For a film about the afterlife, The Shining has had an unusual afterlife of its own. Forty years after its initial release, the imagery of Kubrick’s only horror film pervades popular culture, not least as a visual reference for internet memes. In this article, I will explore this area of The Shining’s legacy and impact. I will explain internet memes and analyse some examples of the ways in which The Shining is represented in them. In addition, I will consider how its imagery functions in the context of memetic communication and hypothesise why the film has become such a popular touchstone for meme creators.

Of all Kubrick films, The Shining is the most represented in memes. To get a sense of its popularity, I entered the title of each Kubrick film into the meme database, ‘Know Your Meme,’ using the following search string: “[name of film] site:knowyourmeme.com.” The results are shown in Image 1. The Shining scored 21,200 hits; three times as many as its nearest rival, Full Metal Jacket, with 7,190.1

Chart showing the popularity of Kubrick films in memes.

The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He conceived of memes as cultural corollaries to genes. The word “meme” derives from the Greek Mimeme (imitated thing), which Dawkins shortened to meme to rhyme with gene. He defined memes as small cultural units of transmission found, for example, in melodies, catchphrases, and fashions.2 In the internet era, Dawkins’ term – as well as his epidemiologic framing – have been widely – although somewhat controversially – taken up by both academics and nonacademics to account for the virus-like spread of online media.

The communication associated with traditional media was centralised; a single transmitter serving many receivers. By contrast, online communication is dyadic; a user shares some content either with another individual or with a group, who then share it with their contacts and so on. This dissemination resembles the exponential growth of a virus in a petri dish. However, as many media and communications scholars have pointed out, the resemblance only holds true at a remote level of abstraction. If we zoom in to consider the context of everyday life, then the communication becomes far more nuanced and complex. Henry Jenkins and his colleagues assert, contra Dawkins, that the epidemiological model is problematic because it conceptualizes people as “helpless and passive creatures.”3 Dawkins himself even acknowledged that internet memes are a “hijacking of the original term.”4

According to B. E. Wiggins, an internet meme (as opposed to a biological one) is defined as a “remixed, iterated message that can be rapidly diffused by members of participatory digital culture for the purpose of satire, parody, critique, or other discursive activity.”5 Limor Shifman further defines memes as units “created with an awareness of each other and … circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.”6

The terms “viral” and “meme” are presumed to be synonymous and are often used interchangeably. However, Shifman argues there are three main differences: firstly, virals tend to widely shared and disseminated, whereas memes can be created for a much narrower audience; secondly virals tend to be shared without being altered, whereas memes are subject to user manipulation; and thirdly virals are stand-alone units, whereas memes evolve as networks of content with similar styles and themes.7

An imagined title card for ‘Shining,’ a recut trailer, by Robert Ryang, 2005.

An example of a viral is Shining (2005) an imagined trailer by Robert Ryang, which was significant because it began a trend for re-cutting film trailers. Ryang reimagines The Shining as a light-hearted father-son bonding story.8 To achieve this radical shift of tone, he selectively remixes and repurposes Kubrick’s footage, adding music as well as a saccharine voice over. The popularity of Ryang’s trailer was immediate; within a few days it had amassed 12,000 hits.9

However, Ryang’s trailer was not subject to a significant amount of remixing and repurposing by others and therefore it does not constitute a meme according to Shifman’s definition. Shifman argues that by defining memes not as single units but as groups of content with similar characteristics, we can study them as reflections of social as well as individual voices.10 In her analysis, she isolates three memetic dimensions:

  1. Form – What the meme-text comprises; visually and audibly, as well as more codified genre-related patterns.
  2. Content – What ideas and ideologies are communicated.
  3. Stance – What the meme stands for to its creators; the attitudes and perspectives they wish to communicate (including a whole spectrum of rhetorical strategies, from emotive advocacy, to cool ironic distancing).11

I have selected six “Shining memes” to analyse using Shifman’s methodology. They are drawn from a data-set of images I have collected and represent some common categories of internet meme; the humorous, the political and the extreme.

The humorous

The first pair of memes draw upon tropes that are associated more with meme culture than with Kubrick. They a part of genres known respectively as stock characters and stock phrases.

“Distracted Boyfriend: Kubrick takes,” by guillotineman, 2017.

