From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History. Uncanny Eruptions of Violence in King’s and Kubrick’s Versions of ‘The Shining’

The impact of past violence on the present is examined in the novel and film versions of The Shining. John Lutz’s essay pinpoints in these works three interrelated elements of what Freud called the “uncanny”—the domestic abuse story, “the postcolonial narrative of American expansion at the expense of nonwhite victims, and the desire for power and control that underlies commodification and the social hierarchies that reinforce it.”

The impact of past violence on the present is examined in the novel and film versions of The Shining. John Lutz’s essay “From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History: Uncanny Eruptions of Violence in King’s and Kubrick’s Versions of The Shining” pinpoints in these works three interrelated elements of what Freud called the “uncanny”—the domestic abuse story, “the postcolonial narrative of American expansion at the expense of nonwhite victims, and the desire for power and control that underlies commodification and the social hierarchies that reinforce it.” Specifically, Kubrick draws on a crucial moment in King’s novel when Danny compares his own feelings of vulnerability to a picture that challenges viewers to “find the Indians.” This image, Lutz argues, becomes the visual puzzle that Kubrick uses in his adaptation of the book to critique “the in­ability of America to acknowledge or come to terms with the genocide of Native Americans.” While King’s novel focuses on domestic abuse, Kubrick gives the film a broader historical scope. The film “maintains the core ele­ments of domestic violence but widens the scope of the past to incorporate European and American history.”

From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History

Uncanny Eruptions of Violence in King’s and Kubrick’s Versions of The Shining

by John Lutz

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare
on the brain of the living.
—Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Jack Torrance: Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here.
Delbert Grady: I’m sorry to differ with you, sir. But you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker.
—The Shining

Early in Stanley Kubricks The Shining, Dick Hallorann assures the appre­hensive Danny Torrance that there is nothing in the hotel that can actually hurt him and explains that the terrible events of the past can leave behind a trace of themselves that is visible only to those who shine. As it turns out Hallorann is profoundly mistaken. In an ironic twist, he overlooks the one thing in the Overlook Hotel that will eventually kill him, Danny’s unstable, alcoholic father who, in the final shot of the film framing the photograph of the Fourth of July celebration in 1921, proves to have always been there. Hallorann’s mistake is based on the assumption that the past has no power over the present. Nonetheless, both Kubrick’s film and King’s novel each investigate the complex ways in which the past acts upon—indeed, lives on in—the present. In Kings novel this past manifests itself through Jack’s growing abuse of Wendy and Danny, an abuse that is ultimately revealed to have its origin in Jacks victimization by his own father. In Kubrick’s film the scope of victimization is much broader and encompasses the forms of systematic violence inflicted by American institutions upon oppressed and exploited groups. In effect, in Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel the frightening, evil world perceived by the victim of child abuse undergoes an allegorical transposition to the nightmarish violence lying hidden in the foundations of American society. In both the novel and the film the vehicle for depicting this hidden violence is what Freud described as the uncanny, or that which “belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread.”1 Kubrick’s overt interest in Freud’s work on the uncanny has been commented upon by Diane Johnson, who collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay. Johnson notes how she and Kubrick sought explanations in the works of Freud in general, and his essay on the uncanny in particular, for the key elements that make something frightening.2 Although it has been commented upon less frequently, some of the most terrifying moments in the novel—the jiggling handle of the door of Room 217 once Jack has locked it, the entity in the concrete ring in the snow-laden playground—conform equally to Freud’s description of the uncanny. These episodes can be connected, as in Freud’s analysis, with something familiar that has been repressed but returns as a terrifying element.3 The woman in Room 217, “long dead and reclining in her bath, a bar of Lowila in one stiffening hand as she waited patiently for whatever lover might come,” has a clear connection to Jack’s submissive and abused mother, just as the child entity Danny encounters in the concrete ring with its head split open, “crawling after him in the dark, grinning, looking for one final playmate in its endless playground” evokes the history of child abuse lurking beneath the appearance of normality in the Torrance family.4 In each case, the past is, to paraphrase William Faulkner’s frequently quoted assessment of history, neither dead nor past but a concrete material force constantly threatening to emerge in the present. A similar process is at work in Kubrick’s film, where evil is consistently represented as “a disembodied, vague state of cosmic affairs” and “the world as an evil and forbidding place” where violence can erupt unexpectedly at any moment.5 As Brigitte Peucker points out in her analysis of the uncanny in Kubrick’s film, “The ghost materializes and is revealed to have a body; Kubrick’s uncanny is decidedly corporeal.”6 Indeed, Kubrick’s use of the uncanny is concerned with rendering the past corporeal and registering the ways in which the nightmare of history continually impinges upon and defines the present. Taken together, both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film adaptation explore psychological, historical, and economic traces of the uncanny. These three interrelated aspects of the uncanny are woven together thematically through the narrative of domestic abuse, the postcolonial narrative of American expansion at the expense of nonwhite victims, and the desire for power and control that underlies commodification and the social hierarchies that reinforce it.

