“Forever and ever (and ever)” since its release, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) has generated an uncanny amount of literature, by critics and fans alike. The critical response, following initially lukewarm or befuddled reviews by high profile critics,1 has refined itself over the decades to give the film its belated but deserved recognition.2 As for the myriad of texts and blog posts written by fans, they have tended toward panegyric or speculative and conspiratorial theses,3 sometimes invigoratingly perceptive, but in general lacking rigor or suffering from unduly obsessive optics—missing the broader picture or out of touch with reality altogether. What all this formidable textual output attests to, at any rate, is the undeniable fascination Kubrick’s film (including in its rich ambiguities and polysemousness) continues to exercise to this day. The Shining is at once spectacular and pedestrian, enigmatic and brutally material. It has been rightly compared to a maze or a hall of mirrors, to a brain and to a bleeding body,4 to a nightmarish figment of the mind (anti-psychological5 or psychologically accurate, depending on the account). Its performances have been characterized as both over-the-top or remarkable, and the film as a whole, as riveting or cold and boring, and as a late modern masterpiece parading under the guise of postmodern pastiche (the film’s dual nature, its interplay between modes, tones and registers, has incessantly intrigued and puzzled). Most significantly, The Shining has been analyzed as a robust engagement with history (it has been compellingly elucidated, among others, as a reflection on the passing of the imperial capitalist age and its still explicit class system, as well as a cryptic text about the Native American genocide and the Holocaust). Recut by Kubrick after its US release, then shortened by half an hour for its international version, right around the time that video entertainment was entering the Western home,6 and shown in a variety of censored versions on prime time national networks the world over, The Shining has been seen in more iterations and formats than probably any other film in history. As a matter of fact, by virtue of its overt genre—the horror film—it is meant to appeal to ‘base’ senses and play off repetition, but also, more implicitly, it has aimed at generating a new meta-genre of playful filmic epistemic riddle, which the viewer is invited to revisit over and over again.
Marking the 40th anniversary of the release of the film, 2020 was set to be a year of great celebration for fans of the “ultimate experiment in horror.” At the 2019 Cannes film festival, Kubrick’s widow Christiane, her brother (and the film’s executive producer) Jan Harlan and assistant director Leon Vitali introduced the screening of a brand new digital transfer of the film to a capacity audience inside the Debussy theatre.7 And a good thing they did one year early, too: this year’s anniversary screening would have been scrapped, like just about any other public event to be held this spring. Going to the movies nowadays rules out the possibility of a room packed with and excited or thrilled audience. Instead, empty theaters struggle to bring in more than a handful of dedicated cinephiles, wearing masks and concerned about sharing a closed space with other people.
The great “tide of terror” that swept across the world in 2020, indeed, was not that of the by now familiar and comforting histrionic grins of Jack Nicholson, or of Garrett Brown’s steadicam movements through the Overlook Hotel and its hedge maze. Its name was now Covid-19, and the angst and terror it brought about: painful death for many, strange and excruciating symptoms for many more, a feeling of powerlessness for the bereaved, but also, for well nigh all, stress and anxiety exacerbated by the lockdown measures—the cause (or perhaps cover up) of yet another great economic crisis, with soaring unemployment, murderous police and paramilitary brutality and riots ensuing. Erratic political leadership, blatantly corrupt or incompetent health organizations, greedy telecom companies and corporate moguls merrily profiting from the chaos, all add insult to injury (amidst all this one would be remiss not to notice the momentary respite the environment got from a world that hit pause). A suspicion of foul play has accompanied the crisis—a sense that a murky geopolitical game of chess is being played just as the world is looking the other way for an invisible assailant. All this is only fueled by unprecedented chaos and contradictory information in the news, only made worse by smokescreens and gaslighting deployed, alternatively, by politicians and biased or now fully corporate- or State-controlled media, and equally toxic disinformation on social media—propaganda also coming from rogue states, and further amplified in the context of the imminent US presidential election. In short, the wave of terror and horror that had hit the screens on Memorial Day, 1980, materialized (yet in an abstract or highly-mediated way as of yet for most) in our everyday lives this year. But perhaps its true name is not that of a virus, but, rather, globalized neoliberal doxa, ills of which Kubrick’s film had already anticipated.
