Category Archives: Horror Essays & Short Stories

Why “The Shining” Is A Successful Horror Adaptation


“There are certain rules to every horror film”

-Randy (Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension Films. 1996)

The Horror Shines On

The Grady Sisters

Throughout the decades, the horror film has undergone many changes and has been the topic of endless analysis and criticism.  From the early black and white monster flicks that haunted the 1930’s, to the psychological horror films of the 1970’s, to the “slasher” movies of the 1980’s, film theorists have been constantly trying to define what makes a horror film.  The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1980, has often been classified as a horror film.  Based on the novel by Stephen King printed three years earlier, the work has been quoted as being “horror at an unflagging pace….scary!” (New York Times).  The adaptation from novel to screen has been the subject of much controversy.  King himself was so dissatisfied with Kubrick’s film that he went so far as to write a screenplay for a new made-for-T.V. version. (1054 Martin and Porter).  The film was made at the end of a reign of psychological terror films and on the brink of mindless “slasher” movies.  The novel was written in the “age of film” (Balfour), a factor that becomes of importance when assessing the visual styles and narrative structure of the movie.  Does Kubrick’s The Shining succeed as a horror film?  Are these characteristics found within King’s novel, and do they infact translate well on screen?  Is an individual more terrified as a reader or as a viewer?  By analyzing the film The Shining, one can understand how it fits into the horror genre in relation to the novel that it was based on.

Horror theorist Robin Wood states that the monster in horror films is what threatens the site of normality; normality being represented as such “bourgeois” institutions as the family.  The concept of the “Other” is what bourgeois ideology cannot accept and thus must repress or oppress.  Woods’ basic theory is that what is repressed in society is projected as the Other and comes back as the monster.  This theory can be applied to the film The Shining.

The main character, Jack Torrence is a reformed alcoholic.  We learn from his wife Wendy that Jack has been sober for five months ever since he hurt his young son Danny in a drunken haze.

The Horror Shines On

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence

Jack tries to repress his temper and his past, but they eventually overcome him and he “returns” as a psychotic monster that attempts to kill his family.  We slowly see the raging monster possessing Jack through the effective use of Kubrick’s straight on close up shots, where we stare deep into the eyes of hate.  Jack’s repressed alcoholic past is also visualized through scenes such as when Jack is talking with the bartender Lloyd.  It represents not only Jack’s drinking problem in this life, but also the ghosts that haunt his past life.  We soon learn from the spirit of Grady- the previous caretaker who went insane and killed his own family- that Jack was in this hotel in a previous life, and that he will repeat Grady’s violent crime.  One can also look upon Jack’s case of writer’s block as a form of repression.  Jack initially wanted the job as a caretaker of the Overlook Hotel so that he may be able to work on his writing.  However, once he is in the isolated solitude of the hotel, he has serious writer’s block.  When Wendy eventually reads what he has written, all she finds are page after page of a single typed line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  This is more horrifying for the viewer for it is shot from a low angle, and we do not see what Wendy is reading until the very end.  It is interesting to note that this differs from the novel, where Jack simply types his play.  By emphasizing what is repressed in Jack through this writer’s block and through the use of such images as Lloyd the bartender who “feeds” the monster [drinks] it creates a tension that foreshadows the return of Jack who has manifested into a monster.

However, Jack is not the only monster in the film.  The hotel itself can be seen as a monster for it is the biggist threat to the family unit.  It too tries to repress it’s past: “….when something happens, you can leave a trace of itself behind” Hollorann tells Danny.  Although it tries to repress the incident concerning the caretaker Grady, it only returns as the monster in Jack.  The fact that the hotel itself isolates the family from civilization and confines them with ghosts and their psychotic father is threatening in itself.

The concept of the father as a monster is a horror motif that is also discussed by film theorist Vivian Sobchack.  The transition from 1970’s to 1980’s horror films is reflected within the family unit.  Children who were the terror in such films as  1976’s The Omen become terrorized and are forced to be smarter then their own parents, such as Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street released in 1985.  Sobchack states that because children have the power, patriarchy is threatened.  The more patriarchy is challenged, the more it comes back as the monster.  The Shining represents this transition.  Their son Danny has the special ability of extra-sensory perception, and unknowingly is able to see into the past and future of the hotel.  The film effectively reveals Danny’s power by using the motif of flashes.  The haunting flashes of the two young girls who were murdered and the blood spilling from the elevator show that Danny knows that something bad has happened at the hotel, and that something bad will happen again.  At the peak of his power, when he writes “MURDER” on the mirror, is when patriarchy is at its most monstrous.  Jack is out of control and represents the monstrous father that is threatened by their child.

The use of mirrors is also an important horror motif for it reflects the concept of doubles; good versus evil; Jekyll and Hyde.  There is something “disturbing and fascinating about the idea that there can be duplicates….that one thing can be two conflicting entities at once” (Kraft).

The first time that Danny envisions the Grady sisters and blood-filled elevator is through a mirror.  By filming directly into the mirror we are also looking at Danny’s alter psyche Tony, a manifestation of his extra-sensory powers.

Mirrors are also shot to reveal the dangerous alter ego of Jack.  Kubrick tricks us early on in the film when we see Jack lying in bed, only to discover when Wendy enters the room that we were seeing a mirror image of Jack.  His character often speaks to  mirrors instead of communicating with real people: Lloyd at the bar; Wendy and Danny; Grady in the bathroom.  The line between reality and fantasy is often blurred as Jack retreats more into his own world, and we as an audience see a split in his personality.  Not only does Jack have a split in his personality, but he is also paralleled in a past life as the last long tracking shot slowly closes in on a photo of Jack in 1921 at the Overlook.

