While now widely considered an all-time classic, upon its release The Shining failed to impress, often dismissed as a poor adaptation of a great horror novel - and a not-so-great Stanley Kubrick movie. Yet, of all his films, The Shining holds the most universal appeal to an average viewer. On a basic level it’s a simple, captivating ghost story about a failed writer who, influenced by an evil force, attempts to murder his family. However, once you take a closer look, a multitude of previously “overlooked” details unveil an intricate narrative told with unusually complex film language and packed with powerful symbolism.
Over the years there have been a number of efforts to decipher the hidden message of the film, resulting in a broad spectrum of theories – some plausible, other downright paranoid. Kubrick doesn’t offer a single, definite interpretation. Instead, he invites us to make up our own meanings by exploring the maze of seemingly irrelevant cues found in bizarre dialog lines, hotel decor, background artwork, colors, mirrors, camera movements, numbers and dates.
The Overlook Hotel
The Overlook Hotel up in the mountains in Colorado closes down from October until May. Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and son Danny move there for the winter to take care of the building. During Jack’s interview in one of the early scenes, the hotel manager, Ullman, informs him about the incident involving one of the winter caretakers a couple years before. The man, Charles Grady, suffered a “mental breakdown”. He “ran amuck”, murdered his wife and two daughters with an ax and subsequently shot himself in the head. Ullman describes it as the result of a “cabin fever”, a “claustrophobic reaction when people are shut in together over long periods of time.”
The story doesn’t seem to put off Jack. He’s certain it won’t happen to him. His wife is a confirmed horror film addict, and he’s sure she “will be absolutely fascinated”. Danny is the only one with a bad premonition about the hotel. His imaginary friend Tony (“the boy who lives in his mouth”) shows him the gory events that took place there. We later find out that Tony first appeared after Jack, once a heavy drinker, physically abused Danny. However, as Wendy says, it was “purely an accident” and a wake-up call for Jack, who hasn’t touched any alcohol in 5 months1.
When the Torrances arrive at the Overlook, an important part of the hotel is introduced: a giant hedge maze, right next to the main building. “I wouldn’t want to go there unless I had an hour to spare”, Ullman says. The unsettling detail about the maze is that there seems to be no place for it around the hotel2:
When Halloran gives Wendy a tour of the kitchen, she refers to it as “a giant maze". During the interview scene, Kubrick introduces Jack as a writer and a schoolteacher - “to make ends meet". Characters often reference the maze and Kubrick suggest that the hotel itself is a giant labyrinth with its complex layout and winding corridors. “I feel I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in”, Wendy says.
A month passes. We see Wendy working in the kitchen, while Danny is exploring the hotel on his tricycle. Jack, in turn, spends most of the time at the typewriter at the Colorado Lounge. He loves the place, he’s “never been this happy or comfortable anywhere” and from the first moment at the hotel, he felt as though he’d been here before, “almost as if he knew what was going to be around every corner”.
The hotel seems like a perfect place for him to work on his novel, yet the writing is not coming together. In one scene we see a blank page in the typewriter, with Jack in the background, throwing a tennis ball against the wall and walking without purpose around the lounge. Kubrick shows him looming over the model of the maze, while Wendy and Danny explore the real thing outside.
As time passes, Jack becomes increasingly frustrated. He has “lots of ideas”, but “no good ones”. When Wendy interrupts him, he lashes out and berates her, shifting the blame for his inability to produce results. He rarely leaves the lounge and even the color of his typewriter grows darker as the movie progresses.
The sense of isolation and growing resentment towards his wife and son push Jack towards the dark part of the hotel. Even though he is the caretaker, Wendy is the only one ever shown doing work around the hotel. One time, when checking up on giant boilers in the basement, she presses a button and this seems to jolt Jack into a harrowing nightmare. Alarmed by his screaming, Wendy runs to the lounge. Jack falls of the chair, wakes up terrified and gives an account of his “most terrible nightmare, the most horrible dream”, in which he killed Wendy and Danny by “cutting them up into little pieces”. “I must be losing my mind”, he says in tears. While Wendy is trying to console him, absent-minded-looking Danny slowly walks into the lounge. Wendy notices the torn sweater and bruises on his neck. With no other people in the hotel, Jack is the only one to take the blame for “doing this” to Danny.
The hotel lures Jack to The Gold Room, where he gets to “give his goddamn soul” for a drink. A ghost bartender, Lloyd, offers him a glass of whiskey3. Jack feels he needs a little break from “that bitch”, “the old sperm bank upstairs”, but it’s “nothing he can’t handle.” Lloyd understands him perfectly. “Women. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them”, he says. Jack admits he did happen to hurt Danny once, but it was just “a momentary loss of muscular coordination” that “could’ve happened to anybody.”
