The Shining and the spectre of 'elevated horror'

Curator's Note

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. 


Your point here about Hereditary being the "scariest film in years" is interesting - when I saw the marketing that claimed such, my responce was of course to scoff. The tendancy for some horror to come with its warning / boast that it will terrify you, is that only applied to popular horror? For all the post- horror claims re: Hereditary, it was and always was, popular and mainstream horror. Perhaps Craig and Tom can help - Does / did Deathwave or art house horror come with claims regarding terror and scariness? I wonder is there something in here that points to the need to elevate popular horror if its only purpose or intent is to frighten the viewers? 

First off, I LOVE this clip, it is so gloriously 80's! I think The Shining is such an interesting case, and I'm so fascinated by how its horror credentials were celebrated rather than minimised, and how a distancing from the "low brow" qualities of the horror genre have occured in the years since its release, rather than at the time.

Maybe there is something to be said of our current hypermediated age in relation to horror films, everything is accelerated and there seems to be an immediate need to mark films out as transcendent or special immediatedly, rather than let this become clear over time? 

Yes absolutely - I think it's really noticable with recent releases like Hereditary that this relabelling/reframing horror films as "elevated" is happening now even before release. The festival hype and subsequent critical examination of Hereditary was marked by two strategies - the first, by horror critics and pop culture sites (like the AV Club piece by AA Dowd) engaged with the film as effective, upsetting horror. The other response was to assert that it wasn't horror/represented a "new kind" of horror/was "smarter" than your average horror film, etc. Your point about acceleration and hypermediated response is spot on; so-called "post-horror" films are categorised and labelled before release now, not evaluated over time.

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