Form – Image 3 features a woman looking disapprovingly at her partner, who is admiring another woman passing by. The source photograph was taken by Antonio Guillem and posted to iStock in November, 2015.12 Stock character memes like this one are typically available online as templates so that users can add their own text.

Content – There are three captions, which reading from right to left say, “Take 1,” “Kubrick” and “Take 127.” These captions communicate Kubrick’s preference for a high number of takes. The meme relates specifically to The Shining because Kubrick reputedly required a record 127 takes to capture a scene involving Shelley Duvall.13 This fact, although disputed,14 has become part of the folklore surrounding Kubrick the auteur. It draws upon the widely held belief that he was a perfectionist. This latter information is not found in the image explicitly, but rather it circulates in a form that Foucault called a ‘discourse’; a system of representation that maintains a particular reality.15 In this respect, the discourse here is about Kubrick and his perfectionism, which is connoted by the combination of image and text.

Stance – The attitude that a meme creator has towards a meme can only be inferred. However, signs are present in the image that permit us to guess at its intended meaning. The key to this, as Shifman argues, is not to look at the image in isolation, but as a network. Here there are two discourses at play: the first is the trope of the distracted boyfriend meme itself; the allure of a novel idea over one more familiar, but to which one’s loyalty is owed. Here the boyfriend’s loyalty is to the normal methods of filmmaking, but Kubrick the perfectionist is attracted to something more. The meme presents this idea humorously – it tells a good joke – but in order to get the Joke, the meme creator had assumed their audience possesses a certain media literacy. In that sense, they make a narrow and flattering appeal to cineastes.

“Danny: ‘live laugh love’,” by u/killcaptin123, 2019.

Form – Image 4 shows an image from The Shining from the scene where Danny, holding a knife, writes the word “MURDER” in lipstick on the door. However, the letters “have been photoshopped to read “live laugh love.”

Content – This meme appeared on the subreddit r/funny in 2019. “Live laugh love” is a catchphrase inspired by a 1904 poem by Bessie Anderson Stanley. This poem took on negative connotations in the 2010s and became a meme genre.16 The juxtaposition of the sinister scene and the banal platitude is the source of the memes humour.

Stance – Shifman observes that “a fundamental feature of many memetic photos is a striking incongruity between two or more elements in the frame,” she points out that it functions to deepen the ridicule associated with the incongruity.17 In this case, the sense of irony comes from juxtaposing a terrible scene from The Shining with an inappropriate ersatz slogan; which is uplifting, positive and whimsically feel-good. There is a connotation of sexism here too. For “Live laugh love” is particularly associated with “shallow women.” For instance, according to Reddit user AwesomeInTheory it is “garbage ‘feel good’ chick flicky stuff like the Ya Ya Sisterhood … and Eat, Pray Love.”18 The meme says in effect how futile it is to think that banal platitudes will save you. Arguably in this context, its appeal is directed to the cynicism of its presumed young male audience.

The political

Shifman writes that alongside humour, political memes are the most dominant meme genre, “Political memes exist to make a point—participating in a normative debate about how the world should be and the best way to get there.”19

“Trump/Putin bear scene,” by anonymous, 2017.

Form – Image 5 depicts the “bear scene” from The Shining with Trump and Putin’s heads photoshopped onto the bear character and the dinner-suited man respectively. Trump is wearing a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) cap.

Content – This meme is drawing upon the discourse that alleges Russian interference in US Politics. In The Shining, Wendy catches two ghosts of the Overlook Hotel performing a sex act. The way Kubrick frames this scene in the film is both shocking and enigmatic. The photoshopping of Trump and Putin implies that the latter controls the former to such an extent that Trump is prepared to debase himself. Furthermore, the inclusion of the MAGA cap widens the accusation to call into doubt the political integrity of the USA under the Trump regime.

Stance – The meme is ironically humorous, but it also mounts a strong criticism against Trump and his MAGA supporters. It is designed to appeal to the opponents of Trump, portraying their suspicions about the nature of his relationship with Putin in a sardonic way.

“May and Merkel: Shining twins all grown up,” by @BanksysTeddy, 2019.

