The blood elevator scene, sometimes called the ‘river of blood,” from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a horrifying and disturbing image in a film full of horrifying and disturbing images. Upon watching it the scene produces in many – myself included – a feeling of dread; an uneasiness that is hard to explain. I’ve often wondered why this is.
The scene itself only lasts twenty-six seconds. Danny, a young boy, stares in a mirror and has a vision. We see a static shot of a lobby facing a set of ornate elevator doors. Blood begins to pour from the edge of one of the doors filling the room in slow motion. There are three quick cutaways: the first to a pair of creepy twin girls, the other two to a close-up of Danny’s face shaking in terror. The music is a dull drone that raises in intensity in short bursts. As the room fills with blood it splashes against the walls till eventually, it covers the camera leaving us in total darkness. It is surreal and symbolic of the horror that will slowly envelop the story. But I believe there is something more to it than that; a subconscious message that speaks to a deep-seated fear within all of us.
Now, The Shining has many interpretations. There is no shortage of theories as to the meaning of the film as a whole. These range from a parable of Native American suffering, or the Holocaust, to an admission that the Moon landing was faked. And many more; entire films and doctorate theses have been dedicated to the subject. Stanley Kubrick was an enigmatic filmmaker and deliberately made his films ambiguous so as to be open to interpretation; even so, the vast quantity of alternative meanings assigned to The Shining is diverse and somewhat overwhelming.
But my concern here is not to analyze the entire movie or come up with some new theory as to its meaning but only to concentrate on that one scene in order to perhaps come to understand the power it has. Even out of the context of the story that scene is still eerie and intense; it still conveys a feeling that perhaps the filmmakers did not intend. It is a symbol, and symbols can sometimes find meaning beyond the original intent.
When I first saw this scene it was not in the context of the film. It was the trailer for the film. In 1980 the original trailer for The Shining was simply an extended version of this scene. It opens the same way, the lobby facing two sets of elevator doors, and the film’s credits roll horizontally from bottom to top as the music slowly swells. As the credits end the blood then flows and fills the screen with darkness there is no voice-over, there is no description of the story; only blood and darkness. In this version, there are no cutaways and the music is different. Instead of a low drone, it is instead a buzz; it slowly rises till the noise surrounds you, and swarms over you till the darkness comes.
I saw this trailer with some other boys in the theater. We were 11 and 12 years old. I’ve no idea what the film was we were seeing, the only memory of that trip to the movies was that trailer. One of the boys I was with, Christopher was so frightened (perhaps I should say freaked out) he cried and wanted to leave. Of course, the rest of us chided him and basically embarrassed him enough to stick around. Thing is, I was feeling the same way. I didn’t show it outwardly so did not have to face the brunt of schoolboy hyper-masculinity posturing, but it truly did affect me. That night I did not sleep. I left the light on. That short scene rolled and rolled in my head invading dreams for a very long while. It bothered me and I didn’t know why.
I’ve seen the film a dozen or so times since then and still, the blood elevator bothers me. And I think I know why.
Well, first let me say that Stanley Kubrick is a brilliant filmmaker, and the ‘River of Blood,’ is an excellent scene that was intended to be creepy; to be surreal. It is shot beautifully. It has eerie symmetry, the lighting is bright but somehow ominous, and the music was chosen deliberately to put you on edge. So, yes I understand that this is a horror film with images that were intended to scare you or creep you out. This in and of itself is valid without the need to find a deeper meaning. But deeper meanings can be there whether you are looking for them or not. This is where symbols take on lives of their own.
The elevator itself is a symbol of transition and in popular culture has been used to represent the journey to Heaven or Hell. Going up or going down? I acknowledge it is there but I’ll admit this is minor; a cultural reference that may play into our subconscious but in many ways is trivial.
The real symbols here are harder to pin down as they are less direct representations but rather existential ideas given a visual surrogate. Blood for instance is a symbol of life. To ‘get your blood pumping’ is a saying to indicate being energetic; being alive. However, the loss of blood makes one weak, to ‘bleed out’ indicates a slow death. The blood flowing – gushing – from the elevator represents life pouring out, leaving the body, draining life. At the same time, there is so much of it, a river; the blood begins to engulf us. Our perspective is low to the ground as if we are kneeling or lying down. The river of blood surrounds us, covers us, we are drowning in it. The cutaways to Danny in terror is at the same time we, the viewer, experience this fear ourselves and realize that the darkness continues to grow around us. In the end, there is nothing just the darkness.
The real fear this scene evokes, the real horror it conveys is the dread of emptiness. It is the fear of the Void; the creeping anxiety of the inevitability of nothing. Or to put it another way: Death.
There is inside everyone an innate fear. That one day it will all be over. Everyone has the knowledge that we will one day die and, depending on one’s beliefs, we expect and prepare for this inevitability with certain hopes. Perhaps there will be a reward or punishment or maybe come back to try again. But everyone, no matter how devout and certain of the outcome will have, even for just a moment, a nagging doubt. What if there is just nothing? What if we close our eyes and then it is over? Forever.
The blood elevator scene represents the ever-present fear of the end of existence. And in it we watch, trembling in terror, unable to act against it, as life becomes death and darkness overwhelms us. It seems to confirm that which we dare not tell ourselves – that one day it will all be over. In the end, there is only the emptiness of darkness.
That is why this scene is so disturbing. It touches on something that we don’t like to acknowledge. It represents something we don’t like to admit.
That is why a young boy was unable to sleep at night and kept the light on.
It’s why I still keep the light on.
The Original 1980 Trailer
originally published April 20, 2018