King’s Inverted Family Romance

In his comments upon the process of translating works of literature to the screen, Kubrick suggests that the most adaptable novels are ones that have an overt concern with the inner lives of their characters.7 Since King’s novel focuses on the inner life of its three central characters as well as the inner life of the family they comprise, Kubrick undoubtedly found it ideal for adaptation. From the very first line of the novel, when Jack inwardly assesses Stuart Ullman as an “officious little prick” (3) while outwardly flashing his “big wide PR smile” (4), King invites the reader to consider the disjunction between the inner and outer worlds of his characters and privileges the inner one as the most significant indicator of identity. Like his father, Danny, too, experiences a profound gap between his inner and outer life. On the surface he appears to be a normal young boy playing with his toys. Nonetheless, his inner life is shot through with anxieties and fears focused upon the marital ambivalence of his parents and the hidden tension between them to which his ability to “shine” gives him privileged access. Danny’s anxieties are clearly centered upon his unpredictable, abusive father whose alcoholism, professional failures, and self-doubts have initiated a crisis in the family that is subject to repression but continually returns in the periodic reminders of the episode in which Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder. At the same time the novel provides numerous examples of how Danny’s gift of insight initiates a process of learning about the world beyond his family that contributes to his ongoing psychological development. This process includes an element of estrangement from his parents as he encounters other adults like Dick Hallorann, with whom he shares the gift of shining.

Indeed, in many ways Danny’s experiences at the hotel conform to the period of a child’s development that Freud characterized by the term “family romance.” In this developmental stage, “the child’s imagination is occupied with the task of ridding himself of his parents, of whom he now has a low opinion, and replacing them by others, usually of superior social standing.” Freud goes on to note that this activity usually manifests itself in daydreams in which the child aims to replace the real father with a more distinguished one. Freud viewed this imaginative recasting of the family not as an indication of the child’s desire to actually replace the father but as “an expression of the child’s longing for the happy times gone by, when his father seemed to him the strongest and most distinguished of men, and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women.”8 In other words, the family romances of children represent a desire to return to the past when they were still capable of completely idealizing their parents. Even though the novel’s depiction of Jack and Wendy’s relationship before the birth of Danny points out that the roots of their marital problems existed from the very beginning, from Danny’s perspective this ideal moment is clearly the period before his father dislocates his shoulder. However, as the subsequent events in the hotel will indicate, the ideal past to which Danny wishes to return is not what it seems. Rather than rediscovering the good qualities of his real father through his imagination, he discovers a monster, an ogre whose future violence Danny glimpses early in the novel when Jack arrives home in his Volkswagen and Danny sees “a short-handled mallet, its head clotted with blood and hair” (49), beside him on the front seat. In this sense King’s novel fails to conform to Freud’s pattern of family romance. Although it quite obviously explores the motif of father-mirroring and the father-lost- and-regained obsession apparent in some of King’s other works,9 The Shining represents an inverted family romance in which the daydream of the more distinguished father is replaced by the nightmare of the monstrous one. In this connection it is extremely relevant that the replacement father whom Danny eventually discovers is not someone higher on the social scale but the African American cook, Dick Hallorann. At the end of the novel, after giving Danny fatherly advice about how to get on in the world, Hallorann sits on a dock with Wendy and Danny as Danny reels in a fish. In this closing image the family unit is restored. However, in an interesting variation on the pattern of family romance, the father with the good qualities proves to be someone who, in the larger frame of American society, occupies a lower social status rather than a more distinguished one.

Dealing consistently with the theme of duality and doubleness, King’s inverted family romance constructs numerous uncanny doubles who reflect the inner lives, ambivalent feelings, violent impulses, and frustrated hopes of its central characters. In his essay on the uncanny Freud points out that the duplicating, dividing, and interchanging of the self represent one source of the uncanny. Freud emphasizes that one can find embodied in the double “all the strivings of the ego that were frustrated by adverse circumstances, all the suppressed acts of volition that fostered the illusion of free will.”10 This description is particularly apt in reference to Jack, whose frustrated hopes as a writer and blocked aspirations to a higher social and economic class not only are directly linked to the appearance of psychological doubles like his father and Delbert Grady but also prove to be the foundations of the violent rage directed at his wife and son. As Thomas Allen Nelson points out, the “novel associates Jack’s lapses into murderous rage with a pattern of father/son doubling, with his own father’s frustration and drunken failures, and with a latent wish to punish his wife and son for his inadequacies as a man and incompetence as a writer/teacher.”11

The connection between Jack’s frustrated ego and his own past as a victim of child abuse is rendered explicit in the novel when his father’s voice communicates with him on the CB radio, encouraging him to kill his wife and son:

