“I never learned anything at all in school and didn’t read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old.”
– Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the horror genre has gone down in history as one of the defining horror films of all time. An unfaithful adaptation of the best-selling Stephen King novel, Kubrick’s The Shining is an unsettling exploration of isolation, psychosis and the human capacity for violence. It is hard to believe that this cult-classic wasn’t always classified as one. The film met with a moderate commercial and critical reception, earning Kubrick a nomination for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director (Shelley Duvall was also nominated for Worst Actress). Thankfully, there has been a gradual shift in acknowledgement of The Shining’s initially misunderstood brilliance.
Set in the Colorado Rockies (although most of the film was shot on set), there’s an inherent duality in the film from the opening shot itself. Ominous music is paired with the scenic visuals of a car gliding along a mountain road. We don’t even know what we are supposed to be wary of but the extraordinary sound design massively contributes towards creating this atmospheric anxiety. The plot of The Shining is deceptively simple: an unsuccessful writer Jack Torrance (a fantastic performance from Jack Nicholson) decides to be the caretaker for the secluded Overlook Hotel during the winter when it shuts down for five months. “I’m looking for a change,” he says and does not flinch when the manager informs him that the previous caretaker Charles Grady succumbed to cabin fever and slaughtered his entire family and killed himself. He laughs it off by saying that his wife will love the story because she is a “ghost story and horror film addict.” Is this Kubrick’s attempt at a self-aware analysis of the genre, an attack at the commercialisation of horror films? Similarly, Jack tauntingly assures his wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) that it’s okay to discuss cannibalism with his five-year-old son Danny because he has seen it on television. We do not experience fear anymore, we merely consume it.
As the days progress, the snowstorm intensifies and the outside world becomes increasingly hostile. Jack spends his days alone, trying to conjure something up on his typewriter and lashes out at Wendy if she tries to talk to him. Danny zooms around the labyrinthine hotel on his little tricycle. Kubrick employs a truly bizarre tracking shot of the tricycle, using a Steadicam. The inventor of the Steadicam, Garrett Brown was heavily involved with the production. Brown noted:
“One of the most talked-about shots in the picture is the eerie tracking sequence which follows Danny as he pedals at high speed through corridor after corridor on his plastic Big Wheel tricycle. The soundtrack explodes with noise when the wheel is on wooden flooring and is abruptly silent as it crosses over carpet. We needed to have the lens just a few inches from the floor and to travel rapidly just behind or ahead of the bike.”
In most of the shots, Kubrick uses symmetrical composition to reinforce the prevailing idea of an omnipresent duality, the line between the fantasy of horror films and the reality of mental illness. More importantly, a character is often the central focus of such a shot. This makes the individual an interface between the mirror images on either side. Is one side the reflection of the other or is the character a reflection of the past (and future) violence that operates throughout the hotel? An inhospitable hotel is ironic to think about but Kubrick uses it to create a horror film with a much-needed poetic force. Mirrors are a recurring motif throughout the film because they are always present whenever Jack talks to someone, be it the imaginary bartender Lloyd or the waiter Delbert Grady who he confuses with the previous caretaker (a sign of mental regression). When the woman in room 237 becomes the subject of his libidinal cathexis, Jack looks into the mirror to discover that he is making out with a corpse. The idea of sexual attraction is subverted to reveal the fetish of necrophilia. The wilful anachronisms only add to The Shining’s disturbing myth, making Overlook Hotel a place where even time is destabilised.
During the production, Kubrick screened David Lynch’s 1977 surreal masterpiece Eraserhead in order to explain the artistic sensibility he wanted to achieve in his film. Where Lynch focused the anxiety of parenthood on the appearance of the baby in his film, the manifestations of those same anxieties happen in a different way in The Shining. Jack is a menacing presence who hunts down his family with an axe, maniacal expressions slapped on his face and an inexplicable hatred towards his family, Wendy in particular. Jack’s psyche is almost directly connected to the fabric of the Overlook Hotel and as he gets more unstable, the hotel becomes increasingly volatile. In one of the most chilling scenes of the film, Wendy discovers that Jack has filled page after page with only one phrase: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He always gets unnecessarily aggressive when Wendy suggests that they should leave the hotel. With the intent to kill, he lurches towards her and reassures her:
“I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to bash your brains in.”
One of the major debates surrounding The Shining is whether the evil is human or supernatural. In the book, King relies on the Biblical distinctions between good and evil to create a more traditional view of horror but Kubrick only used the novel as a starting point for his own unique vision. That is precisely why Stephen King did not like Kubrick’s film. When King asked him whether he thought hell was optimistic, Kubrick answered, “I don’t believe in hell”. Of course, there are obvious instances of supernatural activity in the film. Danny converses telepathically with the head chef of the hotel, Dick Hallorann (played by Scatman Crothers). There are supernatural apparitions scattered throughout the film, from the Grady twins to the woman in 237 but does Kubrick really insist on their existence? To me, it seems like they are hallucinatory images generated by the heterotopic space that is Overlook Hotel. An identical process took place in Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece Solaris. When Danny turns a corner and sees the twins, he tells himself, “It’s just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn’t real.” The ghosts and the guests that Jack and his family see are the products of psychological cathexes but that theory still doesn’t explain how Jack got out of the storage after Wendy knocked him out with a baseball bat and locked him in. Kubrick leaves it to the viewer to decide whether they want to relegate the responsibility of evil to the supernatural realm but it cannot be denied that if Overlook Hotel is indeed haunted, it is haunted by Jack Torrance.
The final sequence of the film is the culmination of this belief in the human capacity for evil. After butchering the head chef who had come to help, Jack limps out into the cold to catch and kill Danny as he disappears into the iconic hedge maze. Wendy tries searching for Danny as well and runs into all kinds of strange scenes: a person in an animal costume engaged in a sexual act with a hotel guest, corpses and cobwebs, blood pouring from the elevator doors but outside, there are no ghosts anymore. There’s just a father who is playing a sinister game of hide and seek with his son in the middle of a blizzard. Although Danny and Wendy do manage to escape, it’s never really clear what was real and what wasn’t. Jack is left to freeze in the snow, trapped in a maze he can never escape. While speaking about the ending of Kubrick’s film, King said, “I always thought that the real difference between my take on it and Stanley Kubrick’s take on it was this: in my novel, the hotel burns. In Kubrick’s movie, the hotel freezes. That’s the difference between warmth and cold.”
The Shining ends with a close-up of a picture from 1921 that is hung in the hotel. It’s of a 4th of July party and we see Jack in the middle of it, smiling. Theories ranging from time travel to paranormal mechanisms have tried to explain this anomaly but I think this was Kubrick’s way of declaring that evil is human and it has been present throughout our history on this planet. It’s not clear whether Jack is a ghost but it does not matter. What matters is that Jack is an idea and ideas are more terrifying because they cannot be destroyed.