The end of The Shining will always be enigmatic. In the movie’s final scene we see a photograph taken at the Overlook Hotel on July 4, 1921. It shows Jack Torrance front and center as the Gatsby-like maestro of a great party of men in tuxedoes and women in evening dress. How and why is Jack there? Perhaps Torrance is the reincarnation of an earlier hotel guest or employee. But no one can really account for the protagonist’s time travel, which the movie leaves open-ended.

What is certain, however, is that the photograph is shocking, and that the shock consists of at least two simultaneous recognitions. The first is that Jack is really there, that it is truly him deep in the past (up until then we have had no clear proof that he is one of the hotel’s familiar spirits). The second is that some artist has masterfully inserted and airbrushed the actor Jack Nicholson’s face into an authentic photograph made nearly sixty years before the movie was released. The two recognitions apparently do not go together. How can we accept the plot on the one hand while marveling at the artifice on the other? Perhaps we cannot, but for me the altered photograph suggests that the movie’s eeriness is one with a certain brushing, a certain handling, of surfaces. The past—to exist at all for us—must be re-touched.

Nicholson’s face was pasted upon that of a reveler in a real-life 1920s picture

This does not mean faked. In a scene evoking the final photograph, the tuxedo-clad waiter Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) spills a glass of advocaat on Torrance, staining his trucker’s jacket with the thick, egg-based drink. Apologizing and leading Torrance into the men’s room, Grady wets a cloth napkin at a sink and starts daubing Torrance’s coat. As he does so, Torrance asks the waiter his name and puts two and two together: Charles Grady was the caretaker of the hotel who had murdered his wife and daughters before killing himself; the waiter clad in 1920s attire must be the very man. But the waiter Delbert Grady denies the attribution. Still good-naturedly daubing and rubbing, he chuckles that he knows of no such person. But Torrance insists, and the two of them continue their exchange (Grady rubbing, Torrance talking) until we begin to sense that Grady’s repeated touching of the jacket is somehow identical to Torrance’s insistence. When Grady finally relents and acknowledges that he might just be the long-dead former caretaker, it is as if Torrance has rubbed the truth out of him, or as if Grady, by continually applying the napkin, has let loose Torrance’s truth-seeking powers.

This rubbing of the truth is a masculine affair, not just in the men’s room but in room 237. Torrance enters that room cautiously, investigating his wife’s claim that Danny was assaulted there by an old woman. Staring into the bathroom, he sees a beautiful young bather (Lia Beldam) emerge nude from the bathtub and come invitingly toward him, her skin wet and pink and warm. As Torrance kisses her, the bather turns into an old hag, her back and buttocks becoming a fleshy sludge at his caress. Jack’s fondling incarnates the woman’s haggard ancientness, transforming the illusion of a living girl into a walking cadaver. The stately actuality of the cackling witch is made real in his hands, much as Grady’s actual identity is also a tactile revelation.

Jack and the young woman in room 237 embrace

Only for the bathroom mirror to reveal that he is kissing an old woman’s living corpse

Contacting the past is a question of desire. Jack serves as our mentor, our guide, in this steamy pursuit. We are drawn by an illicit curiosity, frankly libidinal in the case of room 237 but equally erotic, in its own way, in the encounter between two men in the antiseptic bathroom. (Strange that both these encounters take place in that most bodily of rooms.) The final photograph from which Jack ultimately beams is fittingly its own statement on the carnal power of historical inquiry. The image, to begin with, is a kind of dispassionate turn-on—calculated to blend the dust of decayed mating rituals with some savor meant to stir the loins, as if it were some ur image chosen by the filmmakers for its capacity to call up the phenomenon of a scholar left hot and bothered after uncovering some old picture that exudes an unaccountable eroticism. The men and women pose in a well-mannered order brimming with libidinal possibility, the ladies in their décolletage and the men asserting the gap-toothed cordiality of so many masters of the universe, their numerous claims of lawful ownership extending to the ladies posed among them. When near the end of the movie we see a party-goer clad in a bear costume fellating a silver-haired man in a tuxedo as he sits at the foot of his bed, the scene feels like a logical eventuation of parties like the one in the photograph: a tell-tale indicator of the private debauchery that follows the ballroom. But the most telling carnality of the past is not the photograph’s aura of vice. It is the fact that it has been re-touched; that it has been illicitly tampered with—that it has been, in a word, adulterated. The photograph itself has been fellated, blown and brushed and licked, so that its surface can swell to life as a surface, a living material, a bald substance.