—kill him. You have to kill him, Jacky, and her, too. Because a real artist must suffer. Because each man kills the thing he loves. Because they’re always conspiring against you, trying to hold you back and drag you down. Right this minute that boy of yours is in where he shouldn’t be. Trespassing. That’s what he’s doing. He’s a goddam little pup. Cane him for it, Jacky, cane him within an inch of his life. Have a drink, Jacky my boy, and we’ll play the elevator game. Then I’ll go with you while you give him his medicine. I know you can do it, of course you can. You must kill him. You have to kill him, Jacky, and her, too. Because a real artist must suffer. (341)

The reference to the cane evokes the episode described in the text when Jack’s father beats his mother into unconsciousness with his cane, and although it is never overtly stated, it is implied that this is the weapon that Jack’s father used to discipline him as well. In this passage all the elements of domestic abuse and the ambivalent feelings that it evokes in its victim and perpetrator alike are present. The voice of Jack’s father commands him to kill his wife and son in order to enforce a form of masculine, paternal authority rooted in male domination while also suggesting that it will help fulfill his artistic aspirations. While urging him on to commit brutal violence, his father’s voice simultaneously promises to reward him with the love that he never gave him. In effect, this episode presents the reader with a portrait of the child victim transformed into the adult abuser. The voice of Jack’s father represents one of his uncanny doubles, a powerful trace of the past provoking feelings of frustration, helplessness, and rage that will materialize in an eruption of violence directed at his wife and son.

Danny’s supernatural guardian, Tony, represents yet another uncanny double that functions as a kind of father figure for Danny as well as a source of guidance that enables him to overcome the evil forces at work in the Over­look. Tony provides one of the only sources of stability in Danny’s crumbling world. When his father comes to murder him and Danny intimates that it is not really his father but a manifestation of the evil force that “had accrued, as secret and silent as interest in a bank account” (639), Tony materializes before him and is revealed as an incarnation of himself in the future: “And now Tony stood directly in front of him, and looking at Tony was like looking into a magic mirror and seeing himself in ten years, the eyes widely spaced and very dark, the chin firm, the mouth handsomely molded. The hair was light blond like his mothers, and yet the stamp on his features was that of his father, as if Tony—as if the Daniel Anthony Torrance that would someday be—was a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion” (639-40). In the complete image of Tony, Danny is provided with an ideal image of self. The characteristics that he exhibits are wholly positive ones and exude a confidence and competence that ultimately elude Jack. Just as Jack and his father represent a ghostly fusion, so do Jack and Danny mirror each other since Danny is also a victim of his father’s violence. Jack’s victimization by his own father plays a central role in his gradual corruption. However, the supernatural forces that inhabit the Overlook Hotel, forces frequently referred to by the former caretaker Delbert Grady as the “management,” are of equal importance in the process by which the feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and rage bequeathed to him by his abusive father are turned toward violence.

As a perpetrator of violence against his own wife and two daughters, Grady represents yet another one of Jack’s ghostly doubles, but the frustration upon which Grady attempts to capitalize is connected with Jack’s declin­ing financial status and failure to achieve upward mobility for himself and his family. When Grady informs Jack of his son’s attempt to enlist the aid of Dick Hallorann, he offers him an opportunity for advancement in the Overlook’s hierarchy:

“And the manager puts no strings on his largesse,” Grady went on. “Not at all. Look at me, a tenth-grade dropout. Think how much further you yourself could go in the Overlook’s organizational structure. Perhaps … in time … to the very top.”
“Really?” Jack whispered. (535-36)

Grady’s offer elicits the larger social and economic frame contributing to Jack’s frustrated ego and exacerbating the suffering caused by his fractured and divided self. Dominated as a child by the masculine power and abusive paternal authority of his father, he confronts a similar form of evil in the supernatural, impersonal hierarchy of the hotel. The management offers Jack the opportunity to take his father’s place. In this way the novel establishes the continuity between the private world of domestic abuse and the public world of American corporate power. Abusive paternal authority is equated with the exercise of social control by the management. This comparison is given further emphasis later, when Jack attacks Wendy with the roque mallet and insists that he will show her “who is boss around here” (564). By the same token, when Grady taunts him after Jack has been locked in the pantry by Wendy and Danny, he suggests that this “hardly sets [Jack] off as being of top managerial timber” (582). In effect, Jack chooses a course of action in which he has to prove his worth to the management of the hotel, a position that represents a mirror reflection of his relationship with his abusive father. As such, it comes as no surprise that when he goes after Dick Hallorann, he is motivated by the desire to show the hidden authority of the Overlook that he is “of managerial timber” (633). Just as Jack’s relationship with his father was characterized by a victimizer/victim paradigm, so, too, does he find himself in a relationship of domination and submission with the management of the hotel. Offered the opportunity to raise himself in the corporate hierarchy, Jack is willing to sacrifice Danny (and Wendy) as his “ticket of admission” (581) to greater power and affluence. However, there is a duality here as well since his betrayal of his son also entails a betrayal of the victim within himself. From a divided, conflicted figure who struggles to keep the violent legacy of his past at a distance, Jack is transformed into a brutal monster obsessed with power. He becomes a faceless “company” man, mindlessly doing the bidding of the invisible bureaucratic forces oc­cupying the hotel.

