Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a film about isolation and the threat of an invisible evil. It relates to our current situation insofar as now, in spring 2020, with the world locked down due to a microscopic enemy and many of us afraid to leave the house, isolation is the safest option. We avoid others. Like the spirits in The Shining, coronavirus can infiltrate us, making some of us into unwitting murderers, carriers without symptoms, as the virus jumps invisibly from person to person. Kubrick’s film also demonstrates unusual methods of communication that resonate with the current moment: between Jack and the evil spirits, between Danny and Halloran. The virus is forcing us, too, to communicate in new ways and through new media. Although we are not allowed to attend a movie theatre, video screens are taking on a new importance in our lives as we depend on them for all contact with the outside world. The Shining is a film about communication that crosses distances and dimensions and transcends the visible, and also has much to say about TV and media. This paper will attempt to show these deeper connections, organized around the different meanings of the word “shining”.
“To shine” has at least three meanings: to give off light, like a projector bulb; to reflect light, like a movie screen; to communicate thoughts without words (a definition which is, of course, King’s invention), which is also a function of cinema. From the title alone we thus might expect this film to portray the filmmaker’s conception of his medium. Here is a deeper look into the construction of the film, from the angle of these three meanings of the word “shining.”
1. Shining=ESP, a form of communication without words.
The first meaning that the film offers for the word “Shining” is found in Halloran’s explanation of ESP: having conversations without opening one’s mouth. The characters who have ESP in this film can connect with each other as if through a wormhole, sending pictures instantaneously, crying for help when trapped in a dead end, transcending time and space. Cinema is likewise a nonverbal medium that can convey ideas and feelings and connect people across vast spaces and in different periods in time. Therefore, the film’s characterization of the medium is as a privileged means of communication.
The first titled sequence in the film is “the interview,” a direct reference to communication. During this scene, the audience learns the back story of the hotel along with Jack. The interview takes place in Ullman’s office, the first place where the link between Jack and the hotel is established; it is here where Jack learns about Grady; it is also the place where the radio sits. Thus it is the place first linking Jack to Grady, as well asthe place linking Wendy to the ranger station and the outside world.
Communication is broken in this film, as it is in so many Kubrick’s works: the hotel is cut off from the rest of the world by snow and the phones are dead, just like the spaceship in 2001 with no link to Earth. Jack, like HAL, is a destructive caretaker: he breaks the radio and disables the snowcat just as HAL in 2001 disconnects the antenna and disables his ship. Jack’s relationship with Wendy also recalls that of HAL and Dave, the demented caretaker versus the enlightened Theseus who escapes at the end. HAL and Jack also lose their voices, their power of communication, as they die. Jack’s powers of communication decompose progressively throughout the film, from the interview at the beginning to his writer’s block halfway through, to his groaning in the maze at the end, like one of 2001’s apes.
Despite this situation of isolation and disconnectedness in the hotel, communication finds new unexpected pathways through the use of ESP. Danny can overhear Jack and Wendy’s conversation through ESP, just as HAL can unexpectedly lip-read the astronauts. Tony, one of the most important characters in the film, lives in Danny’s mouth, the very place of communication. Tony shows Danny things and he shows us things (he also controls Danny’s finger, an index); he is a visual narrator in the sense of Christian Metz’s grand imagier. He is part of Danny but he knows more than Danny; he is a peridiegetic narrator. Yet when Tony speaks, it is Danny speaking, allowing Danny to travel on the periphery of the diegesis, to see outside. As Jack’s communication skills decline, Danny’s ESP improves, reaching out to Halloran as far away as Miami. However, although we the spectators can see these images, Jack and Wendy cannot: Tony told Danny never to tell his parents that he shows him things (another link to 2001 in which the computer is programmed to keep a secret).
2. Shining = Reflecting.
The ESP encountered in “The Shining” is only one way the film demonstrates the possibility of a form of perception that lies beyond the senses: there is also communication through mirrors, which are sneaky devices that allow one to see around corners and to see oneself. Mirrors show images which are both real and unreal, which are inversions of reality. Another meaning of the word “shining” is reflection, suggesting all the systems of signification in cinema involving doubles, mirrors, reversals and inversions.
Mirrors fragment the space of the screen, creating smaller screens within the big one, while also creating a symmetrical space. A space of fragmentation and inversion, the space shown in the mirror is also an off-screen space, which is usually a forbidden one (it could reveal the camera crew or even the spectator). The mirror shows us the devil’s tail. However, in “The Shining” it is truths that are revealed in the mirror: Danny’s first premonitory visions occur there; the woman in room 237 appears old and decaying in the mirror, as she really is; Jack checks out Grady’s image in the bathroom mirror; the word redrum makes sense only in the mirror.
The fragmentation of mirrors plays out in the space and time of the film as well. Space in the film becomes constrained, abstracted and chopped up as we pass from large spaces to small ones, while the same happens to time, going from months to days to hours. Fragmentation of bodies becomes a recurring theme, with references to chopped-up cadavers, and we see kitchen knives over Danny’s head when he asks Halloran “is there something bad here?” Halloran shows Wendy the diced peaches and cuts of meat in the store room, while Grady tells Jack: “Your heart’s not in this; you don’t have the belly for it.” Chopping, of course, is also what film editors do.
A mirror, like cinema, creates a double of the world. The film itself, of course, is full of doublings and repetitions (the twins, elevators, the echoes between Jack and Grady). Mirrors also reverse reality, and at the end of this film Jack slows down, freezes, regresses and goes back in time, as though moving from cinema to photography (again like HAL, who regresses and goes back to his childhood and the silence of early cinema). Similarly, but in a contrary sense, we realize that Danny’s visions are not flashbacks but flashforwards.
