Few buildings in the history of cinema are as essential to the plot of a film as the Overlook hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film recounts the experience of the Torrance family who come to live in a rambling resort during the off season when the father, a recently unemployed writer desperate for work, takes a job as the building’s winter caretaker. The family settle in, and as fall passes in the blink of an eye a heavy wall of snow closes in around them, cutting off road access to the remote location in the Colorado Rockies for months. As is often noted, The Shining highlights Kubrick’s meticulous attention to every detail of his films, from acting to script, lighting, costuming, shot composition, and set design. As an architectural historian, rather than a film scholar, I will offer a few thoughts on the design of the film’s interiors. Set design is an area that remains relatively neglected by film historians, and has been addressed even less frequently by architectural historians.2 Rarely do we know the names of the people who drew, selected, framed, and designed the spaces that contribute so much to the imaginary worlds we encounter on screen. The lack of research deserves to be remedied, for such sets are more than simple backgrounds. They are crucial to understanding the effect of filmic space. Especially so in the case of The Shining. In this film the building is not only where the story takes place, it is a character essential to the development of the plot. The hotel seems to possess a mysterious agency of its own, felt by the family in increasingly harrowing ways. As the character Dick Hallorann (played by the excellent Scatman Crothers) explains to the Torrance’s mysteriously afflicted child Danny, the building has the “shining” just as he and the boy do; a life-like ability see, to communicate telepathically, and to get inside the minds of those within its walls. The paranormal agency of the building makes the subject of set design doubly interesting; the effects of atmospheres, colors, spaces, and textures on the viewer is in some way analogous to the otherwise invisible power that the building exerts on its occupants.
The film’s convincing world unfolds along a series of lobbies, corridors, offices, kitchens, bedrooms, lounges, ballrooms, bathrooms, boiler rooms, play rooms, and hedge mazes. All are familiar, yet each is subtly disorienting. The disorientation builds up slowly in an almost subconscious manner as the film unfolds. The film’s realism requires us to believe that the inside of the hotel is in fact contained by the exterior which we see at the beginning of the film. Yet, as is the case with many films, exterior and interior are not one. They were filmed at two different locations, using buildings with totally different styles. In the case of The Shining, this disjunction takes on a greater importance, providing a framework for the subtle spatial disorientations essential to Kubrick’s film.
The exterior shots were taken on location at the Timberline lodge high on the slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon. Built between 1936 and 1938, the building was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, as Los Angeles-based architect who had graduated from Yale University in 1920. Underwood’s designs were further developed by United States Forest Service architects W. I. Turner, Linn A. Forrest, Howard L. Gifford, Dean R. E. Wright, and helped to define the emerging alpine style developed for lodges in the national park system. The overall massing drew on some of the creepier aspects of rural estates designed in the Anglo-German arts and crafts tradition; its butterfly plan and looming central gable are particularly reminiscent of Hermann Muthesius’s Haus Freudenberg, in Berlin of 1907-8.
Its final form and details cannot be attributed to the architects alone however; they reflected the collaboration of many minds and hands, an extension of the social ideals of the arts and crafts movement.3 Undertaken by the Works Progress Administration, the Timberline project brought together hundreds of unemployed men and women from pick and shovel workers to masons, steamfitters, carpenters, wood carvers, seamstresses, weavers, architects, metal-workers, and artists, all of whom lived for two years in a sprawling tent city on the side of Mount Hood. Together they erected the building’s steeply gabled roof whose avalanche of shingles were produced from locally sourced timber. Even in the warm light of the film’s early shots the very form of the building anticipates the relentless snows that will descend upon the hotel.
The interiors of The Shining were modeled on a completely different building: the storied Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite Valley. Its form and interior bear no resemblance to the Timberline. The Timberline was forged by the social circumstances of the Great Depression, and nearly fell into ruin in the decade after WWII. The Ahwahnee, completed in 1926, was fueled by the economic boom of the twenties and catered to expanding ranks of wealthy tourists. Developed as a public-private collaboration between the park service and the Curry company, the hotel was an effort to create a prestige destination in Yosemite. In a spooky coincidence, Gilbert Stanley Underwood also designed the exteriors of the Ahwahnee, while its grand interiors were designed by Phyllis Ackerman and Arthur Upham Pope.
While the hotel promoted itself as rooted in local native history—Ahwahnee being the name which Native Americans had used for the area now known as Yosemite—yet its motifs and forms were more eclectic than authentically regional, combining aspects drawn from the weaving arts of Plains Indian and Navajo tribes, as well as elements from Persian, Mexican, Appalachian, and French decorative arts traditions.4 The film’s interior and the exterior carry a trace of these conflicting class histories, which echo crucial aspects of the film’s plot. The Torrances are a dislocated family, dwarfed by the scale and opulence luxury interiors of the grand hotel. However much they may play at being guests, they cannot escape the fact that they are workers. Surrounded by interiors designed to cater to the rustic fantasies of a Jazz-age bourgeoisie, whose spectral presence populates the hallucinations of Jack Torrance, they have more in common with the unemployed laborers who constructed the Timberline.
