A recent variation in the horror movie genre has been a series of films about middle class life in America in which the source of potential hazard is middle class life.

by Stephen Snyder

The Essential American is hard, isolated, stoic and a killer.1
— D. H. Lawrence

A recent variation in the horror movie genre has been a series of films about middle class life in America in which the source of potential hazard is middle class life. Of course, middle class values have been impugned in every period of film (sometimes brutally, as in Alice Adams), but the notion of that life as tantamount to the world of horror has been mushrooming. This tendency suggests a growing sense in Americans that something almost too nebulous to define is gnawing at our vital organs. In film, this network of anxieties is often realized in terms of the troubling insatiateness which underlies the structure of American family life. In a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the family emerges as a predatory cell of capitalist consumer mentality which turns people into barbeque. In Poltergeist, the acquisition of the ultimate middle-class dream house becomes the purchase of a graveyard. And in Burnt Offerings, Karen Black and Oliver Reed obtain the house of their dreams-isolated, bland, and designed for continual leisure — only to find that it possesses them; in fact, they are eventually destroyed by their dream. Halloween invites us to see comfortable suburban life as a potential gene pool for monstrous incarnations of male ego bent on murdering everything feminine. Generally, these films identify traditional masculine values of conquest, coupled to a mindless consumerism, as the lever unhinging our sanity.
All of these issues combine in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to fashion a kind of ultimate reification of such middle class horror films. Kubrick’s satire on our leisure culture values and lifestyle is made more trenchant by his ability to telescope these issues into an historical view of American life which isolates the union of our heritage of rationality (technology and progress) and our latent fear of relationship (a love of isolation) as perhaps the primal ghost haunting our American dreams. While some critics have noted the film’s concern with American values and its critique of our heritage of rationalism, no one has considered the conflation of these elements as they take shape in our collective psyche as the leisure culture syndrome. We laugh at hearing Jack shout “Here’s Johnny!” while demolishing Wendy’s door with an axe, or when we see Hallorann lying abed between gigantic Penthouse nude posters, but Kubrick’s humor signals a serious sense that our consumerist mentality both hides and fosters contradictory elements in the American soul which erupt in violence against ourselves.2
Although the average American may think of his country as the land of the free and the home of endless opportunity, students of American culture have suggested the presence in our psyche of dangerously contradictory elements. One of the more illuminating commentaries is D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which suggests that the pioneers of America came here not to find freedom but to escape fighting for it. No sooner do they arrive than “they entrench themselves in isolation.”3 We are fort builders whose desire is to imperialize the land but have little truck with it; we idealize work into an ethic precisely because we dislike it. Freedom from work and, ultimately, from all demanding activity is our real goal. Were he writing today, Lawrence might suggest that the American dream of opportunity has degenerated into the paranoid fantasy of owning a dream house — a house under whose skin lurks the skeletal contours of the frontier army fort. Both are instruments for protection and detachment. Americans are not the extroverts parodied in British jokes, but a curiously in-turned group, enclosed not by obvious tradition, but by a xenophobic fear of each other. In these circumstances our idealism can become a channel for isolationism, showing up in the escapism of leisure culture, a refuge from the awareness of change and decay which fosters, by its fear of life, the tumorous growth of the urge to eradicate life. In the films cited, this urge is realized as an assault of males upon females, who have come to embody the procreative and gregarious instincts that the male sees as threatening.
Kubrick crystalizes the image of family life as a consumer cell, leisure culture as retreat, and America as an isolationist colony settled in a natural world to which it cannot relate, in the central image of a vacant resort. Similarly, Danny’s clairvoyance suggests the condition of the American imagination, literally our supra-rational powers of dreaming and creativity, as dangerously internalized in the psyche and thus split from participation in our full personalities. Tony stands for what must be redeemed and reintegrated with the larger world of change and process. These tropes, like the figure of Jack Torrance in his self-imposed sequestration, turn on the image of energies turned inward, souring in their detachment from life and threatening to paralyze all human projects. Retreat, it seems, leaves one vulnerable to the worst demons of his heritage. Fleeing the collectivity of life, one is possessed by the fears latent in the conquest of the pioneers; which is to say. Jack’s isolationism will eventually reveal a peculiarly British background in the figure of Grady, the custodian of British formality who slaughtered his family.
