Saturday, January 20, 2018

Shine On: What Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Teaches Us About Neurology and Narrative

The-Shining-1980Stanley Kubrick is fucking with you. He’s done it more than once. He may be dead, but he’s doing it all the same. He’s taught a whole generation of us how to make you do things without you knowing about it. He taught us hard lessons about how stories work, and what stories are. And some of us really resisted, before we succumbed.

And, of all his films, the one that teaches that lesson hardest is The Shining.

You see, once upon a time, I hated The Shining. I considered it a hammy artistic failure, and a mess. The depth of my error cost me years off my artistic career, and learning better forever changed my approach to story.

Mysterious Masterpiece

twinsWhile there might be other films that deal with more frightening matters, The Shining is likely the scariest film ever. Not because of the alcoholism, psychosis, racism, domestic violence, necrophilia, children in danger, ghosts, or bloody elevators—all of these elements have populated films far less adept on occasions too numerous to count.

The Shining’s terror lies somewhere else entirely. But it isn’t the overloud, on-the-nose music, the creepy children making terror-faces, or the cartoonish actors giving over-the-top performances. Initially, all those theatrics added up for me, to one big eye-roll. Sure, I thought, it scared me, but that’s just because it used all those cheap tricks. Now I just gotta keep the nightmares away…somehow. At the time it was released, most critics had the same opinion.

axeBut we were all wrong. It’s no accident that this box-office flop is still inspiring documentaries, books, and articles like this one.

When I was prepping to shoot my first feature, a particularly belligerent mentor insisted that I could never improve upon my weaknesses as a filmmaker until I understood why The Shining was scary. He insisted that it was none of the obvious reasons, and he could prove it. “Watch The Shining with the sound turned off,” he said, “and you’ll understand.”

So I did. And it scared the fertilizer right out of me, much more than it ever did with the sound on. All that shouting and screaming and hard-hitting music had actually blunted the effect of the film.

The movie was exploiting something deep, something purely visual that was fundamentally upsetting.

And hidden within it is a master key to what storytelling is, and how it works.

Weaponized Celluloid

Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick

As I’m sure will surprise nobody, Stanley Kubrick was an avid student of, well, everything. History, psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, evolution, geopolitics, all the things you’d expect from a reclusive bookish master storyteller in the 20th century. And, true to form as a lifelong photographer, he was amazingly well-read in the science of perception, from optics to illusion.

In each of his mature features, he used this understanding in service of his storytelling—but in The Shining he, for the first time in his career, turned these tools into weapons. Broadly speaking, he employed two sets of techniques that are more common among con artists and magicians than filmmakers: social engineering, and neurohacking.

Social Engineering: Speaking Your Secret Language

Social engineering is a basket term for exploiting the social programming common to all humans. Each culture has a secret language—manners, rituals, secret handshakes, signals—that sorts people into “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy,” into “insiders” and “outsiders.” For example, when a medium “talks to the dead,” he’s using the following social engineering tricks:

  1. Inside jargon from the local dominant religion (marks him as a trustworthy person).
  2. Local statistical frequency of common names, causes of death, and family difficulties (makes it easier to correctly guess cause of death/name of the dead/reason for desiring contact).
  3. Body language cues and microexpressions (helps him gauge how well he’s doing and correct without verbal feedback).
  4. Cultural costume (the medium will read the mark’s clothing and hygiene to better read state of mind/subculture/status/personality type. The medium will also dress in a way that inspires both familiarity and respect, so that the mark is more likely to trust and less likely to question).

Add these up, combine them with a little practice, and you can get people to hand over their passwords, bank accounts, cash, and vital info—and make them think it was their idea.

Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick

To con someone like this, you have to know their secret language. Kubrick knew that his audience has been watching films their entire lives, and thus know the secret language of film (even though they do not know that they know it, any more than an American realizes he speaks a different language from a Canadian until he encounters one).

Film’s language is has evolved, since the 19th century, to control the perception, eyelines, and emotions of the audience without drawing attention to itself—this is why a well-edited film can appear, to the viewer, as a seamless experience.

Some examples of the rules that allow this to happen:

a) Set the subject of a shot off to one side of the frame to give the audience a greater sense of involvement in the narrative. Because we can see the depth beyond the character, we more easily feel invited into their world then when the frame is blocked by an actor’s face, which feels confrontational (this is why center-framing is normally only used for emotional punch moments).

