[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on a very scary disease, past and present.]
On what we can make of the two opposed endings to the novel and film versions of the same scary story.
I don’t like losing readers, even for the best of reasons; but if you either haven’t read Steven King’s The Shining (1977) or haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s film version (1980) of the novel, and are interested in checking them out sometime, you should probably skip this post, as I’m gonna spoil the heck out of the endings to both. Because while there are definitely stylistic and even thematic differences between the two versions throughout, it’s really the endings where they become not only distinct but starkly contrasting and opposed. I won’t spoil every single detail, but suffice it to say that King’s novel ends hopefully, with notes of redemption for its protagonist Jack Torrance and especially for his relationship to his son and family; whereas Kubrick’s film ends with Torrance murderously pursuing that same son with an axe and, thwarted, freezing to death, more evil in his final moments than he has been at any earlier moment in the film.
There are various ways we could read this striking distinction, including connecting it to the profoundly different worldviews of the two artists (at least as represented in their collected works): King, despite his penchant for horror, is to my mind a big ol’ softie who almost always finds his way to a happy ending; Kubrick has a far more bleak and cynical perspective and tended to end his films on at best ambiguous and often explicitly disturbing notes. Those different worldviews could also be connected to two longstanding American traditions and genres, what we might call the sentimental vs. the pessimistic romance (in that Hawthornean sense I’ve discussed elsewhere in this space): in the former, such as in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), the darkest supernatural qualities give way by the story’s end to more rational and far happier worlds and events; in the latter, such as in his contemporary Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (also 1851), the darkness is only amplified and deepened by concluding events, leaving us adrift (literally and figuratively) in an eternally scary world.
King’s and Kubrick’s texts, and more exactly their respective conclusions, certainly fit into those traditions. But given that both create similarly horrifying worlds and events right up until those endings, I would also connect their distinct final images to the dueling yet interconnected ideas at the heart of my fourth: dark histories and hope. Where the two versions differ most overtly, that is, is in whether they offer their audiences any hope: in King’s novel, Torrance finds a way through his darkest histories and to final moments of hope for his family’s future (achieved at great personal sacrifice); in Kubrick’s film, hope has abandoned Torrance as fully as has sanity, and both his family and the audience can only hope that they can survive and escape his entirely dark world. Obviously you know which I prefer; but I would also argue that, whatever the appeal of horror for its own sake, without the possibility of hope and redemption it’d be a pretty bleak and terrible genre.
Special election post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?