by Flo Leibowitz and Lynn Jeffress
To all appearances, The Shining is simply a hopelessly clichéd gothic horror film. Can this be serious? A lonely house on a hill haunted by ancestral ghosts that curse successive generations and force them to re-enact the original horror. It is not even redeemed by overwhelming technique—Kubrick no doubt enjoyed the helicopter and Steadicam shots but, considering his past technical achievements, these are hardly landmarks. Moreover, many individual shots, at least in concept, are stock horror film material: Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) walking down the empty hallway to his death, back to the audience, waiting for the proverbial ax to fall; Nicholson, weapon in hand, dragging his wounded leg around the mansion, searching for his victims; the eerie night shot of Duvall, trying to escape, stuck halfway out the bathroom window (“Run, Danny, run”). The suspense is equally predictable: Nicholson’s prescient nightmare of his imminent attempt to murder his wife and child; the crosscutting between the endangered mother and child and Hallorann’s rescue attempt; the snocat which won’t start at a crucial moment in the action. And, above all, The Shining, as gothic horror, is filled with apparent inconsistencies and loose ends.
Although most critics have duly noted these aspects of the film, they have dismissed them as inexplicable failings. However, given Kubrick’s propensity to use genres merely as vehicles (2001, Barry Lyndon), one suspects that the “failings” in The Shining are related to Kubrick’s interest in deliberately redirecting the audience’s attention elsewhere. What are Kubrick and screenwriter Diane Johnson up to here?
Without doubt it has much to do with horror. But if it isn’t just gothic horror, what kind of horror is Kubrick showing us? Certainly it has to do with an unnatural father and husband, a man who turns on his family in the most savage way. A closer look at Nicholson’s role as father and husband— the American breadwinner—will be useful for understanding the more profound level of horror at work in the film.
Our first view of Jack Torrance (Nicholson) is in the interview with Stuart Ullman, who exudes the solicitous concern of an undertaker. Though he is merely a hotel manager, Ullman decorates his desk in a manner befitting a government official, conspicuously displaying a small American flag, not the last one we will see among the film’s significant background details. Ullman is proud of the luxurious Overlook Hotel and especially the Indian motifs throughout its interior; the artifacts, the wall hangings, the rugs.
Ullman hires Jack as caretaker of the hotel, closed during the winter months. Torrance is delighted with the job, envisioning five months of peace and quiet in which to write his novel, even though this means subjecting his wife and young son to total isolation. Ullman tells Jack that the hotel, begun in 1907 and finished in 1909, was not welcomed by the local Indians, whose attacks were “repelled” during the hotel’s construction. Ullman also remarks that the hotel was a playground for the jet-set long before it was called that and that it has been visited by several US presidents. Kubrick builds his world carefully and it soon becomes clear that the Overlook is much more than it seems. At one very important level it is a symbol of America, haunted by a murderous past that made it what it is; a showy display of affluence and excess (“You can be in this hotel for a whole year and never have to eat the same thing twice,” declares Hallorann), built at the expense of innocent victims.
As we will see, it becomes apparent that Jack is caretaker not only of the hotel but also of the American dream, depicted in the film as empty and haunted. This illusion is initially seductive but once embraced it shows itself rotting and destructive—like the mysterious woman in room 237. The paradox at the heart of the dream is evoked by the Torrance family ensconced like royalty in the empty Overlook Hotel, enchanted by the illusion of ownership while in fact they are merely employees, living in the shabbiest corner of the hotel. The obverse reality of Kubrick’s America is something other than the hotel’s surface opulence: look again and you see peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, Apollo sweatshirts, Oreo cookies, Heinz ketchup, Roadrunner cartoons—the essence of tacky Americana.
In some ways, The Shining interprets the American dream somewhat as Fitzgerald does in The Great Gatsby, with Gatsby’s West Egg soirees replaced by Jack’s fantasies of elegant parties in the Overlook’s Gold Ballroom. Kubrick however, captures an aspect of the dream that Fitzgerald ignored. Jack maintains an informal western appearance and a drawling speech (especially odd since he has recently been living in Vermont), though he sees himself accepted into the salons of the elite. In Kubrick’s version of the American Dream, admittance to the elite does not mean an automatic sacrifice of one’s man-in-the-street authenticity to snobbery. The most seductive aspect of Kubrick’s version is that a man can have his cake and eat it too. Or can he?