A precarious socioeconomic situation is what drives the Torrance family to the Overlook in the first place. They are early versions of neoliberal fluid and precarious subjects, who must adapt to given opportunities, when and where they arise. The lockdown and confinement (“a tremendous sense of isolation… what old-timers used to call cabin fever. A kind of claustrophobic reaction which can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time.”) that was a reality in most Western cities in the spring of this year (and may be again in the fall!) directly echoes the seclusion of the family inside the hotel—except that, for many people in cities, the confinement space was not the vast wings of the Overlook hotel, but cramped, yet still unaffordable shoebox sized apartments. In such a stifling, real-life environment, domestic violence (crushingly targeted against women and children) has become an endemic problem as well. Taking his frustration out on his family, Jack Torrance incarnates the crucible—victim and reproducer—of everything that has gone wrong with patriarchal cis male culture under duress. He is a frustrated misogynistic racist, an abusive perverse narcissist and manipulative, delusional toxic white male. He is also a sick person—an alcoholic on the wagon—left without any treatment or assistance (which his precarious status would deny him, and his overinflated ego prohibit anyway), slowly drifting down into the rabbit hole of self-destruction. Yet he is intent on flamboyantly staging his own demise, and when entrusted with the unlikely responsibility of taking care of the Overlook Hotel, the stage is set, and madness resurfaces. Self-aggrandizing suaveness makes way to debilitating symptoms of depression. Eventually, Jack goes berserk, embarks on a rampage, and dies. When he hears the sno-cat driving his wife and son away in the night, he simply resigns himself to the situation—his job as caretaker and as caregiver end in abject failure. The notion of contract and employment under iniquitous or absurd terms comes to light, and the only option left is to give up. Jack Torrance, as embodied by Jack Nicholson, is a disconcertingly apt portrait of a deeply troubled male narcissist who believes his own lies and who, when placed in an environment that makes him feel validated to enact a role for which he has no predisposition or talent (the failed writer, the failed artist, the failed leader—with his priorities in all the wrong places), causes “all the irreparable harm” this entails for minorities. On a similar note, we might see the horror that surges forth in the film—nowhere more explicitly than in the torrent of blood gushing forth from the hotel’s elevator door—as something like the return of the repressed, of the trauma of history, that has erupted with such rage and power in our own recent times, stripping away the veneer of liberal niceties and seeming affluence to reveal the violence that lies beneath.
Yet amidst all of the maddening evil, some silver linings could be glimpsed then as now: the resourceful duo of battered spouse and child, and the brave and kind outsider from an ethnic minority resonate with demonstrations of social awareness, wokeness and sensitizing to human solidarity the world over. More neutral, or ambivalent, are new technologies, the cause of much communication, information, but disinformation as well: while the “shining” is a wireless technology that connects people across the world, does the malevolent haunted hotel and its ubiquitous gaze not resonate with new technologies of surveillance, drones and promised 5G “smart” cities (as Marta Figlerowicz brilliantly suggests in this dossier)? In light of this, The Shining resonates today in even more diverse and rich ways than it did upon its release: the imaginary “white man’s burden”, and a not-so imaginary evil gaze of history repeating itself, looming over the murderous proceedings, seem more at the center of Kubrick’s film than ever before—as a denunciation of a sick, depraved and unsustainable system, whose only beneficiaries are “presidents, movie stars, royalty… all the best people.” That status quo is not altered in Kubrick’s film, nor does it seem to be at risk of disappearing in our own world, eager to resume its wasteful consumption and return to its unsustainable norms as soon as possible (“As soon as possible!”).
On a lighter note, instead of seeing it at the select theaters that would have screened the 4K remastered version, fans, in many parts of the world, celebrated The Shining’s anniversary by watching it for the nth time at home this year, and in their creative boredom produced their own brand of homage, from memes and parodies (see Rod Munday) to witty reflections and shared testimonies on social media to brilliant artwork (variations over the themes and motifs of The Shining, as it were): suffice it to browse websites dedicated to the film, such as the beautiful one curated by Lee Unkrich (aka ‘the caretaker’), Theoverlookhotel.com,8 or Facebook group pages such as the Stanley Kubrick Appreciation Society or The Kubrick Society—two among many others to salute and perpetuate the popular appeal of the film. “Merching” the film has been a trend lately: you can now buy socks with the Overlook hallway carpet pattern, and a company even released a board game of The Shining. But the film has also enjoyed a resurgence of academic interest: at least one international conference (now postponed until next year) was going to be held at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in honor of the film. As for the present dossier, it is nothing if not another homage to the lasting influence and effect of the film, attempting to fill this hopefully temporary void, and to bridge the gap between online discourse and a more academic examination—engaging scholars (including established Kubrick specialists) and reaching out to fans.
Be kind, rewind, watch again
As all of this makes clear, The Shining has rapidly gained the status of cult film, particularly in the Internet age. One testament to this is the score of websites, blogs and vlogs dedicated to the “secrets” locked inside or hidden behind a purported code in the film, accounting for the devoted following of fans, and subcultural communities of “obsessives.” Furthermore, “Kubrick’s films are organized so as to force the viewer to interpret them holistically and conspiratorially by slowing time to enable meticulous scanning of the mise-en-scène, insisting on textual gaps and cruxes, and thereby encouraging self-reflexivity and intertextual exploration.”9 In line with this, I.Q. Hunter proceeds to celebrate another important aspect of cult films, which readily applies to Kubrick’s, at least in light of the shared experience of so many people: “encountering the film – which is to say, re-encountering it – can be life-changing and transfiguring if the viewer is able to submit, to think and to care.”10 This transformative quality may be one of the most important reasons for The Shining’s cult status, but also for the genuine devotion that his fans have cultivated for it.
