The Shining is one of those movies that most people don’t really get on their first viewing. It certainly wasn’t embraced by critics in 1980 when it first came out, but it hit a nerve with audiences, and over time has become massively appreciated for the masterpiece it is. It’s a film that to this day is still not fully understood, yet is deceptively simple whilst still being enormously complex. So complex in fact, that I dare say it’s probably the most complex horror film ever made. The main reason I believe I can firmly say this, is because it’s directed by Stanley Kubrick, who is one of the greatest directors of all time.
Every single one of his films is a bold statement about life, culture, social issues, personal expression, the universe, – everything. For a man to have made the single greatest science fiction film of all time, (2001: A Space Odyssey), it’s certainly fitting that he also made the most complex horror film of all time, and a strong contender for greatest horror film of all time as well. The difference between 2001 & The Shining being, that no film has ever really been able to touch 2001, but many have gotten close if not surpassed The Shining, in terms of sheer horror. But none have come close to its level of subtle complexity.
But as far as complexity and symbolism, The Shining is unparalleled. I can’t think of another horror film with as much depth and meaning behind literally every single shot in it as does The Shining. It’s a film that is riddled with subtext, visual cues, architectural anomalies, subliminal messages, and symbolic background imagery so dense, that it makes nearly every frame of the film full of things to dissect and discuss.
Believe me, in researching this article, I’ve seen plenty do just so. The point of this though, is to present all of these ideas and concepts to you in a simple, relatable way, without overloading you with information like I’ve seen other articles do. Frankly, the movie is an ocean of information, but the beauty of it is that all of it works on every level. It’s a horror film about a man going mad. It’s a psychological thriller about a woman in peril. It’s a ghost story about a haunted hotel. It’s all of those and more, and every interpretation you take from it with each viewing is just as valid as anyone else’s.
Firstly, the main interpretation most folks get from the movie is pretty straight forward. Jack Torrance is an alcoholic writer who has taken a caretaker position at The Overlook Hotel. He is told murders have happened there, but decides to bring his family along anyway, and hopes to get some writing done. His son has a psychic gift that warns him of the hotel, but he is powerless to do anything about it. Jack arrives at the hotel, and is slowly driven to madness by the evil spirits in the hotel, and he attempts to murder his family in turn. Along the way his son and wife elude him, and finally lose him in the massive hedge maze that resides outside the hotel. Jack, lost and confused, sits down to rest in the snow, and freezes to death. The film ends on a shot of a picture from the 20’s, where we see that Jack Torrance, or a man who appears just like him, is in the picture frame. It’s implied that he has been “absorbed” into the hotel, and is now just another one of the spirits who live there, restless for all time.
That’s generally how most people I’ve spoken to, see the film. And it’s a valid way to interpret the movie! By all means it’s legitimate and has merit as that was for the most part how it was in the book. My personal interpretation however, stresses the psychological aspect of the movie, and precludes the concept of there being ghosts, by the way of Jack, Danny, and Wendy all being entirely unreliable narrators. Simply put, all of them are different levels of crazy, going crazier, and whose to say that what they’re experiencing is actually, objectively true. For instance, every single time Jack speaks to a “ghost”, in the film, there’s always a mirror, or polished surface present. In the bar, a mirror. In the food locker, the polished reflective metal of the door. I believe that every spirit he speaks to, is just a visual manifestation of his psychosis, made worse and worse by the isolation of the Overlook Hotel. Coupled with the resentment he feels towards his wife for the accusation of child abuse, and his weakness for alcohol which he imbibes in at the hotel, it paints a definite picture of a man whose sanity and objectivity are in question.
If you were so inclined, and I am, you could find a bevy of reasonable explanations for everything that happens to the Torrance family. Reasonable being non-supernatural in my opinion. Kubrick’s intention with the film seems very much skewed towards portraying any and all supernatural events relatively ambiguously. As I previously stated, all of Jack’s encounters can be explained by his deteriorating mental state. The same can be said for Danny and Wendy, who are doubtlessly being driven to their breaking point. Towards the end of the film, Wendy starts to see many terrifying visions, which at first viewing can be explained supernaturally, but also can plausibly be explained by her own burdening psychosis. Add in the fact that Danny could debatably have some form of autism, along with the incredible stress and likely abuse he receives at the hand of his father, and you’ve got a reasonable explanation for the twin girls he sees, along with the bruises he allegedly sustains in room 237. Again, all of these can be attributed to a family, basically going insane together. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an epilogue scene, discovered in a vault somewhere, where Wendy goes catatonic and is committed, and Danny is sent to a foster home, irreparably traumatized for the rest of his life. A scene like that though, would be too absolute, and would ruin much of the fun of the film, in my opinion.