The Shining, as critics have noted, is liveried with the various threads of American life. From American flags to a steady emphasis on the raiments of leisure culture — the resort, the smooth corporate manners of the managers, the lush decadence of 1920’s opulence evoked in the ballroom — the film is imbued with American dreams or ghosts. Perhaps the most evocative is the story of the Donner Party, recalled by Jack; it is a tale of westward pioneers seeking California gold, who, stranded in the mountains, turned to self consumption, making themselves an almost mythic prototype of the consumerist spirit haunting Jack’s own soul. For Jack’s motives, as he tells us, are not merely a desire for peace in which to write, but a desire to escape the unrefined side of life (particularly, the teaching job he describes with disgust and the vision of himself shoveling snow, upon which he heaps all the contumely of his stingy and crabbed spirit). Jack not only wants a bestseller, but the subsequent life of unruffled leisure, the promise of leisure culture for which his parodic cry of “Here’s Johnny!” has become a shibboleth.
As the goal of leisure culture contains the implicit desire to escape work, it contains as well the urge to break off contact with all forms of communal activity. Yet in Kubrick’s film the quest for privacy has a paradoxical twist, for its various modes — especially the lodge-have been institutionalized into public values. Indeed, the urge for retreat is what the resort sanctions by its very existence. Consequently, the motives for isolation lie outside the characters as well as inside. In fact, in the irony of the film, individuals, even in retreat, are able to exist only marginally, either because they are haunted by fear or because their personalities, like that of resort chief, Stewart Ullman, seem more a homogeneous product of corporate values than anything unique to the person. The unctuous pleasantries of Ullman, and even more those of Bill Watson, seem every bit as bland and benign as the various television personalities whose images introduce several scenes in the movie. The corporate personality manifests itself appropriately as a following personality. Thus, the resort tour to which the Torrances are treated seems a follow-the-leader routine with Ullman, Wendy, Jack, and Bill Watson marching single-file through the maze of rooms. Watson, bringing up the rear, never glances left or right but trudges along with an insipid “have-a-nice-day” smile on his face.
Considered more abstractly, the state of retreat defines for Kubrick the structure for most of the scenes, actions dominantly occurring from the “outside-in.” The pattern is particularly associated with Jack. His first scene finds him coming from off-camera left into the hotel lobby, and follows him to the inner-sanctum of Ullman’s office. In the course of the film Jack retreats into himself, into the resort, and finally into the maze. Ironically, his withdrawals serve to make visible or make stronger his entrapment in entangling structures.
If Kubrick’s America is a land of inner oriented retreaters, it is also a land of suppressed violence which lingers into the present, like the smoke of the burnt toast in the story which Hallorann offers to Danny as an explicatory analogy to the operation of ghosts. This violence is associated With the history of American conquest quite early in the film, when we learn from Ullman — in the midst of the follow-the-leader tour — that the resort has been built on an Indian burial ground. The foundation of the resort rests upon the conquest by a “civilized” group of people over a more primitive tribe. However, the condition of conquest has resulted not in the acquisition of one tribe’s consciousness by the other but the complete fracturing of the two. In one sense civilization built on the death of a primitive consciousness is a society split from nature and its organic energies, its source. In America at least, native myths, as Ruth Benedict argues, had a holistic, “animate” view of nature and of the human’s place in it.4 Kubrick employs this sense of division metaphorically, as the rationalists in his film want to place themselves above that which they see as primitive. The express purpose of Jack’s tenure at the lodge is that he defend it from the encroachments of nature over which it presides, like Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee. One thinks of the Alex Colville painting on the staircase, which depicts a massive steam engine drudging along its track toward a lonely horse, trotting headlong toward an inexorable collision. Mechanical and animal energies, deflected into a split between civilization and nature, are at odds in the America of Kubrick’s vision, perhaps because nature is full of death and processes we would like to eschew.