The fascination The Shining exerts to this day goes beyond cult status or the familiarity millions have with the film. As many of our contributors recount in the The Shining and Us piece (the beginning, perhaps, of a proper ‘The Shining reception studies’!), and as Rick Warner argues more theoretically, The Shining is a complex, fascinating tonal object—situated between comedy and thriller, between the deeply comforting and the disturbing or disquieting. This had been detected by perceptive critics already at the time of the film’s release: Janet Maslin first identified11 how The Shining is not only darkly funny in places, but is also a domestic, “family horror film”, with twisted echoes of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Indeed, according to Paul Mayersberg, “underlying many sequences in The Shining is a critique of the whole genre of horror movies.”12 For Morris Dickstein, “The Shining is less a horror film than a meticulous, enthralling academic imitation of one.”13 For Fredric Jameson,14 the film synthesizes major landmarks of the horror genre and takes the latter to another level or category, just as it expresses both a critique of the beautiful and glossy image, or a boredom with the aesthetic itself—a boredom thematized by the film, of course, but also by the endless loops or cycles effected by the characters and history, or by a VHS player’s rotating head.
To ensure longevity and viability for his projects, Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for new technologies, often ahead of the curve vis-à-vis his competitors. In view of this, we can see The Shining as a film not so much relevant for its manifest genre (horror), but for its central conceit, the maze, and for its labyrinthine diegetic space, which defies logic, calls for a cognitive “remapping” and repeated, indeed multiple, viewing. The “ultimate horror film,” in other words, seems to be tailor-made for a technology that was just arriving on the market in the late 1970s, being the ultimate film for the VCR age. Now a film could be experienced in a whole new way by viewers, no longer in the strictly linear fashion characteristic of the movie theater experience, but from the comfort of one’s home, on their TV set, at their leisure and at the time—and for a duration—of their choosing. With video technology (which Kubrick himself resorted to on the shoot), films could be replayed, re-watched, analyzed frame by frame, reinvestigated, like the hedge maze, which serves as one of The Shining’s central conceits and loci.
Still, in order to understand Kubrick’s approach, one must also move away from strictly commercial and technological considerations, seeing in them vehicles, but also “covers” or veils for something arguably far more important. As Fredric Raphael pointed out,15 and as Geoffrey Cocks and Nathan Abrams have richly elucidated16 Kubrick’s films were never straightforward in their genre approach (or in any other way): they proceeded by indirection, their subsurface or hidden narrative far more engrossing and important than their manifest narrative content. As P.L. Titterington hints at,17 and Bill Blakemore was keen to elaborate upon18 the rich Native American imagery in The Shining suggests that the “tide of terror” it was advertised as was not that of the film itself across movie theaters and drive-ins, but the wave of white men driving out and exterminating the Native American populations from their ancestral land (the line referring to the Overlook Hotel being built on an ancient Native American burial ground is original to the film’s script, not present in the novel). But, as Cocks has elaborately extrapolatedf,19 the film can be read also as can be guessed from other, less conspicuous markers scattered around the film, as an oblique reflection on the Holocaust.
Surely The Shining is characterized by this double discourse, by a subsurface meaning and indirection, particularly in the context of Kubrick’s Jewishness. For Abrams, The Shining is Kubrick’s most Jewish film—even as it features no explicit reference to Judaism. Kubrick may not have been religious, but the impact of Judaism is apparent in his films obliquely, Abrams argues, typically via analogies and metaphors that incorporate extensive biblical and other Jewish and Hebrew imagery (in this case, the Binding of Isaac—“Do you like lamb, Doc?”). Here Abrams discusses the anti-Semitic fantasies that The Shining has generated, precisely because of the old stereotype attributing hidden or secret knowledge to “the Jew”, a heinous stereotype still replayed ad nauseam in a variety of venues. Elsewhere, in a more positive light, Abrams’ analysis20 allows us, for instance, to at last better understand the appeal of Jack Torrance: what on paper was a horrible and despicable character appears to be a complex and more ambivalent self-portrait of Kubrick himself. Parallels between Nicholson and Kubrick emerge in the documentary about the film’s making directed by Vivian Kubrick (including the director’s very real bullying of Shelley Duvall on the set). Since Kubrick was a secular Jew, Abrams tells us, so is Torrance: he has kopf, is sensitive and intuitive, yet doomed to a cruel fate in the end. It is in Torrance’s dual nature (as the murderous madman and as the failed mensch), more so than in Nicholson’s screen charisma that we can understand his complexity and the strange fascination many have had for the character. Through Torrance, Kubrick spoke about himself and about themes that preoccupied him, from the Holocaust to his own concerns as a father and husband,21 and as a tormented thinker and artist haunted by ghosts—past and present—yet not any less human for all that. No doubt this is conveyed through the film’s combination of crypto-Jewish humor and subsurface echoes to the Holocaust. But it has also to do with the uncanny ability of the film to both elicit very primal emotions and generate refined excogitations that seem to be unlimited in their scope: each time we watch The Shining, we discover something completely different, as though encountering it for the first time, yet we also feel as though we are seeing something very familiar to our eyes, a rare paradox.
