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Feature Article

Doctor Sleep: The Horror Of What You Can't See

Listen very, very closely

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining has earned itself a special place in the pantheon of horror movies--not only for its masterful direction, acting, and cinematography, but for the way it manages to dodge conventional scares in favor of subtlety. The Shining is infamous for its ability to "get under your skin," by avoiding typical horror fare like jump scares and gore and instead leaning heavily on things like sound design to ramp up the tension and anxiety. This is a tradition that director Mike Flanagan was eager to uphold with The Shining's sequel, Doctor Sleep--but not always in the ways you might expect.

From the jump, fans of The Shining will recognize the more overt elements of the score and sound design repurposed for Doctor Sleep--things like the heavy, ominous chords blasting over the opening scenes and the thumping heartbeat effects during key moments.

"[The heartbeat] is one of the most genius elements in The Shining score. Genius. The reason why is that it's a sound our minds have gotten used to tuning out," Flanagan explained to GameSpot during the Doctor Sleep press junket in Hollywood. "We all have it and it increases or decreases in tempo based on our levels of anxiety. Because we accept it as an expression of ourselves, as an internal process, if you turn up the tempo of a heartbeat while someone listens, they become more anxious."

He continued, "it was such a beautiful signature. I thought if we can bring that back and if we can kind of let that be one of the genetic strands that really connect that film and this film, we just have to be sure to use it properly. And to try and not only to use it the way he did, but look for new ways to do it too--ways to alter the sound, to play with it."

Flanagan explained that there was originally a melodic score written for the movie that they eventually decided to scrap it, in favor of more ambient sounds. "We cut it all in favor of using the heartbeat because it was so effective," he laughed. "In so many different contexts, it would just carry you."

But the pulse of a human heart isn't the only sonic trick at play in Doctor Sleep--during key scenes, Flanagan and his team also leaned into other, less familiar nods to The Shining to manipulate their viewers. In one particularly anxiety-ridden moment, the sound of Danny's big wheel tires rumbling down the halls of The Overlook Hotel from the original film was overlayed onto a scene of cars rolling through a forest.

"[In that moment] the heartbeat kind of gets us into that as they pull up, but the sound of the tires of the vehicles when they go off the gravel onto the paved road in the woods...we just took the sound of the trike tires on the tile and the carpet," Flanagan explained. "So you're actually being reminded of the sound of that trike bouncing up and down off the carpet onto the tile. It creates anxiety...because it's pulling you right back into one of the most kind of intense moments of The Shining and you don't know it."

He laughed, acknowledging that these touches probably won't be noticed by most viewers--but they don't need to be noticed to work their magic. "That was some of the most fun we had, was how to do these little things no one's ever going to notice, but that if we do it right, are going to make people feel uncomfortable for reasons they can't explain."

Other sound effects were given the same treatment. For instance, Flanagan pointed out, the sound of the True Knot's, the quasi-vampiric antagonists, "steam canisters"--the mysterious tech they use to store the psychic energy of the dead--opening has a disturbing origin.

"Every time they open a steam canister from the beginning of the film and you hear that hiss of the steam coming out, that is [a child's] screams altered," he said. "The sound of the air associated with the steam and the True Knot is all distorted versions of a child screaming."

Doctor Sleep hits theaters on November 8.

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