In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson famously takes the Westin Bonaventure Hotel as an emblem of postmodern impersonality. “The Bonaventure,” he argues, “aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city; to this new total space, meanwhile, corresponds a new collective practice, a new mode in which individuals move and congregate, something like the practice of a new and historically original kind of hypercrowd.” To set a film or a novel in a hotel like this is to set them in what Marc Augé would later call un non-lieu, a non-place. A postmodern hotel might seem historical, but it must never seem too historical; any appearance of quaintness must hide behind itself modernization, comfort, and fancy amenities. It might bear photos of famous guests on its walls, but these guests’ physical traces – dirty dishes, cigarette butts, the dust from their shoes – must always already have disappeared. A space for luxury living, such a hotel must not actually appear lived in.
Right around the same time when Jameson wrote Postmodernism, horror films across the world become preoccupied with the fear of such shared, quasi-institutional spaces becoming or remaining haunted. These films drew powerfully on the Gothic tradition, suggesting that these buildings held a deeply suppressed colonial or imperial history. But the trend they were part of was also technologically oriented. Many of these films ask whether human beings are haunted and watched by ghosts of fellow humans or by the quasi-intelligent environments they are bringing into being. Such techno-dystopian speculations were not awakened merely by the postmodern impersonality of their directors’ surroundings, but also by the rise of new recording technologies. The 1970s, the decade before The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) came out, saw the commercialization of security cameras. Previously only affordable by the military, they began to appear in banks, shops, and hotel lobbies. Almost immediately thereafter, the horror genre became preoccupied with fears of omnipresent, non-human surveillance in hotels or hotel-like spaces. These films most strikingly included Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977), in which a haunted house slowly consumes young girls who have come to stay there for an extended weekend—Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), a film about a conscious, mind-bending planet that reshapes the awareness of the astronauts stationed on it – and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), a thriller about a haunted apartment, puts time on a loop, making it seem as if its protagonist has stepped into a film foretelling his own future death. Striking about these films’ imaginaries was their extension of paranormal activity onto non-historical human-made environments. In House, the girls are not consumed only by ancient parts of the house, but also by electric light fixtures; the aunt who drinks their blood hides from them in a refrigerator; the magical foods they fear are globally sourced, distinctly foreign brightly colorful watermelons and bananas. In Solaris, the haunting of an astronaut takes place in brightly lit, futuristic settings. In The Tenant, the trope of video surveillance is closest to the surface, and claustrophobically inescapable.
Was The Shining a continuation of this trend? For Jameson, writing about The Shining in 1980, the Overlook’s hauntedness is, as yet, primarily a sign of Kubrick’s ambivalence about American history, an updated kitsch version of the Gothic ruin. But there is also another aspect to The Shining that becomes more apparent when one considers it from a broader techno-pessimistic perspective. Kubrick’s film depicts the hotel as an environment that seems self-sufficient in its cyclicality despite having been brought into being by human means; an environment that appears to hold an intelligence and a lifespan that exceeds what its human makers may have initially endowed it with. This dynamic brings an additional meaning to the polysemy of ‘overlook’ in ‘Overlook Hotel’. Critics have rightly pointed out that the hotel ‘overlooks’ its history. But it is also, importantly and perhaps more uncannily, a panopticon that seems capable of taking in, and holding together, multiple histories, individuals, and narratives, fracturing them onto a multitude of surfaces, rooms, and screens.
The horror that The Shining explores – and which makes it so striking – is that of the Gothic coming together with the techno-sublime. The film maintains an ambiguity about whether the space in which it is set removes its characters from history or plunges them deeper into it; about whether its hauntedness comes from its capacity to preserve human beings and histories, or to erase them the way a hotel room is carefully cleaned. These acts of erasure occur not out of the hotel’s lack of anthropocentrism, but because its technologies are too successfully and overwhelmingly anthropocentric, too readily geared toward preserving human beings in an apparently timeless, well-groomed present. In this regard, The Shining also provides an oddly relevant parallax to our current representations of, and debates over, automatized digital surveillance and service; about our fear of surviving within the spaces we have created, and because of them, a little too successfully.
