Much has been written about the intertextual richness of Stanley Kubrick’s cinema both in and of itself and in terms of its influence on other filmmakers.1 In this regard The Shining (1980) has itself been the subject of considerable attention in terms of film genre theory,2 literary adaptation,3 and transcultural appropriation.4 The present essay focuses on Kubrick’s references in The Shining to his own films and those of other filmmakers. It demonstrates that underneath the narrative of the film such references comprise elements of an indirect discourse — also served by Kubrick’s habitual deep focus and found music — on family and history. Appropriate for its genre, The Shining is, moreover, Kubrick’s most concentrated portrait of individual and institutional human evil. And it is highly autobiographical, referencing Kubrick’s eastern European Jewish family origins and his own lifelong movie-watching that began during his New York City childhood in the 1930s.
Substantive and thematic self-reference in Kubrick’s cinema
Starting with Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick’s references to his own films have always been substantive and thematic in content. In a reference to The Killing (1956) in that film a horse is frightened by a motorcycle, beginning a series in subsequent films, including The Shining, of references to menacing oppositions of animals and machines. The first sequence of Lolita (1962) includes a threefold reference to Spartacus (1960). Dr. Strangelove (1964) references Lolita and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) references Dr. Strangelove. The first image of A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a gloomy challenge to the last image of 2001. The Shining echoes the smug aristocratic self-appraisal in Barry Lyndon (1975), “All the best people,” through the Overlook Hotel manager’s identical description of the hotel’s history of powerful and wealthy guests. But here it is in juxtaposition with an image representing the Native Americans upon whose graves the Overlook was built.
Family and history in The Shining
The many tracking shots of Danny riding his tricycle through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel suggest the entrapment, loneliness, and sexual temptation surrounding the young boy isolated in a hotel in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963). The identical dangerous sexual environment inhabits Stefan Zweig’s novella The Burning Secret (1913) from which in 1956 Kubrick wrote a screenplay. The Shining also owes a debt to the cold geometry and dreamlike space and time of the luxury hotel in Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) as well as to The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963), which influenced some of the visual strategy in the film. The 1970s saw an explosion of horror films set in the nuclear family that is the focus of Kubrick’s film. The voice of Danny’s imaginary friend Tony recalls that of the demon inhabiting the young girl in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), while Danny’s tricycle recalls that of the young boy’s in The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976).
But Tony’s voice is not a sign of demonic possession, as in The Exorcist, but of self-protection. Kubrick drew from Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” (1919) the idea that such doubles — and in the genre of horror likewise ghosts, mirrors, and shadows — represent a child’s desire for immortality in the real-world face of death. This also demonstrates Fredric Jameson’s point that The Shining is a ghost story in which history — that of modern bourgeois society — is the ghost.5 Sometimes a tricycle is just a tricycle, as in The Omen where it serves as the Antichrist’s means of removing a rival. But in The Shining a tricycle suggests the Oedipal triangle within the nuclear family, as does Barry Lyndon in Barry’s desire for social advancement and his failed attempt to kill his stepson. Jack too will fail to kill his son, a clear reference as well, it has been argued, to a post-Oedipal “crisis of masculinity” symptomatic of the demise of bourgeois individualism and patriarchy.6
Kubrick was following not the gothic horror movie form represented by The Exorcist, The Omen, and Stephen King’s 1977 source novel, however, but rather that of the seminal horror thriller Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). For Hitchcock, for Kubrick, and for Kubrick’s favorite author Franz Kafka, horror and evil are not supernatural in origin but are the grotesque product of the natural world. Wendy carries a 15-inch Gustav Emil Ern chef’s knife similar to the chef’s knife Norman Bates wields in Psycho. As she moves toward the bathtub with the knife, behind her is a shower curtain and — oddly positioned over the long side of the tub — a shower head and handles.
The opposite of the gory shower scene in Psycho, however, Wendy wields the knife outward from the tub against Jack. This is part of The Shining’s Oedipal narrative, as is also obvious when Wendy uses Danny’s (like the knife, phallic) baseball bat against Jack in revisiting Norman’s knifing of Detective Arbogast in Psycho.
That Jack’s homicidal raving as he ascends the long stairway incorporates darkly ironic alliterative reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955) — “Wendy, darling, light of my life” — refers both to Freudian dream theory (ascending stairs symbolizes sexual arousal) as well as to the destructive and self-destructive consequences of obsessive male desire.
