Frontier Psychiatry #1: ‘The Shining’ (1980) and ‘Misery’ (1991)

How many horror movies hypothesise about their violent goings-on being due to someone having built on an “Indian burial ground”?

The Amityville Horror is the first to come to mind. The Shining too.

The central horror of these films revolves around there being something supposedly absorbent about the American landscape. The importance of burial grounds being “Indian” is the most unsubtle of nods in this direction. Such a comment seems to infer there is some sort of curse placed upon the dead by the living — a sort of classically Orientalist superstition we see projected across the American West to places as far afield as Ancient Egypt — but it is a suggestion that also contains the echoes of untold horrors that Native Americans were subjected to the colonising Europeans.

In The Shining, however, things seem more complex.

Far more resonant than the “Indian burial ground” suggestion is the film’s opening sequence. As the Torrance family meander through the American wilderness, entirely in the jaws of the landscape, they discuss the Donner Party.

Shirley Torrance wonders if they’re close to where the fated homesteaders were snowed in but Jack says it was further out west. When little Tony Torrance asks what the Donner Party was, Jack tells him — with a father’s corrupting glint in his eye — that they were settlers who, when snowed in, resorted to cannibalism.

Shirley seems wary of the topic, perhaps because she doesn’t want to give Tony nightmares. He protests. “I know all about cannibalism — I saw it on TV!”

“See, he saw it on TV,” responds Jack, somehow proud yet cynical.

I think The Shining, in various subtle ways, offers us a way into the American psyche that I want to explore it in this series. The Donner Party didn’t happen here but the cultural memory of the American West foreshadows the psychological changes that the family will undergo as the film progresses.

Originally, in my brief introduction to this series, I said I want to explore Westerns — and that remains the overall purpose here — but this exploration includes the ways that the American West lingers and haunts other genres.

A common thread I’ve noticed recently is how the West haunts the pop-cultural figure of the writer especially — the prospective author of the Great American Novel.

Jack Torrance, in becoming the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, intends to spend his spare time writing. Many scenes depicting his escalating madness show him sat in the hotel’s great hall, plucking away at his typewriter. Writers, it seems, are even more susceptible to channelling the remnants of other worlds and other lives embedded within the American landscape.

This is something that Mark Fisher notes when discussing Westworld, central to the original Western posts on this blog. He notes how the robot “host” Dolores, in the series, “is increasingly subject to flashbacks, which we must understand not as glitches but as the first stirrings of memory, a recollection of her previous iterations.”

In my reading, this is something common to the American Western as a whole, and American horror and sci-fi too — the haunting of previous iterations. This is something that has only become more and more explicit as the decades have gone by. No Country for Old Men (2008), for instance, is a particularly notable film in this regard, wherein two iterations meet with violent yet impotent consequences.

In The Shining, Jack too is haunted — and even possessed — by his previous iterations. The revelation that he has “always been the caretaker” says less about him as a singular man and perhaps more about the archetypal “man” which he represents — stoic, closed off, but never far from “going Native”; an archetype reiterated last time via Leslie Fiedler concept of a “Higher Masculine Sentimentality”.

Here, across genres, memory and pop culture become almost interchangeable. Here, nostalgia is not a conservative pleasure but the reality of being possessed by an unruly dead spirit — the “spirit” of the near-mythical American West.

Recently, I watched another Stephen King movie — Rob Reiner’s 1991 adaptation of Misery. This film, too, shares many of the same subtle motifs explored in The Shining, and likewise dramatises supposedly disparate iterations of American life coming together with disastrous consequences.

The film begins with Paul Sheldon, a successful writer, finishing off his latest manuscript. He is the author of a series of romance novels about a young woman named Misery Chastain. They’ve brought him great success but he’s bored of the character and decides to kill her off — in childbirth no less — so that he can move onto other things.

Driving to the city to deliver the manuscript, he crashes in a blizzard only to be rescued, near death, by a woman named Annie Wilkes. Together the pair are their own two-person Donner Party.

It transpires that Annie is Paul’s “biggest fan”, finding him in the snow only because she was stalking him. She nurses Paul back to health but, on reading the final Misery manuscript, things take a turn a terrifying turn. She’s appalled that Paul would led Misery die, forcing him to burn the finished manuscript and write an entirely new one. Not one to revise what has come to pass, however, this novel must start where the last one ended.

Contrary to the tradition outlined by Fiedler, it is Annie, the deeply repressed and conservative WASP who “goes Native”. She has a pathological aversion to the new, it seems — to the extent that, in the film, it is revealed she was found culpable for a spate of cot deaths whilst working as a nurse at a hospital. She embodies a stereotypically social role as a nurse but it is as if childbirth itself is an abomination to her; a symbol of life’s inevitable evolution and progression.

As such, she is enthralled by the Misery novels because they represent another time; a lost time. To take that time away from her, through childbirth in particular, is unthinkable.

What I find particularly interesting here, and what will lead us onto our first Western proper, is Annie’s aversion to revision — the scene above demonstrating her commitment to what has already happened, even if it is not to her satisfaction.

It is this terror that I’d like to address in our first look at a proper Western, particularly a Western which is part of that subgenre known as the “Revisionist Western“.

In line with the tide change which occurred in the academy around the same time, when Turner’s famous Frontier Thesis was re-evaluated as reductive and biased, new perceptions of the American West emerged in which cowboys were not all heroes and Indians not all villains. Likewise echoing the national self-reflection that grew around the Vietnam war, the Western anti-hero was born and with it a more nuanced view — relatively nuanced anyway, it’s still Hollywood — of this period of American history.

It is here, it seems to me, that the seed of modern American cinema was planted — in this tension of past iterations both actual and pop-cultural.


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