The Exorcist and The Shining: What Makes Them Scary?

When my dad bought a DVD of The Exorcist, I knew that I was in for a scary ride. However, nothing could have possibly prepared me for what was to come. Something struck me in that film that for weeks after watching it I would still get the creeps whenever I hear things banging against the wall. As for The Shining, it was referred to me by my mentor and friend, Joem Antonio, who disagreed with me, saying that The Shining was much scarier than The Exorcist. “What could possibly be scarier than a kid getting possessed by the Devil”? I got a DVD of it, watched it, and was unimpressed.

Often Joem and I would vigorously debate regarding which movie was scarier (similar to how my friend A.g. De Mesa and I used to in debating whether The Departed is better than Infernal Affairs). “The Exorcist isn’t scary! It’s drama! It’s about a priest regaining his faith,” he’d say. I’d reply, “The Shining isn’t scary! It’s just…uh… I don’t know!”

Over the years one had realized the value of The Shining in the horror film genre. I’ve heard in a T.V. special that people who didn’t like horror films would watch The Shining and love it. Admittedly, however, there are certain elements in The Shining which makes it far more superior than The Exorcist; that it goes beyond the limitations of horror film and transcends the genre. And yet there’s just something which still eludes me that just makes me go back to The Exorcist and enjoy it more than watching Kubrick’s 2 and ½ hour horror flick.

With that, I invite you on a journey discussing what makes The Exorcist and The Shining scary

Horror Film Parameters

Let us start first with horror film parameters. It may have the intention of scary the audience but a horror film is still a horror film. The medium requires for a narrative. As such, the film must have a superior script. I will not go to technical details but a good script must, at the very least, have a solid plot. It must not have any superfluous moments in the story; the script must be solid, having a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Film, however, doesn’t rely on plot alone. The script is simply words on paper. The other elements of film must bring the story to life, and these elements include directing, acting, cinematography, and the other elements in filmmaking. These elements must work together to bring the story to life.

Finally, the scares must be present. Take note, however, that a scare is different from a “shock”. The audience getting jumpy when they see a cat jump in from nowhere is not as effective as when the audience genuinely feels the tension surround them when watching a legitimate horror film. Plus, the scare in a really good horror movie serves the story. Scares cannot be made for the sake of scaring the audience when nothing is happening on screen; the audience is scared because, like the characters in the story, they are put in a similarly scary situation.

 

Plot: SPOILERS ALERT!

To begin the discussion, let us reacquaint ourselves with the plot of The Exorcist and The Shining. And I would also like to take the opportunity to tell the readers that for the most part of this article I am under the assumption that you’ve seen the films and know exactly what I’m talking about.

The Exorcist begins with an excavation in Northern Iraq. Workers are at a site near Nineveh, unearthing majestic ruins. One of the archeologists, Fr. Lancaster Merrin, is shown relics from a different era, one of them being a St. Joseph Medal and a head piece of the ancient demon, Pazuzu. Noticing certain premonitions, Merrin decides to leave Iraq and return back to the States, realizing that he would have to battle an enemy he has fought before, the devil.

Meanwhile back stateside, a girl named Regan gets possessed by the devil. The family tries everything to get her back to normal but nothing seems to work, until one of the doctors suggests that the family try exorcism, an “outdated stylized ritual” which aims to drive an invading force away from the victim’s body. Meanwhile, a priest, practicing psychiatry, is at a crossroads of his priestly life. Burdened by the death of his mother, he is losing his faith in his vocation. After being approached by the girl’s mother, Chris MacNeil, the priest, Fr. Karras decides to do a little investigating, eventually being convinced that something must be done to help the little girl, Regan. The Church sends another priest, Fr. Merrin, to perform the exorcism. The ritual fails, killing Merrin in the process. However, Karras, in an effort to save the girl, pleads to the devil to take him instead. Upon possession, Karras jumps off a window, killing himself and saving Regan in the process.