Torrance, a would-be cowboy with a typewriter, is doing his duty, writing the Great American Novel that will insure his rightful place among the successful. His rugged individualism has compelled him to seek solitude in a Rocky Mountain resort, an outpost of civilization where he hopes ideas for the novel will be forthcoming. They are not. “Something wrong with the sperm bank upstairs,’’ he tells Lloyd, the bartender—an ambiguous phrase that refers either to his writer’s block or to his inchoate suspicion that his wife’s presence is making his work impossible. “Nothing I can’t take care of, though,” he reassures Lloyd as he swizzles a whiskey straight. Cowboy Jack has found his Indian and the war is on. The Indian motifs cannot be merely accidental, there are just too many of them: Wendy’s Indian jacket, moccasin-like boots, beaded belt and braids; the rugs and wall hangings; Wendy stalking through the hotel, knife in hand; Danny, like an Indian scout, retracing his steps in the maze; the periodic drum and rattle music—stereotypes to be sure, but for just this reason, easily accessible. Less obvious, perhaps, is the image of Jack at work in the cavernous lobby, backed by an American flag but surrounded on three sides by Indian designs.
Jack’s writing is vitally important to his sense of manhood; thus he feels horribly threatened by his inability to produce. He searches for a scapegoat, a reason for the failure, never entertaining the idea that he might be the source of the problem. His irrationality reaches a climax in the staircase scene when he threatens to murder Wendy, who protects herself with a baseball bat. Jack has failed as a writer. His hundreds of novel-like pages contain only variant retypings of the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”—his work is all form and no content. Jack then remembers his job as caretaker of the hotel (a job that his wife has actually been doing, seeing to the heating, the radios, the power plant, as Jack writes his novel). When Wendy tells him that they must leave the hotel and find a doctor for their son, Jack explodes. He tells her he has responsibilities to his employer; he has been hired to take care of the hotel and he must not fail to do his duty.
Jack’s sense of self and of his relation to others in his often fantasized world shows him to be animated by a patriarchal authoritarianism. This patriarchal world is well defined by his alter-ego relationship to Lloyd and to Grady, the waiter, both men ostensibly servants who have in reality a great deal of control over Jack. After a hard day at work and troubles with the wife. Jack seeks out the local bartender, confidant and caretaker of the male ego. An oddly Faustian pact seems to exist between the two men. Jack sells his soul for a drink, that is, if he is allowed to use liquor to shift the responsibility for his creative block, he will show the boys that he can take care of his problems. The price he pays for the right to conveniently redefine his problem is an unstated agreement to “correct” his wife.
Although the connection between Grady the waiter and Grady the caretaker is confused, the function of Grady the waiter’s relation to Jack is unambiguous—the slave emerges as the real master. The model authoritarian father, Grady allows Jack to rationalize his murderous intentions by disguising them as disciplinary measures that are a father’s prerogative. Later, when Jack has been knocked unconscious by his desperate wife and locked in the storeroom, Grady shows up to reprimand him, faulting him for loss of nerve and clearly implying that Jack doesn’t have what it takes to be a man. He has allowed his wife to best him. Jack pleads for another chance, giving his word of honor that this time he will do it right. Then, in one of the more puzzling moments in the film, Grady, the ostensible phantom, apparently unlocks the door.
The ending of the film is reminiscent in some ways of the ending of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Jack, the loser, frozen to death in the snow, is trapped figuratively and literally in a maze, the victim of the image of himself as the handsome success we see in the last frame (the July 4th, 1921 photo), an image that has obsessed and finally destroyed him. This “splendid portrait” (apologies to Oscar Wilde) hangs in the hotel lobby to seduce other men who too will “overlook” what has gone before, thinking, like Jack Torrance, that they can escape the ancestral curse. In a sense, Kubrick seems to be saying that America has a right to be superstitious, that its ghosts are real, capable of driving men mad, and that the most dangerous ghosts of all are the myths of success (“The American Dream”) and of the authoritarian father.
Kubrick and Johnson have thus constructed an American morality play within the framework of a horror/suspense film combining elements of what we may term the “haunted house” and “crazed killer” varieties. Why would such a structure be attractive? Among the conventional features of these films we find haunted mansions whose ghosts interact with various human characters, the violence of madmen, and innocent victims who realize that they are about to be victimized barely in time to escape destruction—if they realize it at all. It makes sense, then, to suppose that a film-maker, convinced that destructive ghosts from the past haunt America’s contemporary ideological landscape, might turn to the horror/suspense genre, particularly when these ghosts encourage, as they do in The Shining, isolation, madness, and victimization.