Can You Find the Indians?

In the novel Danny’s awareness of these hidden forces finds expression by reference to a visual puzzle commonly given to children as a game. When Danny becomes aware that things are not in their proper place, he imagi­natively compares the hotel to a picture in which one must find the hidden Indians:

But now things had been misplaced. Things were missing. Worse still, things had been added, things you couldn’t quite see, like in one of those pictures that said CAN YOU FIND THE INDIANS? And if you strained and squinted, you could see some of them—the thing you had taken for a cactus at first glance was really a brave with a knife clamped in his teeth, and there were others hiding in the rocks, and you could even see one of their evil, merciless faces peering through the spokes of a covered wagon wheel. But you could never see all of them, and that was what made you uneasy. Because it was the ones you couldn’t see that would sneak up behind you, a tomahawk in one hand and a scalping knife in the other. (291)

Basing his assessment of the evil lurking in the hotel upon a familiar visual puzzle, Danny unconsciously makes use of a quite common stereotypical, racist image of Native Americans in order to understand the uncanny threat of violence that he senses closing in around him. Interestingly, the image of the evil, merciless brave prepared to inflict ruthless violence upon his unsuspecting victim reverses the historical relationship between white settlers and Native Americans by transforming the victims into the victimizers. This represents another device by which King emphasizes the intergenerational legacy of domestic abuse that transforms the victim into the tyrant. However, an equally fascinating aspect of this passage concerns how Kubrick makes use of it in his film version of The Shining to allude to the genocide of Native Americans during the founding of the United States. Although Diane Johnson mentions Kubrick’s interest in the extermination of Indian peoples, and many critics have noted the Native American motifs and images in the film, none have pointed out the connection between the reference to the visual puzzle in the novel and Kubrick’s use of it in the film.12 In effect, Kubrick takes Danny’s imaginative understanding of the uncanny evil lurking in the hotel in terms of a visual puzzle and creates a visual puzzle of his own that transforms the “merciless brave” in the novel into the victim of merciless American expansion. The images of Native Americans in the film serve as an elaborate visual puzzle for the viewer, an uncanny trace of violence that represents not Native Americans as agents of evil, but the inability of America to acknowledge or come to terms with the genocide of Native Americans.

Just as in the visual puzzle in King’s novel, so, too, in the film “Indians” constantly lurk in the background of the camera’s frequently elaborate tracking shots, emerging only when, as in Danny’s description, the viewer “strains and squints” to see them. Soon after Jack and Wendy arrive at the hotel and Stuart Ullman gives them a tour of the premises, he mentions that the Overlook Hotel was built on an old Indian burial ground. Ullman also notes that the builders were rumored to have repelled some Indian attacks during construction. When the tour passes through the Colorado Room, Wendy notices the Native American motifs on the walls and floor. Ullman points out that they are authentic Apache and Navajo designs. As the tour moves behind the central staircase—where Wendy will later confront Jack with a bat—and the camera tracks the party from the opposite side of the staircase, a portrait of a Native American is barely visible on the wall opposite the fireplace behind the stairs. When Dick Hallorann shows Wendy the food locker, a can of Calumet baking powder with a Native American chief logo is clearly visible behind him. When Wendy and Danny enter the maze and Jack seems to observe them as he hovers above the model in the Colorado Room, Wendy’s hair is braided in a distinctively Native American style. When the first evidence of Jack’s instability begins to emerge and he throws the tennis ball against the wall in the Colorado Room, the wall has four traditional Navajo figures painted on it. When Wendy is beginning to feel isolated and uses the CB to contact the Ranger station, she is wearing a yellow jacket with Native American motifs. In his conversation with the bartender, Lloyd, Jack alludes to “White Man’s Burden,” an allusion to “Rudyard Kipling and the Victorian notion of Europe’s duty to civilize the ‘uncivilized’ nonwhite world” that conjures the period in which the Overlook was built.13 Finally, when Jack is locked in the food locker, the Calumet cans appear once again in the background.