The idea of dualism is shown not only through the characters of Danny and Jack but also through such images as the woman in the bathtub in room 237.  She appears beautiful, but when Jack looks in the mirror the illusion is broken; her monstrousness has been “overlooked”.  The Grady sisters as well are one of the most powerful, haunting, images in The Shining.  The fact that they are not quite identical, but “unnatural in their symmetry” (Kraft) makes them all the more horrifying for Danny and the audience.

Interestingly enough, the powerful image of the Grady sisters is not as prominent in the novel as it is in the film.  The screenwriter for The Shining, Diane Johnson explained that they wanted to emphasize the Grady sisters in the film in order to frighten Danny and not have him play with them.  It is an effective image to use in a horror film for it draws upon the Freudien theory of how mechanical objects, such as dolls, are much more scary when they move (Johnson).  By distorting a familiar image into the unfamiliar, Kubrick makes it all the more horrifying.  Another change that Johnson made while adapting from novel to screenplay is the death of Holloran.  In the novel he survives Jack’s assault, but in the film he is killed off.  The reason for this is a simple one: “We decided that somebody obviously had to die because it was a horror film” (Johnson).  A common theme within any horror film is that of a sacrifice, which is what Holloran represents.

Although many elements were changed or lost while translating from novel to screen, there are many elements that stayed the same.  One of the most gorgeous shots in the film is within the opening sequence.  The extreme high angle of the camera following the lone car around the mountain is a visual that is also best described in the book when Wendy thinks to herself: “…she knew to look down there for too long would bring nausea and eventual vomiting” (King 76).  Not only does this give the reader and viewer a feeling of uncertainty but it also shows how isolated the family is going to be in the hotel.  The name of the hotel “The Overlook” is also kept for the film.  The word “overlook” is important both in the novel and the film for it draws upon the horror theory of repression.  The past of the characters and the hotel has been “overlooked” and will sneak back as the monster in both cases.

The theme of repression is one aspect that is emphasized much more in the novel then in the film.  King’s narrative is often interrupted by the character’s thoughts and it allows the reader to understand or “read” the character’s thoughts.  Danny’s narrative is spoken like a child and is very innocent, yet it is often interrupted by Tony, Danny’s “imaginary friend” or extra-sensory psyche.  Since there is no voice over in the film, we miss out on a lot of what Tony says.  However, Kubrick compensates for the interrupted narrative by inserting the sudden flashes of the Grady sisters and the elevator filled with blood.

The Horror Shines On

Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance

Similarly, we miss out on much of Wendy’s back story and what she represses as well.  The personal narrative of the novel reveals that Wendy was cut off from her mother when she married Jack, and that she suffers from feels of inferiority as a mother.  If the audience had understood this, one might have felt more pathos towards Wendy if they understood why she tolerates Jack.

The idea of pathos is the final aspect that separates the film from the novel.  The novel allows us to feel pathos for the characters for we are able to read their thoughts and understand their life.  Since we empathize with the characters, one can argue that we are also more afraid for them as well, thus the novel succeeds in scaring us.  However, the film functions as a horror film as well despite the lack of pathos for the character.  Although we would like to relate to characters in horror films, this is rarely the case.  Most of the time, the characters act so foolishly that the audience roots for the monster to kill them.  This is true in the case of The Shining and it makes the film all the more satisfying.  Wendy receives no pathos from the audience for she takes on the typical horror role of the “idiotic” mother and it is a release for the audience to watch her being chased by Jack.

Both the novel and the film The Shining are successful when complying with the horror genre.  They both show how what is repressed returns as the monster, and how the change in patriarchal status is revealed through the use of a monstrous father.  While certain images are expanded upon in the film, they are used wisely to create such horror motifs as sudden flashes and dualism.  Although the novel generates more pathos through it’s narrative, the audience is equally satisfied whether they fear with the characters or cheer for the monster; for both are characteristics of the horror genre.

Candyman: Bittersweet Difference

Candyman: Bittersweet Difference

One aspect that horrifies society is that of difference.  What differs from the norm and that which we do not know are what perpetuates fear within society.  This too is what inspires the horror film.  As we have studied often in this course, what is different from the norm remains repressed within society until it is projected and unleashed as the monster; the symbolic difference that represents our fears.  This is the case in Bernard Rose’s film Candyman.  In his film, what is different is what is repressed, so much so that it has taken the form of the “myth” or “legend of the Candyman.  The Candyman signifies difference in many respects.  He is firstly created as an outcast and monster based on the legend itself.  The story is that that he was brutally beaten and cut with razors, stung by a hive of bees and then burned to death.  If one chants his name five times in a mirror, he will appear only to murder you with the large hook he has for a hand.  The reason that he was killed is because he impregnated the daughter of a wealthy white man.  This leads to the main idea of difference within the film: that of racial difference.  The Candyman is black and the constant contrast between the races is a significant difference that helps drive the horror throughout the film.  The mere fact that Candyman was murdered because he was with a white girl and that he is created into a “mythical” monster because of this is discriminatory enough.  There are also other contrasts that further emphasize Candyman’s difference in society.  The woman who is investigating the case, Helen, is white and her partner, Bernadette is black; the contrast between the nice part of town and the ghetto are constant reminders of difference in society.  The film also compares family life and contrasts how white people are treated versus how black people are treated.  At one point, after Helen is attacked, she states: “Two people get brutally murdered and the cops do nothing- a white woman gets attacked and the whole place gets shut down.”  By using emphasizing Candyman’s alienation by contrasting how different races are treated, the film develops the underlining message that what is truly horrifying is racism in society.  It is racism that created the Candyman and it is racism that continues to fuel his legend.