The membrane of the past is not a threshold. It exists not to offer access to some truth behind it. Simply, it is the historical truth, brought to life by a retrospective desire. This is the most original contribution of The Shining to our sense of what it means to contact the past. The river of blood cascading from the elevator banks down the corridor before the terrified Danny (Danny Lloyd) does not betoken a past behind those doors, which in any case never open. Instead the blood perceptibly emerges from the doors themselves, sluicing in from the sides before spraying forward in a deluge that unmoors hallway settees from their repose. Even as we sense that the blood is pent up, that it can no longer be held back in its reservoirs, the sideways-flinging plasma curiously denies our wish to see it as emerging like repressed floodwaters blasting through gates that can no longer hold them back. Instead, the blood is strangely synonymous with those doors, becoming a barrier unto itself, a billowing curtain spread laterally in sheets. It is as if the red tide were the doors, besotted with their own opening, so aggrandized in their flowing gore that they have forgotten their ordinary identity and become another being altogether: doors made of blood, rippling in Salome-like veils. That they are a special effect—a bit of artifice—is only another of the movie’s signs that an object becomes itself only when it is re-touched.

Blood gushing forth from the elevator, like the irrepressible resurgence of history

History is not only a mania of remains. It is more than the stuff of a lover so intent on the past that he creates the ruins that make him mad. When Jack takes the axe first to one door, then to another, stalking his wife (Shelley Duvall) to put the blade in her, the cheap but sturdy wood makes a tough skin, an integument, that delays him long enough to make us ponder these doors as more of the movie’s tell-tale surfaces. The axe catching in the wood’s dense fibers, these gateways are not only momentary obstacles to Torrance’s murderous rage but things unto themselves, invested with the power to frame and hold a statement on the true nature of things. History is more than a break-through. It is a slab of Boschian eggshell, grown enormous to encumber a man, who like a chickling struggles to break through this carapace, though his birth is tortured enough to be also a curious death-seeking retreat, the condition of his emergence synonymous with his shattered casket. History is no gateway, no portal to a world beyond the threshold. It is always a surface, an altered surface, a mirror made of wood.

It is also this: a violence held in reserve, never more tender than when it insists nothing comes between us and it. On first entering The Gold Room, Jack sits at the bar and encounters the bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel). The rapport between the men is immediate. Jack, who has not had a drink in five months, orders a whiskey that Lloyd serves promptly, placing a glass of the radiant molten-yellow liquid before his guest. The bar separates them, but the gleaming liquor hovers like a halo, imparting an air of insubstantiality to the would-be barrier. Misogynistic clichés flow back and forth, the smooth sexism establishing a frictionless linguistic repartee. It is all so free: “Your credit’s fine here, Mr. Torrance,” Lloyd tells Jack. The whole conversation is, one might say, seamless. A suave bond of elegance and intoxication, rage and restraint, makes a boundary-less connection between men and eras. Yet the splintering physicality of the movie’s other encounters is all here by implication. Indeed, at Lloyd’s bar all the rubbing and rotting is a force because it is so ceremonially withheld, like fires stoked and banked but held back, the better to burst forth. The men’s bonhomie is a pact of vampires. The glass of whiskey is a drink of golden blood.

Bonhomie and menace between Jack and Lloyd, the Mephistophelean bartender (Joe Turkel)

In the final photograph, the men and women smile, united in stating and subduing the mayhem that underwrites their world. They are the denizens of their own studded universe, as sleek as Lloyd’s well-tended bar. No destruction need announce itself because the protocol of glamour requires that it be held back. It would be in poor taste to display a blade. Yet cruelty is what the party has been called for; sadism is the night’s guardian god, and the re-toucher, arriving ever so belatedly, is the master of ceremonies. When he bends over the image, it suddenly appears as if the party-goers have always been waiting for him—as if they were looking up, not at the photographer but in the expectation of this other man with an airbrush who now has arrived. Expectantly, powerless in their subordination, they wait for this latecomer to do something to them, to change them into a fuller vision of who they wish to be—a party not of one night but of future years when they will all be dead. No past lives without an erotic embrace.

About The Author

Alexander Nemerov is the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University. He is the author of many books and essays on American art and culture, including Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus and Howard Nemerov (Fraenkel Gallery, 2015) and Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures (University of California Press, 2005).

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