However, to break from nature is to open oneself to the “demons” of civilization, demons born out of the urge for imperialistic order through which it has ascended. In the Kubrick argossy the archetypal victim of this split is the deracinated intellect of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who becomes, like the deracinated Jack, a killer. Civilization, unsustained by the physical and emotive sympathies of nature, develops into a series of external formalities devoid of original feeling toward the individual. It must produce unnatural acts, like those of Grady which haunt the resort; it must act against the visible creation, substituting its own order and willing the destruction of the nuclear unit in the name of which it evolved, the family.
Grady, of course, is the very soul of civility. Never mind that his first action in the film is to spill apricots on Jack or that he has cut his family into kindling. The latter was a “correction,” an imposition of “order” on the willful children who wanted to burn down the lodge In order to get back into the mainstream of life, Grady never uses the term “murder,” for he is too polite and civilized. His euphemisms keep the conversation on a plane of gentlemanly insinuation, despite the fact that it takes place in a public lavatory: an image of isolation conditioned by the framework of a mediating public institution. The one point on which Grady’s rhetoric falters is the reference to Dick Hallorann, the “nigger” whom Danny, the willful son, is attempting to bring into the “situation.” Grady obviously hates the black man, for he feels superior to him in some way, albeit illusory. The black man sits at the opposite end of the American spectrum from Grady with his legacy of British manners and civilized demeanor. Hallorann has closer ties to the natural and darker source of man, an echo of man as a denizen of nature who still retains, despite his Uncle Tom demeanor, a clairvoyant contact with human feelings. He is the most openly compassionate toward the hotel’s employees, divining the emotional distress of Danny and trying to put him at ease. Yet Hallorann covers up the presence of unplacated spirits of the resort, as well as his own feelings, when he remarks, “I’m not afraid of room 237.” His position defines the condition of the black man in America: a glorified servant in a white man’s world conditioned by the same plastic leisure class values on which the resort is founded. His state is disclosed to us at his Miami bungalow, reposed between two larger-than-life Penthouse nudes, inertly attentive to his television set. The bungalow, with its long bar and Venetian blinds, could be a lounge in the Overlook Hotel.
Between the antagonistic poles of Grady and Hallorann, Kubrick places Jack Torrance, a man with no history outside of America, with a history that, like America’s, has been a westward movement (Vermont to Colorado), and who, by his desire to be a literary artist, embodies the spirit of the American literary imagination in its decayed corporate clothing. By his insistence on a total removal from life, Jack has taken his imagination from any context in which it could gamer experience for its creative work. Indeed, he wants his fiction to grow totally out of words themselves. In this manner it will somehow transcend the distasteful chore of “work” and become “play forever.” His obsession with his word (“I gave the company my word”) is an extension of HAL’s concern with his own infallibility in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As one retreats from experience, words come to constitute reality. Thus, Jack expresses disgust for both the intellectual chore of teaching and the physical chores of manual labor which he envisions waiting for him in Denver. At the hotel he does none of the work for which he was hired. Instead, he spends his first weeks in a solitary game of catch with a tennis ball-days of play. It is Wendy who keeps the heating in operation, fixes the meals, and stays in contact with the outside world. The closest Jack gets to the implements of the lodge occurs when he dismantles the Snow Cat and the radio, two vehicles of external contact. By his drive for complete privacy and his adherence to the empty formalities of corporate legality, Jack has insured his own personal atrophy. He can release only the most demonic ghosts of his escapist American heritage, Grady, Lloyd, and with singular devotion the slogan “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The phrase spreads across his pages in the various shapes of grammatical repose which disclose the external alterations of a kind of “form” with none of the internal pressure by which form grows, organically, into being. The imagination is dead, poised between the artificial opposites of work and play and subject to control by the external ghosts of the American Dream which inhabit the resort and the remaining threads of his fantasy life.