Form – Image 6 is a two panel montage consisting of a picture of the Grady Twins in their blue dresses, next to an informal photograph of the (then) UK prime minister Theresa May, with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Both women are also wearing blue. The caption reads, “So as Britain prepares for a Halloween Brexit here’s what ‘The Shining’ twins look like now.”

Content – This meme connects the creepy Grady Twins with two female political leaders. The hashtags “EUCO” (European Council) and “BREXIT” further links it to the UK leaving the European Union. The juxtaposition of images and text can be read humorously, but it also highlights a criticism of the actions of politicians who decide the fates of nations.

Stance – This meme is one of a series of ‘all grown up’ memes, the others feature the US politicians Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.20 The comparison with the “Shining Twins” is intended to lampoon two female political figures from a position that opposes Brexit. There may also be an element of conspiracy; the closeness of the Grady twins and the friendly smiles of May and Merkel imply a sisterly collusion, rather than strong minded leaders who would put their country’s interests above their own.

The extreme

The final pair of memes examines more disturbing and controversial views. Among the wealth and diversity of internet memes this is a small minority of opinion. Nevertheless, extremist groups use memes to express their worldview and in so doing, they attract a disproportionate amount of attention, because of the challenges their views present to democratic open societies.

“Chads will not be spared in the upcoming uprising,” by anonymous, 2017.

Form – Image 7 is an Incel meme. The “Imgur” webpage that hosts the meme titles it, “Chads will not be spared in the Upcoming Uprising.” It consists of a poster for the international release of The Shining from 1980, complete with its “tide of terror” tagline. The image has been crudely photoshopped with a likeness of “Pepe the Frog” standing in for Jack and a handsome, pouting square-jawed male with long hair, standing in for Wendy. The ‘Shining’ title has been changed to ‘The Uprising.’

Content – This is an image created in 2017, for the now banned Reddit group r/Incels. Incel is an acronym for ‘Involuntarily Celibate;’ a movement of “self-identified, mostly white and almost exclusively male heterosexuals.”21 The character who stands in for Jack is “Pepe the Frog,” the unofficial mascot of the Alt-Right movement22 and a symbol that has been described as a modern-day swastika.23 Originally created by cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005, Pepe became associated with the Alt-Right when Donald Trump retweeted an image of himself as Pepe in October 2015. A year later, Donald Trump Jr. posted a meme, “The Deplorables,” featuring his father, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, himself and others, in a photoshopped image which included Pepe.24 The character who stands in for Wendy is a “Chad,” a stereotypical square-jawed alpha-male type whom Incels both admire and despise.25 The Incel movement gained notoriety after a terrorist attack in Toronto, Canada, on April 23, 2018. Alek Minassian drove a van into groups of pedestrians killing ten people. Shortly before the attack, he posted on Facebook saying “the Incel Rebellion has already begun.”26 Although this image was published a year before the Toronto attack, the reference to the “upcoming uprising” may be part of the discourse that motivated Minassian.

Stance – This image speaks to Incels; they can themselves as Pepe, intent on ridding the world of Chads. Shifman discusses Jakobson’s ‘communicative functions’ as a means of explaining stances.27 Jakobson’s six communication functions are: 1. Referential – oriented toward the context or the “outside world”; 2. Emotive – oriented toward the addresser and his or her emotions; 3. Conative – oriented toward the addressee and available paths of actions; 4. Phatic – keeping the channels of communication open; 5. Metalingual – used to establish mutual agreement about a code; and 6. Poetic – emphasising the aesthetic beauty of the construction of the message.28 In this case, the “conative” function is dominant, suggesting a path of action for readers to take. The other dominant connotation is the “emotive” function, which is discernable in the underlying impression of anger the image communicates and its message that “chads will not be spared.”

“Heres Shlomo”, by anonymous, 2017.

Form – Image 8, entitled “Heres Shlomo [sic],” consists of a vertical two panel montage, referencing the famous “Here’s Jonny” scene from The Shining. The first panel shows a screaming Wendy, holding a knife and reacting to a pair of a hand-drawn forearms with clasped hands emerging through the door. The second panel shows an anti-Semitic image of a Jewish face, drawn in the same black and white style as the hands, complete with a beard and hook nose, taking the place of Jack.