Example from Blade Runner ACTOR: Rutger Hauer, CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jordan Cronenweth, DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott Brandywine Films/The Ladd Company
Example from Blade Runner
ACTOR: Rutger Hauer, CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jordan Cronenweth, DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
Brandywine Films/The Ladd Company

b) When cutting a conversation, you must never cross an invisible line drawn between the two characters

Diagram of acceptable camera positions and increments for editing a conversation
Diagram of acceptable camera positions and increments for editing a conversation

c) don’t hold a shot for more than about six-to-eight seconds, as audience attention tends to wander

d) Use long lenses to isolate your subject, and rack focus to direct your audience’s attention to the important parts of the frame

"Terminator 2" (James Cameron, 1991; DP Adam Greenberg)
“Terminator 2” (James Cameron, 1991; DP Adam Greenberg)

e) Reminding the audience the camera exists pulls them out of the story, so make your camera moves invisible by tracking with moving subjects or otherwise mimicking the eyeline the framing is directing the audience towards

Example of invisible camera move (from The Sixth Sense, directed by  M. Night Shamylan)
Example of invisible camera move (from The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shamylan)

…and so on.

There is a grammar to the progression of shots, an accepted range of rhythms when shots change, a vocabulary for framing shots to encourage intimacy and audience involvement.

The Grammar of Terror

the-shiningAt the time The Shining was made, horror used pretty much the same cinematography techniques everything else did. It pulled especially from comedy’s timing, and shock-cinema and lighting techniques developed for the suspense genre by Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston, et. al.

But Kubrick didn’t want to just make a horror film—with his characteristic ambition, he set out to epitomize the form. He realized that, rather than using the grammar of film to direct people’s attention, he could use it to scare the living crap out of them. By breaking rules that the audience didn’t realize they depended on, he could, from the opening frame, before the first intimation that anything was amiss, before the first shocking thing had happened, imbue the film with a basic sense of wrongness, and the audience would be vulnerable to anything the story served up.

Center framing
Center framing

So, from shot one, you get center-subject framing (instead of framing off to one side) , credits that roll backwards  (i.e. against the motion of the scene, and with contradicting aesthetics to the shot composition), audacious camera moves , lenses that distort your view and maintain focus throughout the whole depth of frame (instead of using focus to direct your gaze) , conversations that cross the line , and a lackadaisical editing pace that feels like it should seem leisurely, and yet it doesn’t (i.e. he holds shots instead of cutting) . It seems…unnerving.

Neurohacking: Your Brain Doesn’t Care What You Think

As an animal, made out of meat, about 99% of what you do every day is utterly invisible to you. Breathing, digesting, reading the emotions of others, balancing as you walk, steering your car in traffic, judging the distance of an object across the room, all happen in the background, where your conscious mind won’t find it confusing. Information processing in the deep brain throws away most of the information it collects as irrelevant, and presents a highly edited account of the world around you for your conscious brain to make decisions about.

neurohackUnfortunately, this very process which makes consciousness possible also makes you very vulnerable to manipulation that exploits the shortcuts your brain takes. Those vulnerabilities are well documented, and people use them to make a living by hacking your neurology. Sleight-of-hand magicians depend on these brain defects, as does anyone who puts together books featuring optical illusions.

And Kubrick did for neurohacking what the A-bomb did for outdoor lighting.

Here are a few neurohacking techniques on display in The Shining:

1) The floorplan of the hotel is an Escher. It has windows that shouldn’t see the outside, doors that should lead to nowhere, and floors that connect on one level but have staircases connecting them in other places, but that have no ramps. We walk through these spaces in long, unbroken steadicam shots. Your mind may not notices that it’s impossible, but your brain does. Down deep, your spatial awareness starts running in circles and screaming as it tries to reconcile all the pieces that don’t fit.

2) The slow-approach zooms and dolly shots mimic the methodical approach of a predator, which talks straight to your amygdala. It makes the audience simultaneously into the stalker and the victim.

3) Most of the film is shot with short lenses on steadycam or with mercury float mounts, and the style is deliberately floaty. This hits your equilibrium and makes you feel, subtly, as if you’ve got nothing solid to hold on to.