There are many ways in which this theme of difference is used to signify horror in Candyman.  In the essay “When the Woman Looks” by Linda Williams, she discusses the significance of the woman’s look in relation to the monster and her male counterparts.

Difference is also discussed in Lucy Fischer’s essay “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”.  It is pregnancy and childbirth that alienate the woman from society.  Finally the destruction of difference is discussed using James Conlon’s article “The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction” and how passion must be destroyed or it will wreak domestic stability.  By examining these three articles, we can begin to understand how difference is used to signify horror through the use of the woman’s look, parturition and passion versus domestic stability.

The use of the woman’s look is an important part of Candyman for it also helps to explain difference.  In Linda Williams essay “When A Woman Looks”, she begins by discussing the difference between the way woman look versus the way in which men look.  While men make it a point to look, woman “cover their eyes or hide behind the shoulders of their dates” (Williams 15).  An interesting an example of the way men look versus the way woman look can be seen in the opposition that lies between Helen and Bernadette, the two woman who are investigating the case.  Helen, who is white, is never afraid of anything.  She does not believe in the Candyman and is not “afraid to look”.  Bernadette, on the other hand, who is black, is always cautious, wide-eyed and afraid.  How the two woman test out the “candyman” legend by chanting his name five times in the mirror it is Bernadette who cannot bring herself to say his name five times.  When they go to investigate in the ghetto, it is Bernadette once again who wants to back out, and it is Helen who later on crawls through the mirror to take pictures.  While Bernadette is taking on the role of the woman who is afraid to look, Helen takes on the role of the man.  She is determined and not afraid to “look” into anything.  Williams discusses when a woman does “look and sees” and observes how they “must be punished in the end” (DD 17).  This is indeed true with Helen.  At one point she is investigating the bathroom where one of Candyman’s murders took place and is “punished” by having four black guys beat her up.  One is actually playing the part of the Candyman and Helen ends up with a black eye: her punishment for looking.  The fact that it is four black males who beat her up is even more significant, for it was her “look” that invites the horror of difference and emphasized that racist undertone in the film.

Helen continues to pursue her investigation of Candyman and is again “punished” at the end of the movie.  She has seen too much.  She invades his privacy and literally steps into his world when she steps through the mouth of his graphite face on the wall.  Similar to the example that Williams uses of Christine in the Phantom of the Opera, Helen violates the Candyman’s privacy and she “becomes responsible for the horror that her look reveals” (Williams 19).  As a result, she appears insane to the outside world for only Helen can see Candyman, and slowly loses control as he invades her mind.  He places her in a trance and then she blacks out, only to wake up in a pool of blood with someone dead beside her.  The fact that she is the only woman who looks in the beginning of the film foreshadows the end when she is punished and in a sense “becomes” Candyman.  He is left to burn in the fire and she returns in his spot.  She has become the “male” and even appears more masculine in the last bathroom scene because of her bald head.  She reverses roles with her husband, for in the last scene he takes on a more feminine role.  He looks in the mirror and says her name.  He sees himself as a woman sees herself in a mirror as a “biological freak” (Williams 21) and recognizes himself as a monster.  The fact that he “looks” how a woman looks results in his punishment.  He saw or “said” things that he should not, and therefore Helen appears and kills him.  The fact that she looks is a signifier of difference for in the end she takes on the male role and becomes an outcast from society like Candyman.

Williams expands on the idea of when a woman looks and how it is often “simultaneous with her victimization” (DD 18) and discusses the connection between woman and monster.  She discusses a “trance-like” look that overcomes a woman that she shares with the monster as they “recognize their similar status”.  When Helen first sees Candyman in the parking lot, she is held in a trance-like state and as focus on her look.  She remains paralyzed and the audience is left urging her to jump into her car and flee.  As Williams explains: “where the (male) voyeur’s properly distance look safely masters the potential threat of the (female) body it views, the woman’s look of horror paralyzes her in such a way that distance is overcome” (DD 18).  While Candyman calls Helen in a long shot, Helen’s trance like face is held in close up and intercut with close ups of Candyman’s graphite eyes, thereby holding her in place at this sign of recognition.  He, in turn, is allowed to master her through her look (Williams 18).  Similar to the example Williams uses of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Helen “follows her master’s voice” (Williams 18) by not escaping in her car. “Be my victim” Candyman calls, emphasizing that her first look at him is also her first sign of victimization.

The relationship between Helen and Candyman is important to examine in light of how they both represent difference as a signifier of horror.  Williams discusses how sexual interest “resides most often in the monster and not the bland ostensible heroes…..” (DD 20), and this results in the connection between woman and monster.  While Helen is investigating Candyman, her husband is having and affair with one of his students- proving that he has failed to be the male counterpart.  What ultimately drives her to Candyman in the end is when she ends up in a psychiatric ward.  Helen escapes, and when she comes home she walks in on Stacey, the student, repainting her home.  They look at Helen as if she has gone mad and her husband barely pretends to know her.  The husband has shown that he is useless at a crucial moment when Helen needs help.