Wendy runs into the Gold Room, snapping Jack out of his hallucination. She tells him that “there’s a crazy woman in one of the rooms” who “tried to strangle Danny”. Jack ventures into Room 237, straight into the bathroom where he sees an attractive naked young woman. He kisses her, but a quick glance at the mirror reveals Jack embracing a rotting body of an old toothless hag. Terrified, he runs out of the room, locks the door and walks away backwards. While Danny will later backtrack in the maze to save himself from his father, Jack walks further into his delusions.
He says to Wendy that he “didn’t see one goddamn thing” in the room, questioning Danny’s credibility. “Once you rule out his version of what happened, there is no other explanation”, he says. Wendy wants to leave the hotel, anticipating the imminent tragedy. Jack is furious at Wendy for “creating such problem” when he “finally has a chance to accomplish something”, when he’s “really into his work”. He blames her for destroying his life, and for a moment, just as he’s about to leave the room and slam the door, we see him glancing straight into the camera.
He heads to The Gold Room, where he joins a big party. He’s immediately recognized and welcomed at the door. Sloppy and underdressed, Jack looks out of place. And yet he’s an important guest – too important to pay for his drinks. “Orders from the house”, Lloyd says – for the first time acknowledging the existence of the hotel as a thinking entity. Jack gets to live his fantasy, in which he’s a successful, respected writer.
A man spills Advocaat on Jack and offers that they move to the men’s room to clean up “the awful mess” from his jacket. When the man reveals his name, Jack immediately recognizes him as a previous caretaker of the hotel, the one who “chopped his wife and daughters up into little bits.” Grady doesn’t “have any recollection of that at all”, saying that Jack is the caretaker and “has always been the caretaker.” Later Grady admits that he merely “corrected” his family when they tried to prevent him from “doing his duty” and warns Jack that Danny, who has “a very great talent”, is “attempting to bring an outside party into this situation.”
Jack destroys the radio and the snowcat and returns to his writing. While he’s away, Wendy discovers hundreds of pages with the same sentence repeated over and over: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Jack appears behind her. Wendy backtracks across the Colorado lounge (just as Danny will do later in the maze), swinging a baseball bat to protect herself from the husband who threatens to “bash her brains in”. She leads him upstairs and manages to hit him in the head with the bat. While Jack’s unconscious, she drags him to the storage room and locks him there.
When Jack wakes up, Grady (whom we only indentify by the voice) complains that “he hardly took care of their business” and when Jack reassures him, Grady unlocks the door. This is the only truly supernatural thing in the movie.
Jack grabs an ax and heads to the family bedroom. Wendy locks herself in the bathroom, letting Danny escape through a tiny window. Jack slams the door with the ax and the sound of Halloran’s snowcat arriving at the hotel prevents him from murdering Wendy. Halloran, unarmed, walks into the hotel and Jack immediately kills him. Danny, hiding in one of the kitchen cupboards, hears this and runs away, luring Jack out of the hotel, straight into the maze.
Jack follows his son’s trace through the snowy corridors of the maze. Danny retraces his steps and manages to run away, leaving Jack trapped. Wendy and Danny use Halloran’s snowcat to escape and Jack is shown frozen – first in the maze, later in a photograph from the July 4th ball in 1921.
White Man’s Burden
The Overlook is a peculiar place where Navajo and Apache artwork, patterns and ornaments contrast with American eagles and US flags. As Ullman proudly says, “it’s an old place with illustrious past.” It was built on an ancient Indian burial ground and “they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks when they were building it.”
The Overlook is a perfect symbol of the American success – a beautiful place where presidents, royals and movie stars (“all the best people”) chose to stay. Kubrick hints that it is also a success built on blood, terror and repression.
During the car ride to Overlook, Danny says he’s hungry. In the following conversation Wendy and Jack mention the Donner Party, who, snowbound high up in the Sierra mountains, “had to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive.” They “ate each other up” – “they had to, in order to survive”. Jack’s offhand rationalization of settlers' behavior is echoed later in the surreal conversation with Lloyd: “I like you, Lloyd. I always liked you. You were always the best of ‘em. Best god-damn bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine – or Portland, Oregon, for that matter. Here’s for five miserable months on the wagon, and all the irreparable harm that it’s caused me.” Jack continues: “you set ‘em up and I’ll knock ‘em back, Lloyd. One by one. White man’s burden, my man. White man’s burden.”
White Man’s Burden is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which praises the virtues of imperialism. The eponymous burden (duty) of an European man was to conquer and civilize natives of The New World, who did not comprehend the superiority of the European culture. Genocide of indigenous peoples was rationalized as a noble act in the name of a greater good. Jack and Grady follow the same pattern of thinking: it’s their “duty” to “correct” their families.