The only definitively supernatural thing in the film, is ‘The Shining’ itself. The inclusion of Dick Hallorann means that Danny almost definitely does have some psychic ability. In my personal interpretation of the film, I see it a bit more straightforward than just a haunted hotel. I see it as this: Jack goes to this hotel, looking to overcome his demons and foster his writing career. Unfortunately he suffers from a severe case of cabin fever and begins drinking. His alcoholism fuels his latent anger issues, and causes him to continue abusing his child physically. As a coping mechanism, Danny creates a way to deal with his abusive father, and hallucinates ghosts and other explanations for the things around him. He eventually psychically calls Dick Hallorann for help, until Jack tragically murders him in an insane rage. As Wendy protects her child, her husband’s madness has a drastic effect on her, and she begins hallucinating terrifying things around her, no doubt inspired by the many tales and rumors they’ve heard concerning the Overlook. The film ends with her escaping, and a family unit splits in a tragic, yet thankfully fairly bloodless way. As for the picture? It’s a final visual metaphor for how the hotel overcame Jack’s psyche entirely. He’s not literally “there” in the picture, more than he has ever “always been there”, as his hallucination/ghost friend Grady says.
One final interesting note, is that a detail that many overlook (sorry), is that ‘The Shining’ is implied to be hereditary, as it’s only Jack & Danny who seem to have active experiences with the hotel’s potential spirits. Towards the end Wendy begins to see things too, but I speculate that this is a form of mental projection, brought on by the sheer force of will by Jack and/or Danny. A mindmeld of the “pictures” that ‘The Shining’ can show you, so to speak.
As for what interpretation of the film you want to take, be it the first I described, which is to take the movie at face value or to infer things a bit deeper like in my own personal interpretation, is up to you. Perhaps you think it’s some combination of the two, or something else different entirely. The great thing about the movie is reasonably it could be any of those, and that’s without looking at any of the symbolic imagery in the movie to add further context for each scene in the film.
One of the more overt examples of symbolism, is the fact that the Overlook hotel was built on old Native American territory, and is in fact built on Native American burial ground. Stewart Ullman even says they had to fend off a few attacks from Native Americans while constructing the hotel. It’s generally reflected in all of the hotel, as the Native American motif is prevalent all throughout the entire building. In many rooms there’s some aspect of it in the background, hinting at the history of the hotel’s roots.
Throughout the film there are subtle allusions to this more and more. Since the hotel was built on Native American burial ground, the setting of the film really becomes crucial towards understanding the nature of the “spirits” that reside there. It’s to be inferred that the hotel is a focal point to gather the would be spirits of the potentially vast amounts of Native Americans who were killed, during both the colonization of the land, and during the construction of the hotel itself.
While the spirits that are implied to be the ones doing the haunting seem to come from 1921, there is still ample evidence of the Native American influence in the film directly. Most famously, the Elevator Blood scene, which has now become so iconic it’s been parodied ad infinitum. One must ask themselves though, whose blood is it we’re seeing? In the case of a cultural genocide, as the Native American population sustained, that’s probably the amount of blood that was shed by the many Native Americans who perished defending the burial ground, or who were buried there beforehand. Another key Native American influence? What weapon does Jack decide to use to finally take down his family? An axe of course, which is just an Americanized, extended version of the same basic weapon as a Native American tomahawk. Furthermore, as Jack chases his son into the hedge maze, we see him turn from a ranting madman screaming his son’s name, into a primal man at his most basic impulse to kill. The last civilized semblance of Jack is lost, as he finally rejects all language, and shouts only instinctual, animalistic, and guttural moans in anger and agony. At this moment, he has ironically become the “savage” that so many early settlers believed the Natives to be.
Furthermore in the film, is a keen sense of visual symmetry. Both the main hall that Jack first walks into, and the hall that leads to the “Golden Room” are symmetrically similar, and emphasize the increasingly more prevalent spatial anomalies in the film. Kubrick is famously known for his attention to detail, and the resulting incongruities when plotting out the architectural layout of the Overlook Hotel is something that would absolutely have been noticed as erroneous if it wasn’t intentional. It’s theorized that Kubrick intended a sense of disorientation to the viewer, subtly adding more depth visually and psychologically to the film. A viewer could watch the movie many times and not notice it consciously, but once looking for them, they’re everywhere.
Famous examples include the aforementioned hallways, which aren’t architecturally feasible, the size of Room 237 in comparison to the hallway it resides in, to the more obvious example of The Impossible Window in Stuart Ullman’s office. A window that seemingly leads to a view of the mountains behind the Hotel, despite the room being located in the center of the Hotel, and nowhere near an exterior wall for such a window to exist.
