By Landon Evanson
Want to know what’s a complete falsehood? Anyone who insists that imagination isn’t the most terrifying aspect of horror films. It doesn’t matter the shiver that cascades down your spine at the sound of a line of dialogue delivered to chilling perfection, or how the glimpse of a monstrous being leaves your skin crawling. Nothing is more frightening than that which we don’t see, deliberately omitted so that our own consciousness can fill in the blanks.
In doing so, a film opens the door to unique experiences for everyone who dare walk into a theater, because when all was said and done, the dread you felt was of your own doing. It worked for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), and in a way, The Shining (1980) was the vehicle to which I had hitched the wagon of my mind as a young college student many moons ago.
My first year at university was spent working as an overnight desk clerk for a Super 8 Motel, and late one Sunday night, my then girlfriend and I decided to watch Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece before I headed to the lodge.
The Shining is a film that I’d watched innumerable times by that point (and only more since), so safe to say it was more about appreciation for the beauty of its construction and performances than any feelings of fear that it could foster.
However, when I hopped out of the car to head in, my outgoing colleague had simply said it’d been a slow day. Not unusual for a Sunday afternoon in the dead of winter, but I had no idea just how dead until I began the process of my shift.
The first step was checking the computer to see how many rooms were filled, who was checking out in the morning and what reservations were slated for the following day. For the first time, I had walked into an empty hotel.
I chuckled at the irony of having just watched Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) slow descent into madness in an “empty” hotel, but grabbed the phone and set out to make my rounds of the modest, three-story dwelling.
As I made my way to the first floor’s doorway I glanced to the end of the corridor and stopped dead in my tracks. A single phrase echoed through my mind—“Come play with us Danny.” A slight smirk emerged on my face as I shook my head and began striding down the hall, looking for stray wrappers or items that guests may have left behind. About halfway through my first pass, I felt as though I were being watched. Again, I pressed pause and looked back toward the entrance to the floor. This time I spoke to myself, “The fuck is wrong with you?” The feeling only intensified as I completed the trek and turned back once again, not sure if Delbert Grady was strolling over to clean the avocado from my jacket.
Confused by the sensations, I started up the flight of stairs to level two, but about halfway, I saw the Grady twins flash before my mind’s eye, not unlike Danny’s (Danny Lloyd) vision upon his pedal bike. First, the pair standing side-by-side, then bloodied and lifeless in the halls of the Overlook. In such situations, you just march on as though you’re not hearing or seeing terrible things and everything is perfectly fine. That may convince onlookers (of which, of course, there were none), but you can’t fool yourself. Standing in the doorway to the second floor, my breathing heavier, I closed my eyes and began putting one foot in front of the other. “Come play with us Danny,” then another flash. “Forever. And ever,” flash, “and ever.” To say that my pace had accelerated into brisk territory would be an understatement. What’s worse, the sensation of being watched had turned to a feeling of being followed. “Here’s Johnny!” and the screams of Shelley Duvall as Nicholson took the ax to the restroom door were deafening now as I basically jogged to the end of the walkway, the sensation of being pursued all too real on the back of my neck. Finally, I gathered the courage to look back at what I knew would be an empty space, but had to know. Nothing but white walls, dim lights and outdated carpet that made the peacock design from Room 237 look immaculate. No twins. No pedal bike.
My imagination was getting the best of me, and while I understood that intellectually, there was no stopping that locomotive once it picked up momentum. As I stood at the base of the steps leading to the final floor, I took a deep breath and made a simple decision—I would eyeball the last level. About three-quarters of the way up the stairs, I peered over the passageway and saw nothing. Not a single soul or piece of refuse, so I started my way back to street level.
I had one more hall to maneuver, however. While that clear walkway was where my journey had begun, the flashes continued and my heart pounded; all I wanted was to get back to the lobby and the relative safety of the front desk. This time, the corridor was treated to a speed walk while the flashes continued and the tones of The Shining’s death march opening credits accompanied me to the lobby.
When I’d finally arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh at allowing myself to feel so frightened, but had already made the call—there would be no more rounds made that night.
Not a single person phoned to inquire about prices nor did anyone pull up to call it a night after a long day of driving. I spent the entire shift in an empty hotel. Every creaking sound the old structure let loose had me on edge, waiting to set eyes on something I didn’t want to see, but it never happened.
I had watched a masterpiece of horror and it followed me to work. There were no spectral twins or madmen wielding axes or former caretakers pitching me on the fun that could be had “cleaning house” the next time guests were sleeping peacefully in their beds. However, The Shining planted seeds that were cultivated by my own mind, and it was enough to convince me that I was not alone when nothing could have been further than the truth.
Never had the motel been empty before, nor was it after. The one time it was, though, I’d happened to watch The Shining.
Horror need not offer a single glimpse at anything terrible, a mere hinting is more than enough. Your imagination will do the heavy lifting.