Night Of The Shining

John Sheirer


© Copyright 2003 by John Sheirer 

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash
                                                      Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

A frightening movie brings with it a chance for romance and the possibility of long-term friendship.

The year was 1980, and I was nineteen and thrilled to be spending the summer as caretaker of an empty college dorm. My choice that summer was between going home to the farm and staying at college. If I went home, I would bail hay, weed the garden, and watch the grass grow for three months. If I stayed, I could have a free apartment in an empty dorm, take a couple of easy summer courses, and make a few dollars. I didn’t have to think very long to make my decision. On top of all the other benefits, I had several of my best college friends working in other dorms that summer to spend my many carefree hours with.

One of my friends was the caretaker of the women’s dorm across the quad, my buddy Sandy. She was nineteen too, very cute, and lots of fun. Although I had a bit of a crush on her, we had never dated, mostly because I was so shy and inexperienced. But I was smart enough to know that when she asked me to go to a movie one night that summer, she meant it as “friends,” and that was okay with me. After all, I got to spend a few hours with a girl I really liked, and there were no movies playing back home on the farm.

The movie she asked me to see was The Shining. Neither of us had read the Stephen King book or knew much about the plot, but we knew it was supposed to be scary. I confess, I was looking forward to the possibility of Sandy grabbing onto me if she got scared. Of course, if I got scared, I planned to grab onto her.

The evening was warm and pleasant as we walked the mile to the movie theater. We talked about our classes, our friends, and how much we enjoyed being the only people living in our dorms that summer. We shared the secret that we had both snooped into every corner of our buildings, from the cobweb-laced attic to the moldy basement.

The summer of 1980 was a few years before the multiplexes would take over the theater business, so our destination was one of those cavernous barns with burned-out lights, a stained screen, flaking paint, gargoyles in the rafters, and sticky carpets. Some people might have called it “run-down,” but I thought it was great.

Just as I’d hoped, the movie was scary enough that Sandy and I held onto each other. She leaned over into me, and I put my arm around her shoulders. What I hadn’t counted on was that the movie was so intensely creepy that neither of us even registered the fact that we were huddled together. When the lights finally came back up after two hours of stomach-churning horror, shocks, and grotesques weirdness, we had very little to say to each other.

Darkness had fallen by the time we left. This wasn’t the pleasant summer darkness of my many relaxing strolls around campus that summer. This was a darkness that masked the presence of an insane, ax-wielding Jack Nicholson behind every shrub and that freaky little kid on a tricycle down every side street. We walked quickly, arm-in-arm, talking in loud voices about whatever trivial things popped into our heads. The subject we avoided, of course, was the movie we had just endured. I suppose we thought that if we didn’t say anything, we might forget about it by the time we got home. Fat chance.

At Sandy’s front door, we finally acknowledged just how creeped-out both of us were. We both let out a series of nervous laughs, and the tension actually slipped away a little. After a quick hug and a few more chuckles, we said good-night and each went back to our empty dorms.

It wasn’t until I went to bed that I realized how similar being a winter caretaker at a summer resort was to being a summer caretaker in a college dorm. Lying alone in the dark, I couldn’t help but hear every little squeak and creak from the hundred empty rooms all around me. In a very short time, I began to imagine those little noises were being made by chopped up corpses come back to life in an upstairs hallway or by decomposing naked women rising from their bathtubs.

I had to do something to keep my wits, so I jumped out of bed, tossed on a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals, and grabbed the only weapon I had--my tennis racket. Wearing my bicycle helmet, I spent a nerve-wracking forty-five minutes going through every room in the building, slowly opening each door, flicking the lights on with my racket, poking it into closets and under beds, and assuring myself that nothing dangerous was within.

Of course, the building was empty. What I’d heard was simply the noises every empty building makes at night, just as this one had every other night that summer. When I finally made it back to my bed, I felt plenty silly. What kind of idiot was I to let a harmless movie frighten me to the point where I would be foolish enough to search an entire dorm for bogey-men or bogey-women or bogey-children? That kind of tension and embarrassment was exhausting, so I soon started drifting off to sleep.

 When the telephone rang two feet from my half-sleeping head five minutes later, I sat up so fast that I nearly broke my spine. I could feel my heart pounding from my toes to my eardrums as I picked up the receiver.

 “John, this is Sandy,” she whispered. “Did I wake you?”

 Why do I always lie when asked this question?

 “No,” I said, glancing at the clock. It was 2:30 a.m.

 “I think I hear someone outside,” Sandy said. “I hate to ask, but can you come over?”