SK vs. SK
The Shining, like all of Kubrick’s mature work, is deep, dense, layered. This is an outcome of the staggering amount of preparation and length of production itself: the film was in the making for over three years, between 1977 and 1980, with the main shooting period lasting thirteen months, through 1978, in England (except for location shoot of the mountains and forests at the beginning of the film, and outdoors scenes of the Timurline Lodge in Oregon). As Roger Luckhurst underlines,22 it is commonly accepted that the film was poorly received by critics (see Pauline Kael’s negative assessment)—particularly following the argument whereby the film’s coldness and technical excellence got in the way of scares. Yet this is an erroneous piece of received knowledge, and holds true only for a few critics. These (mostly middle-to-highbrow) critics’ mistake was to expect of the film what was never there in the first place: The Shining never was about being just a horror or scary movie (although, of course, it was also that, and advertised as such). The author of the eponymous novel on which the film is based, Stephen King, surely shared this negative appraisal of Kubrick’s film—indeed harboring a deep dislike if not hatred for it, for reasons that go beyond any rational resistance. This resentment is investigated by Filippo Ulivieri here. King may have felt slighted by Kubrick on several counts: the film painted an overly unfavorable portrait of the failed alcoholic writer, straying from King’s optimism and faith in simple folk. The novelist’s ego must also have been battered and bruised by Kubrick’s Torrance—an irredeemable loser, “crazy as a shit-house rat” from the get-go. It is the case also that the director used the novel like a tool or device, rubbishing King’s original screenplay. But to claim that Kubrick was unfaithful to the text—while he did take substantial liberties in straying from its plot, spatial arrangements, and spirit—is not entirely correct. Indeed, the novel can function as an interesting companion or complement to the film: for instance, the viewer who saw the film after having read the novel is doubly shocked by Hallorann’s murder: in the novel, the Overlook chef survives, while in the film, his death consolidates the fear in the viewer’s mind that Jack may indeed get his way and murder Danny and Wendy (a version of the script had them indeed murdered and returning to the hotel, haunting it for the children of the future caretaker—allegedly it is co-screenwriter Diane Johnson whom we can thank for slightly bending Kubrick’s notorious pessimistic humanism in this instance). Elsewhere, Kubrick displaces and reintroduces characters from the novel. One case in point is the masked dog-man, who terrorizes Danny in the novel, and who reemerges in the often mentioned disturbing shot of a man (or woman—we don’t know!) in fuzzy bear/dog suit (with a rear end opening, presumably for sexual play) kneeling in front of a man donning a tuxedo. These touches further enhance the uncanny feeling of doubling and mirroring pervading the film: eerie and beautiful paintings by Alex Colville seen both in the Torrances’ Boulder apartment and in the Overlook hotel, the Grady Twins, the hallway carpet pattern inverted or mirrored between two shots (possibly a continuity mistake… but then again, maybe not).
King—a writer customary of sloppy, quickly churned out writing—probably had no sense or patience for such masterful intertextual touches and excruciating perfectionism and care for details. One could add, to this, the fact that the film all but entirely eclipsed the novel King wrote. Later, as Ulivieri reveals, Kubrick returned the adaptations rights to the novel in exchange for a hefty fee, and on the condition that King stop criticizing the film publicly. King must have felt vindicated when his sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, was recently made into a stupefying film (by Mike Flanagan, 2019). The latter—a weird hybrid of superhero origin story and psychological horror film—performs at once an homage and an act of desecration against Kubrick’s masterpiece: on the one hand, what little good or well shot material there is to find in Flanagan’s tasteless film is the repurposed 4K footage of the Overlook Hotel; on the other, the whole matter is a sorry grotesque, which attempts to ‘set the record straight’ vis-à-vis King’s novel all the while being based on the premise on which Kubrick’s film ended (differently than King’s novel), and whereby the Overlook is not destroyed—see Joy McEntee.23
The shapes of The Shining
King had willed an end to the evil of the Overlook hotel by burning it to the ground at the end of his novel. Kubrick let it stand, allowing for history to repeat itself therein. And even as the actual set of the Colorado Lounge burned down shortly after the production was completed,24 the Overlook, like its ghosts, seems inscribed in our psyche forever and ever. The space of the hotel (its hallways, Indian rugs, pantries and bathrooms) may be the single most seminal and impressive film set ever designed, for all its kitsch or tacky interiors. But there is something about the sheer size of the rooms, juxtaposed with the claustrophobic (not at all “homey”!) janitorial space and hedge maze, that draws out horror and violence. This is the reflection at the heart of Craig Buckley’s piece, which also illuminates the real-life models of the Overlook hotel.
Departing from the types created by King, the characters in The Shining are truly idiosyncratic. Jack Torrance became a blueprint of sorts, which Nicholson never really escaped in subsequent roles.25 Danny Torrance, meanwhile, has laid the groundwork for a series of uncanny children, as analyzed by Jessica Balanzategui. As stewards or operatives of the system (“the house”) that the Overlook Hotel allegorizes, poised between smiling and affable topicality and more inscrutable menace, Stuart Ullman, Delbert Grady and Lloyd the Bartender are all wonderful representations of evil. Less due has been given to Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann—clearly characters as important and as interesting as any, and a performance of incredible resilience by Shelley Duvall (and, to a lesser extent, by Scatman Crothers), whom Kubrick hardly spared during production.26 It is time, no doubt, for critical literature to correct this lapse—including from a feminist and race perspective.