Increasing amounts of critics and fans have noticed these spatial anomalies, and have gone to great lengths to locate, study, and dissect the meaning of all of them. A particularly interesting example is a modified level for a PC game called Duke Nukem, wherein a fan modeled an entire level based on the Overlook Hotel. Because of the Hotel’s spatial anomalies, impossibilities and layout, the level had to be modified from the exact layout of the Hotel, in order to be continuously playable. One needs only to search “The Shining spatial anomalies” on the internet to quickly find the litany of posts, videos, blogs and pictures made dedicated to understanding and breaking down the Overlook Hotel.
From impossibly angled hallways, to impossible windows, to rooms that are impossibly bigger than they could be, the whole film is littered with visual cues for the subconscious to pick up on.
But in the end, what does it all mean? Why does the layout of an imaginary set matter so much if the film isn’t worth watching? The brilliance of The Shining is that as well as being symbolically and visually rich, it’s a brilliantly acted, engaging and horrifying story.
Whether you want to look at it as a psychological masterpiece, detailing the breakdown of a family due to a collective loss of sanity, or a supernatural whirlwind where a man and his family are driven insane by the otherworldly forces around them. There’s one underlying fact about however you interpret the movie, and that’s that no matter the reason, the characters in the movie are driven to the edge, and watching them go through such a harrowing ordeal, regardless of personal interpretation, is as engaging as it is terrifying.
In a film filled with symmetry, impossible architecture, heavy symbolism, and implied meaning in every shot, one is left to ponder just why are the Torrance family subject to such a bizarre and cruel fate? The brilliance of the film is that this is where each viewer gets to decide their own personal meaning for the film, and focus on just what exactly that last shot of Jack Torrance in the 1921 picture frame means to them. Whether it’s something left over from another world, a visual representation of Jack’s spirit being claimed by the Hotel, or a picture of another man entirely, is up for the viewer to decide. It’s one of the few examples of ambiguity in a film done right, rather than simply refusing to answer a blatant question posed by the filmmaker ala Inception or Prometheus, to use more modern examples.
To that end, I can only answer what the film’s ending, and it’s meaning as a whole are to me. It’s a movie I’ve seen probably over 60 times, because for a while I made a point to watch it nearly every day. It’s a movie I never find tiring, or get bored with, partly because of the rich background detail in the film I’ve just touched on in this article, but also because oddly enough, I find it strangely relatable. Yes, I know that sounds corny, or even borderline scary, but watching a writer try to wrestle with his demons, succumb to them, and eventually go mad because of them hits a nerve with me. I’ve had many of the similar feelings that Jack pretty rudely expresses to his wife about concentration and writing in the beginning half of the film.
Now that’s not to say that I’ve also had borderline insane thoughts about chopping up my family with an axe, (although who hasn’t had those underlying angry thoughts every once in a while), but it’s more to represent my feelings on sanity, frustration, and the writing process. In a way, the film can represent the most extreme example of writers block ever had, and anyone who’s ever dealt with it knows how maddening it can be. In a way, watching The Shining is almost a meditative process for me, it’s a film that centers me, reminds me of who not to become, and entertains me at the same time.
At different times I can watch it as different movies, sometimes about a man going insane, sometimes about a haunted hotel. Sometimes that ending picture is his soul being claimed by the hotel, and sometimes I even think it’s far more complicated than that. Perhaps this old Jack from 1921 is a man out of time, an abnormality, and somehow both a different person, and yet the same person as Jack Torrance. In the same way that Delbert Grady informs Jack “You’ve always been the caretaker”, perhaps he’s meant to be taken quite literally at face value. It’s even implied that Grady himself has had a similar process thing happen to him. In the beginning of the movie we hear about a Charles Grady who went insane and killed his family, yet Jack talks to and sees a Delbert Grady, and even asks him if he was the caretaker before. It implies that perhaps what is happening to Jack, is and has been happening to people for a long time. The two Grady’s represent Old Jack from the picture, and Jack as we know him today, in a cycle long since past. Maybe Jack is and always has been the caretaker, and always will be.
Other times I’ve watched it with a more reasonable mind and simply interpreted the whole thing as a case of everyone in the film being an unreliable narrator. Regardless of how many times I watch it, I always find myself being pulled back to it, over and over again. It’s unique to me because of this, and it’s by far the movie I’ve watched the most in my life because of it. It would seem that The Overlook Hotel even has powers to pull in the viewer, in this case me, in a way that I can’t explain. Or perhaps it’s just the exceptional talent of Stanley Kubrick, who in his own words set out to create the definitive horror film of all time, and frankly, I think he succeeded.
It certainly is the most complex, because even in this article I’ve just barely scratched the surface on the pages and pages of content written about the film. There’s plenty more written by people far smarter than I, who have put a lot more work into breaking every little detail of the film down. There’s so much in fact, that I find it necessary to list just a few of the sources I drew my information and facts from, just to get you started, if you were so inclined. Be careful though, it’s a long rabbit hole to go down, but a damned fascinating one at that.
Images: Warner Bros.