The Shining: What Makes Fear

When I mention the title of The Shining there’s probably one scene that comes to mind for people who have maybe only seen the movie once or twice (as I had before writing this post). The movie is loaded with iconic and scary scenes, and a few are probably already coming to mind; maybe you’re thinking of Danny riding around the empty hotel only to find the ghostly twins, or a crazed Jack pursuing Danny in the hedge maze. Perhaps, the moment which strikes the best balance of creating fear and providing an iconic cultural image is the “Here’s Johnny” moment, in which Jack is trying to chop down the door.

Shining 2

It’s not hard to pinpoint what makes these various scenes scary. In the case of the twin ghosts, it’s a supernatural apparition appearing suddenly. And in the case of Jack going after Wendy or Danny, it’s the bodily danger of being pursued by a dangerous man with an axe that intends to kill.

For me, that was never the scariest thing in The Shining. Sure, I flinched as I watched Dick Halloran walk around the corner and get cut down by Jack. But that is not the kind of scare that endures. When I rewatch The Shining, I can physically brace myself for Jack’s axe to hit Halloran – and then it doesn’t scare me. It’s a bit of a jump scare, but it feels well-earned. Critics of horror often talk about how jump-scares are cheap attempts at scaring an audience. Jump scares are to horror movies as fart jokes are to comedies; if you rely on them to get a scare or a laugh, then your horror or comedy probably isn’t very good. Airplane doesn’t rely on fart jokes, and The Shining doesn’t rely on jump scares.

Instead, the movie aims higher – seeking to leave a more lasting fear in its audiences. Where The Shining really excels is true, deep, psychological horror. And there is one scene that does this better than any other: The below clip, colloquially called “the Bear scene.”

I’m not sure of anything in any horror film will have anything that could possibly scare me half as much as this. I have so many questions, and yet, I feel like I don’t have enough. Everything about this scene is pitch-perfect terror:

  1. The eerie chanting.
  2. The metallic clattering noise
  3. The eerie rattling noise
  4. The way the bear-creature slowly looks towards Wendy
  5. The almost-human appearance of the creature
  6. The way the man leans forward
  7. The quick zoom-in towards the bear-creature

In this case, the whole is more terrifying than the sum of its parts, and if any single element was removed from the scene, it just wouldn’t be the same. And I feel like that I can only say so much about what makes this scene so terrifying. It all just seems so unnatural and weird – I mean “weird” both in the modern sense and in a more traditional sense –  that I can’t even understand it. It’s said that humanity fears what we don’t know, and that feels especially true in this case.

One of the scariest things about the Bear Creature and his partner is how distinctly it clashes with all the other ghosts/hallucinations. Most of the other images are violent or deathly – such as the blood coming from the elevator or the deceased twins or the decaying woman from the bathtub. Others are a little more natural, such as the bar or the ballroom. Those images up the horror element, but they’re easy to understand. The Bear-Creature is something else entirely. I don’t know what the hell it is, it’s unnatural.

Stanley Kubrick’s movies often encounter this, with one of his other best-known movies being 2001: A Space Odyssey, which ends with a sequence that can only be described as “open to interpretation.” Kubrick’s work isn’t meant to have clear answers, leading to great and complex movies like The Shining and 2001, as well as the works that try to explain them, such as the documentary Room 237 which encourages discussion and interpretation but doesn’t tell people what to think. But, of course, because people always feel the need for concrete answers, I’m sure somewhere on the internet, there exists some article or video that says “THE BEAR CREATURE FROM THE SHINING EXPLAINED.” (For many, many reasons, I hope never to read it.) I find that the more I think about the bear-creature, the less I understand it.

Shining 4

Much like The Shining, H.P. Lovecraft’s mosnter stories struggle with cheap scares versus deep terror. One of the troubles of adapting the stories of H.P. Lovecraft is the understanding of what makes them scary. Lovecraft is best known for his monsters such as Cthulhu, among others. In The Call of Cthulhu, the monster is described as resembling an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature – and of course, is monstrously huge. One thing about Cthulhu that scares the characters in the story – and the readers – is its presence and the bodily threat. Cthulhu does kill people and destroy ships at sea, but that’s not what makes it terrifying.

The true fear Cthulhu brings is an existential one. It’s the fear that comes with knowing that there are things on Earth that are greater than humanity. Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s other monsters are presented as Gods or superior creatures on earth, threatening the  conception of humanity’s place in the world.

Be it The Shining or The Call of Cthulhu, great horror stories seek to unsettle the reader or viewer – not just by creating a sense of tension and anxiety, but by creating lasting terror and fear. The feelings of anxiety keep audiences in the moment, but terror lasts much, much longer.

Shining 5

The anxiety of Cthulhu is the fact that there is a dangerous squid monster, but the terror of Cthulhu is that there are creatures older and greater than humans, demigods on earth.

The anxiety of Psycho is that a dangerous person might stab you while you’re in the shower. The terror of Psycho is that a dangerous person could appear totally normal.

The anxiety of Jaws is the fact that the characters on screen could potentially get killed by the Shark. But the terror of Jaws is the fear that a viewer brings with him or herself every time they step into an ocean where a shark can come close to the beach.

Anxiety is good, anxiety is what makes an audience fear a jump scare. Anxiety is what keeps a viewer on the edge of their seat. But terror is great. Terror will keep a viewer thinking about your movie in the years to come, whenever it’s late at night and it’s dark and there’s an eerie silence…

This creates anxiety:

Shining 3

And this creates terror:

Shining 1



What’s something from a horror movie that has made you feel anxious? What’s something from a horror movie that has made you feel terror?

As always, thanks for reading. Happy Halloween!

4 thoughts on “The Shining: What Makes Fear

  1. Chilling food for thought, Andrew. One scene that really bothered me from the 1990 miniseries version of “It” was when the little boy was pulled through the bars of the sewage drain and killed. For a long time I had to stop myself from looking down every time I walked across a drain in case something was lurking there!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SHINING in 2018 has emerged

    Rob AGAR on Youtube has come to closest to catching it all

    Only incidentally about the NASA moon hoax

    Really was concerned with laying out, in allegorical form, the infiltration, subversion and destruction
    of first ENGLAND and later the AMERICAN republic by inter–generational USURY.

    How ? – – via hoax–craft, and externally inflicted and manipulated SHAME and GUILT.

    What’s more Kubrick shows us precisely how

    In 2018, it is clear – – -every single male in the film, with the exception of HALLORAN,
    reads and is meant to read – –as before birth subverted – -psychopathically CLUELESS – –FTM

    And Danny’s elevator blood vision?

    1980 was not only the height of RED CHINA handover, but INTEL’s push to mainstrean
    knifing one’s unborn.

    SIT with that a while…


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