The plot of The Shining is pretty straightforward. The Overlook Hotel in closing for the winter season and Jack Torrance, a school teacher, writer, and troubled father, is hired to be the caretaker for 6 months. It is mentioned to him, however, that the hotel had a history of violence during its construction and when it was finished. The Overlook was supposedly built on an ancient Indian burial ground and the workers had to occasionally fight off the Indians defending the site. Also, in a supposedly isolated incident, a caretaker named Grady killed his wife and two daughters with an axe before blowing his head with a shotgun. The story doesn’t stop Jack from accepting the job and soon, he, Wendy his wife, and Danny his son, are at the Overlook for the winter season. Soon, Jack begins to display odd behavior while Danny is plagued by horrific images (the twins in the hallway and an elevator spewing gallons of blood). Danny is soon put in an odd state following an encounter with a ghost in room, and Jack begins to see ghosts bidding him to do their will. Jack soon loses his sanity, destroys the radio and the Snowcat (a vehicle which can go over snow) and decides to kill his family when told that Danny (who has psychic abilities, called “shining”) asks for help from a cook named Dick Halloran to get them out of the hotel. In the chaos that ensues, Jacks pursues Wendy and Danny with an axe but is interrupted by the arrival of Dick Halloran. Jack kills Halloran, who arrives in the hotel via another Snowcat, chases after Danny, who leads Jack into the hedge maze and looses him there. Meanwhile, Wendy is tormented by ghastly apparitions of the hotel’s residents but manages to find her way out of the hotel. She gets Danny into the Snowcat and both leave the hotel grounds, leaving Jack lost in the hedge maze, freezing to death due to the cold. The closing shot shows a circa 1921 picture of a party. One of the people inside looks a lot like Jack Torrance.

 

The Film Elements and the Scares

Which movie is scarier: The Exorcist or The Shining? Both made really good use of their film elements. The Exorcist was shot in a very naturalistic style. There seems to be a certain restraint in a lot of the scenes. It conveys a very homely sense, preparing the audience subconsciously that this story is pretty much similar to their own, in the sense that this could happen to them. But when the tone of the film shifts its gear, the lighting certainly did too. We then see more shadows, more subdued hues which helps in the overall effect of dread. Plot wise, the film is solid. They showed everything which was needed to be shown in the film and they resolved certain loose-ends pretty well. Regarding the pace, the film takes its time to introduce us to the main characters, to the conflict, and how the manifestations of the possession gradually increase until the climax during the exorcism scene. Sound also played a huge part as the film was practically scoreless. The sound design ranged from the very normal sounds inside a household to the guttural otherworldly voice of the demon in torment. And for the special effects, the makeup artists truly made Linda Blair scary, not to mention that we see how her makeup gradually transforms her from a very sweet kid to a hellish demon.

Regarding The Shining, it also benefitted from a very naturalistic style, although Kubrick paints his visuals a bit different than Friedkin does. Kubrick’s opening shot shows a widescreen landscape of the mountains and a small car driving towards it until we eventually reach the Overlook Hotel, thus establishing the isolation of the place. In shots with the actors performing their lines, extra space is dedicated to show the hotel itself. The production design does an impressive job in designing the hotel itself for each shot it is in shows how vast, beautiful, and menacing it is, and how seemingly insignificant the people are compared to it. The movie really establishes that the family’s arrival in the Overlook transports them from their everyday world to an isolate locale free from human contact. Even the music helps in achieving the illusion, being strange electronic humming at first, to eventually becoming a full blown orchestra when the terror hits the fan. Regarding the plot, as mentioned earlier it is pretty straightforward. However, the film depicts more scenes of Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into insanity. From being very irritable first to the revelation of his madness, the film shows it pretty well. But the ghostly manifestations do a different take from The Exorcist. Whereas The Exorcist gradually exposes that there’s something wrong in the events, The Shining introduces its supernatural forces with gallons of blood exiting an elevator and flooding a hallway. The imagery delivers a kick to the viewer’s gut immediately, saying that something wrong is about to happen to this family and it’s not going to be pretty.

I’ve already delved a little on the topic of the scare delivery of both films: The Exorcist gradually builds on the scare factor while The Shining opens with a macabre image immediately. On how this was delivered, both films take on different approaches.

The Exorcist shows the manifestations of demonic possession in a gradual process. By the time the second act begins, the film shows a quick image of a demonic face shrouded with shadow bearing down on Regan during a medical exam. From the medical exam, Regan shows irritable behavior, cussing, and sleepwalking which ends with her urinating on a carpet during a party. Then her bed begins to shake violently and with each medical treatment, Regan gets worse. She eventually convulses on the bed, begins to talk in strange voices, shouting obscenities, until her physical appearance makes a turn for the grotesque (including Regan abusing herself with a crucifix shouting, “Let Jesus f*ck you!”). Then the actual exorcism begins, where we see the devil in Regan resist the commands of the exorcists to leave the girl’s body. Earthquakes, green vomit, and a 360 degree head turn are presented throughout the entire ritual. And when it ends, the audience can’t help but feel relieved that the film is over.

