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Explaining the real mystery behind 'The Shining'


Stanley Kubrick covered almost each and every base of genre filmmaking during his 48-year career, becoming recognised as one of the finest filmmakers of all time, for his versatile mastery of several different styles. From the comedy of Dr. Strangelove to the science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey to his war drama Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick has made an impact on almost each and every corner of popular cinema. 

Horror was not omitted from Kubrick’s repertoire either, releasing The Shining in 1980 starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, the author was famously opposed to the director’s vision, despite it being considered an iconic movie of the genre. In conversation with Deadline, King stated “I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it…I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much”.

Set in the towering, fictional Overlook Hotel, located in the Colorado Rockies, the haunting tale follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family who opt to look after the hotel over the winter. Dwarfed by the towering presence of the building, however, Jack soon becomes engulfed by an evil, violent presence, influencing his temper toward his wife and psychic son. 

Shrouded in strange mystery, The Shining has puzzled cinephiles for decades, leading to some of the most influential fan theories of all time, not least that the film is proof of the faked 1969 moon landings. Having dug deep to uncover its secrets, however, it’s time to uncover the real mystery behind Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 classic.

Explaining the real mystery behind The Shining

What is the significance of Room 237?

One of the most iconic aspects of The Shining is the haunted Room 237, a hotel apartment in the Overlook that possesses an evil spirit. Changed from the novel — originally Room 217 — Kubrick made the switch out of respect for the owners of the real-life hotel who didn’t want to freak out their guests into thinking their Room 217 was actually haunted. 

Aside from this, the room in the film houses many disturbing moments, with fans of the Stephen King book knowing that the haunted space formerly belonged to a guest of the hotel, Lorraine Massey, who took her own life out of guilt after luring young bellhop boys for sex in her room. Slitting her wrists in the bathtub, many years later she now haunts the hotel. 

Danny was likely lured to this room for similar reasons, with the lure of Lorraine’s ghost still holding power over the young boys that inhabited the hotel, or could the reason be entirely more sinister?

The Shining superfans have long pointed to the relevance of bears throughout the film, with one of the movie’s most memorable images showing a man in a bear suit performing a sexual act on another man. A stuffed bear also appears alongside Danny throughout the movie, with one even sharing an eerie similarity to the life-sized version. With some believing that the bear imagery relates to Jack’s predatory control over his family, many have suggested that the man in the bear suit could be the protagonist, and the other man, Danny, implies Jack was a sexual abuser. 

What’s the meaning behind ‘Redrum’ and the elevator blood?

The fact that ‘Redrum’ is ‘murder’ backwards is one of the most obvious movie trivia facts in all of cinema, though the true meaning of the word in the film, as well as the river of blood that emerges from a hotel elevator, has long been up for debate. 

Sharing a traumatising relationship with the forbidden Room 237 Danny Torrance, Jack’s young son carries strange psychic abilities, with his visions and disturbing connection with the hotel becoming increasingly intense as Jack loses his grip on reality. Chanting and scribbling the word ‘Redrum’ across the wall, this was the message that Danny was delivered by the haunting Grady twins. 

As for the elevator blood, first appearing to Danny in a vision before happening for real toward the end of the film, this is thought to reflect the long-standing theory that the film is a criticism of Native American genocide, with the hotel itself having been built on an ancient burial ground. Other suggestions point to the theory that the blood represents that of the deceased lives that the hotel has claimed over the course of its existence. 

Who are the terrifying Grady Twins?

“Come and play with us, Danny. Forever…and ever…and ever”. 

Named Alexa and Alexie Grady, though better known as simply ‘The Grady Twins’ in popular culture, the two small girls dressed in sky blue dresses have become the most significant piece of iconography in the influential 1980s horror movie. Though it is difficult to piece together the origin of the twins, it was revealed that the two girls were violently murdered with an axe by their father Charles Grady when he was possessed by a ghost whilst he was looking after the Overlook Hotel.

In Stanley Kubrick’s intricate film, the twins are thought to represent Danny’s vision of his mother’s murder, sharing a resemblance to his mother with jet black hair and a blue dress that looks similar to the one Shelley Duvall’s Wendy wears at the start of the movie.

Why is Jack in the Overlook hotel photo?

The very last shot of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is a truly eerie one, as we see the protagonist Jack Torrance stand among the guests in a monochrome image of The Overlook Hotel’s July 4th, 1921 party. Taking place in the 1970s, it would be impossible for Jack to have existed when the photo was taken, unless he is some sort of ghost or reincarnation. 

In a rare interview with Michel Ciment, Stanley Kubrick confirmed this theory, stating, “the ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack”.

This means that the protagonist is the reincarnation of a guest or staff member who lost their life in the Overlook Hotel, a fact that corroborates with the theory that Charles Grady, the axe-wielding murderer is the reincarnation of Delbert Grady, the phantom butler Jack meets in the bathroom. Telling Jack that he’s “always been the caretaker,” suggests that the Overlook Hotel is a strange location that seems to hold the ability to reincarnate the dead.

So, what does it all mean?

If all this still isn’t feeding your thirst for answers, for a more definitive meaning of the film, look no further than Stanley Kubrick’s own explanation, captured in a rare interview with filmmaker Jun’ichi Yao. Making a behind-the-scenes look at the paranormal experiences that occurred on the set of The Shining, Yao got the chance to speak to the iconic director and enquired about the true meaning behind the film’s ending.

As Kubrick explains, “It’s supposed to suggest a kind of evil reincarnation cycle, where he [Jack] is part of the hotel’s history, just as in the men’s room, he’s talking to the former caretaker [Grady], the ghost of the former caretaker, who says to him, ‘you are the caretaker; you’ve always been the caretaker, I should know I’ve always been here’”. Continuing, the filmmaker adds, “One is merely suggesting some kind of endless cycle of this evil reincarnation”.

Reserved about revealing the particular facts of the movie, Kubrick also added, “it’s the sort of thing that I think is better left unexplained,” before later adding, “I think the best thing is when an audience looks at a film and wonders whether something that they have seen is an accident or if the director or writer meant them to know it, I think subtlety and allowing the audience to discover for themselves what it is the most important thing”. 

With plenty of secrets dotted around the grounds and many rooms of the Overlook Hotel, it seems that the true mystery of The Shining is a fervent ongoing investigation.