For all its cruelty and the munificent expenditure it entailed, and perhaps because of those, too, The Shining is remarkable in just about every possible way: its script is a dense and layered mix of Freudian and Bettelheimian images (also by way of the scores of films it references, see Cocks here), but with equal weight given to the fairy tale and the more formalist ‘hero’s journey’, as attested to in Sbravatti and Franciotti’s dramaturgical approach—only one of the many layerings (or circumvolutions) in this complex narrative, which is redoubled in the impossible complexity of its space, or in the layered musical tracks. The film’s soundtrack—all the more legendary for never having obtained a real commercial release past the initial (and hardly complete) LP pressing—auspiciously combines heterogeneous musical material such as Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer versions of the “Dies Irae” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and 1930s jazz standards. Following up on her close analysis of music in Kubrick’s films,27 Christine Lee Gengaro reminds us of the intricacies and remarkable aspects of the film’s soundtrack, while also showing its lasting legacy. In the film’s groundbreaking soundtrack, we find evocation of abstract concepts and of quasi tangible affect : György Ligeti’s atonal Lontano evokes the act of “shining”, while Krzysztof Penderecki’s quasi-concrete, bruitist music amplifies the dread and chaos of the film’s finale. In less direct fashion, the horror of racial erasure resonates in the distance, in the irony of using the otherwise maudlin white jazz of white South African vocalist Al Bowlly and white composer Ray Noble. As for Béla Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,” in its mystery and whimsy (think of the “see-saw” motion in the score, which Kubrick uses several times in the first part of the film), it perfectly captures the darkly playful spirit of The Shining.
For all its unforgettable sets, acting, music (and sound editing by Gordon Stainforth), the film would be nothing without Kubrick’s trademark innovative mise-en-scene, cinematography, and editing. Its work with light, projection, and reflexivity is obvious yet integrated into the narrative (see Chodorov). Its trailblazing use of the steadicam is by now legendary and often parodied (see this video essay, made especially for the occasion of this dossier, by Miguel Mira and Olena Pikho). For this film, Kubrick sought out to replicate what Alfred Hitchcock had effectively devised with Psycho: an experiment and exercise in fear, entertaining and thrilling alike. While many horror classics are referenced in the film (Diabolique—the person emerging from the bathtub, their writing on the typewriter, The Haunting—the gothic building itself, The Omen—the creepy child on the trike, The Exorcist—evil lurking in the home, Penderecki’s music, etc.), The Shining is indebted first and foremost to Psycho, whose shower and bathroom scenes it replays twice, and whose staircase menace it inverts brilliantly (see Mick Broderick’s analysis). Inspired by so many films, The Shining, in turn, has had a lasting legacy, in horror film and auteur cinema alike, sometimes evident, and sometimes buried so deep that it has to be excavated (see Szaniawski).
Remembering (in) The Shining
While The Shining has been noted and analyzed in terms of just about every single aspect of film theory and production, and despite the attention rightfully paid to Kubrick’s engagement with history (Fredric Jameson, Robert Kolker, Geoffrey Cocks, etc.), too few scholars, still, have studied his remarkable take on cinematic time. Maria Pramaggiore is the only scholar to have dedicated a monograph to the question.28 Gilles Deleuze, of course, dedicated a few seminal pages to Kubrick’s films in Cinema 2: Time-Image (1989), enshrining him as a major American post-war filmmaker. Robert Stam, meanwhile, notes how the director uses “cinema’s capacity for mingling apparently contradictory times and temporalities.”29 And Thomas Elsaesser30 aptly deconstructs the understanding of Kubrick as a postmodernist, rightly associating his films’ odd chronological positioning in generic waves with the notion of nachtrachtlichkeit or deferred action, a concept that cuts both ways: Kubrick emerges as a figure out of time, timeless and untimely at one and the same time. Of all of Kubrick’s films, The Shining may be the one that plays with time in the most impressive and wide-ranging, yet unassuming way: from its ‘day cards’ intertitles causing disorientation (what does a day of the week mean, when it is taken out of any referential context, or clear chronology?) to the uncanny spatio-temporal phenomenon Michel Ciment observes : “The gradual compression of “objective” space and time (from the mountains to the hotel, from the hotel to the labyrinth; from months to days, from days to hours) is allied to a corresponding expansion of “inner” time and space.”31 Time, therefore, becomes in the film a multimodal, more pliable, navigable and commodifiable entity. This is also the “horror” that The Shining speaks of.