 I was already awake, so I dressed again and grabbed my tennis racket. This time, I left the bicycle helmet behind.

 When I got outside, I saw Sandy peeking out the edge of her window. I waved at her with the tennis racket, and then made a circular motion to let her know I was going to walk the perimeter in search of lurkers and stalkers. In the very back of my head, I considered the possibility of decomposing corpses, but mostly I was on the lookout for something even scarier--real people.

 After making a circuit around her dorm and whacking every bush with my tennis racket, I rang Sandy’s doorbell. She invited me in for hot chocolate and told me that she had called campus security. They had promised to send a car for a “drive-by,” and a few minutes later, we saw the cruiser crawl slowly up the street, going maybe five miles an hour with its lights flashing to scare away intruders.

 When our cups were empty, Sandy said, “I hope you don’t think I’m a big baby for asking this, but I’m still kind of scared, and it makes me feel better that you’re here. Would you like to spend the night?”

 I must have been staring because several seconds later Sandy said, “I have bunk beds. You can be on top.”

 “I like being on top,” I replied, and then pretended that what we just said was perfectly unambiguous. Sandy smiled, and we went back to her bedroom. I climbed up her desk and hoisted myself into the tiny top bunk while Sandy settled in below. We talked in the dark bedroom for a while about times in our lives when we were frightened. Sandy had once been caught in the middle of a near riot at a high school football game and barely escaped unhurt by climbing underneath the bleachers. As a child, I’d been lost on a neighbor’s farm for the longest hour of my little life.

Eventually, our conversation turned to The Shining. Sandy confessed that she probably wouldn’t have cared that someone may have been walking around outside her dorm, but the movie had put her nerves on edge.

 “Do you think I’m silly for letting a movie get to me like that?” she asked.

 “Wanna hear what I did tonight?” I replied.

 I told her about my goofy march through the dorm with my tennis racket and how silly I felt about it now. We started chuckling about how dopey we both felt, and when I told her about wearing the bicycle helmet, we couldn’t stop laughing for what seemed like hours.

 When we finally settled down and lay silently in the dark bedroom, I felt a wonderful pleasant glow. I started out the evening just hoping to hold her hand at a scary movie and ended up with something much better. I felt a real deepening of our friendship because we had shared our fear and our embarrassment. Sandy and I might just be friends for life after this crazy night.

 I was just about to fall asleep for the second time that night when I heard footsteps outside. They walked up to the bedroom window, paused for a few long seconds, and then walked away into the night. Every hair on my body wiggled and stood up, and I held myself as motionless as possible.

Ten seconds later, I heard Sandy say in the quietest whisper possible, “Did you hear that?”

 “Yes,” I whispered back, just as quietly.

 Before I knew what was happening, Sandy had climbed up into the bunk between the wall and me. She pressed her body against mine and buried her face into my chest. My arms wrapped around her, one holding her back and the other cradling her head. We didn’t say a word, and I could feel her heart thumping in time with mine.

 The footsteps didn’t return, and eventually our hearts slowed. I don’t remember falling asleep, but when we woke entangled in our embrace, morning light flowed brightly through the gap in the curtains.

Sandy lifted her face to mine, and our eyes met for a few seconds. My mouth tasted stale, and my full bladder ached where her hipbone pressed against me. Sandy’s hair felt clammy, and I could smell the light acid scent of her sweat. We shared small smiles and muttered good-mornings from the side of our mouths, careful not to breathe in each other’s faces.

Twenty years have passed since that night, and I’ve read the book and caught The Shining a few more times on television or video over the years. With every viewing, it seems less scary and more goofy. The characters seem over-blown one minute and wooden the next. What in the world were these people with a troubled marriage and a disturbed child thinking taking a job in an isolated, empty resort, haunted or not? For that matter, what was Stanley Kubric thinking? Thank goodness for Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile--without these three, there wouldn’t be a movie or miniseries based on anything by Stephen King that’s worth seeing.

 Sandy and I did stay friends and saw a few more movies together during college. When neither of us had a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, we’d occasionally take in a romantic comedy--anything but a horror movie--and complain to each other about our dead-end love lives. We lost touch after graduation, and now we live on opposite sides of the country.

But when I saw her listed in an alumni directory a couple years ago, I sent her an e-mail asking if she’d seen any good horror movies lately. We’ve been exchanging movie reviews since then. She runs her own public relations firm and is married with two teenaged daughters. Not long ago, the whole family rented a certain scary movie for Halloween, and Sandy got a big kick out of telling her husband and kids the story of our night of The Shining.

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