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Film

What does the bear mean in Stanley Kubrick film 'The Shining'?

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There’s no doubt that amongst Stanley Kubrick’s influential body of work, his 1980 horror The Shining remains his most disturbing film, with eerie atmospheric film suggesting something deeper to be running through the haunted floorboards of the Overlook hotel. 

Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, Kubrick’s film was adapted from the novel by Stephen King, with the author 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 (Nicholson), his wife, Wendy (Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) 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. 

The film Stanley Kubrick called “the best film I think I have ever seen”

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Shrouded in strange mystery, puzzling cinephiles for decades, one of the film’s darkest secrets is the curious meaning behind the bear who appears to Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as she is desperately escaping Jack’s grasp. Viewing the figure through an open hotel room door, Wendy sees the person in a bear costume give oral sex to another man lying on a bed initially out of shot.

Decoding this puzzling moment, superfans of The Shining have long pointed to the relevance of bears throughout the film, with several references being made throughout the movie that each build to one likely explanation. 

Whilst a framed picture of two bears can be seen hanging above Danny’s bed at the start of the film, the most obvious reference to the terrifying animals can be seen when the boy is speaking to the psychiatrist after he faints in the bathroom. Coming back around to consciousness, Danny awakes to see that his trousers are around his ankles and he is laying on top of a large stuffed toy bear. 

“Tony is a little boy that lives in my mouth,” Danny states, complaining about his mental condition, to which the doctor replies: “If you were to open your mouth could I see Tony…Does Tony ever ask you to do things?”. Pausing, Danny snaps back: “I don’t wanna talk about Tony any more,” ending the conversation and the scene.  

Spiked with sexual innuendo, this conversation holds several clues to the truth behind the relationship between Danny, his father and the imagery of the bear, with many suggesting that the animal is symbolic of Jack’s predatory control over his family and sexual abuse of his son. 

In addition to the sexual innuendos of the doctor’s conversation, there’s one further scene in the film that adds to the mystery in question, occurring when Hotel managers Stuart Ullman and Bill Watson approach Jack on the closing day of the Overlook. Sitting in an armchair, Jack is reading a January 1978 issue of Playgirl Magazine, a potential reference to his homosexual tendencies as well as much more if you look a little closer. 

The main headlines of the 1978 issue involve two key sections, reading as follows: “Incest: Why parents sleep with their children,” and, “How to avoid a dead end affair”. In any other film from any other director, you may discard the information as sheer coincidence, but Kubrick was famously cryptic, scattering clues and imagery throughout each and every one of his films leading to a more concealed secret.

All the aforementioned signs, and many more, point to the likelihood that Jack sexually abused Danny, making sense of the child’s fragile mental state where he frequently has terrifying visions about the vast hotel. Perhaps the Overlook hotel is merely something of a mental prison for Danny, with his peculiar powers bringing in the consciousnesses of his mother and father in order to process his sexual abuse.

When Shelley Duvall witnesses the bear giving oral sex to another man, she is confronting the true horror and cruelty of her husband’s actions toward her son, animating in front of her eyes as a disturbing vision.

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