The Shining: Why It Works

An Introduction

In 2012 a documentary called Room 237 was released. In it, several people pull apart Stanley Kubrick’s  The Shining in an attempt to discover the hidden meaning behind the film. It’s a terrible documentary because in spite of these people claiming to be Kubrick “experts,” they seem to lack any real understanding of film analysis. Sorry to spoil it for you, but The Shining is not an admission that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. It is not an apology for the American genocide of the Native Americans. It is not a secret film about the holocaust either. Its about the deterioration of a family and its a ghost story. What is it about The Shining that beckons people to pull it apart, looking for symbolism in every single aspect of the film? I believe a lot of it has to do with the ambiguous nature of the story. Which is one of the reasons I believe The Shining is the best horror movie of all time.

Stanley Kubrick was all about communicating indirectly in his films. He believed that underneath the face value story, was an almost secondary story to be told. The first layer would provide the atmosphere; the feeling, of the story, while the secondary layer of the film would provide the theme of everything happening on the screen. Almost like a philosophical statement. Many people read into this and believe that Stanley Kubrick laced his films with secret meanings or hidden messages meant to be discovered by only the most acute observer. This is what leads to documentaries like Room 237 being created. However, I have yet to see any real evidence that Stanley Kubrick ever put any kind of secret messages in his films that were unrelated to the film itself. If this was true we would have a Room 237 documentary for every one of his films since 2001: A Space Odyssey (or all of them). Instead, I believe that rather than containing hidden messages, The Shining works as a film because of all the elements people believe unlock the mysteries of Kubrick’s hidden messages.

Kubrick was known for being a perfectionist. He would meticulously plan every shot, and even spend hundreds of hours doing research for every project he worked on. While he was still planning his film on the life of Napoleon he had stacks of index cards that detailed the life of every single person Napoleon interacted with in his life, regardless of how significant his or her role in Napoleon’s life was. That being said, Kubrick was also human, which means he is not incapable of making a mistake now and again. Doing a quick search on IMDB just shows many of the continuity or factual errors some of his other films contain. For some reason, people latch onto the errors in The Shining and see each one as a hidden message about how the Native Americans are responsible for the curiosity mars rover. Since this film is primarily a ghost story, I believe some of these mistakes or inconsistencies were purposely added to add another layer to the story.

On the surface level, The Shining is the story of a man who accepts the job of being a caretaker of a hotel during the winter season when the hotel is not in operation. He takes his family with him, and after months of isolation, he tries to murder his wife and son. The secondary level of this story is about a man dealing with his past history of alcoholism. The third level of this story is about the hotels haunted past. The beginning of the film does a lot of the work in setting up these three narratives that then overlap at various points throughout the film. Throughout these narratives are minute details that collectively add to the creepy nature of the film.

The Overlook Hotel

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The biggest detail is the hotel itself and the way the hotel is set up. The outside of the hotel is show via an aerial shot at the beginning of the film. What this shot doesn’t show us is the maze which plays such an important part of the story later on in the film. There appears to be no space for it. The inside of the hotel also features two very large spaces, the Colorado lounge and the Gold Room. From the outside of the hotel its impossible to tell where these rooms are or how they would fit inside the rest of the building. Inside the hotel, it is difficult to gauge any sort of bearing on where various locations are in the hotel. During on of Danny’s bike rides past room 237, we can see the top of the colorado lounge. But the managers office, the kitchen, the Torrence’s apartment, and most importantly the gold room, are almost all treated like separate locations. All of this is done to disorient the viewer in the same way that the characters in the film are disoriented by the events that are happening. Along with not knowing where different locations in the hotel are in relation to each other, there are several areas that spatially do not make sense. When Danny is shown riding his bike through the hallway where room 237 is, he passes some elevators at the top of the stairs from the Colorado lounge then makes two right turns and goes down a hallway with rooms on either side. However, the rooms on the right side cannot exist because they would overlap with the elevators. Several rooms across from 237 wouldn’t exist either because on the other side of the wall is the Colorado lounge. Later in the film, when Jack is in the Gold room during the large party and bumps into Grady, the two men then walk into the bathroom, which based on how the two doors into the bathroom open, would overlap with the bar itself. At the beginning of the film, when Jack goes to Ullman’s office, there is a hallway in the distance that turns to the left, but once inside Ullman’s office, he has a window that looks directly to the outside world with no apparent sign of another section of the building. All of these spatial anomalies are not things that would be seen by a first time viewer, but after a while only contribute to the disorienting nature of the hotel. Along with the rooms, there are three different maze designs seen throughout the movie. One on the sign outside of the maze, one as a model that Jack looks at, and the one shown from above with Wendy and Danny walking through it. By not giving any clear indication of what the maze looks like, Kubrick once again disorients the viewer (and probably Jack). How are we supposed to know what the maze ever really looks like?

