The contemporary debates around so-called ‘post-horror’ that my colleagues have addressed this week are rooted in critical discourse which has plagued the genre for decades.
Since its release in 1980, The Shining has undergone reappraisal. The film initially confused many reviewers, who struggled to connect Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation to the horror tropes of Stephen King’s bestseller, but it later became the subject of countless critical and scholarly evaluations of deeper meanings, artistic excellence, and an auterist subversion of generic clichés.
This ignores the ways in which much of its audience engaged with The Shining, as a popular, successfully scary horror movie. It became one of Warner Bros. most profitable theatrical hits, and later found a wide audience on home video. It regularly tops audience polls of the greatest horror movies of all time.
In this introduction to an ABC broadcast of the film in 1985, The Shining is described as “a masterpiece of modern horror” and “the ultimate exercise in terror”. These claims—promoted in other trailers, posters, and TV spots—clearly aim to rank the film highly in the horror canon, but make no effort to ‘elevate’ it above or beyond the genre. Rather, they celebrate its inclusion. The intro highlights the star appeal of Nicholson and Duvall, and features shots of Jack swinging or dragging his axe, Wendy with her knife raised, terrified and screaming, and the dusty, cobwebbed skeletons hanging out in The Overlook’s hallways. What viewers are about to watch is a horror film. Kubrick isn’t mentioned.
When The Shining is adopted as a comparison for ‘post-horror’ films, as Steve Rose and other critics have done, it highlights the clash in audience and critical perceptions of popular horror. It would be disingenuous to suggest that more viewers were attracted to Hereditary’s ‘elevated’ horror than its promise to be the ‘scariest movie in years’, just as it is dismissive to champion The Shining for transcending a disreputable genre. Horror has always featured smart, artistic, meaningful examples (as if these are the only markers of cultural value), and audiences have always engaged with them as genre films.