< Horror Film History — The Shining (1980)

Horror movies in the 1980s: The Shining — SPOILERS AHEAD

The Shining (1980)

The Book

Stephen King's 1977 bestselling novel is a spin on the traditional haunted house story. When King and his wife, Tabitha, paid a late-season visit to The Stanley Hotel in Colorado, they found themselves the only guests in residence as the staff packed everything up for the winter. King was spooked by the silent, empty corridors, and, after a nightmare featuring his son running screaming through the hotel, came up with the bones of his novel.

The Shining is the story of supernatural forces putting pressure on an already fractured family. Jack Torrance takes the winter caretaking gig at The Overlook hotel knowing full well that he and his wife and child will be completely isolated up there once the snows come. Jack is a dry drunk, still struggling with alcoholic behaviors even though he's not had an actual drink in months. He's also suffering from writer's block, and welcomes the idea of being able to work without distraction. His wife, Wendy, is struggling to keep their marriage alive and protect their psychically sensitive five year old son, Danny. Her choices are bleak: go along with Jack's self-imposed exile from the world, or return to the mother she fears and hates.

The novel explores how The Overlook houses an evil, intelligent entity intent on killing - and therefore keeping - Danny under its roof and claiming his 'shining' power for itself. Before he leaves to spend the winter in Florida, Dick Halloran, the cook, identifies Danny as a fellow 'shiner'. He warns the little boy that the hotel might have a few surprises in store, but reassures him that they lack the power to do physical harm:

“...it seems that all the bad things that ever happened here, there's little pieces of those things still layin around like fingernail clippins or the boogers that somebody nasty just wiped under a chair. I don't know why it should just be here, there's bad goings-on in just about every hotel in the world, I guess, and I've worked in a lot of them and had no trouble. Only here... So, if you should see something, in a hallway or a room or outside by those hedges... just look the other way and when you look back, it'll be gone.”

Looking the other way works for Danny and Wendy, but Jack is seduced by the ghosts, who play on his misery and rage, turning him into a physical tool for the destruction they can't wreak themselves and sending him mad in the process. The Shining is a ghost story, but it's also a study of insanity under pressure.

The Movie

Stanley Kubrick's movie is substantially different to the book. Rather than being about a family, it's about a location. The Overlook, as imagined by Kubrick, is a series of nightmare-inducing spaces that simultaneously cause claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Kubrick eschews the supernatural explanation that the hotel is an evil entity which manifests via a spectral corpse in the bathtub or topiary creatures that come to life. Instead he suggests it's an extreme case of sick building syndrome: something rotten in the architecture and the carpet designs burrows into Jack's brain and sends him over the edge.

The Shining looks like no other horror movie, thanks to Kubrick's 360° vision, which resulted in an arduous and protracted production process. Kubrick and his production designer, Roy Walker, created the then-largest ever set at Elstree Studios, and spent over a year shooting on it. The Overlook was created as an amalgam of many different hotels - the red men's room where Jack talks to Grady (see right) was inspired by the Arizona Biltmore. The Colorado Lounge was designed after the Ahwanee Hotel in the Yosemite Valley. In order to give The Overlook a specific identity, Kubrick used Native American designs in the carpets and stained glass windows. There are hints that the hotel is built over an ancient burial ground, and that this might be the source of the malevolent energy that pervades its walls. Kubrick was one of the earliest directors to use the Steadicam, to great (and, for its time, unique) effect in the shots where the camera floats down corridors behind Danny's tricycle. The Steadicam also enabled Kubrick to shoot scenes on sets with four walls, which helps add to the sensation that the hotel is perpetually closing in on the characters. A notorious perfectionist, Kubrick spent months getting the look that he wanted, and often did upwards of 30 takes of each shot. He was very hard on the actors in the process, exhausting them with long days and constant script changes. Shelley Duvall became physically ill from stress.

The result was a startlingly original movie that bears only a basic resemblance to its source material. The most haunting images of the film are not in the book: Danny's tricycle, blood pouring from the elevator,the twins, the maze, the piles of manuscript pages filled with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed over and over again and the final shot of a young, healthy Jack at a Fourth of July party at The Overlook in 1921. The movie met a mixed critical reception upon release (probably because it defies every genre convention there is), but has since been re-evaluated as a masterpiece, and often appears on lists of top all-time horror movies.

The Documentary: Room 237

Directed by Rodney Ascher and produced by Tim Kirk, the 2012 documentary Room 237 explores the various conspiracy theories developed by fans of The Shiningto explain "what Kubrick was really thinking" as he made the movie.

Poster for Room 237

[A version of this review appeared on Planet Fury in April 2013]

No other movie divides opinion quite like The Shining.  Hailed alternately as a work of genius or a confused mess, people either love it or hate it.  Haters include the author of the source material, Stephen King, who called it “a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little”.  It left critics scratching their heads – Roger Ebert confessed himself disturbed by the “elusive open-endedness” while Pauline Kael declared “Kubrick mystifies us deliberately”.  Yet for every moviegoer who rejects The Shining as cold and impenetrable, there’s one who embraces it as a masterpiece.  There are even some people who believe its ambiguity holds the key to the great mysteries of modern civilization. 