Wendy is victimized but is not, unlike Hitchcock’s butchered Marion Crane (recalled in The Shining by the nude woman in Room 237 also referencing Les Diaboliques, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), the victim. Wendy and Danny escape in Oedipal triumph over Jack, who freezes to death in the Overlook’s hedge maze. But while Wendy displays an agency that belies her mousy affect and appearance, The Shining does not constitute any sort of feminist critique of patriarchy. Kubrick’s cinema is almost always homosocial and heteronormative, the product of a mid-20th century male point of view on sex and gender. Women in his films are stereotypically portrayed in a paternalistic frame of reference and often enough sexually objectified and even violated. Kubrick shared Freud’s view that everyone, male or female, is neurotic, consequently regarding all the characters in his films regardless of gender or sexual orientation with a mix of suspicion and sympathy. There is no evidence that his longstanding interest in psychoanalysis included any knowledge of contemporaneous feminist revisions of Freudian theory such as those by Dorothy Dinnerstein (1976) and Nancy Chodorow (1978). Production notes for The Shining, however, show that he was familiar with the work of psychoanalyst Karen Horney, who judged orthodox Freudian theory demeaning to women..7 Kubrick’s private life evidenced a strong reliance on the presence of his immediate family, an artist wife and three daughters. From 1965 on, apparently still as ever a benign paterfamilias, he did most of his film work at a home studio.
Another source of horror genre inspiration for Kubrick was the Swedish silent fantasy film The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom, 1921), which like The Shining concerns the effects of male alcoholism and violence on the family. Jack’s use of an axe to break through a door to get at his wife and child is clearly a recreation of one of its scenes.
Like The Shining, then, Sjöstrom’s Expressionist film renders the supernatural a cinematically metaphorical means to examine human conflicts and tragedies. The film strongly influenced Ingmar Bergman, one of the filmmakers whom Kubrick most admired. Sjöstrom, who plays in his own film the role of the drunken husband, later played the lead in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), one of Kubrick’s favorite films and as well one about family estrangement and isolation.
The chief cinematic self-reference in The Shining comes from the horror genre’s neighbor, science fiction. This reference is to the last shot of 2001 in which the Star Child gazes directly at the audience. The Shining, which also shares with 2001 the music of Györy Ligeti, is the only other Kubrick film that ends with direct eye contact. This time it is Jack in formal attire in a photograph of an Overlook Hotel 4th of July party in 1921. The Star Child represents Kubrick’s hope for humanity’s evolution beyond primitive violence and modern enervation. Jack Torrance, reproducing the wolfish gaze that opens A Clockwork Orange, represents Kubrick’s despair at the 20th century devolutionary triumph of hypertrophied greed, power, and simian violence.
Bill Blakemore observed long ago that the Torrance family in Kubrick’s The Shining is also the “family of man” writ tragically and large.8 This family also represents Kubrick’s family since autobiography and history are linked in The Shining through the film’s powerful indirect discourse.
All three members of the Torrance family, Jack, Wendy, and Danny, are associated with cartoon characters from the 1930s when Kubrick as a child was first encountering the outside world. Cartoons, like fairy tales, are about prey escaping predators and young Stanley probably was read fairy tales by his parents, or read them on his own. We can also surmise that he saw these cartoons in the theater, as he had been an inveterate moviegoer ever since the time his mother regularly took him, her first and only son, to the movies in the Bronx. Jack (Kubrick’s father Jacob went by Jack) is the Big Bad Wolf from Three Little Pigs (Walt Disney, 1933). The ostensible — though not in the end actual — helplessness and cluelessness of Wendy Torrance is underlined early in The Shining when she is shown dressed in the same colors as Danny’s puppet of Disney cartoon Goofy.
Danny wears a sweater with Mickey Mouse from Touchdown Mickey (Walt Disney, 1932) while Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney, 1937) is one of the cartoon characters appearing on Danny’s bedroom door. Jack huffs and puffs the Big Bad Wolf’s famous words before breaking down the door to the bathroom in which Wendy has locked herself. Actor Jack Nicholson apparently ad-libbed these lines, but they are consistent with The Shining’s emphasis on fairy tales. It is all but certain that Nicholson was improvising along such lines established in his mind and/or in conversation with Kubrick. Since, according to Shelley Duvall, this scene took three days (and 60 doors) to shoot, Kubrick would have had plenty of time (and plenty of takes) to get what he wanted both during shooting and in the course of his usual long and meticulous process of editing. It is also probably no accident in this regard that the early and only scene in the film of Jack eating a meal features his lip-smacking breakfast enjoyment of strips of bacon.
There is another, historical element to this particular Disney reference. Disney’s cartoon wolf disguises himself as a door-to-door salesman in order to fool the pigs. But this figure is a disgraceful anti-Semitic caricature of an eastern European Jewish peddler. Stanley’s family was descended from Ashkenazic Jews who had immigrated to the United States in 1902. So it is likely that this image — during an era of growing anti-Semitism in America and in Europe — had at the time and/or later some significant emotional, cognitive, and creative impact on Kubrick.