From the start, especially in its opening ‘interview’, The Shining spends much screen time detailing the Overlook Hotel’s various technological capacities. Built in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Overlook is stocked with late-Cold War goods and updated amenities –
such as a modern fridge, radios and telephones, snowmobiles, televisions, canned and dried food. It towers over the natural landscape and, despite snowstorms, remains reachable with relative ease given the wildness of the surrounding nature. From within its confines, the scenic landscapes around it can seem as manicured and as staged as the maze that is beautifully cut and preserved in front of the hotel, and which somehow, by some feat of modern gardening, neither sheds its leaves nor grows over and loses its shape during the months they spend there.
At first glance, these technologies and amenities may seem to be at odds with the supernatural forces that possess Jack; a deeper past seems to overtake and instrumentalize the hotel’s pristine surfaces in pursuit of some higher spiritual and historical aims. As Jameson puts it, Jack seems to be “possessed… by History, by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and dismembered suites of this monumental rabbit warren.” But what is this “History”, exactly? For Jameson, The Shining is haunted by the passing of time itself:
Not death as such, then, but the sequence of such “dying generations” is the scandal reawakened by the ghost story for a bourgeois culture which has triumphantly stamped out ancestor worship and the objective memory of the clan or extended family, thereby sentencing itself to the life span of the biological individual. No building more appropriate to express this than the great hotel itself, with its successive seasons whose vaster rhythms mark the transformation of American leisure classes from the late 19th century down to the vacations of present-day consumer society.
I would argue that the fraught relationships Kubrick explores in The Shining are not merely those between the individual and the collective, the self-absorbed bourgeois and a broader sense of history, but also between the bourgeois and her immediate, luxuriously modernized environments. These environments function in The Shining not merely as a Marxist superstructure, a superficial manifestation of bourgeois history, but as a suddenly unassimilable supplement to it. Kubrick’s film captures the paradoxical, contradictory terror of creating environments that preserve one’s being more efficiently than one can handle. This capacity for preservation, apparently against or despite oneself, is one that the hotel’s contemporary amenities share with its ghostly presences. I read this parallel not just as a commentary on the passing of time but also as a commentary on our apparently excessive, frightening triumph in conquering the decay and entropy of the material world we live in.
Much as the Overlook insists on its self-sufficiency and luxury as the film progresses it soon starts to seem that this very excess of resources and comforts is a great part of what drives the people within it insane. The previous overseer had the food to survive, but not the nerve; a Stephen King fan watching the film knows that the old woman whom Danny and then Jack find in the bathtub was killed by a younger lover whom her funds had bought her. The ’20s, which the film thematizes, are the Gilded Age of prodigal conspicuous consumption soon to be cut short by the Great Depression; the waste left over from these years, balloons, top hats, and champagne glasses, is a kind of excess that overfeeds and produces decay.
The cyclicality and multiplication of characters in The Shining has typically been read as emblematic of their supernatural character. But the ways in which they multiply in the film can also be read as a kind of spawning that is much more inorganic. It is a kind of human reproduction that does not, or not quite, flow from human biology; a flood of blood that is much greater than one can imagine the blood of the Grady twins to have been. The twins, the two caretakers, the stories that appear to have always already happened yet also always to be recurring – and the commingling of different stages of history, as characters from the seventies wear clothing from the twenties and characters from the late ’70s reappear on photos from the twenties – all seem to be instances not just of persistence but of not completely human, mechanical reproduction and collage. This is the asynchrony of an environment made out of photographs, cameras, and ready-made costumes; an environment whose components are all easily replaceable, copiable and multipliable, and in which – indeed – at times, they seem to be recreated ad nauseam, not only in the twins’ doubling but perhaps most markedly in the triple existence of the woman in the bathtub. This woman might seem to be merely a fake younger and a ‘real’ older version of herself – until the last cut of the scene, where the bathtub turns out to hold a second old woman different from the initial two. Instead of holding on to some singular ghost, room 237 spawns them as increasingly meaningless, apparently endless instances of a type.