But what is it about The Shining that is unsatisfying? Primarily it is that the symbolic and literal (i.e., nonsymbolic) levels of the film tend to diverge from one another, sometimes to too great an extent to be reunited without artificial devices which confuse the viewer. The critics’ complaints that the film is damaged by too many loose ends and seemingly inexplicable details and incongruities thus are justified, as far as they go. What has not been explored, however, are the reasons these problems arise at all. For this, we must look at the multi-leveled structure of the film as it develops within the plan described above.
There are actually three basic levels of the film, each dealing with a different set of events:
The fantasy level: Jack’s interactions with the Overlook’s phantoms—Lloyd, Grady, the party-goers in the Gold Ballroom, and the woman in room 237. Events on this level tend to have purely symbolic or allegorical significance.
The family level: The interactions of the members of the Torrance family with one another. This level itself divides into two distinct segments. The first, commencing at the beginning of the film and ending with Wendy leaving Jack locked in the storeroom, frequently functions as an allegory concerning the way in which the members of a contemporary American middle-class family relate to each other. The second, beginning in earnest with Jack’s ax smashing through the apartment door and ending with Wendy and Danny escaping in Hallorann’s rented snocat, is primarily a horror tale featuring a crazed ax murderer’s hunt for victims in a house haunted by phantoms.
The shining level: Danny’s exercise of his shining powers and related interactions. This level is composed of scenes dealing with (a) Danny’s communications (spoken as well as shined) with Hallorann, (b) Danny’s exchanges with Tony and (c) his visitations by images of two little girls, presumably the former caretaker’s twin daughters.
The confusion produced in many viewers by what turn out to be the more symbolic elements of the film is not necessarily surprising, since for about the first full hour of the film we are miscued: we have virtually no idea that anything symbolic is going to go on at all, much less that it is to be the heart of the movie. What may constitute an exception to this, though, surfaces during the Torrances’ drive to the Overlook. When Danny asks about the Donner Party, Jack replies that they were forced to eat each other ’’in order to stay alive,” thus describing in a metaphorical way what can happen to families under the pressure of the myths of success and masculinity treated in the film.
But there is something else. The fantasy level and the first part of the family level contain most of the social comment, which according to this analysis is of primary importance to the film. However, the most dramatic literal narrative moments of the film are provided by the second part of the family level and the shining level. This creates a problem, since several of the most significant symbolic sequences of the film (e.g., Jack’s talks with Lloyd and Grady; the juxtaposition of Jack, frozen in the maze, with the July 4. 1921 photo) occur apart from the moments of high dramatic interest, thus making it less likely that the audience will appreciate the importance of these scenes. Jack and Wendy’s semi-allegorical staircase confrontation is a notable exception (though technically, it occurs late in the first part of the family level, and not in the second); it is not surprising, then, that this is one of the film’s most gripping and effective sequences. (Incidentally, the allegory in this confrontation is actually threefold. It involves the pressure on males to carry out work responsibilities and the fetishization of contracts as well as stereotypical postures of husbands and wives in domestic quarrels.)
The symbolic and the literal are mismatched in other ways. A few scenes which have symbolic meaning (e.g., Jack seeing Wendy and Danny in the maze model—the father/master surveying his charges) are without a matching amount of meaning for the narrative, if they have any at all. On the other hand, there are several sequences important to the horror narrative which lack a matching amount of symbolic content (e.g., Jack breaking into the apartment; the snocat arriving).
In addition, the contents of some symbolically important moments are unnecessary or even intrusive on the literal level. For instance. Jack’s talk with Grady in the men’s room serves social comment purposes, allowing Kubrick to represent the pressures exerted on men (by other men) through the myth of the authoritarian father. Here, the need for “discipline” has become a cover for merely destructive impulses expressing Jack’s inner frustration. However, on the literal level, the addition of the mythic element becomes superfluous. For just as we do not need Grady’s later taunting of Jack in the storeroom to make it plausible that Jack will continue to pursue his family once he gets out, we do not need the added psychodynamics introduced in this scene to make it plausible that Jack turns killer. Both the staircase confrontation and subsequent ax attack fit in more naturally with previous nonsymbolic expressions of frustration (e.g., Jack playing handball in his work room; Jack becoming irritated with Wendy for “disturbing |his| concentration”; his nightmare and progressive facial distortions). In fact, if any symbolically significant scene is relevant to convincing us that Jack can indeed turn killer, it is his comment to Lloyd that his “sperm bank” problems are “nothing [he] can’t handle.”