4) Most of the film is shot with very short lenses with everything in focus—the characters often get lost in the frame, or boxed in by the geography of the shot. This produces a sense of menace as the contrast adds up to the feeling of being imprisoned .


The above techniques all show up in the first five minutes. By the time you reach The Interview , you’re already antsy, and that’s when Kubrick, for the first time in the film and ever-so-subtly, deploys the film’s sledgehammer.

Instead of the normal conversational cutting rhythm you get in a regular film—where the camera cuts away from the speaker for reaction shots then cuts quickly back—you get long takes focusing just on the reaction, or just on the speaker, but always holding the shot for just longer than is comfortable, with the camera frame centered on the subject’s eyes, often with the subject looking straight into the camera.

To get your head around what Kubrick is doing to you here, you need to understand that, when you look at something, you are not actually seeing what you think you see. You think you’re seeing the image in front of you. But you’re not. Your eyes are always moving, glancing left, right, up, down, pulling focus in and out, taking twenty or thirty snapshots every second or two, and your brain assembles all those snapshots and projects them into your brain as a unified image. That image contains depth, distance, and comprehension of spacial relationships and subject. These little movements are called saccades, and you only don’t use saccades in moments of extreme focus.

That’s because not using saccades narrows your world. It strangles your picture of where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with. That means that if a filmmaker can force the brains of his audience to prevent their eyes from performing saccades, he can pack them into a perfect box and control everything they perceive.

But how can you pull off a trick like that? How can you control the brains of every person in the audience on that kind of level?

First, you use single-point perspective. This makes all the lines in the picture converge on the target of your audience’s perception. Once you control what your audience is looking at on that kind of fine-grained level, you have access straight through their visual cortex to their amygdala.

Then, at the focal point of that frame, if you want to keep your audience from saccading, you stick the one thing in nature that can reliably lock someone’s gaze:

A pair of eyes.


We only ever look into the eyes of someone we’re intent on. We only ever sustain that gaze if we’re in love, or if we’re terrified. Not afraid, not intimidated—for those we look away. But terror makes us look death right in the face. We have to, because, if we don’t, the tiger might eat us while we’re not looking.

Once those eyes have us, in the box of that center-point frame, we are utterly vulnerable. Our brains force it upon us. We are stripped bare in front of an unsympathetic gaze, trapped by a camera that doesn’t blink, and it makes us want to do nothing less than climb out of our own skin.

Storytellers are Hacking Your Soul

Stanley Kubrick is screwing with your brain. But that’s okay—this is what a cinematic master does. He hacks our culture and our neurology to speak directly to our subconscious.

"Storyteller” (Anker Grossvater, 1884)
“Storyteller” (Anker Grossvater, 1884)

All other forms of storytelling work the same way. Every culture is full of archetypes, every language is full of rhythms. Together, they form an invisible background. Most people can’t see it, because it is the water in which they swim.

But the storyteller, eventually, must, or his audience won’t linger. Like a wolf prowling a camp at night looking for vulnerabilities, he creeps to the edge of the light. His subsonic growl making people wonder if they’re being watched. His quick. Breath. Pushing. Forcing those within to look over their shoulders. Making them think twice. Making them retreat…

…to the warmth of the fire, the safety of their cave, the gentleness of their bed, and the sighing companions within. To gaze out the mouth at the open sky, and wonder at the immensity of creation, and the plausibility of the gods, and how it all connects to the tenderness curled up beside them under the deep fluff of the buffalo pelts.

The storyteller warps the invisible background, like a lens, to create in the mind of the audience a set of ideas, sensations, and feelings that delight, entertain, terrify, provoke, and maybe, sometimes, enlighten. Don’t believe me? Read-read the last couple paragraphs. I just did it to you.

We storytellers aren’t safe people. We’re screwing with you. We’re using your culture, your language, and your own brain against you. Whether we’re filmmakers, writers, composers, poets, painters, singers, or campfire-tale spinners, our job is to control your mind so that we plant in it the thoughts and feelings that once lived in ours.

A psychopathic manipulation? Sure. But it’s also one of the most profound kinds of intimacy—the intimacy of one mind touching another over distance and time. A very peculiar kind of intimacy, with its own peculiar name:



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