Most of these images are offered in a context that suggests the repetition of acts of violence. However, unlike King’s novel, where the repetition of the past hinges almost exclusively upon domestic abuse, Kubrick’s film maintains the core elements of domestic violence but widens the scope of the past to incorporate European and American history. While serving as an explicit focus of Jack’s assault with the tennis ball, the Overlook’s Navajo and Apache designs and furnishings also serve as a reminder of America’s exploitation of Native Americans in the use of their cultural and religious symbolism for the purposes of decoration.14

At the same time, the picture of the Native American on the wall behind the staircase in the Colorado Room is located directly beneath the site at the top of the staircase where Wendy will later confront Jack with a bat. The implicit comparison between the genocide of Native Americans and the misogynistic violence Jack inflicts upon Wendy is given further emphasis by the two identical fireplaces: one behind and one at the top of the staircase. Wendy is literally standing in the same place as the Native American in the portrait below her. The violence that Jack attempts to inflict upon her signifies the enduring presence of patriarchal repression and its link to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny associated with white notions of masculinity and power. Indeed, it is in the very passage below her, behind the staircase, where Stuart Ullman informed her and Jack that “all of the best people” in the century have stayed at the Overlook. In this context Jack’s efforts to “correct” Wendy and Danny represent an attempt to assert his male authority and power. As Philip Kuberski aptly puts it, for Jack the Overlook hotel represents an “opportunity to recover the lost territory of American masculinity; it is a rich man’s hotel from an age of rich men, from the age of unrestricted capital expansion, before women’s suffrage, the income tax, civil rights and other indignities.”15 In assaulting Wendy, Jack repeats the history of American territorial expansion in an attempt to assert his masculinity and dominance.

At the same time the mention that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground and Indian attacks were repulsed during its construction participates in Kubrick’s critique of the forms of patriarchal, racist, and class domination that have informed the original creation and reproduction of American social and economic institutions. As David A. Cook eloquently notes in his assessment of Kubrick’s film, “The Shining is less about ghosts and demonic possession than it is about the murderous system of economic exploitation which has sustained the country since, like the Overlook Hotel, it was built upon an Indian burial ground.”16 Perhaps one of the most subtle allusions to the systematic murder of Native Americans and the forms of institutional domination that have arisen upon it occurs in the food locker when the can of Calumet baking powder appears behind Dick Hallorann’s head along with other brand-name goods. Significantly, this is the first time that Dick communicates with Danny telepathically. The eerie music in the background deliberately evokes the uncanny in association with the appearance of the Calumet can in order to allude to Native American genocide. On the one hand, the use of the word Calumet and the Native American chief as a brand-name logo comment upon the exploitation of Native American culture for the purposes of commodity production and exchange. This idea is given further emphasis later in the film when multiple cans of Calumet baking soda appear on the shelf alongside other commodities when Jack is conversing with Delbert Grady. On the other hand, the word calumet itself has a great deal of significance, since a calumet is an elaborately designed pipe serving as a token of universal peace among the Illiniwek. Historically, the calumet was first presented in 1673 to Father Jacques Marquette, who founded Michigan’s first European settlement. Thus, the word not only furnishes a link to the early European incursions into Native American ter­ritory (the mention of the Donner party represents another such allusion) but is also a profoundly ironic allusion to the betrayal of Native Americans through the violation of treaties often ratified by sharing a peace pipe. Finally, the racist character of such betrayals finds one of its most powerful expressions in the murder of Dick Hallorann, who will be killed on the site of a Navajo circle design in front of the cashier’s cages.17 This detail provides yet another historical trace of violence that emphasizes the continuity between the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement and oppression of African Americans, and Americas rapid growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as an economic power.

Violence and the Illusion of Mastery

Consistently throughout the film, Kubrick forges links between various victims of oppression in order to focus attention upon how the assertion of white male violence lies at the foundation of American society. The link between the oppression of Native Americans and the oppression of women emerges through the consistent comparisons made between the two that take place in the context of Jack’s fantasies of complete masculine freedom, paternal authority, and sexual license. One of the film’s most startling and enigmatic evocations of this triad of desires occurs when Danny and Wendy enter the Overlook’s maze and Jack is depicted demonically looking down at the exact replica of the maze in the Colorado Room. As he looks down at the maze from a vantage point implying the seemingly omnipotent power of his gaze, Wendy and Danny eventually arrive at its center. As noted above, Wendy’s hair is braided in Native American fashion. Jack’s vantage point overlooking the maze suggests a position of complete mastery and rational control over his wife and son and evokes one of the symbolic dimensions of the hotel’s name. Nonetheless, this perception of absolute power is ironically undercut by Jack’s eventual demise in that very same maze and Danny’s escape from it. In this sense the hotel is aptly named, since it simultaneously points in opposite directions. The word overlook suggests both a position of commanding height that grants one the capacity to see an entire landscape and the act of missing something that has significance—that is to say, the name of the hotel suggests both complete and incomplete acts of perception. Furthermore, Jack’s estimation of his ability to master his environment is fundamentally connected to the institutional hierarchy of the hotel. This connection is made initially with the living managers of the hotel and later with its supernatural overseers.

