Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: An embodied film experience

This is a guest post by Maarten Coëgnarts, author of Film as Embodied Art: Bodily Meaning in the Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, now available for purchase and Open Access.

When Halloween season comes around, we love to revisit the suspenseful horror classics that we know and love, and for a lot of people that is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Like many of his other films, The Shining received mixed reviews upon its initial release. Today, four decades later, the film is considered to be one of Kubrick’s finest and one of the greatest horror films ever made. Most telling in this respect is the following quote by Steven Spielberg: “I didn’t love The Shining the first time I saw it. I have since seen The Shining 25 times. It’s one of my favorite pictures. Kubrick films tend to grow on you, you have to see them more than once.”[1] It is a statement frequently heard with regard to Kubrick’s oeuvre, but seldom explained in a (scientific) manner that is satisfying. How can we account for this seemingly endless richness and wonder?

The newly published book Film as Embodied Art: Bodily Meaning in the Cinema of Stanley Kubrick tries to answer this question from a cognitive perspective by investigating how the concept of meaning is to be understood in the films of Kubrick. As it argues, Kubrick’s conception of meaning is quite different from the view as commonly described in 20th century analytical philosophy and first-generation cognitive science. For philosophers in these traditions meaning is foremost truth-conditional, that is, meaning defined not internally in the mind or body, but by reference to things in the external world. On this view meaning is primarily linguistic in nature. As a consequence of this it is assumed that film can only have any meaning if that meaning runs through structures that are analogous to words and propositions. Naturally, such a view is hard to swallow for Kubrick, the visual storyteller,  who strongly believed that the power of film lies precisely in its opposite, in its ability to free itself from the “straitjacket of words,” as he once called it, by communicating abstractions and complex ideas non-verbally.[2] This, in turn, begs the question: how does Kubrick’s cinema succeed in communicating meaning without the traditional reliance on words? It is in the search to meet this profound ontological question that the book turns toward second-generation cognitive science and the embodied view of meaning-making as it was originally articulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. On this view, which has its roots in the field of cognitive linguistics, meaning goes far beyond the confines of words and sentences. Instead, conceptual structure is argued to emerge from pre-conceptual structures that have their origins in our ongoing bodily interactions with the world. As the book shows, it is precisely these embodied structures, rather than words, that Kubrick’s films appeal to, to create what he calls “a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content.”[3] For Kubrick meaning lies in the experience, not in the intellectual and conceptual verbalization. It is here that we may find a part of the answer to the question raised above. It is through the bodily patterns of human experience, which operate largely beneath cognitive awareness, that his films continue to resonate within the viewer’s body, even well after the films’ events are well established. Take the iconic tricycle scene from The Shining, for instance. We all know the outcome when little Danny turns that corner, yet every time we see the scene we still feel suspense. How do we come to terms with this paradox? To answer this question, the book argues, is to consider the embodied structure upon which the referential meaning of the scene (“Danny rides his tricycle and comes face-to-face with the Grady Twins”) is built. This structure revolves around a gestalt pattern that emerges from our many daily experiences with physical containment (e.g., walking into a room, pouring out coffee, looking into the mirror) and that consists of a boundary distinguishing an interior from an exterior. Here, however, the properties of this schema are appropriated for the purpose of structuring Danny’s perception visually where the back inside of the frame (i.e., the container) is metaphorically mapped onto Danny’s visual field. By framing Danny from behind, Kubrick manages not only to render the empty space in front of him visually intelligible, but at the same time he also establishes the potentiality of this space of being filled with something. That is, by showing a visual field that is empty Kubrick already set the conditions for what is bound to happen next, namely that this emptiness will be filled up by the appearance of the Grady Twins. Suspense then is increased by the prolongation of this emptiness and the delay of its filling. This is established by the following shot. As little Danny rides through the Overlook Hotel, one empty corridor after another is included in his visual field. Then finally, when he turns that corner and the back of his visual field is taken in by two identical girls in blue dresses we are as startled as little Danny.


This makes one wonder how music, that other non-verbal medium for which the films of Kubrick are renowned, can evoke the same kind of spatial patterns of sensory-motor experience. Is music (“pure” or “absolute” instrumental music, that is) not abstract? Does it not lack a reference model through which these patterns can be evoked? Or as Roger Scruton put the problem vividly: “Is there anything, other than itself, that music means?”[4] Here the book’s central argument goes that we ought to look not so much to the music itself, but to the listener who makes sense of it. That is, music may not possess the bodily properties that are necessary for becoming meaningful, the people who listen to it nonetheless resort to these properties in order to make sense of the musical sounds they hear. This is, for instance, how we come to use spatial phenomena such as verticality, balance, weight and motion to describe our experience of hearing music. In other words, we experience music as meaningful because the bodily means that we draw upon to make sense of it are structurally similar to the bodily means that we use to make sense of meaning in general. In normal cases, this corporeal association of music with spatial phenomena would be a sufficient source for the indication of expression. In the cinema of Kubrick, however, the music is there to mean something more. As many scholars have pointed out, Kubrick did not select the music of Ligeti, Penderecki and Bartók merely for the sake of background music, but for the purpose of influencing the interpretation of the images that they accompany. The embodied patterns through which the music resonates in us are there to express the film’s thematic content (e.g., psychology of the characters). There is perhaps no better way to illustrate this correlation than by looking at the scene where little Danny and his destabilizing father have a talk on the bed. The scene is immersed in a lack of energy and vitality caused not only by the worn-out performance of Jack Nicholson whose monotone voice speaks in a manner as if his character is mentally drained and empty, but also by the pace, volume and relative inertness of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta which accompanies it. Notwithstanding this lack of energy, there is a clear trajectory to discern within the dialogue and Jack’s performance that runs from seeming inanity toward the suggestion of violence. For instance, when Danny first inquires “Dad?” the balance is distorted by an upward glissando that breaks the pattern in the strings and upsets the atmosphere. Similarly, the pivotal scene-altering question “You would never hurt mummy and me, would you?” is echoed by string glissandi suggesting parallel directed motion. In other words, the way we bodily make sense of Bartók’s music is generative to the psychological uncanniness of the narrative scene which demands for an embodiment of the omnipresent but unseen evil. 