Jack’s Decent Into Madness

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A big question left unanswered by the film is the cause of Jack’s decent into madness. Was it his inability to cope with the isolation? Or, was the hotel manipulating him? All three of the Torrence family members see ghosts in the hotel throughout the film. Danny sees the two murdered girls and the woman in 237. Wendy sees the partygoer, the two men in the hotel room (one of them in a bear costume), and the lobby filled with skeletons and cobwebs. Jack sees more ghosts than the other two; Lloyd, Grady, the woman in 237, and the entire party in the Gold Room. Jack’s situation is a little bit different from the other two in that we actually witness him interacting with the ghosts. For Wendy and Danny the ghosts talk to them, but we don’t ever see either of them talk back at the ghosts and we never see Danny’s interaction with the woman in 237, we only see the aftermath. Jack has full conversations with both Lloyd and Grady, and we see him embrace the woman in 237. Each of the times Jack interacts with one of the ghosts there is always a mirror present. When Jack talks to Lloyd at the bar, there is a mirror behind Lloyd. When Jack talks to Grady, they are in a bathroom full of mirrors. When Jack realizes the naked woman in 237 is really a bloated, deteriorating hag, he see’s himself in the mirror. All of these shots are carefully done so as to never see the ghost directly in the mirror. When Jack first talks to Lloyd he is facing the camera directly, as if he is looking into the mirror. All shots after that show Lloyd from an angle so we never see his full presence in the mirror. When Jack is in the bathroom with Grady, we never see Grady in any of the mirrors, but Jack is almost always facing the mirror that Grady is standing in front of. With the woman in 237, Jack is standing in such a way that his embrace of the woman seems unnatural, almost like he is embracing himself. This raises the question of whether Jack is dealing with suppressed feelings of some sort or if the hotel is really driving him insane enough to kill his family. One of the brilliant things about casting Jack Nicholson is that he seems slightly off from the very beginning of the story, which implies that he is susceptible to some form of mental break down later in the story. Once Ullman tells Jack about the previous caretaker murdering his family, a countdown is started (visually seen with the title cards) to when Jack will snap and go after Wendy and Danny.

The Minor Details

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The design of the hotel and Jack’s descent into madness aren’t the only things that contribute to the overall effectiveness of how creepy The Shining is, there are also a few minor things that on a deeper level can get under our skin. These are all of the illogical things that upon first viewing might not be noticed, but after several viewings (and perhaps on a subconscious level) are noticed. The main one being all of the changes that occur in the background. During the scene when Jack is in the Colorado lounge working on his writing, Wendy comes to check on him. While Jack is talking to Wendy the camera is focused on Jack and a chair is visible in the background. After cutting to Wendy again and back to Jack, the chair disappears, and then once again reappears during the conversations. While this could just be a continuity error, Kubrick shot the entire film in chronological order, which leads me to think this was done purposefully. Just like the color changing on the typewriter (although this is less provable since lighting can have interesting effects on certain objects). A pen on Ullman’s desk moves around between shots, as well as his name plate disappears on a few occasions. There are also several objects in the movie that can seemingly run off of pure imagination. At one point Danny is watching TV with Wendy sitting nearby and there are no cables running to the TV. The lamp on Jack’s desk also appear to be able to power itself. This one is more interesting than the TV because of the different camera angles used which do not expose any wire that might be hiding on the back side of the table.

