We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere ” – Stanley Kubrick

The impact of architecture on popular culture can hardly be overstated. Every artform that directly interacts with the visual, spatial and sonic awareness of a person will have the architecture of the place play a direct role in it. Set design has existed since the renaissance in 15th-century Europe to demonstrate, highlight and focus on the frescos, paintings or models of the churches built during that time. Since then, theatres and musical performances have likewise used set design to enhance the dramatic values of their craft. But it was only with the emergence of motion pictures in the mid 20th Century that set designers ushered in a new paradigm and explored the capabilities of dramatic architecture. Directors like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, to name a few, have all been pioneers of set design and thus craft elaborate worlds to tell simple stories. Several films now considered classics are critiqued for their architectural value, the stories they told through it, and the impacts on their audience. One such classic, widely considered one of the coldest psychological horrors of the 20th Century, is The Shining by Stanley Kubrick.

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The Overlook Hotel_© I drew the Overlook Hotel from The Shining (OC) : stephenking (reddit.com)

Architectural Typology of Suspense

Kubrick, always the perfectionist, designed the set along with Roy Walker, indulging in minute details of the Overlook Hotel to have maximum impact on the viewer. From the layout of the modern hotel to the tiles on the bathroom walls, nothing missed Kubrick. Perhaps for the first time in cinema history, the interiors of such a mundane looking building have been so immensely impactful in telling such a disturbing story. Kubrick’s ingenuity was to figure out the importance of architecture and the use of vivid colours and textures to convey a single emotion to the audience, fear. In every pivotal act of the movie, we can see bright colours and heavy textures used thoroughly as a direct reflection of the mind of the characters in those moments. For example, in the scene when Jack meets Grady (the ghost of the predecessor of Jack as caretaker of the hotel), they converse in the restroom of the ball, which is painted in blood red, hence directly reciprocating the unsettling turn that Jack’s mind has started to take. The colour red is a motif seen repeatedly throughout the film, creating an ever more thrilling narrative. Apart from the stark colour palette, textures have also been heavily used to overload the visuals with more information and create tension. These design and screenwriting decisions were then put together with brilliant cinematography and acting, resulting in one of the most maddening psychological horror movies of the 20th Century, not because it is so scary, but because it feels eerily authentic.

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Bathroom scene showcasing blood-red colour_© screenshot from the movie
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The heavy textures framing Danny like a cage_© screenshot from the movie

Kubrick’s Symmetry and One-Point Perspective

Along with exploiting the architecture and layout of the Overlook Hotel, Kubrick was keen on using wide-angle lenses to enhance the oppressive feeling in the corridors, making them seem endless. He seems to be hinting to the viewer and his characters that there is imminent danger looming over their heads, and they must leave the building. Thus, involving the audience in the screenplay of the film. In an iconic scene where Danny is playing in the lobby on the first floor, our focus is instantly drawn towards the long hallway in the background, despite Danny being the subject. This scene sets perspective as a powerful tool to guide the viewer’s attention to a seemingly endless hallway, isolating Danny within a large frame. Each segment is directed with immaculate symmetry like a renaissance painting, dividing the shot into a grid of 4s and 9s. The power of perspective runs profoundly deeper than the cinematography and architecture of The Shining. Perspective, once more, plays a pivotal role in the story since the most critical question The Shining raises is, Who is the reliable observer? Whose idea of events can we trust?

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Perspective and symmetry in The Shining_© screenshot from the movie

Spatial Awareness and Set-Design Anomalies

The Overlook Hotel is full of impossible and delusionary designs. Kubrick used them to disorient the viewer and isolate him in one of the corridors, or room 237, thus communicating the illusionary and sinister nature of the hotel. He used Escher-styled spatial and set design anomalies to achieve this feat. Just like Escher used linear perspective to create distorted proportions in his work of art, Kubrick uses perspective as a tool to go a step beyond and devoid his characters (and the audience) of any sense. From the opening scene of the hotel, when Jack is given a tour, to the moving shot where Danny is cycling through the corridors, there are plenty of frames where the glaring anomalies in the hotel layout are made clear to us. Some doors lead to nowhere, hallways that overlap themselves and rooms that should not exist. Stanley Kubrick is a master of deception. Owing to his brilliant cinematography and camera work, we start to believe that the hotel is sinister and disorienting without ever realising the architectural mistakes. For these reasons, The Shining’s Overlook hotel remains one of the most disturbing locations in horror fiction. 

Floor plan of The Overlook Hotel_© The Overlook Hotel – Anthony Petrie 2014 | Collectionzz
References:
  1. Reddit. (2020). r/stephenking – I drew the Overlook Hotel from The Shining (OC). [online] Available at: https://www.reddit.com/r/stephenking/comments/jybneo/i_drew_the_overlook_hotel_from_the_shining_oc/ [Accessed 3 Apr. 2022].
  2. www.collectionzz.com. (n.d.). The Overlook Hotel – Anthony Petrie 2014. [online] Available at: https://www.collectionzz.com/TheRealDaveMoore/the-movies/the-overlook-hotel-anthony-petrie-2014 [Accessed 3 Apr. 2022].
Author

Priyansh is a multi-disciplinary architect + designer. A creative nerd who gets geeky about art would jump at the chance to skydive and in another life would like to travel the world practising Jiu-Jitsu.

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