Helen is alienated, like Candyman and has no one to turn to.  “They will all abandon you” he chants.  Now that everyone believes that she is crazy she is like Candyman “in the eyes of the traumatized male” (Williams 20).  Their story is similar to that of Dracula.  At the end we discover that she was the white girl he loved in another life.  “IT WAS ALWAYS HELEN” the graphite says over her picture.  “All you have is my desire for you”; “we shall die together”; “come with me and be immortal” are some of the many things he chants that reflect their strange relationship.  He tries to control her to alienate her.  For example, he floats on top of her in the psychiatric ward and asks for a kiss so that she screams and appears crazy to the outside world that cannot see him.  Like Dracula, the connection between sex an violence and the lure of immortality is “not seen as repressed animal sexuality but as feared power and potency of a different kind of sexuality” (Williams 20).  Their relationship is horrifying because it is different.  Helen and Candyman are both outcasts and there is a sort of “sympathetic identification” (Williams 21).  When Helen looks she shares the male fear of the monster’s freakiness, yet she also recognizes the sense in which this freakiness is similar to her own difference. (Williams 21).  After her first encounter with Candyman she blacks out and wakes up in a pool of blood.  She is promptly arrested and strip searched; she too is being “constituted as an exhibitionist”.  She is being put on display and gossiped about like Candyman.  She has become an object of desire to Candyman and an object of horror to society.  It is through the woman’s look in Candyman that initially punishes her and then alienates her from society.  Yet, “her look is more than simply a punishment for looking or a narcissistic fascination with the distortion of her own image in the mirror that patriarchy holds up to her; it is also a recognition of their similar status as potent threats to a vulnerable male power.” (Williams 23)

Another element of Candyman that reveals difference is the theme of parturition.  The baby is the first factor that alienates Helen and bonds her with Candyman and is the final factor that redeems her in society.  Lucy Fischer explores this further in the article entitled “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”.

In the section entitle “False Labor”, Fischer discusses the parallels between the macabre and childbirth and the affiliation between pregnancy and the supernatural in relation to Rosemary’s Baby.  She discusses how childbirth has been looked upon over the years and how although the expectation within society is that giving birth is supposed to be a joyous experience, “strikingly less attention has been given to its impact on the mother”.  As a result the anxieties many mothers feel have been repressed and have “returned” in the form of horror in such films as Rosemary’s Baby (Williams 417).  The way in which childbirth is repressed in Rosemary’s Baby can be compared to the baby in Candyman.  First, the cause of Candyman’s alienation is the act of impregnating itself.  He impregnated a girl and was then killed under her father’s orders.  Candyman then became a repressed legend in society who returns to try and reunite with Helen and recreate the family that he once lost.  “You’re mine now, it is time for a new miracle” he says right before the climactic final scene; the miracle meaning the baby in the bonfire that Helen must rescue.

The baby is also a symbol of difference for it is the reason Helen is arrested and shut off from society.  When she first encounters Candyman, she is put into a trance.  In Fischer’s essay, she discusses how Rich and Kitzinger “associate pregnancy with possession”.  She is, in a sense, impregnated by Candyman during this trance and is similarly possessed.  She wakes up in a pool of blood in Anne Marie’s home.  The dog’s head has been chopped off and Anne Marie is attacking her screaming that Helen has killed her baby.  There have been many parallels between the macabre and childbirth (Fischer 418).  When she wakes up in a pool of blood, this links the two with Helen “because of her parturition and the blood with it, she will be impure” (Fischer 418).  She is now impure in the sense that she has become an outcast from society until the baby is found to prove her innocence.

Helen has not only become outcast from society but also from her own family.  She discovers when she escapes the hospital that her husband has been having an affair with his student, Stacey, who has now moved in and taken over Helen’s role.  Helen now resembles the role of the midwife, similarly to Mimi in Rosemary’s Baby.  Helen has “little standing in the community and (is) thought to bear evil spirits” (Fischer 18), people think that Helen is crazy, including her husband.  Midwives were often accused of taking the woman’s baby away and offering it to the devil.  Similarly how Mimi is trying to take Rosemary’s devil baby, Helen is accused of hiding Anne Marie’s baby.  In the end, she finds the baby in the middle of a bonfire and for a moment Helen and Candyman are, for a moment, united with Anne Marie’s baby.  The conclusion resembles the end of Rosemary’s Baby when the coven is circling around Rosemary’s baby.  They are both false family units with the baby representing difference.  While the baby is the actual devil in the later, Helen and Candyman’s baby represents difference because it is the reason they have both been repressed in society.  The fire that burns around them is like the fire’s of hell but also symbolizes a “different” sort of motherhood for “motherhood was always close to death”(Fischer 17).  In a sense, Helen becomes a mother for a moment because she comes close to death and faces the “perpetual fever” (Fischer 417) of the fire.

Helen’s “birth” can be discussed further using Fischer’s section on Hysterical Pregnancy so that we can understand her alienation caused by the child.  Like Rosemary, Helen blacks out when she is “impregnated” after her first encounter with Candyman.  She doesn’t remember slaughtering the dog and what happened to Anne Marie’s baby.  Technically, Candyman did not impregnate her, but this is also similar to Rosemary, for her husband Guy was allegedly uninvolved with the impregnation.  This “evokes primitive beliefs that human males are removed from procreation”.  Oddly enough, we never know who the real baby’s father is in Candyman.

Helen also has similar dreams to Rosemary.  Whenever she is caught in the trance Candyman has over her she is haunted by the baby, which is intercut quickly with flashes of Candyman’s eyes and her own.  Another common dream that many woman have is of a “sharp claw or tooth plunged into some part of her body.  She tries to flee, but her persecutors run after her from behind while she faces another danger in front.” (Fischer 420)  When Helen goes into her second “dream” or “trance” she tries to flee from Candyman but he appears all around her and eventually comes and scrapes his hook along her neck.  This is similar to the dream that pregnant woman have.

