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

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

[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

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

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.

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.

2 thoughts on “VIDEO ESSAY: Siding with the Victim, Part I: THE SHINING”

  1. 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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