The other important and often obfuscated aspect of the film, which is closely related to time and history, is memory. In his inspired chapter on the film, Jordi Vidal32 envisions it in terms of Giordano Bruno’s mnemotechnics and magical thinking. The knowledge of the past (memory) and space are collapsed in Bruno’s (heretical) Medieval conception, whereby one navigates time as though it were a space. This is, of course, the way that Danny defeats Jack—by literally trapping him in the labyrinth that is also the past. And this victory is achieved by a foreknowledge of the labyrinthine space that is used against the adversary (a decoy reprised in Doctor Sleep where young Danny Torrance traps all his demons into boxes which are relegated to a mental image of the hotel’s maze). Yet the horror of the film, Vidal suggests, is not that of time nor even of space, but that of the collapse of perspectives (Roger Luckhurst analyzes the room 237 bathroom sequence along similar lines, as the film’s “navel”—where Danny’s, Jack’s, Wendy’s and Hallorann’s perspectives are all ambiguously merged, through “shining,” into the hotel’s deceitful but all-knowing gaze). Expanding on Vidal’s theses, I argue that the horror of the film is that of an autonomization of images. We find this everywhere in the film, from the many instances of “shining”, but also in the way objects acquire a life of their own as visions. For instance, the teddy bear on Danny’s bed (in a scene which was removed from the international cut), flattened by the use of a zoom lens, returns later in the creepy figure in a bear-dog suit that Wendy sees when running through the hotel’s corridors near the film’s end. It is as though the film was a great metafilmic projection of one (or several) of the characters’ imaginary realms, escaping into those of the viewer, and thereby acquiring a life of their own (Kubrick sensed this no doubt, who included the sound of party revelers at the very end of the credits and the song “Midnight, the Stars, and You”, meant to mix with the sound of viewers exiting the theater).
What is depicted in Kubrick’s film is thus, like the psychedelic experience, a world that is already a mental construct rather than an ostensibly shared external reality. Yet this does not mean in any way, that The Shining reveals some kind of underneath or “inner truth.” Deleuze famously identified Kubrick’s cinema with the brain,33 and Vidal riffs on this idea when seeing the maze as a spatial representation of memory (or of the brain). The brain remains the hidden organ (it works and creates images, but we do not exactly understand how), separated from the world by a membrane, or the skull, a form of separation that Kubrick’s films attempt to translate into filmic terms; this recalls the import Diane Arbus assigned to the invisible (“a picture is a secret about a secret – the more it tells you, the less you know”), which governs Kubrick’s films from behind the visible surface.
The secret behind the secret: a scavenger’s hunt?
Kubrick, who started out as a photographer (see a sample of his early work in Broderick’s essay) was greatly influenced by Arbus’s work, and openly references her picture of twin girls in the film. I have asked art historian Alexander Nemerov (who also happens to be Arbus’s nephew) to discuss the enigmatic and quizzical picture that closes the film—the 1921 Independence Day ball, an image that Kubrick initially wanted to recreate on the set with the actors dressed in period costumes for the gold room ball sequence, but ended up replacing with an authentic 1920s picture, onto which the face of Nicholson was skilfully pasted.
In a way that does justice to the lyrically enigmatic nature of the picture, Nemerov’s meditation beautifully and perceptively goes beyond that closing image, identifying the strange erotics at the heart of The Shining (indeed there should be more study of and celebration of the queerness of Kubrick’s aesthetics) and the film’s morbidly yet vibrantly libidinal investment with the past/history. This, Nemerov argues here, happens through contact—brushing, daubing, rubbing—with surfaces: “The final photograph from which Jack ultimately beams is fittingly its own statement on the carnal power of historical inquiry.” And indeed, peering at the picture, we sense something putrid and dank, which mingles here—with supreme irony—with the featured merriments and “fish and goose soirée” outfits. The beaming man at the forefront (Jack Torrance—or his exact analog, circa 1921) feels, perhaps, like he is the star—not at all the fool or the frozen icicle he turns out to be. He is featured up front, after all. Theories have emerged regarding his right hand, in which we can detect a tiny piece of paper.34 The original picture, however, reveals the real person in the picture, onto whose face Nicholson’s was pasted. It is he who holds the tiny piece of paper, not the American movie star. What does it all mean? Perhaps—and precisely!—nothing at all. But Kubrick’s idea of making Nicholson the star of the picture, his grin containing in itself the whole of a delusional universe (or, in a way perhaps, less delusional than it seems, given the film’s lasting appeal, way beyond any diegetic aspiration Torrance might ever had had); the ‘revelation’ or belief that he is, in that very moment, one with history, a Greek mythological figure meeting his kairos, is striking. But this is also a critique of the Warholian idea of the fifteen minutes (of fame), and of the (photographic/cinematic) image as a whole—of its noxious lure and hidden monstrosities, which the film, as a metafilmic commentary, at length elaborates upon. In so doing, The Shining escapes from, as per Jameson’s formula, “the image by way of the image”35. Could it be the antidote (or “hair of the dog that bit me!”) that cannot cure Jack but may illuminate us, the viewers? Whether the film serves as an antidote or not at all (are the film’s quasi antidepressant virtues not what makes it more, indeed, like a drug or hallucinogenic?) it is also, of course, “white man’s burden”—the blood of the natives and their burial grounds upon which the lavish hotel was built, now reduced to images (of a hotel, of hectoliters of blood, of an African American man stabbed in the chest and lying dead on a Native American symbol). Again, any clear meaning to be found in The Shining’s images remains elusive, true to Arbus’s “secret about a secret.”