It is also common for woman to be paranoid during their pregnancy.  “Woman commonly begin to view the outside world as potentially threatening”.  The baby is shrouded in paranoia.  First Anne Marie is paranoid that someone is going to take away her baby and by the end of the film Helen feels very threatened by the outside world.  No one believes there is a Candyman; her “discomforts are consistently minimized (Fischer 412).  She is also anxious because she is losing control over her body and mind, another symptom often experienced during pregnancy (Fischer 422).  She is anxious about losing her husband, and like Rosemary, she ends up alone.  She briefly “seeks out external support out of a desire to be cared for and protected” (Fischer 423) and goes to Candyman in his lair.  However, in the end she runs away from him and he must deal with the thought that she found “abjection in him (the beloved child)” (Fischer 421).

Partruition in Candyman signifies difference in many ways.  It symbolizes what has been repressed in Candyman and what he attempts to project onto Helen, that which is their reunion.  Only this results in alienating them both from society and his eventual rejection from her.  Helen’s emotions and actions parallel those of a pregnant woman or Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby which results in her own alienation in society, and it is not until she returns the baby that she is once again accepted.

One can also explore difference in the film Candyman by discussing passion, and how passion essentially destroys difference.  One of the first statements in James Conlon’s article “The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction” is that passion brings destruction.  Plato states that “passion has no place.  It can only bring untruth, pain and destruction” while Nietzsche similarly states: il faut tuer les passions– we must kill our passions.  Conlon uses Madame Bovary as an example of the destruction of passion.  Emma Bovary’s lover had swayed her by proclaiming that her only duty was passion, but believing him ended up destroying her.  In Candyman, the Candyman tries to sway Helen into believing they are meant to be together; that passion is their duty so that the legend may live on. “To make lovers conquer in their rapture”; “you’re mine now”; “we shall die together”; “our names will be written on a thousand walls”; are some of the statements he chants to her that imply that passion is their duty.  Unlike Emma Bovary, Helen does not believe Candyman in the end and runs out of the fire leaving him burning behind.  Since Helen does not believe him she goes on “living”.  However, according to Conlon’s essay, passion must be destroyed, thus Candyman’s passion for Helen is finally destroyed and he dies when she rejects his offer of immortality with him.  This is one of many examples of how passion is destroyed in the film.

One can also look at the place of passion in the film and how it is used “in context with adultery…a specific reaction to domestic life” (Conlon 402) which is how Conlon analyzes the film Fatal Attraction.  One of the first signs we notice that something is amiss in the marriage between Helen and her husband Trevor, is in one of the very first scenes.  Helen visits Trevor at school during his “urban legend” lecture, a subject that they both feel very passionately about.  They have a small dispute; Helen asks him why he held the lecture when she specifically asked him not to, for it might have a negative influence on the interviews she is conducting for her thesis on Candyman.  This is then followed by another small dispute over one of his students, Stacey.  Helen asks him if there was something going on with her for “she could barely look me in the eye”, however, he denies her accusation.  As her investigation of Candyman progresses or the more passionate she feels about the case the more strange and suspicious Trevor’s behaviour becomes.  After her first encounter with Candyman which resulted in her black out and arrest, she finds herself in jail.  She tries to call Trevor at three o’clock in the morning and he is not home.   This is the first link between passion and adultery and how they destruct domestic life.

We must first try to understand the nature of the adultery in Candyman.  Similarly to Fatal Attraction, Helen is like Alex.  She is passionate about her work and is very determined.  Like Dan in Fatal Attraction, Trevor feels threatened by her work, she hasn’t “played by the rules” (Conlon 404).  He shows that he is ashamed by her when he fails to stick up for her at a dinner with another Candyman expert.  Stacey on the other hand offers something “fundamentally different” (Conlon 405).  Trevor can control Stacey, similarly to how Candyman can control Helen.  Trevor and Candyman both hold the power of information and can feed their passions.  Helen can also be compared with Beth in Fatal Attraction.  Helen has done nothing wrong and is an admirable wife, Stacey is like Alex and represent the “passion” that is missing from Trevor’s life.  While Helen takes all the passion from Trevor, she is represent Candyman’s love for her.  Although Candyman tries to reunite with her and build a family, and Trevor and Stacey try to live together after Helen’s death, “passion cannot be domesticated, it must be eliminated” (Williams 411).  This is why Helen must leave Candyman.  He must die for his passions and she must destroy hers, which was the Candyman case.  Trevor as well must die for his sin, and in the end all the passions are destroyed.  What was different was what the characters clung to as their passions which is why all is eliminated in the end.

In the film Candyman, the aspect of what is different is what signifies horror and is shown through three different ways.  Helen’s look in the film sets her apart from all the other woman.  She is never afraid to look, and is therefore punished and becomes an outcast in society.  She therefore shares a bond with the monster for he is an outsider as well, yet although she shares the same “freakiness” as him she rejects him in the end which emphasizes the films theme of racial difference.

Difference is also shown through parturition in comparison to Rosemary’s Baby.  The baby in the film represents the repression from Candyman’s past as well as the factor that alienates Helen from society, yet redeems her in the end.  She experiences many aspects of pregnancy, and to a certain degree Candyman has impregnated her.  The horror of which both Candyman’s past, and the terror Helen undergoes for the baby reflect a sort of racist outlook towards interracial couples.