If the mirror’s reversal allows Wendy to understand redrum, it is also by reversing his steps that Danny escapes his father in the maze. Why does Jack ‘overlook’ this possibility of reversal? Maybe he has moved to the other side of the mirror and is blind to inversion. Just as the mirror cannot prevent itself from translating REDRUM into MURDER, Jack cannot back up in the labyrinth. There is a shot of Jack (over)looking the model of the labyrinth as a premonition of his own death, and he smiles. Halloran also has a premonition of his own death when he drives past a “jack-knifed” truck.
3. Shining = Luminousness.
If “shining” as communication corresponds to film as a nonverbal medium, and if “shining” as mirror corresponds to the filmic apparatus, the fragmentation of time and space and the double articulation of images between representation and reality, “shining” as light signifies the source, the root of all cinema. Light is the generator of all images and of sight. Light pours in through the large windows of the hotel lobby, and indeed, the name of The Overlook itself refers to vision.
Many of the luminous objects we find in the film are the television sets, screens within the screen, shiny mini-metaphors for cinema and another communication medium that transcends space like ESP: Halloran in Miami learns of the snowstorm in Colorado on TV and a TV airline ad predicts his own flight up there; Danny watches a road runner cartoon on TV (he identifies with Bugs Bunny and is called “Doc”) which predicts his wily escape backtracking in the snowy maze. Violence on television is not real. Television makes violence acceptable (“it’s OK Wendy, he saw it on the television”): in the kitchen, Halloran reassures Danny that the violent scenes he may encounter in the hotel are not real either, but like pictures in a book; finally, when Jack breaks down the bathroom door with an ax he refers to a TV show through the line “Here’s Johnny!”, making his own violent actions align with the ones we see on TV, as though this rendered them more palatable or acceptable. This is yet another example of a reversal between reality and representation, which takes place within the framework of any fiction film or television program.
Light also evokes understanding; the light at the end of the tunnel will reveal the key to the mystery. The idea of understanding is also connected to the labyrinth; one is said to reach enlightenment when finding the center. The Shining is organized in space and time as a labyrinth, which is yet another product of the fragmentation and symmetry produced by mirrors. We are invited to enter it from the first shot : the mountains and river of the title sequence. We are overlooking Jack’s car on the mountain road through the forest. The yellow Volkswagen cannot escape the frame, even when entering a tunnel, like a rat in a maze. As Jack enters the hotel, the first spoken words already begin to construct a labyrinth (“First door on the left,” “Any trouble finding the place?”). The film progresses from the vast spaces of the mountains to the hallways of the hotel, and from its vast lobby and ballrooms to its tiny storage rooms and bathrooms. Wendy proclaims, “This place is so huge I’m going to have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs each time I go in in order to get out of the place!” which is exactly how Danny survives the maze at the end.
(Maybe “breadcrumbs” is a premonition of “redrum.”)
If the hotel is a labyrinth, then the traces of events past (Halloran describes them “like when you burn toast”) are the breadcrumbs Wendy needs to find her way out. The elevators full of blood and the hallway with the twins are literal dead ends, as is room 237. The radio and the snowcat become dead ends. Discussions with Jack lead nowhere. It is easy to identify with Wendy because she is rather passive throughout the film. Things happen more or less around her or to her, hence she is like the spectator.
(“She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict,” just like the viewers in the cinema.)
As the film goes on, less distance is traveled and the spaces become smaller and smaller. Time gets compressed too, as the intertitles pass from broader to more specific temporal markers: “September” gives wayto “Thursday,” which in turn gives way to “4pm.” It is the same situation as when one approaches the center of a maze. The camera movements gliding around the hotel give an illusion of continuous space, although we cannot make a map of this space. Eventually Wendy loses her passivity, knocks Jack out and traps him in the storage locker. Then she locks herself in her own small room and she too sleeps. It is at this moment with both protagonists asleep that the spirits intervene in the story: the good spirit Tony writes Redrum while the evil spirit Grady frees Jack.
Upon awakening, Wendy sees the mirror, and she sees into the center of the labyrinth. This is the last clue, the zoom-in to the reflection of the bathroom door where the word Murder is written, indicates the forward movement through the last door, behind the mirror, into the smallest, most interior room in the film. Here she will encounter the minotaur (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”). For Theseus and Ariadne, the center of the labyrinth brings enlightenment, and the key to getting out of the labyrinth; justifiably then, after seeing Redrum, Wendy starts seeing the mirror hotel apparitions herself. Yet they do not threaten her, nor tempt her towards work or towards play. They merely acknowledge her presence with “Great party, isn’t it?” In the end, this film is meant, among other things, to entertain. Just like the labyrinth, it is constructed for amusement, and since Wendy likes horror films, it’s almost like a maze made especially for her, and thus also for the spectators.
Though there is no one final meaning that would tie this film together and allow us to completely understand it, the whole spider’s web of meanings and relations, causes and effects set up in the film’s very construction are pointers to Kubrick’s philosophy, world view and conception of film. This particular Stephen King book is merely a vehicle for Kubrick to express them. The film can therefore not be dismissed as an “unscary horror film,” as “inconsistent” or “messy,” as “disregarding an audience” or being “enigmatic.” It can only be accepted as a complex expression in cinema, and one that comments upon the medium itself; the criticisms of the film do not recognize this, and end up being little more than judgment calls on whether the film works or not for individual viewers as entertainment. Kubrick, though, always claimed to be doing something more than entertainment. He is waking up the spectators, warning them that their relationship to images should not be passive, that the shadows in the mirror can affect us in profound and often troubling ways.