Content – In the Alt-Right argot, Shlomo is a derogatory slang term for a Jew.29 The drawing featured in this meme is called “Le Happy Merchant.” It is deliberately styled to be reminiscent of 1930s Nazi propaganda. It was originally drawn in 2001 as part of a racist cartoon by the pseudonymous artist, “A. Wyatt Mann” (later identified as Nick Bougas).30 Like Pepe, “Le Happy Merchant,” is a favourite trope of Alt-Right memes.

Stance – The meme appeared on /r9k/, a 4Chan image board, in May 2015. It takes the form of a “greentext comment,” a post that respond to other users to ridicule their views.31 An anonymous user began the thread by posting, “Tfw [that face when] playing with my foreskin while lurking on /r9k/.” Another Anonymous user posts further down the doctored Shining image, captioned “heres shlomo” and the text: “tfw i will never know this feel at least my restored pseudo-foreskin lets me pretend i wasnt [sic] butchered.” The content is juvenile and clearly racist. The main motivation for the stance, however, appears to be the desire to shock. This does not imply that the posters are not themselves anti-Semitic, but Hermansson et al. state that Alt-Right anti-Semitism is heavily inflected by the trolling culture which venerates and encourages offense.32

“HERE’S Jeffrey – Epstein didn’t kill himself,” by BlueVino, November 2019.

Memetic toolkits and new visual literacies

Thematically, these examples represent but a small fraction of the diversity of “Shining memes” found online. They have been chosen to illustrate the extent of the discursive territory, rather than for their typicality. The sample illustrates how The Shining is used as a resource that is co-opted by meme creators of all political persuasions. This raises the question what makes the film particularly suitable as the basis of memes? I offer three hypotheses. Firstly, the film’s imagery has become iconic and it is shared widely in popular culture. Consequently, certain shots have taken on symbolic meanings beyond those specifically referenced in the film. Secondly, The Shining resonates because its theme is universal. Most of us have grown up in families and this is where our primary and most archetypal experiences of the world are formed. Vivian Sobchack perceptively remarks that “horror and family melodrama are not simply opposites, but are rather two sides of the same coin.”33  Thirdly, the film depicts a kind of anxiety about the familiar, which is a mood that also predominates online. The tenor of online everyday life tends to be coloured by fears and paranoia, which are also themes found in Kubrick’s film; as Wiggins remarks, “A ten­dency to create or promote conspiracy theories exists when individuals attempt to make sense of an event or the larger world when, for them, meaning is simply out of reach.”34 Freud, in an essay that inspired Kubrick, defined this kind of horror as “the uncanny;” something that arouses dread, not because it is alien to us, but rather because it is something familiar that the mind has become alienated from. Through the uncanny, infantile complexes are revived and primitive beliefs are confirmed.35

As I have remarked, The Shining as a kind of discursive tool kit for meme creators; an iconography that quickly keys others into the intended content and tone of their messages. As Goldberg notes, for the Greeks the word eikon originally meant a portrait which carried a memorial connotation. Today the word has been secularised. Images which have a strong hold over the emotions or the imagination therefore come to serve as cultural archetypes.36 In this respect it is particularly interesting to consider Danesi’s claim that the internet has brought about new forms of literacy.37 Danesi speculates about the possibility that the rise of the internet as a mass medium has instigated a paradigm shift in how people think about and practice communication.38 There is a return to pictographic systems that were commonplace at the beginnings of writing. By using emoji and memes, communicators can add a “visual tone” to their messages. In this context, meme iconography serves almost as a visual sentence.39 As Hartley put it, “icons are converted into a kind of permanent deposit in the international image-bank.”40 The difference between written symbols and the symbolism of iconic imagery is that icons represent more than merely a single idea; they supplement language, providing a context for the communication. Over time, certain images are chosen by meme creators to represent ideas worth sharing and this imagery becomes the lexicon by which they frame their conversations. This then is the legacy of The Shining. The film has become part of the very language of internet culture; it has acquired its own memetic afterlife.

Coronavirus “Toilet Paper Crisis – Come play with us” by Giantsquonk, March 2020.