That Danny embodies this aspect of Kubrick’s own family history in time and in memory is signaled in fourteen successive reverse-shots of Wendy by the signature on his baseball bat, which is that of Polish American Carl Yastrzemski.9
Danny — for whom and for Wendy screenwriter Diane Johnson says Kubrick had “a soft spot”10 — therefore represents Kubrick himself as a Jewish child confronting not only Oedipal conflict within the family but also what retrospectively at least turned out to be a disastrously dangerous outside world in the 1930s. While his father is being interviewed for the job as winter caretaker at the Overlook, Danny has his first “shining” of the hotel’s elevator disgorging an ocean of blood. Just before this traumatic vision, the sticker of a happy-go-lucky Dopey on Danny’s bedroom door passes by in close-up during a tracking shot toward Danny (wearing a Bugs Bunny jersey) in the bathroom. This is the happy American WASP world of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Kubrick’s prewar New York City. After Danny passes out as a result of his vision we see that Dopey — robed in (for Jews) historically ominous yellow and not the original animated film’s green — has disappeared from the door. It is unlikely this is just a continuity error, as the lesson is clear: Danny has lost his childhood innocence about himself, his family, and the world. Then up at the Overlook, Danny wears the Touchdown Mickey sweater when he asks his father: “You would never hurt Mommy and me, would you?” This 30s-style anticipation of horrible events to come is underscored by the disquieting “night music” from a 1936 Béla Bartόk composition that plays over the entire scene. In the very next scene Danny, now further enlightened as to the evils of the earth, wears a sweater referring to Apollo, the Greek god of knowledge, reason, prophecy, and justice.
There are seven films by other filmmakers central to The Shining’s discourse on history that are presented or represented onscreen in The Shining. The first, Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943), is referenced indirectly in the music over the opening credits. Kubrick uses an electronic version of the Dies irae, a medieval Gregorian chant about the Last Judgment, whose first line reads: “The day of wrath/which will reduce the world to ashes.” Dreyer’s film about persecution of witches in the 17th century begins with a ferocious orchestral rendering of the Dies irae. The subject of witches connects with The Shining’s repeated references to them, including the Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel (1812). Day of Wrath, whose director left Denmark for neutral Sweden shortly after the film’s release, is also generally regarded as an allegory of Denmark under Nazi occupation. This discursive link to Nazi Germany is also represented in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1960) through which the deformed right foot of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels — under whom Christiane Kubrick’s uncle Veit Harlan made films — is referenced.
Scenes from two films make diegetic appearances on televisions. Carson City (André De Toth, 1952) shows two men in frontier Nevada arguing over the construction of a railroad tunnel through a mountain. The television is behind Wendy in the Torrances’s Boulder apartment as she talks with Jack on the telephone about the result of his job interview up at the Overlook. Executive producer Jan Harlan has said that for financial reasons this clip was taken from an assortment of Westerns from Warner Bros. that could be excerpted at no cost. But the choice was Kubrick’s and it is clear from the multiple levels of discursive context in The Shining that the content of this selected scene — easily visible due to Kubrick’s habitual depth of field — carries significant meaning. The same is true of the other film Kubrick puts on television that Wendy and Danny watch while at the Overlook: Summer of ’42 (Robert Mulligan, 1971). Based on the experiences of Jewish American screenwriter Herman Raucher (born in Brooklyn and in 1928, the same year as Kubrick), the film tells the story of an American teenager’s first sexual encounter: with a young woman who has just learned that her airman husband has been shot down and killed over France.
The obviously unplugged television showing Summer of ’42 is a Brechtian alienation effect to prompt audience reflection about the problems of the real world that Kubrick’s film addresses. And it is one of many examples in The Shining of parody of conventional horror movie effects designed to elicit not just a cognitive response from the audience but also a feeling of unease about the human world that is the film’s subject. The two films on television also form one of a number of pairs that are part of Kubrick’s postmodern unpacking of the horror genre. This dyadic pattern is a pedagogical parody of the role of the double in horror literature and film as emblematic of the dark side of the human personality. Carson City and Summer of ’42 join two television newscasts, two cartoons shown — and two Roadrunner cartoons heard — on televisions, two murdered Grady sisters, two Overlook employees named Grady, and two Volkswagens.