Finally, by examining the aspect of how passion is played out throughout the film, we can understand why all the various elements are destroyed in the end.  All the characters have an obsession.  Candyman is obsessed with reuniting with Helen.  Helen is obsessed with the Candyman case.  Trevor’s passion is his work but he must have the power and feels threatened by Helen, and can only fill this void by having an affair with someone weaker than him; a student.  Both Candyman’s and Trevor’s passion clash with their domestic life, and therefore must both be eliminated, by Helen.  Although she has been “destroyed” herself, she must return to destroy all other traces of difference and return the balance.


Conlon, James. “The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction”. Dread of Difference (DD). 1996: University of Texas Press.

Fischer, Lucy. “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”. Dread of Difference (DD). 1996: University of Texas Press.


Williams, Linda. “When A Woman Looks”. Dread of Difference (DD). 1996: University of Texas Press.

The Real Monster in “The Silence of the Lambs”

Monstrous Silence

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector

Hannibal Lector.  The very name can send shivers up and down ones spine.  The haunting image of one of horror genre’s most memorable figures is what people remember the most after watching Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.   He may be unforgettable, but is he frightening?    Upon closer examination of the movie, one comes to ask who the real monster is.  Does a monster have to be frightening?  Is the monster what scares the audience or what threatens the film’s characters?  Or is the real monster, not a literal monster at all, but an outside force that creates the evilness in the villain?  After reading the work of three different theorists, Grant, Wood and Sharrett, one can begin to answer these questions.  The film is unusually interesting because there are numerous monsters, each one monstrous in its own right depending on how one defines the term.  According to Grant, the monster is any threat to the female character, or rather the men who victimize the women.  The three men in The Silence of the Lambs are the real threat to Clarice, endangering her life and her job, and are in general doing her more harm than good.  Her boss Crawford, Hannibal’s doctor Chilton, and the serial killer Buffalo Bill are the three men who threaten her.  It is not only the male who victimizes that female that is the monster but in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, the gender stereotypes are role reversed.  This results in a different kind of monstrosity: femininity that is revealed through repression and oppression; a theory expanded on by Robin Wood.  According to Wood, the movie contains two monsters.  The Other is divided into two monsters in the film, and they represent what the society has repressed and oppressed.  These two monsters are Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lector.  One society has oppressed, the other society has repressed, yet both return as a threat.  A slightly different take on the Other is in the essay by Sharrett, who prefers to pinpoint one “scapegoat”(Sharrett 257), which in this case would be Buffalo Bill.  Although Hannibal is obviously mentioned as the other main psychopath in the movie, Sharrett nicely points out that Lector was “obviously constructed as a monster” (Sharrett 257) and is twisted to create an even greater monster out of Buffalo Bill.  By examining each of these theorists more thoroughly, we can begin to understand the social tensions created by the monsters in The Silence of the Lambs.

After reading the introduction to the text “Dread of Difference” by Barry Keith Grant, one can identify numerous themes within the “Silence of the Lambs” that make it horrific.  Grant states that the “essential truth” about the horror genre is “preoccupied with issues of sexual difference and gender”(DD 1).  Both sexual difference and gender are exploited within the film. He points out that the predominate monster’s gender is male   and that even when a monster is gender-less, it sexually victimizes the female character giving it a monstrous masculinity (Intro 2).  This is true in The Silence of the Lambs.  The serial killer Buffalo Bill is a transsexual, or at least he “believes he is one” according to Dr. Lector.  His confusion over his sexuality leaves him gender-less.  According to Grant’s theory, the fact that Buffalo Bill victimizes woman gives him a monstrous masculinity.  However, this theory is given a spin when the FBI agent, Clarice Starling, discovers that Buffalo Bill is skinning these young woman to create a female suit.  It is not so much Buffalo Bill who is monstrous as femininity itself.  When Buffalo Bill is dancing for the camera, he is no longer monstrous because of who he victimizes.  The audience experiences a sense of horror watching this scene.  They are confronted with what Grant has discussed as the “visual representation of bodily difference”(DD 6).  It is Buffalo Bill’s femininity that is monstrous.  His glamorous makeup and flowing gown, combined with his dance that ends with his penis tucked between his legs, is an exploitation of femininity.  Buffalo Bill’s body has become what Grant calls the “sight/site” of horror (DD 8).

Grant continues to discuss gender and refers to Greenberg’s beast in the boudoir theory.  The common image of the “monster coded as male and the victim female” (DD 5) is an image also found in The Silence of the Lambs.  Clarice is constantly being threatened by the male figures that surround her.  Both Dr. Lector’s doctor Chilton and Starling’s boss Crawford are threats to both Starling’s career and life.  Chilton first creates problems for Clarice by hitting on her.  She is forced to swallow her pride and flatter him by saying she would have “missed the pleasure of his company”.  He then proceeds to complicate matters by revealing to Hannibal that the offer Clarice proposed to him was phony.  Chilton gloats in satisfaction when he tells Hannibal this, further revealing his monstrousness.  The other man who is a threat to Clarice is Crawford.  He exerts control over her by not revealing to her the real purpose behind her first visit with Lector and uses her to get information out of Lector.  Once Clarice finally establishes trust with Hannibal, Crawford threatens to break it by not informing her that the offer she is about to propose to Lector is fake.  As Clarice grows more confident with the case, the less her boss acknowledges her.  In the end when she discovers the truth about Buffalo Bill and eagerly tells Crawford the news, he dismissively tells her that they have already found him.  At this point he fails professionally and unknowingly puts Clarice in danger.  His swat team arrives at the wrong house and Clarice ends up face to face with Buffalo Bill.

