All Work and No Play Makes Horace A Dull Boy: Comparing Gothic Elements Portrayed in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The sound of the bassoon is slow and monotone. It repeats the same measure over and over again, without mercy. The mountain-view is bright, crystal clear; it is absurdly vivid. The camera skims the water, so close the viewer instinctively holds his or her breath in anticipation of submerging into the cold, Colorado River. It slowly raises, nearly touches the top of trees of a lonely, isolated island abandoned in the center of the water. The audience is emerged in the vastness of the Colorado Rocky Mountains; endless to the eye, the valley elongates beyond the camera’s lens. The mountains strike as much fear as awe; the viewer begins to feel the sense of flight as the camera soars through the wilderness, the sense of flight becomes near maddening as the shot focuses on a serpentine grey line cutting across the terrain – an ugly, slicing division of the green pine trees and the white nearly fallen snow: a roadway. As the camera descends, the road is no longer empty: one yellow 70’s Volkswagen Beetle focuses into view as it speeds, almost recklessly down the road. The camera maintains its distance, follows it silently as it enters a cave – and emerges on the other side. The scene fades away, and fades back to show the Overlook Hotel: an ominous beast of a building, both majestic and horrific at the same time. The hotel does not appear man-made, in some strange, unnatural sense the Overlook Hotel belongs there because it is meant to be there.
This is the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film-adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. The movie repeatedly appears near the top of “Scariest Movies Ever Made” lists despite it being critically panned at the time of its release. Kubrick tells the story of Jack Torrence (played exquisitely by Jack Nicholson) and his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny. Torrence and his family are locked away in the Overlook Hotel as caretakers through the hard Colorado winter; they have no physical contact with the outside world, only a CB radio connects them to civilization. Torrence, a former school teacher who takes the opportunity of isolation to work on his first novel, slowly dips into madness. He hallucinates dead bodies throughout the hotel, a sinister naked old woman in the spine-tingling room 237 (if you do not close your eyes at this scene – check to see if you are alive), and a butler with a self-inflicted bullet wound in his head. It would be easy to assume that these manifestations all take place in Jack’s mind, and his homicidal rampage at the end of the film can be simply deduced as the ravings of a madman succumbing to “Cabin Fever,” or insanity caused by being shut-in and isolated during long, winter months. However, just as Torrence experiences the paranormal through the Overlook, his son does as well. Danny Lloyd plays Danny the son (who Kubrick filmed without the seven year-old’s knowledge that he was in a horror movie), and delivers a stellar performance as the child lost within his own psychic mind, his father’s mind, and, of course, the never-ending hallways of the Overlook Hotel.
The genius behind The Shining is the drowning sense of loneliness felt by the viewer: the actors deliver their lines intentionally slower than normal human interaction and they leave wide amounts of space between each other’s dialogues, producing an emptiness and barrenness within their conversations. But more so, the Overlook Hotel itself, the building they live in, seems to be the central character of the film. Kubrick’s vision of space is enhanced in almost every shot of the film; the amount of open-area behind the characters when they are in the building is endless. Audiences feel the vulnerability of Jack, as he lackadaisically yet violently throws a tennis ball around his auditorium-sized writing room, behind him is a large hallway; at no point does any character within the film seem safe or secure. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto does the same; Walpole created a building which induces fear. The terror within the walls of The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining reflects the nightmarish twist and turns of Walpole’s castle within The Castle of Otranto.
From the opening sentence of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the reader is subjected to an unknown, unspoken fear: a sense that what should be protected is in considerable danger:
Manfred, Prince of Otranto, had one son and one daughter: the latter, a most beautiful virgin, aged eighteen, was called Matilda. Conrad, the son, was three years younger, a homely youth, sickly, and of no promising disposition; yet he was the darling of his father, who never showed any symptoms of affection to Matilda. Manfred had contracted a marriage for his son with the Marquis of Vicenza’s daughter, Isabella; and she had already been delivered by her guardians into the hands of Manfred, that he might celebrate the wedding as soon as Conrad’s infirm state of health would permit… His tenants and subjects were less cautious in their discourses: they attributed this hasty wedding to the prince’s dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy, which was said to have pronounced, that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it. It was difficult to make any sense of this prophecy; and still less easy to conceive what it had to do with the marriage in question. Yet these mysteries, or contradictions, did not make the populace adhere the less to their opinion (Walpole 4).
Walpole writes of a prophecy, an unavoidable solemnity that plagues the family. Manfred, similar to Jack Torrence, attempts to protect his family from his curse; Manfred’s inherited from history and Jack from his drinking and abusive behaviors. Manfred attempts, in a classic state of literary hubris therefore damning himself as the tragic hero, to surpass the curse by divorcing his own wife and marrying his late son’s (crushed lovingly by an oversized helmet on his wedding day) betrothed lover, Isabella. It is the union of Isabella and Manfred that conjures the supernatural manifestations throughout the novel. The mystical element of the unknown is an element of gothic literature transcended by Kubrick into The Shining. Stephen King, the writer of the novel, gave telepathic powers to the boy, Danny, as well as Dick Halloran, the eccentric cook chief whose grandmother also held this gift and referred to it as “shining.” Danny asks Halloran if he is afraid of The Overlook, Halloran responds in a nervous manner: “No. It seems that, sometimes, even buildings ‘shine’ too.” The central element of the movie is the supernatural, the telepathic element between Danny, Halloran, and The Overook, reflects the basic principle of gothic and the supernatural. “Shining” connects the characters and the Overlook together, without this characteristic of the story, it would be nothing more than a Hollywood ghost story.