There has to be, there must be a secret, a hidden meaning to The Shining, scream fans mystified by the film’s venomous charm and rich ambiguities, and hell bent on ‘cracking the code’ ever since its release (Kubrick, no doubt, would have been pleased, and perhaps, slightly worried as well by the far reaching effects of his film). It is precisely this wave of epistemic inquiry—enabled by digital versions of the film in higher resolution (giving the fans access to more details hitherto impossible to make out in home video releases) and open access to the Kubrick Archive in London, which accounts for the film’s revival in the last ten years or so. To use Ian Christopher’s analogy, for this new generation of Shining “exegetes”, the film is like a maze, a puzzle. Therein lies its appeal past the first scary encounter, and perhaps, too, the answer to what it all means, really.36 An intrepid “obsessive” (on a par with Rob Agers), Christopher shares with us here a fragment of his own tremendous research around the film’s true meaning(s)—tackling here the scrapbook which, in the final version of the film, is almost as ghostly as the intangible denizens of the Overlook Hotel. Yet in Kubrick’s films, even secondary props are as carefully documented and detailed as more conspicuous ones. The scrapbook’s contents consisted of a series of fake news items (penned in the manner of old newspaper articles by Kubrick’s friend, journalist Alexander Walker, and which Jack Torrance was supposed to discover and become darkly fascinated by), alongside hundreds of real ones, centering around sordid deaths, accidents, and World War II. Christopher is probably the only person to have studied the provenance of just about every clipping in the scrapbook (courtesy of the Kubrick Archive and its wonderful staff). What this says about this independent scholar is another matter altogether, but it does, again, attest to the film’s magnetic power no doubt.
Looking at this tide of Shining exegesis from another angle, Daniel Fairfax interrogates and elucidates the multitude of interpretations the film has generated, through the lens of Jean-Pierre Oudart’s remarkable engagement with the film. What is it about Kubrick, what is it about his film, that leads scholars, critics, enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists alike to produce such a voluminous outpouring of analysis? Elsewhere, Fairfax has attributed the film’s maze-like appeal to the way its many narratives and subtextual strands “often merge together in the mind of the spectator, particularly on an initial viewing, transforming their disparate standpoints into a pleonastic stew of film interpretation.”37 The epitome of a film calling for and resisting Jamesonian cognitive mapping at one and the same time, The Shining is, quite simply, a hall of mirrors and maze of a film, uniting thought experiment with the appeal of the cinema of attraction. This combination is rare enough that it would necessarily invite excessive or esoteric analyses, which have certainly become more culturally prevalent across the board in the age of the internet.
And so, The Shining, born in the age of 35mm and VHS tapes, now has turned forty in the digital age—the age of teleconferences and global quarantine. For many films, such transition would be equated with outright vanishing or oblivion, way past their expiration date anyway—a time long after anyone has stopped caring, or being impressed. To be sure, the dazzling effects of Kubrick’s films have acquired a patina of age, some cracks appear on the formerly pristine wallpaper of the Overlook’s creepy hallways. But the bulk of the film’s power and effect remain. Forty, is, of course, the age of midlife crisis, and the age, roughly, of Jack Torrance in the film. There is a strange, appealing synchronicity to witness, here—one more layer of the film’s absorbing (also in a homeostatic sense!) adaptive, polymorphous polysemousness, which makes it resonate with just about anything—from late capitalism to global quarantine. As such, the question which one should ask oneself before the “pleonastic stew of film interpretation” which this splendid dossier continues to expand is: what more can be written—after Jameson, Deleuze, Elsaesser, Naremore, Oudart, Ciment, etc.—about The Shining? And the answer to the eager should be, quite simply: “Come and play with us.” But this should not rise as the ominous call of murdered Grady twin girls. The Shining holds a mysterious quality (a quality and effect identified by Warner, as well as by several of the contributors in the ‘Shining and Us’ section) that has allowed it to become an old friend, or familiar presence, whose reassuring, uplifting effect can never be underestimated. Perhaps this mystery is all but a brilliant conjurer’s trick, a mere sleight of hand of the highest cinematic order—one that will, in time, be deconstructed and explained by neuroscience, or one algorithm or another. Until then, let us, mere mortals, enjoy the film’s timeless appeal—at least for a little while longer.
- “It’s like watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes,” wrote Pauline Kael in her scathing review of the film, ‘The Shining: Devolution’. The New Yorker, June 9, 1980. ↩
- Of course it should be noted that the most lucid observers immediately recognized the film’s importance, as in the cases of Fredric Jameson, Jean-Pierre Oudart or Gilles Deleuze ↩
- Often based on close reading analyses, as exemplified in the admirably over-interpretive work of Rob Agers or the case studies in Rodney Ascher’s film Room 237 (2012) ↩
- See a variety of texts, including by Deleuze (Cinema 2: Time Image, 1989), Roger Luckhurst (The Shining, Bloomsbury, 2013), Mario Falsetto (Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, 1994), etc. ↩
- This ‘anti-psychological’ approach was one of the reproaches leveled against the film, including by Pauline Kael. See also Wright, Jarrell D. 2008. ‘Reconsidering Fidelity and Considering Genre in (and with) The Shining’ in Stanley Kubrick – Essays on His Films and Legacy. Gary D. Rhodes, editor. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland. Rob Agers shows, in his essays and video essays available online, how the film can be read equally from a psychological and realist perspective (with no ‘supernatural’ intervention whatsoever) and from a supernatural one. ↩
- Instead of being pan-and-scanned for 4/3 TV screens, it was released on VHS in its full aspect ratio, without the theatrical widescreen top and bottom caches—hence the shadow of the helicopter one can see at the bottom of the screen, or its propellers at the top of the image, in the opening credits (many thanks to Peter Krämer for reminding me about this). ↩
- In its American cut—the 144 minutes version, as opposed to the 119 minute European release, but also different from the 146 minute version which only screened for a few days, before Kubrick had all the prints recalled and had the ending removed – which shows Shelley Duvall and Danny at a hospital talking with Stuart Ullman, who hands Danny the infamous tennis ball at the very end, a scene no one has been able to see since May 1980.