In the end, Clarice is the hero, who saves Catherine.  She had to defeat the patriarchal figures around her in order for her to earn a place in the FBI.  Grant mentions Tarrat and McConnall and how the “monster (desire) must be defeated by the male hero in order for him to succeed in winning the hand of the attractive daughter….” (DD 4).  If the male gender is looked upon as monstrous, it is also that position of power that Clarice so desperately desires.  Therefore Clarice, our hero, must defeat the male monsters before she “succeeds in winning”.  This role reversal, having a female hero instead of a male, is another example of the flipped gender specific monsters.  While patriarchy threatens Clarice, her femininity is a threat to them and creates complications for herself.  Clarice dresses very plainly and professionally.  She doesn’t wear a “night gown” or a “wedding dress” as discussed in the beast in the boudoir theory; yet she is not treated as an equal.  When they are at the scene of a crime, Crawford tells the officer that he wants to speak to him “not in front of the lady”.  Furthermore, her femininity is a threat to Chilton and Crawford.  Starling rejects the sexual advances from Chilton and proves in the end to be smarter than Crawford.  She handles the situation by herself and doesn’t need to be rescued- snatching the “coveted” patriarchal position from under their noses.  Clarice must repress her femininity in order to fit into the male role.  Grant also mentions Robin Wood in the introduction who explains that what is repressed is what is monstrous.  Femininity once more is monstrous because Clarice must try to repress it due to the male monstrosities that threaten her.  While Clarice must repress her femininity, Buffalo Bill’s femininity has been oppressed.  According to Wood, the “true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses” (DD 4).  Therefore the Jekyll-Hyde paradigm (Grant 5) of Clarice repressing and Buffalo Bill being oppressed suggests that one of the monstrosities in The Silence of the Lambs is femininity itself.

Buffalo Bill is also considered a monster when one examines the theory by Robin Wood.  His theory is a basic formula for all horror films; that normality is threatened by the Monster (Wood 175).  He suggests that whatever society oppresses or represses will come back as the monster, and when normality is restored, society is once again put back into a state of repression.  He defines, in psychoanalytic terms, that repression is what is not accessible to the conscious mind, and that we are oppressed by “something out there” (Wood 166).  Wood continues to point out aspects that are repressed in our culture.  One of the key elements is bisexuality, or sexual energy in general, for it is the “most obvious threat to the norm” (Wood 167).  He links repression directly with the notion of the Other; that which the bourgeois idealism cannot accept and that threatens their existence.  They respond by either destroying it or assimilating it.  What is repressed is henceforth projected onto the Other.  Society represses what is different from the norm, and it is the relationship between normality and the Monster that is the essential subject of horror (Wood 176).  In The Silence of the Lambs, there are two monsters defined by this theory.  One is Dr. Hannibal Lector, who has been repressed from society.  Lector is a cannibalistic serial killer, an obvious threat to the bourgeois idealism.  Thus society repressed him, and locked him away.  However, what is repressed always “strive to return” (Wood 177) as a monster, and in Hannibal’s case they need him to come back.  One can look upon Hannibal as being repressed in the unconscious minds of society, and it becomes Clarice’s task to unlock him.  When she does, he reveals certain motifs that ensure him as a monster.

Hannibal is ambivalent and he extends our attitude to normality (Wood 177).  He “horrifies us with evil and delights us with his intellect, his art” (Wood 177).  Although we are not entirely sympathetic towards him, we do not fear him for he poses no threat to Clarice as she says so herself: “He wouldn’t come after me…..he would consider that rude”.  He is a repressed monster for he represents what we unconsciously wish for.  When he succeeds in escaping by killing both security guards and leaving in the ambulance, we silently cheer.  Our society appears so secure that when he breaks free we release our own repressed feelings, for unconsciously he has fulfilled our “nightmare wish to smash the norms that oppress us” (Wood 177).

Dr. Lector also displays certain motifs from the 1960’s horror films that intensify his relationship with normalcy (Wood 183).  One motif is cannibalism, functioning both in a literal and metaphorical way.  Hannibal was repressed from society because he literally ate the bourgeois (his patient).  Throughout the course of the film, he takes a bite out of a security guard (the law) and at the very end he eats “an old friend for dinner”.  This would be Chilton, who represents the media.  Similarly in Psycho, Norman Bates was created by his family, whereas Hannibal was created by the society around him; normality is the reason for the monster (Wood 175).  The cannibalism motif also works in a metaphorical way, in the sense that Clarice is “feeding” Lector.  She feeds him information about the case, and she feeds him information about herself.  Clarice is Lector’s link with normality, and their relationship is based on this bond between monstrosity and normality.

A final motif that is central to the monstrosity of Hannibal’s character is the sense of “grotesque comedy” similar to that in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Wood 191).  When Dr. Lector deliciously says, “A census taker once tried to test me.  I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”, the film’s “sense of fundamental horror is closely allied to a sense of the fundamentally absurd” (Wood 191).  By the end of the film, the audience feels that Lector is almost justified to eat people.

While Hannibal represents the “repressed”, Buffalo Bill represents the “oppressed”.  Buffalo Bill is the other monster in The Silence of the Lambs, according to Wood, because society has oppressed him.  Lector describes him as “a thousand times worse than the transsexual”, and this means a lot coming from the monster himself.  The oppression of Buffalo Bill also draws from motifs from the 1960’s.  He is the product of an abusive family, which not only results in his psychotic tendencies, but he also believes that he is a transsexual.  This is an obvious threat to the norm, and this is proven for he previously applied to sex change clinics, and was rejected; he was a rejection from society.  His female sexuality does not fit the social norms of femininity and masculinity (Wood 167).  His relationship with normality is tortured, and since he cannot fit into the predetermined roles of society, he must make a “suit” so that he is able to fit in.  He kills young woman for their skin, and is creating a feminine skin for himself.  This perverted, monstrous and excessive release of sexuality is the logical outcome of repression (Wood 189).  Thus, Buffalo Bill is oppressed product of a dysfunctional family and comes back as the other monster.