There is as well a specific historical dimension to the pairing of these two films, that of European imperialism and racism linking the horrors of European settlers’ slaughter of Native Americans with the horrors of the Holocaust. The Shining was made at the end of a decade marked not only by a spate of horror movies but also by a “Hitler wave” of public and scholarly interest in that era of real-world horrors in which Stanley Kubrick spent his childhood and youth. During the ’70s Kubrick was himself brooding over Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), a voluminous study of the Nazi extermination program that is the source of most of the indirect allusions to the Holocaust in The Shining.11 The Shining’s opening credits ascend over Jack’s drive up to the Overlook that references the journey upriver in Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) about European colonial atrocities in Africa. This anticipates Kubrick’s own Full Metal Jacket (1986) with its racist references by Marines of Hotel Company 2/5 to “Indians,” “niggers,” and “gooks” (as well as to “kikes”). The first Road Runner cartoon we hear, “Stop! Look! And Hasten!” (1954), features Western mountains, a steam locomotive, and railroad tunnels in a Kafkaesque tableau of nightmare, comic violence, and one of several instances in The Shining of dual historical reference to trains that carried European settlers West and European Jews East. Such deep indirection surely was designed to avoid trivializing the Holocaust in the context of the horror genre while at the same time encouraging attentive inquiry and interpretation.
Summer of ’42 is an element of The Shining’s patterns of symbolic references to the most lethal year of the Holocaust. Like Jack with his writer’s block, Kubrick for personal and artistic reasons never could confront the Holocaust directly on film. This fact gives added meaning to the autobiographical dynamic in The Shining that explains the presence of a man sitting in the lobby of the Overlook when Jack arrives for his job interview who resembles actor Marcello Mastroianni in 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963).12 In 8½ Fellini, whose films Kubrick admired, was describing himself in the story of a director who struggles to overcome artistic and personal challenges in the making of an epic science fiction film.
Carson City exemplifies as well The Shining’s reliance on sources by 20th century Central European writers, scholars, artists, and musicians whose works and lives bore traces of the Second World War.13 Carson City director De Toth left his native Hungary soon after a filming assignment in Poland at the outset of the German invasion in September 1939. De Toth’s None Shall Escape (1944) — whose Nazi villain is named Wilhelm Grimm — was the first Hollywood film to depict Nazi mass killings in Poland, here the machine-gunning of a trainload of Jews. Kubrick certainly saw this film in his youth since it played at one of the two movie theatres in the Bronx he frequented, the Loew’s Paradise, in April 1944. Kubrick knew De Toth’s work well: The Killing features several actors from De Toth’s film noir Crime Wave (1954). De Toth had even directed a horror film, House of Wax (1953), which itself features dark references to Germany.
The world according to Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick made dark films about the human condition. This had to do mostly with the fact that he was Jewish and had grown up in a world darkened by the Holocaust. As he once said: “Gentiles don’t know how to worry.”14 The subject of Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust shows up fragmentarily in all of the director’s films, but he never made a film about the Holocaust. Instead he buried this history in a horror film as another of his exercises in genre parody. Such indirect discourse would avoid trivialization of this most serious of historical subject matter, exploit rich veins of intertextuality, and explode horror genre conventions beyond its usual selling of violence and destruction as mere entertainment.
- Jeremi Szaniawski, ed., After Kubrick: A Filmmaker’s Legacy (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). ↩
- Walter Metz, “Toward a Post-structural Film Genre Study: Intertextuality and The Shining,” Film Criticism 22 (Fall 1997): pp. 38-61. ↩
- Catriona McAvoy, “The Uncanny, the Gothic, and the Loner: Intertextuality in the Adaptation Process of The Shining,” Adaptation 8 (2015): pp. 345-60. ↩
- Yeqi Zhu, “Intertextuality, Synchronicity and Nostalgia: Transcultural Influences of Kubrick’s The Shining on Hong Kong Ghost Horror,” Screening the Past 42 (2017), https://screeningthepast.com/2017/09/intertextuality/. ↩
- Fredric Jameson, “Historicism in the Shining,” in Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 112-34. ↩
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Kubrick’s Prototypes: The Author as World-Maker,” in After Kubrick, pp. 29-50. ↩
- Nathan Abrams, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), p. 193. ↩
- Bill Blakemore, “Kubrick’s Shining Secret: Film’s Hidden Horror is the Murder of the Indian,” Washington Post, 12 July 1987. ↩
- Geoffrey Cocks, The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), pp. 250-51. ↩
- Zach Dionne, “Read the Deleted Ending for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” New York, 25 January 2013, Vulture.com/2013/01/deleted-ending-the-shining.html. ↩
- Geoffrey Cocks, “Stanley Kubrick and the Holocaust” in The Bloomsbury Companion to Stanley Kubrick, Nathan Abrams and Ian Q. Hunter, eds. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). ↩
- Julie Kearns, “Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” http://idyllopuspress.com/idyllopus/film/shining_interview.htm#8. ↩
- Geoffrey Cocks, “Mitteleuropa in The Shining” in Kubrick’s Mitteleuropa: The Central European Imaginary in the Films of Stanley Kubrick, Jeremi Szaniawski and Nathan Abrams, eds. (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2021). ↩
- Michael Herr, Kubrick (New York: Grove Press, 2000), p. 53. ↩