The Shining begins its scares quite subtly as first. I would argue that the opening shot of the movie already begins with a scare: the eerie, electronic music accompanying the establishing shot of the isolated Overlook Hotel. Then the image of the blood gushing from an elevator hits us right in the face, plus a quick image of the creepy twin daughters of the former caretaker, Grady. The film then becomes more subdued and dedicates to show the eventual decline of Torrance’s sanity. Yet even throughout this subdued feel there is an unrelenting air of tension felt throughout the entire film. Even the use of the Steadicam following Danny’s trolley run from a carpeted floor to a non-carpeted wall fills the audience with unease as it sounds unsettling, especially since no one else is at the hotel. Even when there is nothing happening in the story, the audience can’t help but feel a certain kind of unease due to the opening shots and the early warning via the bloody elevator. When everything has already been established, that’s when the manifestations start to shift its gears. One of them is a very beautiful naked woman in the shower, which Jack Torrance runs into when investigating one of the rooms. The lady teases him, and he kisses her, only for the women to transform into an ugly old lady with rotting flesh (as Rob Zombie describes this scene, “Disgusting!”). Then we see Jack speaking with ghosts, already suspecting that something’s afoul in the hotel. He confronts one of the ghosts, Grady, and tells him that he killed his family, only for Grady to tell Jack that he only killed his family because they prevented him from “doing his duty”, “My wife tried to stop me from doing my duty. I corrected her.” The audience already knows what happened but the delivery of the lines are still scary because we see the clearly see the characters further slipping into madness. The climax of this happens when Jack’s wife, Wendy, sees her husband’s “novel”, reams of paper with “All work but no play makes Jack a dull boy” written in various ways, showing the extent of Jack’s insanity. This is also an effective scare because the other characters were actually living with an insane man and they didn’t even know it. Thus we see how the film delivered its scares compared to The Exorcist.

If there was something which the two films had in common, it was how the filmmakers went all out with the scares in the final act of the films. The Exorcist’s third act was relentless is portraying the battle between good and evil through the exorcism itself by showing earthquakes, levitating bodies, turning heads, and green vomit, while The Shining’s third act involved the ghosts’ full blown manifestations, as well as a deranged father chasing after his kid with an axe through a hedge maze. The film went all out in showing the ghosts; it even reprised the bloody elevator, and also showed a man in a bear costume doing things to one of the hotel patrons. Then there’s the final shot of the film, the 1921 picture with a man who looks a lot like Jack Torrance, which raises questions regarding who Jack really is and what that picture has to do with the events of the film.

 

Final Words

Both movies deliver effective scares. They do so in different ways but they do so effectively.

The Exorcist does so gradually. It tricks the audience into thinking that there’s nothing wrong but it turns the situation around immediately. The movie catches the audience off guard, and not in the cheap way of turning the volume way up and showing a red herring, but with a scene which adds urgency to the narrative. Quick flashes of demonic imagery also etch themselves into the audience’s psyche, as well as the sound which, as mentioned earlier, turn from normal to demonic in no time. Plus, the sense that such things could happen to the audience as well due to the naturalistic lighting which paints a very subconscious image of familiarity.

The Shining does so by keeping the tension high with the audience with the overall feeling of isolation. With the opening shots and the gut-punch via the blood elevator, the audience is dragged away with the characters and sent to the Overlook Hotel as well. With the unease established, we see Jack’s gradual mental breakdown until we become terrified at him like the Wendy and Danny when Jack finally goes loco and set out to axe them both.

So which is the scarier film? That would be a personal preference. If you like a build-up in the delivery of your scares, then The Exorcist is for you. If you like films which are more “psychological”, and are more eerie, and even “intellectual”, then I would recommend The Shining. Personally, I prefer the buildup, as well as the human drama present in The Exorcist, and also the reality of demonic possession, over ghost stories and the haunted hotel. But, as I said, both have their merit and it all boils down to taste.

Happy Halloween everybody!

One thought on “The Exorcist and The Shining: What Makes Them Scary?

  1. quoteuschrisg

    Ran across this and I agree with your views pretty much. Personally I like The Shining more, maybe because anyone can go insane from isolation versus the few who claim to be possessed.

    Reply

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