The Shining and Calvinism

by Michael Potemra

Fascinating and provocative discussion by Eve Tushnet and her pal Sean. I have never quite understood why I find The Shining not just a terrific movie (easy answer: it’s by Kubrick) but also one of the scariest. Thanks to Eve and Sean, I think I finally get it: The dread in that movie is much deeper and more existential than what you get when Freddy and Jason jump out of the bushes and cut somebody’s head off. The latter involves a momentary shock, and a lot of special-effects ketchup blood. What Jack Nicholson’s character, Torrance, undergoes is much worse—the realization that he himself is fundamentally evil, predestined to do horrible things to his family: The story of the previous caretaker who killed his family is not a spooky historical anecdote but somehow the truth about Torrance’s own being. (“No, Mr. Torrance, you are not just now the caretaker. You have always been the caretaker.”) This is a terrifying representation of what it would be like to come to the realization that, in hard-Calvinist terms, you are one of the destined reprobate. But there’s also a softer-Calvinist explanation: Nicholson’s character confronts the horror of the fallen human condition (the Calvinist technical term for it is “total depravity”)–the utter helplessness of sinful man, his inability to do what is morally good. That’s a lot scarier than some guy in a hockey mask; fortunately, man does not have to rely purely on his own powers.

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