When Jack arrives at the Overlook Hotel for his interview, he is immediately introduced to a formal chain of command in which he must operate. As Randy Rasmussen notes, “Stuart Ullman’s office is a modest statement of collective authority” and the “small American flag on his desk places Ullman, the hotel, and Colorado within an even larger institutional framework.”18 Geoffrey Cocks also takes note of the flag and points out the eagle behind Ullman’s desk and the fact that his transposed initials are “U.S.”19 Adding further emphasis to Ullmans identification with American political authority, a significant portion of the interview takes place with the camera tightly focused on Ullman and the window behind him. This viewpoint, along with the other allusions to American government, resembles a typical presidential address from the Oval Office. At the same time a clear continuity exists be­tween the living management of the hotel and its supernatural inhabitants: Jack’s gradual corruption by the unseen residents of the hotel is facilitated by his desire to join the ranks of the wealthy guests who have vacationed there. As Greg Smith argues, if Jack wants to join the 1921 Fourth of July party, “he will have to shed his enlightened liberal schoolteacher/writer personality and adopt the racist views seen as constituting a valid claim to authority by wealthy, white, pre-Depression and pre-World War II American societal circles.”20 The continuing legacy of this viewpoint finds expression in the way Jack is manipulated to enforce a racist and sexist ideology that serves a set of class interests that are inimical to him and his family. The invisible management of the hotel is not unlike the frequently faceless directors of financial interests or corporations responsible for large-scale economic exploitation. In effect, Jack is offered admission to the ranks of the ruling class if he adopts the managerial/paternalistic standpoint intended to keep women, nonwhites, and unruly children in their place.

In Jack’s descent into madness, the film presents the viewer with a mirror image of the lower/middle-class conservative white male filled with misdirected rage at minorities and women and faithfully serving the interests of the very group working against his well-being and happiness. Even though he will not benefit personally, the supernatural management of the hotel gradually moves Jack to embrace the misogynistic and racist attitudes of the wealthy white elite. The ghostly management’s ideology, conveyed most forcefully by Delbert Grady’s reference to Hallorann as a “n i g g e r cook,” mirrors the dominant ideological attitudes of those managing American domestic, foreign, and economic policy. The extent to which Jack instantly finds the Overlook “homey” testifies to the uncanny presence of repressed violent impulses within him as much as it signifies his aspirations to join the class it represents and his willingness to become an agent of paternalistic, racist repression. All of Jack’s efforts are clearly directed at exerting mastery and control over his wife and son.

However, there is a consistent aspect of play and playacting to Jack’s violence that may seem to undercut its seriousness. Caldwell and Umland, attentive to this aspect of Kubrick’s film, argue for “a cohesive metaphor of play which is far more significant than critics have been willing to acknowledge.” They point out that the hotel is comparable to “an enormous playground with limitless opportunities for play” but conclude that “Kubrick’s manipulation of the play metaphor in The Shining obviates the film’s aesthetic force and therefore undermines any ‘serious’ intent.”21 Although Caldwell and Umland make a convincing argument for the central significance of the metaphor of play in the film, they fail to consider the ways in which play may be a deadly serious activity. Applying the Freudian psychoanalytic framework that Kubrick consulted when writing the screenplay, one cannot fail to note Freud’s most well-known exploration of children’s play, the description of young Hans in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the fort/da game he develops to compensate for his mother’s absence. On several occasions Freud witnessed this young boy taking a wooden reel with a string attached to it and throwing it over the edge of his cot. When he threw it over the edge and it disappeared, he would exclaim, Fort! the German word for “gone.” When he reeled it back in he would cry out Da! or “there.” Freud interprets this game as the young child’s “great cultural achievement—the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting.”22

In Freud’s account, the game represents a form of compensation for loss that cannot be explained by reference to the motive of pleasure, since the loss of the mother was not pleasurable. Freud concludes that the child had another motive, explainable by reference to the existence of an instinct for mastery. Freud remarks, “At the outset he was in a passive situation—he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it, unpleasurable as it was, as a game, he took on an active part. These efforts might be put down to an instinct for mastery.”23 In short, Freud discovers an underlying motive for play that is quite serious and, indeed, all important—the attempt to compensate for the original loss of the mother and return to a state of primary narcissism. Interestingly, several critics have pointed out that the interior of the hotel serves as a metaphorical representation of the interior of the mother’s body.24 Furthermore, the relationship between play and the playing or exchange of roles that constantly takes place in the hotel in connection with doubling consistently returns to forms of patriarchal domination. These forms of domination are shown to be grounded in egoistic eruptions of sexual violence in which members of oppressed groups are coded as feminine. At the same time this doubling process is responsible for generating uncanny reversals in which the violent pursuit of mastery proves to be profoundly self-destructive. Jack’s dual role as a protector of his family and a source of narcissistic violence against them points to the justifying paternalistic values of patriarchy even as it uncovers their uncanny roots in the desire for mastery.

