supernatural gift that gives the film its title means he's given grim insight into the horror that awaits.)

Credit: Warner Bros.

One of the most common remarks you've likely seen online in the last couple of months as the world has gone into a mandated lockdown, or perhaps had yourself, is that the days blur together. Is today Monday or Tuesday? Is it a weekend? Man, April sure moved a hell of a lot faster than March did. What's with that? Though Kubrick doesn't spend too much time giving us details about how far along in the October-March period the Torrances are in their time as caretakers of the Overlook, we do get a series of superimposed captions throughout the film. They start out innocuously but distinctively enough: "The Interview" and "Closing Day." But soon, the intertitles turn into something blander, on purpose: "Monday." "Thursday." "Wednesday." Are the scenes following those captions from the same week? The same month? Does it even matter?

What Kubrick is able to crack in his adaptation is that when time blurs together in this way, daytime and nighttime are immaterial. What's terrifying isn't just the bloodthirsty ax-wielding monster who used to be a father and husband. It's that the entire world is so far removed from the Torrances and the Overlook that the family doesn't even realize how to cry for help. The only person who gives a second thought to the Torrances is Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), and that's only because he has the same gift Danny does. His attempt to save Wendy and Danny is cut so short, thanks to Jack's ax in his chest, that Danny only knows what's happened through his own gift, and Wendy simply stumbles upon his dead body.

The Shining, no matter what Stephen King, who famously disliked the adaptation, may say, is one of the most viscerally terrifying films in American cinema history. Watching it during a pandemic is doubly so, not because the bad guy is an unseen virus (though you could argue that there is something disturbingly invisible about the true nature of whatever haunts the Overlook). It's because the film is about people who have willingly stuck themselves inside a house for a seemingly interminable amount of time. Stanley Kubrick, without saying it in so many words, understands the primal terror of a film like this, because his work is embodying the famous Jean-Paul Sartre quote: Hell is other people.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.