In addition to the theme of embodiment there is also the prism of ambiguity through which the book tries to understand our infinite fascination with Kubrick’s work. That is, besides the fact that the meanings in Kubrick’s films are embodied non-verbally, there is also the fact that a lot of these embodied meanings are deliberately held vague or at least paradoxical. They contest the transparent signification for which classical Hollywood cinema is famous, and they refrain from providing clear answers. This was definitely the case in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it certainly also holds for The Shining, a film that is shrouded in an air of mystery and impenetrability, and that constantly seems to challenge the viewer’s conventional notions of reality and perception. Take, for example, the scary scene where Jack enters Room 237 and sees a naked young lady stepping out of a bath. The music that underscores this scene is Krzystof Penderecki’s The Awakening of Jacob layered with a sound effect that recalls Jack’s (?) nervously beating heart. As the camera reaches the door of the bathroom, we see the hand of Jack entering the frame and pushing the door open. Contrary to the tricycle scene above, the viewer is thus prompted to map the full inside of the frame onto the protagonist’s visual field. That is, we are encouraged to see it as a point-of-view shot rather than as a semi-subjective shot. As Jack removes the visual restraint of the door, the bathroom appears to his eyes as well as ours. From behind the curtain a young lady reveals herself as she draws the curtain aside with her right hand. Jack is standing stationary while he gazes at the young lady who now steps out of the bath in order to come closer to Jack. Through a series of medium close shots of Jack’s facial expression, we are able to see his reaction. As Jack’s eyes are fixed on the lady, so does the camera stay motionless. Then the roles are reversed. It is now the girl that stops in his visual field. There is, however, something peculiar about the way she directs her gaze toward the left edge of the frame, which suggests that Jack is not standing perpendicular to the lady. In this way, we are forced to question our metaphorical conceptualization of the frame as a container for Jack’s visual field (are we still seeing things from his point of view?). This confusion is confirmed by the cut on action that follows as Jack approaches the lady by entering the frame from the left edge. However, because the content of this frame was previously attributed to his visual field, the effect is cognitively disorienting, as if Jack is seemingly entering the space that was earlier mapped on his own visual field. The scene thus presents us with a paradox that defies all conventional explanation: how does one enter one’s own visual field?


A comparable example of ambiguous character perception can also be found in the scene which shows Jack quietly approaching Wendy from behind. She has just found out that Jack has done nothing more than type the same line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again on what seems to be more than hundreds sheets of paper; a discovery which is aroused musically by a long-held high note in a dozen violins from Penderecki’s Polymorphia. In contrast to the Room 237 scene, the shot starts in medias res without first showing the perceiving character’s face in the act of looking. The camera slowly moves away from a visual obstacle (a wall) in order to include a new character. As the camera pans to the left, the frantic and uncoordinated glissandi of the violas decrease in volume and intensity. We now hear the nervous tapping of fingertips on the strings behind the bridge, and the hitting of the strings with the wood of the bow rather than the hair.  Although we do not see Jack, we infer, on the basis of the frightful music and our general knowledge about horror films and its conventions, that it must be the villain’s eyes that we are looking through. As with the scene above, however, this convention is once more tested. As soon as Wendy is captured in the centre of the frame, which coincides with the camera’s halting, Jack enters the frame from its right side, thus turning the subjective into the semi-subjective. Once more the effect is cognitively confusing. As viewers we are no longer capable of attributing the initial point of view to Jack. As a result, the moving camera comes to live some strange life of its own.


Presented here are but a few examples. Much more, including discussions of Kubrick’s other films, are to be found in the book which should appeal to everyone with a genuine interest in the art of filmmaking.


[1] Steven Spielberg, interview by Paul Joyce, “Remembering… Stanley Kubrick… Spielberg on Kubrick,” July 22, 1999, in “Special Features,” Eyes Wide Shut, DVD, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1999, Burbank, Calif.: Warner Bros. Home Video, 2001).

[2] Kubrick as quoted in Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1997), 277. Very enlightening in this regard is also Kubrick’s own one-page article entitled “Words and Movies,” Sight and Sound 30, no. 1 (1960): 14.

[3] Kubrick as quoted in Erc Nordern, “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick,” in Stanley Kubrick Interviews, edited by Gene D. Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 47.

[4] Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 118.

Maarten Coëgnarts holds a PhD in Film Studies and Visual Culture and an MA in Sociology (University of Antwerp). Since 2010 he has researched the interplay between metaphor, image schemas, and cinema. The results have been published in various peer-reviewed journals such as Metaphor and SymbolNew Review of Film and Television Studies and Projections. He is also co-editor of the book Embodied Cognition and Cinema (Leuven University Press, 2015).