This recent digital transfer had parts of its 4K footage repurposed and featured in two big budget genre films: Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018) and Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan, 2019), for the needs of which entire chunks of the Overlook hotel set were rebuilt as well. ↩
- Unkrich’s website not only regularly posts rare production stills and little-known pieces of information about The Shining, but also documents all kinds of ancillary paraphernalia—toys, items of clothing, video games, and art projects—attesting to the film’s cult status and continued influence in popular culture ↩
- I.Q. Hunter Cult Film as a Guide to Life. Continuum Publishing Corp. 2016, 51 ↩
- Ibid, 137 ↩
- Janet Maslin, Review of The Shining. The New York Times, May 23, 1980 ↩
- Paul Mayersberg, ‘The Overlook Hotel’ Sight & Sound, Winter 80-81, pp.54-57 ↩
- Dickstein, Moris. ‘The Aesthetics of Fright’ in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Barry Keith Grant, Christopher Sharrett, eds. 50-61. ↩
- Fredric Jameson ‘Historicism in The Shining’, in Signatures of the Visible, Routledge 1992 ↩
- In Michel Ciment, Kubrick, 2001 ↩
- Geoffrey Cocks. The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust. New York: Peter Lang, 2004; Nathan Abrams, Stanley Kubrick, New York Jewish Intellectual, Rutgers University Press, 2018 ↩
- P.L. Titterington “Kubrick and The Shining”. Film Quarterly. Spring1981 ↩
- Blakemore, Bill. 1987. ‘Kubrick’s Shining’s Secret’. The Washington Post, July 12 https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/1987/07/12/kubricks-shiningsecret/a7e3433d-e92e-4171-b46f-77817f1743f0/ ↩
- Cocks op. cit. 2004 ↩
- Abrams op. cit. 2018 ↩
- See Ciment 2001, op. cit. ↩
- Luckhurst, Op. Cit. 2013 ↩
- Balazantegui points to Flanagan’s efforts, in Doctor Sleep, to clarify zones which Kubrick had left deliberately unexplained, and to patch up gaps in the past, but also notes how his film reconstructs, but fails to recapture, the past. This is just one of the many issues with Flanagan’s curious train wreck: it attempts to do precisely what one shouldn’t (to explain things overly) and it is never able, for evident reasons, to recapture not just the past and the original film, but also its technical brilliance and artistry, and, yes, its mystery. ↩
- Vivian Kubrick recounts, in her voice-over commentary to Making ‘The Shining’ that, to her father’s utter dismay, a few shots used in the film came from slightly damaged negatives, but the scenes could no longer be reshot following the devastation ↩
- Alexander Payne used this lasting sense of a menace under Nicholson’s surface, ready to erupt, in an everyday fashion, in his About Schmidt, 2002. ↩
- Duvall spent the better part of 1978 screaming and crying, while in the murder scene, Crothers—a man in his late sixties—had to be stabbed in the chest and fall to the ground several dozen times ↩
- Christine Lee Gengaro, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: The music in His Films. The Scarecrow Press 2013 ↩
- Maria Pramaggiore, Making time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 2017 ↩
- Robert Stam Film Theory: An Anthology. Wiley. 2000. 60 ↩
- Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Evolutionary Imagineer’. In Stanley Kubrick. Kinematograph 20. Frankfurt am Main. Deutsches filmmuseum. 2004. 136-147 ↩
- Michel Ciment, Op. Cit. 135 ↩
- Jordi Vidal, Traité du combat moderne: films et fictions de Stanley Kubrick, Editions Allia. 2005 ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, 1989 op. cit. ↩
- See the analysis by Juli Kearns here http://idyllopuspress.com/idyllopus/film/clenched_fist_of_jack_torrance.htm ↩
- Fredric Jameson, “The Existence of Italy”, Signatures of the Visible, 1992, 162 ↩
- Christopher has self-published a book, The Games Room, whose premise is compelling: “The Shining is a puzzle. Realising that is the first step to solving it.” ↩
- Daniel Fairfax. “The Anxiety of Interpretation: The Shining, Room 237, and Film Criticism.” In Jeremi Szaniawski, ed. After Kubrick, a Filmmaker’s Legacy. Bloomsbury 2020, 200 ↩