Indeed, it is fantasy which replaces imagination during his tenancy, continually cloaking the decay of Jack’s creative spirit, plugging the lack of nature’s vitality with external formality. When not doing this, his visions turn to death in his hands. Jack enters the restricted zone of Room 237, Grady’s former lair, and encounters what first appears to be a fantasy of male erotic desire stepping from a Playboy center-fold. A nude woman comes from the most private zone of the apartment, the bathtub, and entices him into an embrace. He submits to this vision, only to see the girl turn into a laughing corpse in his arms. He retreats from this revelation of his fantasy life, but the escapist decadence of this life grows. On his second visit to the Gold Room, the floor swarms with formally dressed dancers and affluent guests imbibing cocktails. The luminous specter of Lloyd presides at the bar with the sleek semblance of a plastic Jesus, telling Jack his money is no good. In the metaphor of external control, Jack has been bought, owned, and possessed by the spirits of the resort — “grounded” in the leisure culture which is its existence.
When confronted with his own creative sterility. Jack can engender only an act of destruction. The problem with “the spermbank upstairs” — his own impotence as an artist — is an outgrowth of his capitulation to his fear of entanglement. Having tried to reject the necessary involvement of his personal consciousness in a larger world. Jack has nothing to create with. The only act left for the imagination is destruction. The only work left becomes killing, and killing regresses to the child’s game of hide and seek. In a film given to ironic inversions, Jack has his dream of play rudely thrust back at him when Wendy converts a toy, a baseball bat, into a weapon and slugs him. He is locked appropriately in the area of the resort still devoted to work, Hallorann’s province of the kitchen. It is within the routine of daily chores that he has always felt trapped.
Jack is released from the storage room by the spirit of Grady, or by the spirits of the dead to whom he is indentured. The release, like so many actions relating to Jack, works from the outside in. In fact, at this point in the film the other outside party, Hallorann, is attempting to re-enter the premises. Everybody wants in, but the inside, as an organizing source of life, is dead, existing only through myths of the past. Considered from another side, the primacy of the interior is revealed to be primarily myth. All consciousness grows in a network of other consciousness; what is unique to each, in Kubrick’s vision, seems to be an imagination which reaches and recreates in the world. While Jack’s life seems firmly in tow to the song of seclusion, those of Wendy and Danny lean toward the opposite image. They tend to be shown in the film either testing the limits of bounded interiors or breaking out of them (Danny’s exploring the hotel and Wendy’s trip through the maze with Danny).
Danny’s primary power for breaching the enclosures of his life is his clairvoyance, which he has split from himself into the figure of Tony. (Behind this schizoid persona loom the larger fissures of the film, the divorce of nature and civilization, the confusion and separation of the private from the public form of life.) The divided self experienced by Danny thus tends to define further the state of creative life within present-day America. Imagination, in a society which does not recognize its value, is forced to exist as an extrasensory rather than a sensory power. Thus, Danny’s power is also a measure of the degree of removal of man from the natural world. Danny’s clairvoyant powers seem generated as a last desperate bridge between man and his world, between man and man. They comprise the creative spirit of the individual when it is shoved to its most compressed and private space; they provide the individual with an internal life sensitized to the presence of the suppressed energies which go unnoticed by Jack. However, it is significant in the film that Danny is not saved by his clairvoyant powers, or at least not obviously saved. His powers, in fact, seem only attuned to the destructive energies about them — with the exception of his communication with Hallorann. Man, defined as a sealed inner event, comes to nothing in this film. It is only with expression that he becomes whole.