There are only a few moments in which the Torrences are ever seen together. The first time is in the car, and when they are getting the tour of the hotel. The second time after that is after Danny is attacked by the woman in 237. Apart from those moments, the family is never together. By separating the family, it creates a feeling of loneliness, not just for the characters, but also the viewers. When Danny is biking through the hotel, there’s an eery feeling that follows him and pours out of the screen and impacts our own feelings. When Wendy is running through the halls away from Jack, we feel the panic and dread that Jack might show up to kill her. Even when Wendy and Danny are together we feel a sense of dread. By being separated from Jack (the father figure, normally a symbol of safety and protection) theres a small sense of insecurity we feel, especially as they wander through the maze. We never get the same feeling when Jack is alone, because from the very beginning it is established that he is going to go mad. Whenever we see Jack alone with either Wendy or Danny, we worry because we fear Jack the same way Wendy or Danny fear him. All of this comes from the characters being isolated from each other. When we watch Jack interact with Danny alone in their apartment, we worry because Wendy is no where to be seen. We worry a little bit less when Wendy talks to Jack in the Colorado lounge because she lacks the same amount of innocence a child like Danny carries.

The last thing that makes The Shining so creepy as a film is how it appears to bridge the gap between a standard ghost story and your typical slasher film. There elements of both film styles present in The Shining. The objects that move on their own and appear and disappear give indications of ghostly activity in the hotel on an almost incomprehensible level. Each member of the Torrence family interacts or sees different ghosts on several occasions. Finally, when Jack goes crazy, the film introduces the elements of a slasher film since Jack does everything he can to murder his wife and son. The ghost story elements are not lost when this transition happens, in fact they are almost pushed to the forefront in an attempt to remind us this is primarily a ghost story. The fears of ghosts (or spirits), and the fear of murderers is typically enough to impact the largest amount of people in the horror movie genre, but The Shining also hits on one fear that very few films do well, and thats the fear of the unknown. We never get a full explanation for the events of the film. In fact, once it seems like everything is understood, Kubrick shows us a picture of Jack Torrence that is dated 1921. Suddenly, everything we thought we understood about the film is meaningless, and after significant time, we realize how little we understood. Why does Grady tell Jack he’s always been the caretaker? What is it that really makes Jack snap? Why does Danny suddenly start yelling, “REDRUM?” Why was Jack reading a Playgirl magazine in the hotel lobby in front of his boss? We never know what happened in room 237. We never know why Grady went crazy and killed his own family, in spite of the explanation that Ullman gives. This level of confusion and question is what makes this film so inaccessible to some people. You either love Kubrick’s, The Shining, or you hate it. There is no in between.

A Conclusion

Kubrick was an amazing director. He had an ability to separate the audience from the film and create an emotional distance between us and the characters on the screen. He wanted us to feel emotionally connected to the story itself and the actions that happened. Watching his films is like looking through a window at a series of events rather that an immersive experience that modern filmmakers today try to create. The Shining is no different. The Shining isn’t a scary film, its a terrifying one, and yet its terrifying in ways we can’t necessarily explain after watching it. We fear for Wendy’s life, not because we emotionally connect to Wendy, but because the very fact that the man she clearly cares for is trying to chop her into little bits. We don’t feel uneasiness with room 237 because Danny is scared of it, we feel it because the film has already established that we should be scared of room 237. Kubrick was a master of manipulating our feelings an emotions in ways we don’t always understand, and The Shining does just that. And that is why I think The Shining is the best horror movie of all time.

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