The Overlook hotel’s Colorado lounge in The Shining was modeled directly on the Ahwahnee, its hybrid ornamental program meticulously reinvented on a vast soundstage at Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom by the film’s brilliant production designer Roy Walker. The subtle spatial disjunction between inside and outside is even more canny given that the film pretends to give the viewer a clear sense of layout from the beginning. Early in the film the hotel’s manager takes the Torrance family on a tour, and we viewers tag along. What is made to seem like a seamless passage from inside to outside is in fact a cut between location exteriors and soundstage interiors. The film deliberately leaves out the transition from interior to exterior, and even more importantly between any given room and the next. The result is that spectators become familiar with each space without knowing exactly how they connect. The sense of disorientation that grows throughout the film, the feeling of not knowing what is around the corner, of not knowing what lurks off-screen, of never quite grasping how close or how far the characters are from each other, stems in large part from not being able to master how one space connects to another.
The film’s extensive, gorgeous, and eerily smooth tracking shots only heighten this uncertainty. The frame glides ghostlike through walls as characters transit across a threshold; it follows behind them as they ride away; it pulls back as they walk towards us. The spectator’s look moves in space as they do. The effect has become so familiar to viewers that it requires imagination to recover what was new about it then. Such extensive and varied use of tracking shots was made possible by a specific invention: the Steadicam. Invented by Garret Brown in 1975, Kubrick and the cinematographer John Alcott had a special version of the Steadicam devised for The Shining that put the camera just above floor level. The low angle continuous shots were used to extraordinary effect in the iconic scenes where the camera tracks Danny Torrance as he pedals through the film’s seemingly endless hallways. The low shot compels the viewer to look at space from an unfamiliar angle, aligning our perception with the child’s. It is unnerving to follow Danny, having no clue where one is in the building, only knowing that something is deeply wrong and likely just around the next corner. Here the set designers used subtle cues—varying the crowded texture of the wallpaper and drawing attention to the carpet through bold patterning. These provide atmosphere, but just as importantly they tell the spectator that each scene must be in a different part of the hotel. The Overlook is clearly a building of many parts, but also a building of different times. Unlike Danny, spectators are never in a position to grasp the connections. The space of The Shining is a space that the viewer cannot orient themselves in, which means it is a space they could never find their way out of. The viewer relates to the hotel, in other words, like a labyrinth. Like the mythic labyrinth devised by Daedalus, a deadly agency lurks within it that is a strange mixture of human and inhuman. Surviving depends on mastering the space in order to escape.
The labyrinth has long been established as an allegory for getting lost in one’s own mind, and the conspicuous role of the hedge maze in the film reinforces an interpretation of The Shining that hinges on Jack Torrance’s madness. The scene in which Jack Nicholson talks with the waiter at a gala in the roaring twenties only to discover that he has the same name as the caretaker who murdered his family at the hotel in the 1970s is indeed something like an encounter with the minotaur. Is Nicholson having this conversation purely in his own confused mind? Or is he being visited by an emanation of the building in the hotel’s actual bathroom? Both answers are possible. The ambiguity is heightened by the set design, the way in which the vibrant scarlet of the bathroom interior, reminiscent of 1960s Pop does not comport with the Art Deco qualities of the ballroom from which the characters just arrived. The colors and shapes connote different eras, one more discontinuity amid the film’s many interiors, heightening the intensity of the moment, and raising doubts about what one is witnessing.
Yet the obvious symbolism of the labyrinth only takes one so far. The Shining is also, and perhaps more urgently, a film about the terror of domestic violence. That terror is not the terror of losing one’s mind, but the terror of not being allowed to leave. It is Wendy and Danny’s terror, rather than Jack’s. The more the father loses his grip on reality, the more brutal and absolute he becomes in controlling the boundary between inside and outside. To preserve his illusions he must keep his family within the building, and under his control, at all costs. Here the paranormal, non-human agency of the building should not make us overlook the more mundane, yet frightening question of architecture’s agency over the people who dwell within it. The struggle over entrances and exits, over windows and doors, over cupboards and thresholds that unfolds in the film requires no ghosts. It points not to a mysterious force, but to the potential for violence latent within every building, a reminder their capacity to exert power within and over our lives.
- The text was originally presented as the brief introduction to a screening of a 35mm print The Shining at Yale’s Film Study Center on October 31, 2019. I thank Archer Nielsen for the invitation to introduce the film. ↩
- As concerns architectural history, see Dietrich Neumann, ed. Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner, (Munich: Prestel, 1996), and Anthony Vidler, “The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary,” (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 99-110, and Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film, (New York: Verso, 2002). ↩
- On the Timberline lodge, see Sarah Munro, Timberline Lodge: The History, Art, and Craft of an American Icon, (Portland : Timber Press, 2009); on the Timberline in the context of the WPA’s art and architectural commissions more broadly, see Roger Kennedy and David Larkin, When Art Worked: An Illustrated Documentary, (New York: Rizzoli, 2009); 338-341. ↩
- On the Ahwahnee, see Amy Scott, “Revisiting Yosemite,” in Yosemite: Art of an American Icon, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 151-186. ↩