Doc’s salvation from the possessed spirit of his father occurs in a series of compressions and expressions. Wendy and Danny are driven from the hotel at large to the privacy of their own room (Danny to the privacy of his Tony personality) and from there to the most private room: the bathroom. It is here that we find a model of release, for pushed to the limits of privacy, tracked by the possessed spirit of past colonialism and fascist control, Danny crawls through a window into the external world. Significantly, he seems at this point liberated from the paralytic possession of his own extrasensory personality, Tony. More properly, Danny’s escape leads to a workable integration of Tony’s powers of vision with Danny’s sensory attunement, making possible the formation of a healthy imagination, healthy because the formation embraces Danny’s ability to confront nature and annihilate his identity as a strictly internalized “self.” On one level, of course, he survives the wintry weather itself while his father does not; at the same time, he uses the environment as the means of his salvation (the covering of his tracks); and lastly, his deed re-invokes the allusions to the Indian burial ground, for walking backward in one’s tracks is also, as every Boy Scout learns, an old Indian trick. The total image Kubrick presents is a model reintegration of man with nature, of imagination with the world of chance, jeopardy, and renewal. Conversely, Jack becomes lost in an image of his own overly civilized, game-oriented fantasy. The maze with its squared turns, deliberate labyrinthine design, and echoes of the Theseus myth, evokes the rationalist tradition over which Grady presides as the product of reason’s urge to break with the natural world and become internally oriented-indeed, conforming nature to its own game-plan, as it has done with the shrubbery of the maze. Jack dies in an exalted monument of leisure class dreams. As Ullman notes, one needs several hours of free time just to play around in it. It is noteworthy that both Wendy and Danny test and exhaust this game earlier in the film. Jack’s only contact has been to observe the more abstract model of the maze in the lounge.
Within the family unit of the film, Wendy provides an emotional counterweight to her son’s visionary talents and her husband’s self-absorbed intellectuality. From the model American housewife — the limits of whose life extend from the stove to the bathroom — she develops gradually from her husband’s servant to a working woman (it is she who manages the operation of the Overlook) to a person who assumes the responsibility of her life beyond the boundaries prescribed by Jack. Wendy has decided to leave the hotel before Jack drives an axe through her door to the refrain of “The Three Little Pigs.” If Jack’s rhetoric transforms matters of consequence into games, Wendy’s talent is to transform the trivial back into the useful and active. The baseball bat becomes a tool for self-defense, the unnecessarily stocked storage room an ideal cell for Jack.
Wendy’s growth is most pronounced in terms of the development of her capacity to see. In the early portions of the film she is largely reliant on external authority — the television news show and the psychiatrist — to tell her what is going on. Her explanation of Danny’s visions is the accepted rational orthodoxy of psychiatry and defines, for the most part, the limitations of Wendy’s own perception (or her ability to see, quite literally). In turn, the figures which dominate her other tool of external vision — the television set — are newsmen. Thus, as does the psychiatrist, they impose the control of reason over the power of images. The relationship, in fact, may serve to define the condition of Jack’s own beleaguered imagination: where his capacity for vision exists, it is diminished by the ethereal verbal conditioning of which Grady is a master.
Wendy’s own reliance on words is progressively eroded during the course of the film. The Overlook invites one to look beyond the invitation of its message. The maze, when entered into with the desire to explore, becomes a training ground in the use of the eyes. Her most profound release from the world of the word occurs when she views for the first time the pages of Jack’s novel, language turned trivial. From this point in the film Jack’s spoken word tends to camouflage his intentions or be disproportionate to them: “I don’t want to hurt you; I just want to bash your brains in.” Jack strips Wendy of her faith in the reality of the word, then strips her of her word machine, the shortwave radio. In the inverted logic of the film, he does her a favor, for his destruction of language also denudes her of cultural illusions regarding marriage and opens her in a vision of the ghastly spirits present in the hotel and, as well, in her pre-feudal kind of marriage. Wendy is reborn from her private cage as a creature of awakened visual sensitivity. She perceives the male decadence of the hotel, which exists in forms of male coupling (the gentlemen having oral sex in a room off the staircase) or male schism (the toastmaster with the bleeding fissure down the middle of his face and head). Unlike Jack, she is not hypnotized by the insubstantial forms.
