Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING: The Fear Of The Inevitable

Time is a flat circle.

It’s no secret that Stephen King disapproves of the way Kubrick adapted his work The Shining, and one of his major complaints was the casting of Jack Nicholson. King wrote John Daniel “Jack” Torrance as more of an everyman who slipped slowly into madness, and even went so far as to suggest Superman actor Christopher Reeve for the role. Point being, Kubrick took some liberties with the source material, and while Jack Torrance was just one among many, it’s indicative of how differently he chose to approach the story. King would eventually go on to produce his own miniseries based on the book, but it’s Kubrick’s film that’s the better remembered of the two, and Jack Nicholson has become the definitive live-action Jack Torrance. Unlike his counterpart on the page, Nicholson’s Torrance seems like a man who could snap at any moment, and that’s part of what makes Kubrick’s The Shining the film that it is. The horrors that Torrance is about to commit, like almost everything else in the film, are inevitable.

A few years ago, an experiment somewhere in Brooklyn resulted in The Shining Forwards and Backwards, a viewing experience that plays the film along with a superimposition of itself running back to front. Devin wrote about it at length, but the long and short of it is that regardless of intent, there are symmetrical echoes throughout the film that reflect the impending doom, and Jack’s impending loss of sanity. The film is rather direct with its foreshadowing (it’s hard to call it foreshadowing at all when Dick Halloran explains Danny’s abilities to him point blank) and that directness stems to how the entire thing is shot and cut. The jump scare is a staple of Western horror, and yet Kubrick uses it minimally. Instead of using his production design to visualize claustrophobia, he instead opts for emptiness and enormity. Shots hold for just a tad longer than feels comfortable, often floating about the characters as if detached from any human perspective (the low-mode Stedicam was invented for the film) and there are bright hues of well-lit red and green at every turn. Nothing is obfuscated in The Shining, and even its deepest, darkest secrets are hiding in plain sight. To say that it’s unlike most horror movies is a statement that barely scratches the surface.

The film certainly deals with the impending, but what seems to enhance the feeling of powerlessness in the face of the inevitable is, strangely enough, its exact opposite: the past. As Stuart Ullman describes the murders during the winter of 1970, detailing what caretaker Charles Grady did to his daughters (aged 8 and 10), the shot holds on Torrance, a man with his own history of violence, for longer than it should. This is perhaps one of the more obvious instances of the past echoing the future, but it doesn’t just stop at the main plot itself. While the terrible acts that we see are limited to Jack Nicholson wielding an axe at Danny Lloyd and Shelly Duvall (still pretty terrifying on its own!), Kubrick appears to be using the horrors of the past as a motif, going so far as to tie the history of the Overlook not only to Jack Torrance, but to the history the United States.

The Overlook was built on a Native American burial ground, a horror trope that’s surprisingly straightforward for the likes of Kubrick, but it isn’t something that directly affects the events of the film, or so it would seem. The river of blood rushing out of the hotel elevators signifies a suppression of violence (perhaps of the colonial sort), like it’s been swept under the rug. While there’s certainly that intellectual element to the scene, one that makes it make sense in a broader context after the fact, the viewing of it in the moment (as Danny sees it in his vision), is from the far end of the hallway. The blood rushes towards audience, though not all at once. It approaches powerfully, but it also creeps along the floor, inching towards us, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. This is perhaps what makes The Shining such an interesting re-watch, because whether it’s possession or cabin fever, Jack’s transformation in the film is treated as an inevitability, one that the Overlook and its ghostly inhabitants take full advantage of, and there never really seems to be a moment where he can choose otherwise.

The ghosts themselves are a curious element. Delbert Grady and Lloyd the bartender are familiar with Jack, or perhaps another “Mr. Torrance” who might’ve come and gone before. Either way, what’s clear is that Jack becomes intertwined with the hotel’s history from quite early on, and the problem the ghosts want him to dispense with is his son. Danny has the ability to perceive events that haven’t happened yet, and in some cases, events that happened long in the past. This is a threat to The Overlook, a place where violent acts have been committed and where violent acts will likely continue to take place, perhaps to ensure the hotel’s survival. While it might sound like a bit of a stretch to say the hotel represents America itself, and its violent past and future (the film predates both Gulf Wars), there’s enough to indicate that it exists as some sort of nexus between the past and present, embodied by one of its key sets that isn’t mentioned in the book: The Gold Room.