  1. The survey results are: The Shining 21,200; Full Metal Jacket 7,190; A Clockwork Orange 2,190; 2001: A Space Odyssey 483; Dr. Strangelove 446; Spartacus 431; Eyes Wide Shut 258; The Killing 162; Barry Lyndon 110; Paths of Glory 47; Lolita 3; Killer’s Kiss 1; Fear and Desire 1.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 192.
  3. Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf, and Joshua Green, ‘If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes,” Confessions of a ACA Fan, 11 February 2009, http://henryjenkins.org/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html.
  4. Olivia Solon, “Richard Dawkins On the internet’s hijacking of the word ‘meme’,” Wired, 2013, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/richard-dawkins-memes.
  5. B. E. Wiggins, The Discursive Power of Memes in Digital Culture: Ideology, Semiotics, and Intertextuality, (London: Routledge), p. 10.
  6. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), p. 8.
  7. Ibidem, pp. 55-59.
  8. A high definition version of “Shining” can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6s40Q6ODSI8.
  9. David M. Halbfinger “His ‘Secret’ Movie Trailer Is No Secret Anymore,” The New York Times September, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/30/movies/his-secret-movie-trailer-is-no-secret-anymore.html.
  10. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), p. 171.
  11. Ibidem, pp. 40-43
  12. Don Caldwell ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ Know Your Meme, 2018 https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/distracted-boyfriend.
  13. Guinness, The Guinness Book of Records. (New York: Facts on File, 1990), p. 210.
  14. Gordon Stainsforth, “Is it true that The Shining holds the record for the most takes of a scene in a film?” Shining FAQ, Visual-Memory, 1999, http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/faq/html/shining/shining.html#slot1109.
  15. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, A. M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books), p. 49.
  16. Adam E. Downer, ‘Live Laugh Love’, Know Your Meme, 2019 https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/live-laugh-love.
  17. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), p. 90.
  18. Adam E. Downer, ‘Live Laugh Love’, Know Your Meme, 2019 https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/live-laugh-love.
  19. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), p. 120.
  20. “Shining Twins all grown up: Clinton and Warren,” Made by DarthFunk, ImgFlip, 2016, https://imgflip.com/i/16lt1f.
  21. Abby Ohiheiser, “Inside the online world of ‘incels,’ the dark corner of the Internet linked to the Toronto suspect.” Washington Post. April 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/04/25/inside-the-online-world-of-incels-the-dark-corner-of-the-internet-linked-to-the-toronto-suspect/.
  22. Gary Lachman, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, (New York: Penguin, 2018), p. 89
  23. Gabriel A. Tucker, ‘MAGA, Memes and Magni cent Hair: How White Nationalism Become Rooted in American History,’ Celebration of Learning, (2018), p. 23, https://digitalcommons.augustana.edu/celebrationoearning/2018/presentations/13.
  24. Gary Lachman, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, (New York: Penguin, 2018), pp. 85-89.
  25. Malgorzata Wasniewska, ‘The Red Pill, Unicorns and White Knights: Cultural Symbolism and Conceptual Metaphor in the Slang on Online Incel Communities,’ in Cultural Conceptualizations in Language and Communication, Barbara Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, ed. (Switzerland: Springer, 2020), pp. 79-80.
  26. Ibidem, p. 66.
  27. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), p. 41.
  28. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, Thomas A. Sebeok ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960), pp. 350–377.
  29. Bari Weiss, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 71.
  30. Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, Joe Mulhall, Simon Murdoch, The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century? (London: Routledge, 2020), p. 51.
  31. Xcalibur201, “greentext,” Urban Dictionary, 27 August 2016, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=greentext.
  32. Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, Joe Mulhall, Simon Murdoch, The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century? (London: Routledge, 2020), p. 51.
  33. Vivian Sobchack, “Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange,” in Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, Janet Bergstrom, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 5–6.
  34. B. E. Wiggins, The Discursive Power of Memes in Digital Culture: Ideology, Semiotics, and Intertextuality, (London: Routledge), p. 58.
  35. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” Penguin Freud Library 14: Art and Literature, James Strachey, ed. (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 335-376.
  36. Vicki Goldberg, The Power of Photography: How Photography Changed our Lives. New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1993, p. 135.
  37. Marcel Danesi, The Semiotics of Emoji. (London: Bloomsbury 2017), p. vi.
  38. Ibidem, p. 3.
  39. Ibidem, p. 9.
  40. John Hartley, ‘The Triumph of the Still’ in Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, popular culture. (London: Arnold, 1996), pp. 208.