The Shining (1980)
By Bret Easton Ellis
In late May of 1980—May 23, to be exact—The Shining opened, and I wanted to see it as soon as possible.
I’d read the novel when it was published in 1977, already a big fan of Stephen King, having practically memorized Carrie and Salem’s Lot, his first two books, and The Shining scared me mightily as a 13-year-old: the haunted Overlook Hotel, the angry and alcoholic father possessed and driven murderous by the spirits of the place, the frightened son in peril, redrum, the hedge animals that came alive. I was obsessed and it remains one of the key novels that made me want to be a writer. In fact as soon as I was done reading The Shining for a third time I began writing my own novel in the summer of 1978, which I was still working on in the late spring of 1980, though about to abandon it in favor of what ultimately became Less Than Zero.
When I heard that Stanley Kubrick was adapting The Shining on a lavish scale I was immediately distracted—it became the most anticipated movie in my lifetime, and I closely followed its troubled production (delays, endless takes, a fire destroyed the main set, the ramping costs), and I don’t think I’ve ever tracked the making of a movie with more interest—not even the ones that were later made from my novels gripped me as much as what Kubrick was going to do with The Shining. I was almost paralyzed with anticipation. And then a trailer dropped late in 1979; it was simple, almost minimalist, just an image—how one longs for trailers that didn’t lay out the entire movie like today’s three-act previews—of an elevator in the Overlook whose doors seem to be slowly pushing open because the cabin is filled with blood that starts pouring out in slow motion and then cascades toward us in waves until the blood crashes against the camera, turning the lens red, the credits of the movie rolling upward in neon blue over this one image. I saw the trailer many times during the fall of 1979 and throughout the first half of 1980 and it never failed to rivet me. I began counting the days—the hours—before I could see the actual movie.
I began counting the days—the hours—before I could see the actual movie.
I couldn’t go on the 23rd because of school and I didn’t want to face Westwood on a crowded Friday night, so my plan was to go the next day—Saturday, May 24—and I wanted to see the 10am showing because I knew it would be less crowded than any of the later screenings. Surprisingly everyone argued for 1pm at the Village—it was a Saturday, they wanted to sleep in, 10 was way too early. I argued to Thom and Jeff that the lines would be too long later in the day, since it was an exclusive engagement only playing at three theaters in Los Angeles, but everyone eventually bowed out and said they’d meet me for lunch at D. B. Levy’s, a deli we frequented on Lindbrook Drive after the movie was over, and then see The Empire Strikes Back later that afternoon at the Avco. I was disappointed—I wanted to see The Shining with Thom—but it didn’t diminish my excitement. This would be the first time I drove to Westwood by myself to see a movie alone, without the guys, and I felt incredibly adult as I raced across Mulholland toward Beverly Glen on that Saturday morning in my father’s hand-down, a metallic-green Mercedes 450SEL, a four-door tank that was hardly the sporty vehicle I longed for at 16.
The Shining (1980)
I parked in the lot on Broxton across from the Village Theater at 9:30am—listening to a mixtape made up entirely of Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp and I’m the Man with a couple of Clash songs from London Calling and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces added in—and was relieved that only a short line had formed at the box office then being admitted straight into the theater. I remember, and I don’t know why, that I was wearing a fashionable new Ralph Lauren shirt, sea green with the insignia of a purple polo pony, and Calvin Klein jeans with Topsiders—and that I kept my Wayfarer sunglasses on when I bought my ticket. The Shining was rated R and I was momentarily worried I’d get carded even though I had a fake ID I barely used, the city was lax, and I didn’t need it that morning— four dollars for one adult. Again I was reminded as I moved into the grand lobby—looking at the carved winged lions that sat halfway up the 170-foot bleached fox tower, which loomed over Broxton and Weyburn Avenues, at night lit by a blue-and-white sign crowning the tower, its shaft illuminated, a beacon—that this was the first time I’d come to Westwood alone and I felt genuinely grown-up and shivered with anticipation at whatever the future held. I bought a box of Junior Mints and moved from the bright Art Deco lobby into the darkness of the gigantic auditorium.
The theater was less crowded than I worried it would be but it was only 9:40 and it was bound to fill up, I thought as I sat and stared at the massive set of curtains draped in front of the 70-millimeter screen. Writing this now, I can’t believe that I was left to my own devices for 20 minutes, just idly sitting there, thinking about things, about Thom and about Susan, waiting without a phone to look at, waiting without something to distract me. Instead, I took in the theater—my favorite in Westwood and the largest, with over 1,400 seats; it was its own vast world I took refuge in and it was one of the few places I was aware I might actually be saved— because movies were a religion in that moment, they could change you, alter your perception, you could rise toward the screen and share a moment of transcendence, all the disappointments and fears would be wiped away for a few hours in that church: movies acted like a drug for me. But they were also about control: you were a voyeur sitting in the dark staring at secret things, because that’s what movies were—scenes you shouldn’t be seeing and that no one on the screen knew you were watching. These were the things I was thinking about while I slowly pressed down on a Junior Mint, letting it dissolve on my tongue, glancing at my watch as the hands moved toward ten o’clock. The lights in the theater seemed to slowly darken even though there were still about two minutes before the curtain would rise. The ominous music from the soundtrack began softly announcing itself in the domed auditorium: snake rattles and bird trills and wailing horns. I realized, thrillingly, that there would be no trailers at this showing.
And that’s when I saw the boy.
This is the reason why I’ve never forgotten seeing The Shining on May 24, 1980, at the Village Theater in Westwood at the 10am show. It was because of him.
This excerpt is from The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis. Published January 17, 2023 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Bret Easton Ellis Corporation. The book is available to purchase from the Metrograph Bookstore.
Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). Behind him stands the spire of the Village Theater in Westwood.