Here, ironically, the horror film conventions themselves get in the way. The establishing of elaborate psychological mechanisms is not needed to give a “crazed killer” film its interest—the mere sequencing of threatening behavior, portrayed only on the phenomenological level, can be enough to satisfy the audience, since to become involved in such a film, we only need be tuned to when, where, or whom the killer will strike next. For example in Psycho, we do not know through most of the film what motivates Anthony Perkins to strike, and we do not need to care. Nonetheless. Kubrick may feel that relying solely on interest in when the killer will strike tends to make for merely superficial or cheap suspense, and hence he may see Grady’s talks with Jack not as intrusive, but as lending a certain amount of sophistication to the narrative while allowing the expression of social observations.
The sequences involving room 237 appear to be intended to tie the three levels together, though this does not always occur with the desired seamlessness. These scenes comprise (a) Jack’s interaction with a hotel ghost (the nude bather/hag) functioning as a symbolic representation of an American ideal (fantasy level); (b) Jack, acting as a protector, at the behest of his wife, who insists that Jack go into room 237 for a look because the “crazy woman” who hurt Danny is in there (family-level) and (c) Danny having had premonitions about room 237 and having provoked a cryptic warning from Halloran when he asked about the place (shining level).
The ball which rolls onto the rug where Danny is playing appears to be merely a device to lead him to his attacker, so that the film can begin to build in earnest. Having only set the stage up until this point (showing us Jack’s growing frustration. revealing Danny’s psychic powers, especially in connection with the Overlook Hotel, and showing us Wendy’s closeness to Danny and the isolation of the Overlook in the winter). Kubrick needs a way to, well, start the ball rolling and get us to the important symbolic scenes (Jack goes to the Gold Ballroom for his first encounter with Lloyd after Wendy accuses him of being Danny’s molester) and to important narrative developments. (As Jack goes to room 237 to look for the alleged attacker, Danny shines to Hallorann for help, starting the latter’s fatal journey. In addition. Wendy’s decision to leave the hotel with Danny, which in turn sets the stage for the staircase confrontation, the subsequent chases and Jack’s ultimate destruction in the maze, is prompted in large part by the attack on Danny.)
Who it was that did attack Danny is. to many viewers, left too unclear to be satisfying. Insofar as The Shining is taken strictly as a horror/suspense film, this response is not unreasonable, for in such films, raising and providing the answer to a “whodunit” question is frequently the source of the basic interest. However, whether it was Jack or the woman in 237 who rolled the ball, and who it was that actually attacked Danny, are not ultimately significant issues for the film seen as a symbolic exercise. Treating the film this way, we need only interpret the attack, whether by Jack or by the woman in room 237 (supposing that these two are the only candidates) as the victimization of innocent kids by contemporary cultural mythologies en bloc. Perhaps Kubrick even left it unresolved whether Jack or the woman was the attacker in order to raise the question of the extent to which an individual influenced by hegemonic mythologies is actually responsible for the damage that acting in accordance with them may cause. While this may seem farfetched initially, this kind of issue would not be out of keeping with the kinds of philosophical issues concerning responsibility for one’s actions which surfaced in A Clockwork Orange.
Many viewers, however, do not experience the film as the rather dislocated work the observations above could lead one to expect. Why is this?
For one thing, the segue from the first to the second part of the family level is gradual enough so that the transition to the crazed killer story from the American family allegory does not jar. For instance, the move to Jack breaking into the apartment via the staircase scene, Wendy giving Danny-now-Tony his breakfast, and the “Redrum’’ sequence, transforms our expectations in such a way that we make the transition without really being aware of it, which is as it should be.
Further, the various story lines are eliminated in an order appropriate to the film’s symbolic project. First, Hallorann is killed off, terminating the shining level. Subsequently, Wendy and Danny leave in the snocat, terminating the family level. This leaves us only with the symbolic level on which to concentrate. Moreover, the film’s final moments (juxtaposing the destroyed Jack with the elegant Jack in the photograph) has meaning in both literal and symbolic contexts. On the literal level, we find out that Jack has, as he claims, “been here before,” apparently the reincarnation of a Roaring ’20’s hotel guest. On the symbolic level, we are shown the self-image (Jack as a member of the elite) that was a major component of his undoing.
Of the dissonant moments mentioned earlier. Grady’s unlocking of the storeroom door is one of the most striking. While this occurrence, like the appearance of the tennis ball, docs function as a device to get the action going again, it also serves to get the fantasy level back into the film after the audience has been distracted from it by some often intense drama (e.g.. the staircase confrontation and the preceding scene in which Wendy discovers Jack’s “prose”).