Her last vision mirrors, in a fashion, her own breakout: the elevator doors releasing from the interior of the elevator a vast amount of pressurized liquid. Wendy’s life has turned from action working from the outside in to that of inner pressures expressing themselves, Wendy abandons the hotel, takes command of the Snow Cat with Danny, and frees herself from the isolationist desires imposed upon her by Jack, She turns the technology of civilization to its proper chore of moving man outward rather than inward upon himself.
In the end, Jack’s recoil from the world operates without any normal pathological explanation other than his identification with the promise of leisure culture to release one from the necessity to do. Jack is, to a considerable degree, a ghost himself, the last gasp of a cultural formalism, the faith in essence over existence; he embodies rational verbal consciousness at the end of its road with nothing to say. Deprived of life and objects around which they weave meaning, words become, in Kubrick’s vision, an inconsequential form of play; the world they create, though opulent, is impersonal and cold. It is the sterile specter of Grady, whose own words never mean directly, but “imply” discretely. Leisure culture wishes to possess eternity, essentially; it is the open expression of the human urge to garner timelessness. Its cost, however, is the removal from both time and the natural world, and the opening of itself to the collective death wish of society, or more accurately, the transformation of desire into the urge to kill and then die.
Humans are not born to do nothing. As we become progressively stripped by science of spiritual belief, by psychology of our belief in the “self,” and by our techno-centric culture of any sense of belonging, what we are becomes progressively a matter of our powers to act, to function as creative agents in an otherwise dispiriting environment. The real horror of life, as it is presented in the middle class horror films of which The Shining is a paradigm, is the grotesque contortions we lend the world by our fear of creative responsibility. Our fear of life may, in fact, signal a deep-seated fear of recognizing ourselves as that inchoate monster of energy which can become so aberrantly distorted on the screen, like Jack Torrance.


1. D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking Press, 1964).
2. There are at least two excellent essays on Kubrick’s The Shining, each of which discusses themes dealt with here in a different light, P.L. Titterington in “Kubrick and The Shining,” Sight & Sound, 22 (Spring 1981), 117-21, points out the large number of allusions to American life in the film, but pursues the image of the resort as a symbol of American love of wealth, linking the resort to Kane’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane. While the association and the interpretation are tenable, it fails, as I will suggest, to identify what sorts of things make American love of wealth interestingly different from anybody else’s love of wealth. Nor does the essay deal with the evolution of the moral problem within the film. A longer essay by Thomas Allen Nelson, “Remembrance of Things Forgotten: The Shining,” in his Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), suggests the film deals with the rationalist tradition and links the hotel structure and the maze with the labyrinth of Minos which Theseus navigated. The problem with the allusion, of course, is that Theseus has always been the symbol of reason’s ability to deal with chaos, and in this film it is reason which spins the traps and dies inside them. Nelson sees the party scenes as images of a warm but lost human collectivity. They seem more obviously allusions to the capitalist dream of opulent leisure divorced from biological necessity. Certainly no one relates to each other at the parties — unless Lloyd and Jack are models of relationship. But even more, these images are not objective views of society but views of Jack’s interior landscape.
3. Studies.
4. Ruth Ann Benedict in Patterns of Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934) argues that ritual life among Indian tribes was organized upon a sense of God’s dwelling in nature, a definite difference from our own manner of seeing nature as a game of survival. Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), argues that primitive and modern minds are similar; however, the issue here is not one of brain structure but the loss of religious sensibility in nature.

in Film Criticism, Vol. VII, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 4-13


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon | Review by Michael Dempsey

Barry Lyndon is utterly the opposite of the loose, improvised movies which are so popular with many critics these days. Every detail of it is calculated; the film is as formal as a minuet.

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!