I Met a Man Who Wasn't There...

Uncanny Sounds

Text by Charlie Fox

Listen carefully: The Shining is a film especially attuned to the splendid malevolence of sound. Think of Wendy Carlos’ Moog synth prowling darkly on the main theme, the unearthly chorus of Penderecki’s “Utrenja (Ewangelia)”, or the machine-gun riot of the typewriter endlessly spelling out the vacant sentence “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Think, too, of the eerie breeze that drifts through Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” and sets the Overlook Hotel shuddering, or Jack’s demonic snarl of “Here’s Johnny!” that finds secret evil in a chat-show starting call. (Incidentally, it feels unwise to call him anything other than “Jack”, a name that refers to character and actor. One took hold of the other long ago, and his career has been stuck in an Overlook Hotel loop ever since.) And hear in your head the ghastly “redrum” croak of Tony, “the little boy who lives in my mouth”, according to Danny, which might be the most frightening sound of all.

Tony’s voice spooks you because it means that Danny has disappeared, usurped by a telepathic spectre. And then there is the eeriness of the word itself. “Redrum”, as every mirror will tell you, is “murder” reversed. Like a record spun backwards, Tony tells you that evil is afoot. Cue Jack with the axe: “Who is that knocking at my chamber door?” The sound of horror is often indiscreet: a wolf-man howling by moonlight, ectoplasmic synth, orchestral jolts, the hideous squelch of stabbed flesh… The Shining indulges in all of them but finds much of its supernatural effect elsewhere. A careful selection of domestic sound is significant: phone-call jolts, rooms shiver and dead voices echo, our fright only intensified by an awareness that nobody else can hear them – the outside world has been deafened by incessant snowfall. Finding a route through The Shining is treacherous, and it becomes more disorientating the further you go. A poem and a gramophone might provide an unusual path.

Permit me to slow down the voice, like the blood that cascades in slow motion from the lift. “Redrum” stretches out into “red room” after a little phonemic adulteration. Your first thought might be of the phantom sound space in Twin Peaks where speech is slurred back and forth on a tape machine, but rewind The Shining and see the blood-red bathroom where Jack meets the ghost of Delbert Grady, ex-caretaker, who killed his family and then committed suicide in a sequence of events we assume was solicited by evil spirits inside the Overlook. All the haunted sounds in The Shining surround this scene. You can catch the ghost of a storm outside, a falsetto on the phonograph from the nearby ballroom and speech of unnatural slowness. What you might hear underneath subliminally are lines from a poem that seem to anticipate this encounter. “Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there”. William Hughes Mearns’ “Antigonish” – written in 1899 after reports of a spectre seen in a mountainside home – seems to talk to The Shining. What else would “a man who wasn’t there” be, other than a ghost?

In this supremely unsettling scene, Jack is in conversation with a ghost, and is soon presented with the reality that he is one himself. A set of typical ghost story soundbites (“I’ve always been here”) and sinister suggestions (“I ‘corrected’ them, sir…”) are used in a spirit of sly mirth. A perverse and unnameable type of pleasure is taken in the unspooling of this scene as, slowly, the thought of “redrum” takes shape, plotted by two spectres in duet. On the other side of the wall in the ballroom, the fantastically cruel winter goes unnoticed and a roomful of spectres continue their celebrations. Dressed like strays from a Fitzgerald story, they enjoy an enchanted night in the ’20s. All is hazy. Al Bowlly, long dead, croons through “Midnight, the Stars and You” on the gramophone: the ghost of a song drifting serenely. What The Shining knows is that records haunt us. You don’t need Vincent Price’s “Thriller” monologue to realise this. Needle to the groove, back from the dead – vinyl lives longer than flesh.

Pre-Bleach and prone to vandalism as he was, Kurt Cobain once scrawled “redrum” on his bedroom door in homage to Danny. He later appeared on Top of the Pops and similarly transformed his own voice into a strange drone, as if possessed by the ghost of Morrissey. Cobain beat DJ Screw at his own game, stretching his voice through an opiated time lapse, and he did it on national television. You might remember that a short while before Cobain died (like Grady, he “put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth… blew his brains out”), he sang “The Man Who Sold the World” on MTV, covering David Bowie while surrounded by lilies and candles on a stage laid out like a funeral bier. Bowie twists “Antigonish” around so that, like in The Shining, we are unsure who exactly is the ghost: “we passed upon the stair… although I wasn’t there”. This is what Grady deliciously suggests, still giddy from murdering his wife and daughters. Jack is a ghost, too. “You’ve always been the caretaker, sir. I should know. I’ve always been here.”

Echo? The ghost in Henry James’ unspeakably eerie little novel The Turn of the Screw is also a caretaker. Mr. Quint haunts its country estate setting, seen only by the narrator, a neurasthenic governess in charge of two unwholesomely well-behaved children. She spots him a third time – where else, but on the staircase at night. The Turn of the Screw is an elaborately unspooled talking book. When you read the next passage, be aware that you are meant to hear the voice of a “fluttered, anxious” woman, long since dead, whose story is brought back to life by a gentleman reading it aloud to a rapt audience. A ghost’s voice: “He was a detestable, dangerous presence”, stood there in “the cold faint twilight”. What causes the special horror in this scene is sound or, rather, its absence. “It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural.” Silence “became the element into which I saw the figure disappear”. Silence is a dead space, like the run-out groove of a record, where you might vanish. But silence is a ghost, too: there-and-not-there at the same time so that it taunts any attempted definition. As David Toop puts it in his masterful book Sinister Resonance with acute sensitivity to the shakiness of its meaning: “Silence is an absent present Or perhaps the reverse is better: silence is a present absence”. There and not, heard and impossible to hear, existing on a phantom frequency, unsound.

This sort of absence is, after all, at the centre of the poem, the film and any recording of a dead voice. It has an especially disconcerting implication: something is here and gone at the same time. After receiving a flash of Grady’s dead daughters, Danny tries to scream but cannot. Somehow his silence is far more unsettling than any scream. The same effect wakes an immense panic in Shelley Duvall (and us, the audience) when he is suddenly mute, unable to respond to the question: “Danny, what happened to your neck?” His walk has turned to a deadened stagger, his mouth is plugged by his thumb, his voice lost.

His father is similarly afflicted at the film’s end. Silence falls after speech dies a slow death. Jack tears through the maze, the snow making its velvety roar while he yelps, roars and half-speaks in pursuit of his fleeing son. A shimmering of needle-sharp Penderecki flourishes – Danny escapes, Jack collapses, mumbling, language already beginning to rot. Then we are treated to a literal freeze-frame: Jack, dead, his face a mask of ice, because, like at the end of The Turn of the Screw, “his heart, dispossessed, had stopped”. But then the camera drifts on towards the ballroom. A photograph: Jack grinning in a scene of distant festivity, surrounded by those celebrating spectres. He has, indeed, “always been the caretaker”. The film’s parting shot is a riddle that is impossible to answer, which only bewilders more as the examination intensifies. Everything ends with the audience struck dumb to a ghostly repeat of “Midnight, the Stars and You”. Maybe another piece of exit music is in order? The poem finishes on a equal note of bewilderment with everything even more frightening than before: “Yesterday upon the stair/ I met a man who wasn’t there/ He wasn’t there again today/ I wish, I wish he’d go away!” The haunting repeats again, like a needle stuck in the same spot forever.

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