Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Lately, I have become more and more interested in narrative and dramatic technique, in the use of the more sophisticated, less apparent methods by which authors and filmmakers convey meaning and nuance in the tales they show and tell. Some of these techniques include incongruity, juxtaposition, symbolism, metaphor, and imagery. Indeed, on occasion, two or m ore of these techniques are combined, one as the vehicle of the other. For example, image or juxtaposition often conveys symbolism. In Deleuze and Horror Film, Anna Powell offers an interesting and insightful explication of Stanley Kubrick’s use of imagery both to set the tone of the movie and to symbolize the state of protagonist Jack Torrance’s mind:
Inflation and detachment shape the cerebral aesthetic of The Shining and its virtual experience by the viewer. The wide-angle lens and overblown strains of Berlioz plunge us sensorially into a world of inflated grandeur. Extremely wide vistas of the mountainous landscape induce a cold, detached and depersonalized perspective. Humans are unimportant in this vast physical, and metaphysical, terrain. The mechanic motion of an uncannily independent camera surveys the landscape in an omniscient gliding motion. We experience the perspective of an eagle’s eye, or a divine power, as we become-god. Mental detachment and ego-inflation key in the delusions of Jack Torrance. The disturbed writer’s deranged consciousness forms and is formed by the film’s mise-en-scene and cinematography.Powell’s analysis is powerful and insightful, and Kubrick’s use of the external world to reflect the internal world extends beyond the mountainous countryside to the interior-exterior world of the Overlook Hotel as well, which, like the landscape without, also conveys, even mirrors, the unstable state of Torrance’s mind:
The landscape, like the music, has a sublime grandeur yet the ominous chords and the dizzying, extra-human perspective render it sinister. It threatens to engulf the small, insect-like car, leading it ever upwards into a land of eternal snow. As the narrative moves inexorably onwards, it mobilizes a process of becoming-frozen. Jack undergoes a freezing of emotional warmth and empathy. His blood runs cold, both figuratively and literally, as he becomes one with the forces of winter and death (43-44).
Shining as affective force dominates the mise-en-scene. The interior of the Overlook Hotel is lit and coloured preternaturally. No daylight can penetrate, and fire, candles and electricity replace natural light. Polished surfaces like metal, glossy paint and marble magnify their impact by varying degrees of reflection and refraction. These artificial light qualities objectify Jack’s derangement. They highlight the colours and tones of gold that express and modify the power of light itself. The hotel’s gold function room is the locus of vampiric energy. Its tonal quality spreads through the building to drain the human life force. Light grows brighter and colours grow richer enhanced by the psychic horror it generates.In a previous post, I explained how, in “Dracula’s Guest,” Bram Stoker’s inclusion of potentially hallucinatory perceptions as part of descriptions within descriptions of persons (characters), places (settings), and things, from the point of view of the story’s protagonist, creates almost-subliminal tension and anxiety in the reader as this device produces, in the reader’s consciousness, a cognitive double-take, so to speak. In another article, posted previously, I explain how H. P. Lovecraft’s various descriptions, always in different terms, of the same monstrous entity increases the horrific character of the monster in the reader’s imagination as he or she strives, in vain, to make sense of the puzzling series of differing descriptions of the same creature. In yet another previously posted essay, I comment upon the disturbing effect of Stephen King’s offhanded inclusion of nonsense words and phrases in the otherwise-normal dialogue of a character, Junior Rennie, who is losing his grip on reality (and, as it turns out, is suffering from an as-yet-undiagnosed brain tumor). All of these techniques are ways by which horror writers have conveyed both convey meaning and nuance as well as horror and repulsion in the tales they tell.
A distinctive light quality reinforces the cold white of the larder / cold storage room, lit by a fluorescent tube that drains all other colours. This space is the cold heart of the building, where Jack is trapped until his final murderous apotheosis. . . . As well as the qualities and tones of colours, light evokes tactility, we virtually feel the snow’s bitter coldness. This is effected by Kubrick’s use of cold blue light and a back-lit mist that rises as the snow’s surface evaporates. In his dying, Jack becomes completely overwhelmed by blueness and light in a becoming-ice (45-46).
Writers have discovered or (more often) created yet other techniques, too, for suggesting subtle shades of horror and tones of terror. My essay, previously posted, concerning the symbolic nature of the ogre-like monsters in The Descent (they appear to represent aborted fetuses who torment the women who descend into the more extreme depths of feminist demands for “choice,” even when such exercises of free will result in haunting guilt concerning one’s decision to end the lives of children growing in the womb) indicates yet another authorial means of conveying horrific meanings within a text or, in this case, a film. Ray Bradbury often effects horror through characterization. The protagonist of his short story “Heavyset“ is frightening, indeed, simply because of who he is. Shirley Jackson, like Flannery O’Connor, uses a measured cadence to march her readers ever forward, through her often absurd situations and past her usually grotesque characters; her matter-of-fact, somehow insistent rhythm keeps readers reading as much as if they were participants in a parade. In “Bad Girls,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith accidentally kills Deputy Mayor Allan Finch; before this horrific incident, the viewer is warned about imminent danger as Faith and Buffy walk down a dark alley, splashed with crimson as, on a nearby construction sawhorse, an amber caution light flashes.
Horror writers can learn from authors of other genres of fiction, too, appropriating for their own purposes the narrative and dramatic techniques that their peers have developed in the service of their own storytelling ends. Images can bracket the action of a story, forming bookends, as it were, and transforming a narrative or a drama into a frame story, as the car wrecks that begin and end Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool do.
Imagery can provide an antithesis to the nature of a character, as do the thick glasses that the visionary Hollywood producer Stanley Motss wears in Wag the Dog. Images can symbolize the transcendent subhuman nature of a character, as the soulless Man With No Eyes’ mirrored sunglasses do in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke or a character’s transcendent qualities, as the snapping turtle that “won’t let go” even when it’s “deader than hell” does, in the same film. The mirrored sunglasses prevent anyone from seeing the “walking boss’” eyes and suggest that he has no eyes to see--in other words, that he is inhuman. The eyes are the mirrors of the soul, but rather than mirroring the Man With No Eyes’ Soul, the sunglasses mirror only the eyes (and the souls) of those whom the walking boss’ sunglasses reflect. The turtle symbolizes Luke’s own refusal, as it were, to “let go” his hold on his fellow convicts, whom he inspires even more after he is “deader than hell” than he did when he was alive in their midst. Horror writers can use similar devices to frame stories or typify, or even deify, characters.