In the final analysis, Jack’s pursuit of mastery and control represents a self-destructive illusion. His fantasies of power turn out to be secretly directed and controlled by hotel management. Jack’s past—America’s past—ultimately masters him, and he becomes a willing pawn of history There is perhaps no more powerful evocation of Jack’s illusion of mastery than his final pursuit of Danny in the hedge maze. As he is reduced to an inarticulate, raging monster, all of the remaining vestiges of Jack’s humanity fall away before he is transformed into a frozen figure trapped in the labyrinth of his own self-destructive desires. As Cynthia Freeland points out in connecting this moment with the uncanny, “the traditional masculine virtues have been perverted into abusive power as Jack merges with evil.”25 However, in taking for granted that these traditional masculine virtues must undergo a process of perversion, Freeland overlooks the real force of Kubrick’s critique of patriarchy as well as the subtlety of his use of the uncanny to comment on paternalistic ideology. Kubrick’s critique is far more radical. The traditional masculine virtues Freeland alludes to do not need to undergo a process of perversion because they already are the ideological representation of the real forms of power and domination they help to perpetuate. Jack’s violence merely represents the uncanny mirror reflection of masculine virtue in practice. Reason, control, and the command of language constitute the defining illusions of the patriarchal worldview and are progressively exposed as ideological distortions of real history and its brutal repetitions of the past. One of the most powerful messages of the film involves the revelation that so-called masculine virtues are indistinguishable from the abusive exercise of power in practice. This revelation points far beyond the scope of events at the Overlook Hotel to a critique of European and American history and the Enlightenment values that inform it.

The Nightmare of History

The concern with organized institutional forms of violence and power informs the uncanny subtext of The Shining and, as others have pointed out, it represents a common focus in Kubrick’s films.26 The repetition of the past finds representation in the film in ways that are both overt and metaphorical. Nevertheless, in every case these repetitions suggest passivity or helplessness before the onslaught of history. One of the most obvious examples of repetition revolves around Jack’s efforts to repeat the actions of the former caretaker Delbert Grady. At the same time Danny’s uncanny encounters with the ghosts of Grady’s daughters explicitly connect the repetition of history with violence. Furthermore, in his enigmatic encounter with Grady in the bathroom adjoining the Gold Room, Jack accuses Grady of being the caretaker and is told that he has always been the caretaker. Significantly, this encounter ends with Jack becoming convinced that he must “correct” Wendy and Danny. Soon after this real or imagined conversation, Jack sets out to kill Danny and Wendy, but only after repeating many of the same lines spoken by the ghosts of the hotel. This repetition of language signifies Jack’s imprisonment within the nightmare of history and emphasizes his subjection to powers beyond his control or understanding.27 Jack’s manuscript supplies a significant indication of his growing alignment with inhuman forces depriving him of all individual agency. The repetition of the same line—All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—registers his entrapment within an ideological system reinforcing patriarchal, class, and racial domination and links his attempts at mastery to the narcissistic motives of play discussed above. To the degree that the manuscript emulates a wide variety of poetic and written forms of expression, it dramatizes a complete emptying of content from literary form that renders it meaningless. Subject to the commands of history, Jack’s personality undergoes a parallel emptying that dramatically points out how his unconscious allegiance to the past has destroyed his creative potential.

In effect, the haunting presence of history materializes and drives him to replace the possibility of fulfilling meaningful work or self-realization with a meaningless repetition of the past. As Thomas Allen Nelson points out, the manuscript “resembles a horizontal labyrinth … [suggesting] fate and psychological entrapment [and] associates Jack’s madness with an image of reduction and repetition.”28 Jack’s madness signifies the materialization of history and, on a symbolic level, the supernatural forces that nurture his growing instability function concretely in the film as historical ones.29 If Jack’s repetition of the same text points to his own progressive dehumanization into a figure whose narcissistic motives can be manipulated to transform him into an agent of brutal violence, the film, along with its historical subtext, points to the role of modern institutions in reproducing both domestic and global nightmares. Just as the Overlook Hotel is haunted by unseen evil and Jack Torrance is hunted by hidden forces bent upon his family’s destruction, so, too, are the seemingly benevolent faces of political, economic, and cultural authority shown to be stalked by an uncanny double inflicting untold violence and harm upon the powerless. As Linda Holland-Toll points out, “It is not the idea that Jack is a monster which is so discomforting; it is that Jack Torrance reflects so many people in the society, who would not like to think of themselves as monsters, and who, indeed, to all appearances, are not monsters.”30 Holland-Toll is speaking of King’s novel; however, her insight can easily be applied to the Jack Torrance in the film, who initially no more appears to be a monster than do the monstrous institutions that Kubrick aims to unmask and expose.

