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'Here's Johnny!:' The 'Shining' Line That Younger People Might Not Get

Entertainment | October 18, 2019

Jack Nicholson really knows how to make an entrance in 'The Shining.' Source: (IMDB.com)

Of all the stolen movie lines, "Here's Johnny!" might be the best.

It happens in The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Stanley Kubrick, which isn’t just a horror classic -- the 1980 psycho-chiller is a staple of modern cinema. The film has been combed over and debated for decades, but the scene that’s endlessly quoted is when Jack Torrance (Nicholson) busts through a bathroom door with an ax and shouts, “Here’s Johnny!” No matter how many times you’ve seen the movie, this intense scene will still get your heart racing.

Here’s the thing about this scene: as scary as it is, to this day, younger viewers might not realize that Nicholson is actually referencing Ed McMahon and The Tonight Show. Let that sink in while we explore the bathroom at the Overlook Hotel. 

Jack Nicholson Does A Great Ed McMahon Impression

Jack Nicholson walking through snowy maze in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980. Source: (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

By 1980 it was a well-known fact that before Johnny Carson stepped out from between those curtains at the beginning of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson he’d be introduced by his second banana Ed McMahon. Ed had been making the announcement since 1962, so the quote was basically a piece of Americana at the time. Carson must have loved the scene because of the full, terrifying scenario to open his 1980 anniversary special. Whatever’s going on in that scene, both behind the camera and on film, has a certain kind of magic that connects with viewers regardless of whether they’re familiar with the reference or the source material. 

The Line Was Improvised

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Whether or not this line is improvised has become a minor source of debate in cinephile circles for years. While the line doesn’t appear in King’s source material, it does appear in transcripts of the film that can be found online. However, it’s unclear if those were made after the film was released or if they’re copies of the actual screenplay. What we know for sure is that it doesn’t appear in Kubrick’s initial treatment and that Kubrick himself was open about the fact that he liked improvisation on set. By this point in principal photography, Nicholson had reportedly given up on reading his pages for the day because they were constantly changing. It’s likely that Nicholson improvised the line because Kubrick wasn’t keyed into the American late-night talk show circuit, thus he wouldn’t have written a line like that.

In 1980, Kubrick discussed the writing and production of the film with The Soho News, explaining that his writing process involves carving the screenplay down into a fine starting point for production, and then throwing it out once the actors are on set. He said:

I find that no matter how carefully you write a scene, when you rehearse it for the first time there always seems to be something completely different, and you realize that there are interesting ideas in the scene which you never thought of, or that ideas that you thought were interesting aren’t. Or that the weight of the idea is unbalanced; something is too obvious or not clear enough, so I very often rewrite the scene with the rehearsal. I feel it’s the way you can take the best advantage of both the abilities of the actors and even perhaps the weaknesses of the actors. If there’s something they aren’t doing, or it’s pretty clear they can’t do (I must say that’s not true in The Shining because they were so great), you suddenly become aware of ideas and possibilities which just didn’t occur to you.

Kubrick Nearly Cut The Quote From The Movie

Source: (Warner Bros.)

When Jack Nicholson shouted “Here’s Johnny” as he burst through a bathroom door with a fireman’s axe, he was tapping into the American zeitgeist of the time. He took a phrase that filled people with joy and made it about instilling fear. It’s so intrinsically American that Stanley Kubrick didn’t know what Nicholson was talking about.

Kubrick, who was born in New York City, moved to England in 1961 while filming Lolita and he never left. By the time The Shining was in production in 1978 he was so far removed from the American late-night scene that the line was meaningless, so it nearly cut it from the film and used a different take. 

Shelley Duvall Was Legitimately Afraid During These Scenes

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Stanley Kubrick had a way of getting intense, realistic performances out of his actors and it didn’t have anything to do with discussing their craft. He was famous for shooting take after take of the same scene, something that drove his cast and crew to tears. Shelley Duvall drew the worst of his ire. His methods pushed her to have a nervous breakdown, they constantly argued over the script, and she was so overwhelmed that she started losing her hair during the film’s production.

While filming the famous scene where Nicholson chases her up a flight of stairs with his ax she was pushed to the brink of madness by Kubrick, who made her run from Nicholson again and again until she was genuinely terrified. By the time Nicholson is bursting through the door, she’s not even acting anymore, but rather reacting. 

The Crew Nearly Went Through 60 Doors To Film The Scene

Source: (Warner Bros.)

While the actual scene may be short, it actually took three days to film and around 60 doors had to be chopped through until Kubrick was satisfied. Originally, Kubrick figured that production could just use a prop door and call it a day, but that plan quickly broke down. Nicholson was a former volunteer fire marshal and a firefighter in the California Air National Guard, and he was so pumped up for the scene that he tore through the fake door and a real, solid door had to be placed on the bathroom’s hinges.

Footage from behind the scenes of the scenes has been released and it shows Nicholson getting into such a state while filming that he nearly knocks a guy’s head off while preparing to film the scene. The next time you watch The Shining try to remember that you’re watching actual crazy people being pushed to get crazier by a madman. 

The Scene Was Voted The Scariest In Movie History

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Nearly four decades after its release, the “Here’s Johnny” scene is still connecting with viewers and scaring them out of their socks. The Guardian reports that 10,000 people were polled to discover the 10 scariest films in existence. From those 10 films, people were hooked up to heart rate monitors in order to measure which scenes were the freakiest.

By calculating the heart rate increases in each filmgoer when they watched specific scenes, the pollsters were able to determine that the scene from The Shining was the scariest out of the 10 movies because it made the viewer’s pulse skyrocket by 28.2%. A Nightmare On Elm Street came in second place, and The Exorcist came in third.

Tags: Famous Movie Scenes | Famous Quotes From The 1980s | Jack Nicholson | Johnny Carson | Movies In The 1980s | The Shining

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.