All Things “Shining”

Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The camera creeps stealthily toward the open door of a bathroom as a young boy named Danny looks intently into the mirror. His voice alternates between normal tones and a cancerous guttural wheeze signaling the presence of his friend, “Tony,” the little boy who lives in his mouth. Danny is just starting to experiment with his extraordinary ability to envision events of the past and future. Tony warns Danny that digging deep into the past of the Overlook Hotel–his new home for the entirety of the winter–will dredge up unspeakable mental pictures. Danny insists on seeing them, and that’s when the audience is allowed inside the boy’s tormented mind. We see an ocean of blood spewing out of an elevator, accompanied by flash frames of two smirking little girls and Danny’s face frozen in terror. These unforgettable images of abstract horror include no sound apart from a quietly foreboding score.

This was the first scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic, “The Shining,” that caused my pulse to race and my face to dive behind the pillows on my uncle’s couch. I was quite young at the time, and my uncle’s house was not all that different from the Overlook–with its secluded location in the hills of Lowpoint, Illinois, and its wealth of Native American paraphernalia. I literally felt like I was in the movie, so it was hardly a surprise that I didn’t get much sleep that night, or the night after.

I’ve never seen a film that comes close to matching the brutally unsettling atmosphere of this film. When my friend Katelyn first saw it, she told me that she was afraid to move, fearing that a slight gesture would somehow trigger the arrival of unseen demons. That level of psychological tension is a testament to the brilliant power of John Alcott’s cinematography and a score comprised of atonal masterworks from Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind, Béla Bartók, György Ligeti and the great Krzysztof Penderecki. Alcott’s lens lingers on each shot with such mesmerizing intensity that it practically invites the audience to interpret them. One of the great pleasures of the moviegoing experience is engaging in the art of interpretation, and few films have inspired as many intriguing and varied theories as “The Shining.”

In the upcoming documentary, “Room 237,” director Rodney Ascher compiles a series of fascinating and eyebrow-raising theories from film experts dazzled by Kubrick’s craftsmanship. The film will be distributed this year by IFC Films and is sure to be a must-see for film buffs. Funny how a film about dark obsessions has inspired its own league of obsessive fans. What lends a semblance of validity to many of these interpretations is how they expand upon the broad themes of Kubrick’s film: the eternal existence of evil and the dark truths that have long been “overlooked.” Here are a few theories for your consideration (spoiler alert, obviously)…

1. The film is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. After all, the Overlook is built on “an Indian burial ground,” and is haunted by the ghosts of racist white men. There are Native American influences in everything from the score and the art direction to the wardrobe of Danny’s mom, Wendy. When an African American cook (who shares Danny’s power) attempts to rescue the family, the “caretaker” apparition describes him by using the n-word and orders Danny’s deranged father, Jack, to kill him. Could the cook’s murder be seen as a hate crime?

2. Danny is a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his father, as symbolized in the scene when Wendy encounters two male ghosts–one covered in an eerie bear costume–in a rather compromising position. The way this shot is framed is identical to the earlier shot of Danny facing the bathroom mirror. Throughout the film, the visual motif of bears is linked to Danny, thus hinting that the bear ghost represents him–and Wendy’s discovery of the ghost represents her discovery of the abuse. Plus, it is odd that Jack is seen reading an issue of Playgirl after he arrives at the Overlook with his family. By the way, after Danny has those visions in the bathroom, a sticker of the Disney dwarf Dopey conspicuously disappears from Danny’s door. Does the the vanishing sticker represent Danny’s loss of innocence?

3. Since the theme of reflection plays a big role in the film, Kubrick constructed “The Shining” as a literal hall of mirrors. Apparently, if one runs the film backwards and forwards simultaneously, the film will mirror itself in striking ways. When Jack throws the ball against the walls of the Overlook, it allegedly matches up with the later scene of Wendy swinging the bat.

4. Jack and Danny’s climactic chase through the maze is a Looney Tunes homage. In his catatonic state, Danny spends a great deal of time watching old Road Runner cartoons. Once his senses are reawakened in the maze, Danny sports Road Runner-like speed and cunning while outwitting his father, who proves to be as bloodthirsty, predatory, animalistic and self-destructive as Wile E. Coyote. Meep meep!

If these theories have made you thirsty for more, check out the mind-boggling analyses of film scholar Rob Ager on his site Collative Learning and in his video essay posted below (only the first two parts are available on YouTube)…

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