These monstrous institutions show themselves in the form of concrete traces of the past. This past is registered not only in literal historical references but also in the untold numbers of photographs that line the walls of the Overlook. In this sense Jack’s joining of the ranks of those who populate the hotel’s photographs is entirely appropriate, since it signifies the way in which the past exerts its concrete influence on the present. Indeed, Brigitte Peucker observes the degree to which The Shining is “haunted by photography.”31 To the extent that photographs are a means of recording the past and assigning it a place and meaning, Kubrick uses photography as a metaphor for the helplessness and passivity of human beings before the onslaught of history. The elaborate tracking shots of the camera, coupled with the vast visual puzzle or spatial labyrinth represented by the interior of the hotel, construct an uncanny space that frequently gives his characters a false assurance of being able to master it before their actual experiences violently shatter their illusions and demonstrate the degree to which it masters them. In this respect Kubrick’s characters may not be unlike the members of his audience, who, provided with a story ostensibly about the mental breakdown of an isolated man and the collapse of his family, are actually given a tale about the hidden brutality of their own institutions, an uncanny fable mirroring their own pursuit of mastery and their own subjection to the nightmare of history.


My epigraphs are taken from William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York; Vintage, 1975), 80; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Interna­tional Publishers, 1991), 15; and The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick (Warner Brothers, 1980).

1. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, David McLintock (New York: Penguin, 2003), 123.
2. Diane Johnson, “Writing The Shining,” in Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick, Film, and the Uses of History, Geoffrey Cocks, James Diedrick, and Glenn Perusek (Madi­son: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 58.
3. Freud, The Uncanny, 147.
4. Stephen King, The Shining (New York: Pocket, 1977), 382,433-34. Subsequent page references to this work will be given parenthetically in the text.
5. Cynthia A. Freeland, The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000), 215.
6. Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 108.
7. Greg Jenkins, Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation (London: McFarland, 1997), 23.
8. Sigmund Freud, “Family Romances,” in The Uncanny, 38, 40.
9. Joseph Reino, Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Semetary (Boston: Twayne, 1988), 36.
10. Freud, The Uncanny, 142,143.
11. Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artists Maze (Bloomington: In­diana University Press, 1982), 199.
12. Johnson, “Writing The Shining,” 59.
13. Randy Rasmussen, Stanley Kubrick: Seven Films Analyzed (London: McFarland 2001), 263.
14. Frank Manchel, “What About Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubricks The Shining,” Literature/Film Quarterly 23, no. 1 (1995): 72.
15. Philip Kuberski, “Kubricks Caretakers: Allegories of Homeland Security,” Ari­zona Quarterly 63 (Spring 2007): 5.
16. David A. Cook, “American Horror: The Shining,” Literature/Film Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1984): 2.
17. Nelson, Kubrick, 217.
18. Rasmussen, Stanley Kubrick, 236.
19. Geoffrey Cocks, “Death by Typewriter: Stanley Kubrick, the Holocaust, and The Shining,” in Cocks, Diedrick, and Perusek, Depth of Field, 203.
20. Greg Smith, ‘“Real Horrorshow’: The Juxtaposition of Subtext, Satire, and Audience Implication in Stanley Kubricks The Shining,” Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 4(1997): 302.
21. Larry W. Caldwell and Samuel J. Umland, ‘“Come and Play with Us’: The Play Metaphor in Kubrick’s Shining,” Literature/Film Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1986): 106, 111.
22. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Norton, 1961), 14.
23. Ibid., 15.
24. See Peucker, Material Image, Peucker argues that the corridors of the hotel can be viewed as corporeal passages for the transport of blood, and the hotel as the body of the mother. Similarly, Robert Kilker, who views the film as a vehicle for a subtle misogyny based in the fear of the abject, interprets the winding road leading to the Overlook as an umbilical cord to a monstrous feminine from which Jack cannot free himself. See Robert Kilker, “All Roads Lead to the Abject: The Monstrous Feminine and Gender Boundaries in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” Literature/Film Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2006): 57-58.
25. Freeland, The Naked and the Undead, 225.
26. See Cocks, Diedrick, and Perusek, Depth of Field. In their introduction the editors point out that many of Kubrick’s films “confront in particular the unprecedented organization of power and violence among people and states that dominated much of the first half of the century” (8).
27. Pat J. Gehrke and G. L. Ercolini, “Subjected Wills: The Antihumanism of Kubrick’s Later Films,” in Cocks, Diedrick, and Perusek, Depth of Field, 111,117.
28. Nelson, Kubrick, 228.
29. Cocks, “Death by Typewriter,” 200-201.
30. Linda J. Holland-Toll, “Bakhtin’s Carnival Reversed: King’s The Shining as Dark Carnival,” Journal of Popular Culture 33 (Fall 1999): 137.
31. Peucker, Material Image, 107.

The Philosophy Of Horror, Edited by Thomas Fahy, The University Press of Kentucky
Copyright © 2010 by The University Press of Kentucky


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