After Wendy and Danny have driven away in the snowcat, the camera comes back into the hotel on its own, after having first lingered over Jack’s frozen face. Previously, it had tended to follow individuals’ perspectives or gazes: we had not entered a room that one of the other characters had not entered with us. Now, the camera separates itself from them. Whatever presence leads us back moves confidently, to the photo from 1921 where Jack is depicted. We zoom in slowly but inevitably. Jack’s face is recognizable even in the first shot; but then it is insisted on in successive close-ups, as if to make this observation blatantly, comically inescapable. Previously, many of the characters were confronted with similarly excessive, in-your-face, dramatic visions that might have – at the time – seemed to be merely figments of their imagination. This time, this vision does not come from anyone we know of. Instead, the entity that imposes this vision on us is, insistently, the camera itself, detached and impersonal like a security cam into whose captured images we zoom in like belated detectives. Unlike in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Kubrick’s camera appears to lend itself to infinite magnification; it holds more pixels of reality than we might imagine, more than we need to make sense of the scene at hand.
The scene might remind the viewer of several others. The first one is the cut that takes us to Dick Hallorann’s apartment before he connects with Danny; in another, the camera zooms out from Jack’s perspective onto the Overlook’s model labyrinth onto an aerial view of the real one. These are obvious cuts; in both, the camera teases us with a potentially human perspective, only to divorce itself from it. In Hallorann’s apartment, it lingers over photos of sexualized Black women in an imitation of a desiring male gaze, only to reveal that Dick himself is not actually looking at them.
As the real labyrinth separates itself from the fake one while appearing to emerge from it, this second cut presages the ease with which – despite having a model of it in his ‘study’ – Jack will be lost within it. In both cases, Kubrick’s camerawork teases us with the impression of a subjective human gaze eerily to suggest that the non-human environment these human beings inhabit is looking over their shoulders, its gaze only partly aligned with theirs, the knowledge it amasses only obliquely accessible to its inhabitants.
(In practice, of course, a human being is looking through the camera as the film is being made, and the informed viewer does know that; the shots become uncannily ‘objective’ or non-human because of their initial illusion of diegetic, rather than non-diegetic, subjectivity.)
These interpretations of course coexist with, and do not supersede, ones that integrate The Shining into its contemporary American politics: those who see it as reckoning with the abuse of women, the crisis of American masculinity, the deep history of American colonialism. But alongside these better-known motivations, a different movement continues to animate Kubrick’s film that turns toward the question of human persistence and resilience; toward our technologies’ capacities not merely to support, but also to overwhelm and supersede us. In addition to following in the footsteps of haunted-hotel films like Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), it also presages the very different terror of later films such as Morten Tyldum’s Passengers (2016) with its infinitely luxurious spaceship that will outlast the two protagonists traveling within it or Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), where a mishearing – or excessively well-attuned – Alexa plays music to its home owners instead of calling the police on a group of intruders. The Shining is a film about American history, but it is also a film that speculates about a Western, and particularly an American, future – a future in which our environments appear to acquire a mind of their own. Considered from this angle, even the ‘shining’ that Danny and Dick Hallorann share starts to seem ever more like a fancy radio and television system, capable of sending messages over long distance and of replaying the past and the future backward and forward, as in Danny’s repetition and re-inscription of ‘redrum.’ These forms of repetition and recording are much more effective, of course, than Jack’s repetition of the previous caretaker’s fate, or indeed than his repetitive typewriting; but in a sense, they seem like versions of the same environmental impulse, in which some humans prove to be more attuned to their technologies, or more capable of integrating themselves into them, than others. The ‘shining’, as Kubrick depicts it, carries a metallic glint, not unlike Jacques Lacan’s sardine can floating in the ocean.