While it is easy to dismiss the storeroom scene as a mere artifice (and we are not convinced that it is not ultimately this) it is worth remarking that this scene is not without potential symbolic meaning. For it is in this scene that we first see that the more “lifelike” phantoms, and not just the images of the twins, can move from place to place in the hotel. We can take this as a suggestion that the ideals with which the film is concerned haunt us more thoroughly than we may have imagined, a statement that their influence is everywhere in our culture. Finally, we might interpret the unlocking of the door as a symbolic, if somewhat coy, reminder that mythologies, like the ghost of Grady, may lack substance but can still have surprising efficacy in the material world.
The myth of “making it” is destroying Jack and his family, but he never sees things that way, or worse, never sees this situation as constituting a problem. Wendy, however, apparently does see this as she herself, running through the Overlook knife in hand, sees various specters—the Gold Ballroom Filled with cobwebs and skeletons, Grady bleeding from the head, the ornate elevator spewing blood. Though these scenes appear unnecessary on the literal level, they serve an important symbolic function; here Wendy is seeing the underside of what has been driving Jack.
It is not entirely surprising that Wendy finally understands what has been going on with Jack. Early in the film, we can get the idea that Wendy already is, as it were, on the trail, as she describes how Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder. At first, it appears that she believes only that Jack’s drinking was responsible. But she proceeds to tell us, increasingly embarrassed, how Jack came home from that particular spree to find that Danny had scattered some of his papers on the floor. At that point, we may suspect that she really does know at some level that Jack’s attitude toward work was ultimately responsible, but is trying to keep this from herself. By the end of the film, however, her self-deception is no longer possible. In having the visions she does, Wendy is seeing not only what has happened to her husband, to their relationship, and to their son, but why it has happened.*
This brings us to the question of the ultimate significance of “shining” for the film. On the allegorical level, Hallorann’s and Danny’s shining powers at first seem to represent the ability—not necessarily supernatural—to see the ugly realities and histories behind inviting appearances, especially when these warn of impending victimization. (Danny’s psychic friend Tony, who warns him about the Overlook Hotel, first appeared after Jack dislocated Danny’s arm.) Shining, then seems to be a kind of survival skill that helps the oppressed to defend themselves. One of its most interesting aspects is the community formed by those who either shine or are aided by those who do—the only genuine community in the film, one made up of women, children, and blacks, three of America’s traditional victims. It should be noted that the relationships between the child, the black, and the woman are the only ones free of the self-serving motives that govern those in which Jack participates. It is not surprising that Jack dies alone.
Ultimately, however, shining may be just what Hallorann told Danny it was—detecting the traces of the past and portents of the future operating in the present. In this sense, not only do Hallorann and Danny shine, but Jack and Wendy (and. one is tempted to add. all of us) do. too. Danny secs warning images of past victims. Jack is moved by the old forces which perpetrate (and perpetuate) the damage, while Wendy sees the perpetrators for what they really are, that is, what they will become. In the film’s allegorical world, fathers (the white, middle-class, educated ones in particular) are the primary targets of the seductive side of the myth of success. Children are, and sense when they are about to be, victims of this myth, though they do not understand what is behind it. In this film, it is the mothers who are distant enough, yet involved and aware enough, to see what is seducing their husbands and destroying their kids though, like Wendy, they may do so after it is almost too late.
In The Shining, as in Barry Lyndon, Kubrick shows us a society in which surface elegance hides a dissipated and ultimately destructive existence. In A Clockwork Orange, he gave us one totally violent society; in The Shining, he gives us still another. This time, however, the violence is born of trying to live up to oppressive expectations and not out of some perverted lust for life. But what is most intriguing in The Shining is that Kubrick’s themes of violence and dissipation are developed in a decidedly American, not European, context. In 2001, Kubrick suggested we could transcend our dissipation with a new frontier—outer space. With The Shining, thirteen years later, he is observing that life in America might well destroy us first. If there are any frontiers left for Kubrick, they do not involve the expansion of boundaries but the construction of new social relationships within our existing borders.
In her review of The Shining, Pauline Kael implies that Kubrick, too long absent from America, cannot really understand us. But it is evident from the film that he understands us very well and is trying to tell us something important about ourselves. Kubrick, in fact, is coming home.
* The interpretation of Wendy’s, spectres, taken individually, though, is not without problems. It is hard to know, for example. what to make of the two men, one of whom wears what appears to be the mask of a pig or a boar, who have been interrupted in what is apparently an act of homosexual intercourse. Is this a homophobic way of saying that those who appear superficially to be the embodiment of masculinity (the “male chauvinist pigs“?) are in reality not very manly at all?
Film Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 45-51