The documentary Room 237 takes us on a fascinating dive through the minds of this last group, the individuals who have scanned back and forth through The Shining so many times that they can make it mean anything they choose.  Across the board, these conspiracists agree that there was no way an auteur like Kubrick would be satisfied with making “just” a horror film, especially if it were an adaptation of King’s pop fiction.  Ergo, it must be an elaborately coded message, a deeply symbolic ride through Kubrick’s secret anxieties – all the stuff he felt unable to say out loud.  They insist there must be more to The Shining than three people trapped by snow in a haunted hotel.  They believe that with Kubrick there are supposedly no accidents, no continuity errors, no on-set flubs. Says Room 237 producer Tim Kirk, “Just because he was so known to be so meticulous and such a perfectionist with multiple takes and so forth, there’s this feeling that if there’s anything in the frame he put it there.  There’s a reason, and that reason can be determined.” Director Rod Ascher agrees that Kubrick is considered infallible in many quarters. “If you don’t understand something it’s not his mistake, it’s your problem.”

Without doubt, The Shining doesn’t quite make sense. Ascher describes it as “a puzzle that’s missing a few pieces.  Even at the simplest level of story there’s huge gaps in what we know about what goes on in it.  The central event of the film – what happens to Danny in Room 237 – is never explained, let alone shown. That black and white photo at the end is presented as if it was the answer to some kind of puzzle that we had all along, but if anything, it’s an entirely new question about what’s happening in the film.  I think people are attracted to watch it and re-watch it, to try to solve those sorts of puzzles, and they find all these new ones.”

And, in the three decades since its release, The Shining has compelled many, many people to watch and re-watch it, patiently spooling through VHS copies in the years before DVD, coming up with their own explanation for what might really be going on. The theories represented in Room 237 are by turns Byzantine, baffling, and completely believable.    That’s the thing about listening to a conspiracist expand on their hypothesis – after a while, it all starts to fall into place and you wonder why you didn’t see any of this before.  The conspiracists assembled by Ascher and Kirk are an eloquent, dedicated bunch who’ve spent years assembling and road-testing their hypotheses about the film.  Although there are many, many more theories out there, Room 237 goes with the ideas of veteran foreign and domestic correspondent Bill Blakemore, professor of history Geoffrey Cocks, playwright Julie Kearns, musician and culture-jammer John Fell Ryan, and author, filmmaker and hermetic scholar Jay Weidner.  They’re all very plausible — to a degree – although some of the more outlandish claims about seeing Kubrick’s face in the clouds or genocide in a tin of baking powder may be detrimental to the overall cause.

Ascher makes a deliberate choice not to show his Shinologists’ faces on screen.  Instead, he weaves their interviews over a subjective stream of images from The Shining and Kubrick’s other works, using sequences from Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lolita to habituate the audience to the director’s mindset.  This serves as a constant reminder that with Kubrick, every filmic element in every shot has specific meaning, from mise en scène to music to framing to the overlap within a dissolve.  Given the absolute precision with which Kubrick pieced together the semantic layers in – for instance – the décor of the hotel scenes in 2001, it would seem foolish to assume he wouldn’t approach the tapestries and carpets of the Overlook with the same meticulous attention to detail and depth of meaning.  Or would it?

For skeptics , the theories discussed in Room 237 won’t hold water.  Interviewed in the New York Times, Leon Vitali, assistant to Kubrick at the time of The Shining, dismisses the documentary as “gibberish”.  Unfortunately, Kubrick, the only man who could attest to what was going on in his head during filming, is long dead.  If he did have these elaborate intentions about the deeper meaning of the movie, he didn’t tell anyone he was working with at the time. There are many, many stories told by the crew who spent a year shooting The Shining on the backlot of Elstree Studios in the UK. Most of them focus on the technical challenges involved in navigating cameras around the rambling, multi-stage set, or the contrast between the easy camaraderie Kubrick had going with Jack Nicholson and the callousness with which he treated Shelley Duvall. There’s plenty of material on the record. The then-17 year-old Vivian Kubrick shot a ‘Making Of…’ documentary that included some very candid moments of the actors working with her father.  Part of the Elstree Project, Staircases To Nowhere collects other slices of oral history about the unique experience that was principal photography on The Shining.  These transparent, first hand accounts contain no mention of the moon landings or the Holocaust, or indeed any agenda Kubrick might have had other than making each frame of film as disturbing as possible.

But that’s the joy of Room 237.   It’s an absorbing movie-about-a-movie that doesn’t, for once, labor the behind-the-scenes trauma that’s often required to make art, but instead focuses on the pleasures of the text.  It examines the purity of the relationship between viewer and screen, especially when the viewer is determined to weave their personal obsessions into their construction of meaning.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Kubrick was thinking when he changed the color of Jack’s typewriter – it’s about what you believe it means. 

Further Reading