In the Preface to the First Edition, Walpole writes:
If this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation. There is no bombast, no similes, flowers, digressions, or unnecessary descriptions. Everything tends directly to the catastrophe. Never is the reader’s attention relaxed. The rules of the drama are almost observed throughout the conduct of the piece. The characters are well drawn, and still better maintained. Terror, the author’s principal engine, prevents the story from ever languishing; and it is so often contrasted by pity, that the mind is kept up in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions (Walpole 2).
Similar to The Castle of Otranto, Kubrick’s film is devoid of metaphor, simile, and allusion as Walpole describes. Kubrick’s film offers nothing surreal or imagined, the horror, similar to The Castle of Otranto, is organic in nature: the winding hallways of the Overlook as Danny rides his Big Wheel over interchanging carpet and hardwood floors (which the noise of deafens the viewer – or the muffled silence of the carpet is smothering, that is up to the perceptions of the moviegoer) recalls the intertwining and snake-like hallways of the Castle of Otranto. The Torrences are subject to visions of horror: death-scenes of previous caretakers, a cadaverous bartender named Lloyd, and a not-to-ever-be-forgotten shot of a gentleman in a Disney-like dog costume performing simulated fellatio on a man in a dinner tuxedo. These visions are not meant to be symbolic, just as Walpole intended for The Castle of Otranto, each vision is to be interpreted as it is presented to the viewer: perfectly natural in its mere supernatural. The castle unveils the horror it possesses: gigantic pieces of armor are found throughout the castle’s corridors, a painting comes to life before the eyes of the terror stricken subjects, and, as if the goodness of heaven itself denies the evil incantations within its walls, lightning strikes one section of the castle, destroying it completely. Walpole’s use of rising sublimity with possible illusions in organic terror when Manfred, unbeknownst to his comrades, witnesses a horrific sight: The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince's speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it. He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young Prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him. (Walpole 4)
Where Lewis’ The Monk centers terror on demonic manifestations, bloody nuns, more shocking horror than cerebral, Walpole’s horror transfixes itself on the illusion of the mind: sights and sounds which are physical to the characters – a tool adopted by Kubrick in The Shining. The characters within The Castle of Otranto are able to touch the horror that pursues them, yet still question its existence similar to the shared supposed “hallucinations” of The Shining’s Torrence family.
Within The Shining, isolation plays a key factor in the down-slide of Jack and his family. Separated from civilization, the intense loneliness drives him insane. The rising sublimity of the plot, the fear that pulls the audience in, takes place within the Torrence family’s mind. Kubrick displays this, not by monsters hidden under the stairs or killers lurking in the shadows, but by the graceful presentation of fear-inducing images meant to excite the cerebral aspects of the viewer. This sense of intense isolation is also apparent within The Castles of Otranto, when Hippolita is jailed alone; the intellectual side of her horror causes her fear:
Words cannot paint the horror of the princess’s situation. Alone, in so dismal a place, her mind impressed with all the terrible events of the day, hopeless of escaping, expecting every moment the arrival of Manfred, and far from tranquil on knowing she was within reach of somebody, she knew not whom, who for some cause seemed concealed thereabouts; all these thoughts crowded on her distracted mind, and she was ready to sink under her apprehensions. She addressed herself to every saint in heaven, and inwardly implored their assistance. For a considerable time she remained in an agony of despair. At last, as softly as was possible, she felt for the door, and having found it, entered trembling into the vault from whence she had heard the sigh and steps. It gave her a kind of momentary joy to perceive an imperfect ray of clouded moonshine gleam from the roof of the vault, which seemed to be fallen in, and from whence hung a fragment of earth or building, she could not distinguish which, that appeared to have been crushed inwards. She advanced eagerly towards this chasm, when she discerned a human form standing close against the wall (Walpole 19).
Hippolita’s sense of dismay is the classic “damsel-in-distress” cliché. Although this image manifests regularly in heroic texts, it holds a special place in the realm of gothic literature. The Shining’s damsel, Jack’s wife Wendy, finds herself in a similar situation: having locked herself in a room with her son to escape her husband’s rampage.
In the center of The Castle of Otranto, one major element stands out above the rest: the castle itself. Similar to The Overlook, the castle of Otranto is a living character within the book. A reader feels that the castle itself affects the people within, that somehow, the castle controls the terror in its walls, and through discourse to the reader, becomes the most sinister element within the story. Kubrick adopted this aura to The Shining when he made The Overlook Hotel the central figure within the macabre events of the film. The Torrence family, as well as Walpole’s Manfred and family, are victims of the ancient unspeakable horrors that dwell either within their minds or in the dwellings they reside.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. 1 May 2007. Bibliomania. Update Date Unpublished.
The Shining (film). Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Miramax Films, 1980.