This opinion of Buffalo Bill as the monster in The Silence of the Lambs is also shared by the influential theorist Sharrett, who also draws on Wood’s concept of the Other.  He states that we must pay attention to the Other, for over the years the concept of what is radical has become desensitized due to the fact that society has become more cynical (Sharrett 257).  The Others that used to be implied off screen are now more liberal due to our neo-conservative culture and our need for “sacrificial excess” (Sharrett 257).  There are four aspects of this “sacrificial excess” that the horror film offers.  First there is the logic of the dominant order that is discredited then reaffirmed; the free sexual expression of the female figure; the diversity and culture that is subdued and the recognition of the Other that will either be destroyed or incorporated (Sharrett 257).  The Silence of the Lambs follows this formula, and according to this logic the Other is represented within the tension between Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill, both rival and scapegoat.

The tension is created by the clash of feminism and gay culture.  Clarice “covets what she sees everyday”, which is a job in the FBI, a patriarchal position.  To do this she must destroy her rival Buffalo Bill who has an imitative desire to possess what Clarice wants, a role, a place in society.  Buffalo Bill has no real place in the society that created him.  His sexual ambiguity is called “monstrous” by Lector, who is obviously constructed as a monster in order to disturb the Other (Sharrett 258).  The dominant order is at first discredited, but reaffirmed at the end of the film when Clarice sacrificially kills Buffalo Bill and Lector is set free of his role.  She is then able to claim her coveted patriarchal position in a diverse triangle created by Lector, Crawford and her dead father.  Through her sessions with Lector, she is able to gain Crawford’s approval, find Buffalo Bill and silence the screaming of the lambs in her head.

Sharrett further qualifies Buffalo Bill as the monster by discussing the film Near Dark.  The vampires are the threat to normalcy, and thus always separate from the normal family.  The excessive violence and punk attitude is recognized as the neo-conservative liberalism that is associated with the Other.  Buffalo Bill, like the vampires, lives apart from society and his flamboyant transvestite dance is similar to the punk culture of the vampires.  Similarly, he views his own kind as “repugnant”(Sharrett 26) like the vampire May who is in love with the human Caleb.  Both Buffalo Bill and the vampires live in such an excessive, diverse universal that they must be repressed from the norm.

One can also compare the behaviour of Buffalo Bill to the Cenobites from Hellraiser that Sharrett also mentions.  There is a major emphasis on the sexuality of the female and the idealization of the female body (Sharrett 261). The Cenobites represent repression and desire, and as a result are sexually aggressive and associate erotic transgression with self-destruction (Sharett 262).  Sexuality is associated with evil, similarly to the extent Buffalo Bill goes to achieve the ideal female body, the excess of which is repulsive.  Likewise, the female Nightbreed’s sexuality in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, is further defined by their grotesquerie, further connecting female sexuality with evil.

Sharrett also discusses Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and how Dracula can only be humanized when he is “recouped fully into romantic love, monogamy, and Christianity” (Sharrett 266).  Dracula’s androgyny is also emphasized, intending to be unsettling.  If Dracula is compared with Buffalo Bill, then the results, again, are monstrous.  Buffalo Bill’s transsexuality is very unsettling, and the fact that he has no romantic love interests and no religion in his life dehumanize him to a monstrous state even more.

According to Sharrett, the monster in The Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill.  He threatens the dominant order of Clarice’s life; his diverse universe is separated from the norm such as the vampire culture in Near Dark; he is excessively sexual and can be compared to the monsters from Hellraiser and Nightbreed; and his lack of love and religion dehumanizes him like it does for Dracula.

The Silence of the Lambs is a unique horror film in the way that it bears many monsters.  The monster varies from each theorist depending on what exactly is being threatened.  In Grant’s article, the monster is determined based on what threatens gender.  Normally in a horror film the monster is typically of male gender, for it victimizes the female character.  In this film however, there are many role reversals.  The serial killer is transsexual and the hero is female.  When one observes the males who pose threats to Clarice and examine both Clarice and Buffalo Bill as part of Wood’s repressed/oppressed theory, one can conclude that what is monstrous is femininity.

In the opinion of Wood, the monster is what threatens normality.  What the society represses or oppresses comes back as a monster, as the Other.  In this case, there were two monsters; one was repressed in society and the other was oppressed in society.  Hannibal Lector is the monster that was repressed in society, and his relationship to normalcy is associated with such motifs as ambivalence, cannibalism and grotesque comedy.  Buffalo Bill is the other monster that was oppressed in society, and his relationship to normalcy can be explained by such motifs as the family and the inability to function in predetermined roles.

The last theorist determined that Buffalo Bill is the monster by examining how the concept of the Others is threatened.  In the neo-conservative culture of liberalism and excess, the original concept of the Others has become less radical.  By examining four aspects: the dominant order, sexual expression, diversity and culture and the destruction of the Other, one can observe how Buffalo Bill either destroys or exploits these aspects and reveals his monstrosity.


Grant, Barry Keith. Dread of Difference. Introduction. 1996: University of Texas Press; p. 1-11.

Sharrett, Christopher. Dread of Difference.“The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture” 1996: University of Texas Press; p. 253-272.

Wood, Robin. Planks of Reason. “American Horror Film” p. 164-199.