Video essayist Rob Ager suggests that Kubrick might’ve been using this part of the film to criticize America’s abandoning of the gold standard at the hands of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson left office in 1921, the same year the notorious photograph in the final scene was taken, and several of the people standing around Torrance in the picture appear to be lookalikes or younger versions of people in Wilson’s administration, people related to Wilson, and even Wilson himself.

Metallic standards were a fixture of American currency since there was an America, and a parting of ways with it is almost symbolic of parting ways with the past. In fact, gold replaced the bimetallic standard shortly after the Civil War, a period of bloodshed that is often seen through a lens as skewed as the one used to view the colonization of the United States and its original inhabitants. Conversations between Jack and Lloyd back this up even further (“Your money’s no good here”/”How’s my credit?”) and Kubrick was known to have his own gold stashed away in Switzerland, but there’s no denying that it’s one of the more ‘out there’ theories about the film. Even so, the identities of the people at the party are never made quite clear, and perhaps the names Delbert Grady and Charles Grady, no doubt introduced to disorient, speak of a generational history, culminating in Jack attacking his family with an axe just like Charles did a decade earlier. A history of violence doomed to repeat itself.

The mystery of how exactly Jack Torrance is connected to The Overlook (and whether it was before or after his death) isn’t one that’s meant to be solved, but the reveal of the photograph does bring into question the things Kubrick had in mind. Specifically, the nature of time. The Shining is by no means a science fiction story, so to talk about it in the context of time-travel would be borderline absurd, however the references to repeating histories of violence and the history of America, when coupled with the layout of the hotel itself, are somewhat revelatory. Time is treated like a loop (or perhaps a pattern) because it’s fueled by human nature – in this case the violent nature of Jack Torrence – and the bloody history of the hotel. Upon closer examination, the actual layout of The Overlook (from The Gold Room, to many of its hallways) should be physically impossible. If one were to follow the path of Danny’s bicycle, it’s clear that many of the doors should not lead to actual rooms, including room 237. There are hallways near the lobby that seem to appear out of nowhere, The Gold Room somehow exists on both sides of lobby, and even the position of the maze entrance shifts in relation to the hotel.

The hallways are akin to a maze, and much like a maze, they keep bringing you back to the same point, like a pattern of repetition you can’t escape. Violence begets violence. History repeats itself. One of the biggest reasons we fear the past is that it might come back to haunt us, and the effect of its events might take hold once more. The only difference between The Shining and real life though, is that Kubrick doesn’t allow us to sweep the past under the rug. Instead, he transfixes our gaze on everyone and everything looking to harm us. The woman in the bathtub exists as young and old simultaneously, a closed loop that brings the nature of time in The Overlook into question. She both seduces us and terrifies us, her rot and decay embodying the fate that has befallen everyone before us – the same fate that awaits us all. As she creeps towards us, her menacing laughter echoing off the walls of room 237, the camera simply does not leave her. Much like Jack, we don’t have a choice when it comes to partaking in the horror.

The Shining is always going to be one of those films that we don’t quite figure out. There’s even a documentary about the people who obsess over it (they’re the real subjects of Room 237) and there continue to be Moon Landing conspiracy theories based solely on Kubrick’s work. But the one thing that is undeniable about the film is that there’s something absolutely chilling about it. It’s not ‘scary’ in the traditional sense; it keeps me up at night not because I think something’s coming to get me, but because I can’t stop thinking about the things that are coming to get us all. My own theory is that it especially affects those of us that are running from something in our past, which if true means that all of Kubrick’s trickery and his layering of historical messages is constructed in such a way that it taps into something very primal and inescapable. The fear that no matter what we do, what we’ve already done is going to be what matters most.