During the dialogue with Lloyd, Jack refers to his wife as “sperm bank”. Grady, on the other hand, is repulsed by the notion of a “nigger” interfering with “their business.” His British accent is not arbitrary. It’s as if Kubrick wanted us to think of him as a representation of the early British settlers who started the whole cycle of murder upon which The Overlook was built. It’s probably also why Kubrick chose to sacrifice Halloran’s life (which doesn’t happen in the book).
In a broader sense, it’s tempting to read The Shining as a movie about the nature and history of humanity – a cycle that is constantly repeating itself. Genocide or The Holocaust are just common patterns of human existence. We commit horrible crimes over and over again and, like Grady, we forget about them only to start over. Grady, who murdered his family, has “no recollection of that at all”, yet he knows he’s “always been there”. He refers to murder as “correction” or “duty”, rationalizing atrocities commited in the name of civility and a greater goal.
In that sense, Jack and Grady are archetypes used to represent a bigger picture. Jack, trapped in a maze, repeats the same cycle of bestiality as his predecessors, despite being convinced that he’s different. As Holloran explains, “when something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind”, like “burnt toast”. The Overlook Hotel is filled with traces of past tragedies. Danny is the only one aware of these traces and the only one who learned to see the patterns. He breaks this vicious cycle. He retraces his steps (an old Indian trick) and escapes the fate written for him.
Mirrors and Doubles
The themes of duality, doubles and mirrors play an important role in the movie and Kubrick consistently uses them to guide us through the narrative.
While mirror reflections are usually somewhat flawed and distorted, in The Shining mirrors seem to offer a more reliable version of the reality and often serve as a warning to the viewer. During the first conversation with Tony, Danny is addressing his reflection in the mirror. Whenever Jack sees a ghost, he’s always facing a mirror (or a semi-reflective door in the store room), therefore it’s not perfectly clear whether ghosts are real, or merely reflections of his troubled mind. Kubrick first implies the duality of Jack’s character by showing him in the mirror in the scene when Wendy brings his breakfast. Later on, in the same room, when Danny asks Jack if he’d ever hurt him and his mom, he’s addressing his father’s reflection in the mirror. In Room 237, the bathroom mirrors reveal the dark side of Jack’s sexual fantasy.
The film is constantly referencing and mirroring itself. Some scenes are filmed from left to right. Later we see similar themes filmed from right to left. Examples: camera movement during Jack’s first appearance at the hotel is reversed in the second visit. The opening shots show his yellow Beetle on the road on the left side of the mountain. When the Torrances drive up to the hotel on the closing day, their car is moving along the right side of the mountain. Jack’s interview pairs with Wendy’s conversation with the doctor. Bill Watson, the summer caretaker bears a striking resemblance to Jack. The opening credits roll upwards, resembling the end of the movie. Similarly, the end credits appear at the center of the screen and fade out, which we typically see at the beginning.
Kubrick is consistently using this pattern throughout the movie. Themes are repeated, but they’re always filmed from a different angle.
While comparisons to Stephen King’s novel are unavoidable, it’s hard to treat Kubrick’s version as an adaptation, as it differs significantly from the original. Even though Stephen King wrote the initial script of the movie, Kubrick dismissed it and hired another writer, Diane Johnson, to help him with this version of The Shining, because he thought her writing style was more interesting than King’s. Much to King’s dismay, Kubrick stripped out most of the back story, reduced it to a basic narrative and meticulously built his own version around it.
The result is an incredibly complex film, with a staggering number of hidden details. It’s hard to imagine that all are deliberate, but there’s simply too many of them to be a happy coincidence.
I merely touched upon the subject and if you’d like to see a more detailed analysis, I encourage you to read the scene-by-scene breakdown on The Kubrick Corner and MSTRMND’s series about the film. There’s also a great documentary called Room 237, which offers a great selection of interesting details found in The Shining.
Enjoy your next viewing of the movie!
- Imperfect Symmetries
- Physical Cosmologies: The Shining
- Secrets of The Shining: Or How Faking the Moon Landings Nearly Cost Stanley Kubrick his Marriage and his Life
- The Shining on Wikipedia
- Kubrick on The Shining - An interview with Michel Ciment
- The Overlook Hotel
However, Jack later recalls that the incident took place “three goddamn years ago”, so we don’t know which version is true.↩
The explanation might be a bit mundane, though. The hotel on the left is The Timberlane Lodge in Oregon, whereas the part we see on the right (as well as the hotel interior) was a custom set constructed at EMI Elstree Studios near London.↩
Jack asks for bourbon, but Lloyd pours him a glass of Jack Daniels.↩