Through the character of Danny Torrance, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining influenced a new model of uncanny child character that has become a key trope of the horror genre since the film’s release in 1980. This type of character is neither wholly victim nor wholly villain, and works through some of the deepest ambivalences rooted within ideologies of childhood. I contend that The Shining can thus be considered an important cultural contribution to philosophies of childhood for the way it interrogates the complex conceptual nexus between child and adult subjectivities, nostalgia, and traumatic memory in the Western cultural imaginary. A specific type of supernatural horror film that engages with the uncanny dimensions of this nexus would follow Kubrick’s The Shining. Released 39 years later, Mike Flanagan’s belated sequel Doctor Sleep (2019) self-consciously illuminates the ongoing cultural influence of this aesthetically fertile uncanny child trope. As will be outlined in the latter half of this essay, Doctor Sleep1 takes on the aesthetic, conceptual, and narrative challenge of depicting a “grown up” Danny Torrance, in so doing underscoring the significant influence of The Shining on the horror genre’s uncanny children.

Danny Torrance and evil versus uncanny children

As I have outlined in my book, The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the child became increasingly central to the horror genre, as is evidenced in particular by the unholy trinity of evil child films: Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968), The Omen (Donner, 1976), and The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973). Yet in each of these seminal films, the child character is frightening because they are evil incarnate or are possessed by a demon. These films (and the many others like them) play upon the binary opposition between the child as innocent and naïve, and the evil force that has assumed the child’s form. Earlier films like The Bad Seed (LeRoy, 1956), Village of the Damned (Rilla, 1960) and The Innocents (Clayton, 1961) are more ambiguous in their depiction of child villains, yet maintain a binary opposition between the assumed innocence of childhood and the evil that has perverted the villainous child character’s soul. They thus position the child as “an empty vessel for evil to inhabit.”2 A number of seventies films, including Alice, Sweet Alice (Sole, 1976), Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973), The Other (Mulligan, 1972), and Audrey Rose (Wise, 1977), pull at the threads of the evil and possessed child trope: in the case of the first two films, a child killer turns out to be an adult villain, and in The Other and Audrey Rose, the central child character is revealed to be possessed by the spirit of a dead child, rather than an evil force. However, The Shining popularised a new type of horror film child character: an ambiguously threatening configuration who is both victim and victimiser, traumatised and traumatising. This child figure is not possessed or evil, but uncanny:

a figure whose affects are best expressed by Freud’s definition of the uncanny as an unsettling cognitive dissonance induced by the vacillation between the heimlich (homely/familiar) and the unheimlich (unhomely/unfamiliar). The horrors of these child characters are not associated with a shallow interplay of evil and innocence, but with the complex and impalpable ways in which they seem at once familiar and alien, vulnerable and threatening, innocent and dangerously indecipherable. … [These figures] reveal the gothic underside to the romantic conceptual entanglement of childhood innocence and adult nostalgia, as childhood is positioned as the site of traumatic, imperfectly recalled pasts that haunt the adult’s present in obfuscated ways.3

This constellation is precisely embodied by The Shining’s Danny, who simultaneously functions like the embodiment of his father, Jack’s, barely suppressed traumatic memories; as a mysterious “Other” external and unknowable to Jack; and as a threatening harbinger of his father’s doomed future and agent of his eventual annihilation. This eerie intermingling of distance and closeness between the child and his father is metonymized by the famous scene in which Danny sits stiffly on his father’s lap while Jack leers at him, assuring him unconvincingly that “I love you more than anything else in the whole world, and I would never do anything to hurt you, ever.” The physical intimacy of the pair is rendered unsettling by their rigid body language and the mechanical nature of their conversation, which is riddled with long, uncertain pauses and blank stares. The presence of each threatens the other in this scene. This sequence is echoed in many subsequent uncanny child films, and is similarly used to convey the unsettling amalgam of familiarity and unfamiliarity, closeness and distance between child and adult subjectivities.

Danny and Jack Torrance’s stiff hug in The Shining

Fredric Jameson has argued that The Shining’s Danny functions like a “play with generic signals.”4 He argues that Danny thus impels misguided audience expectations about the generic identity of The Shining during the film’s first half-hour,5 after which it becomes clear that the film is not an evil child film but a historically conscious ghost story focused on Jack. However, as I have previously pointed out, the child remains central to the narrative, and indeed continues to be the agent of some of the film’s most terrifying scenes through his “shining” power. This subversion of generic expectations thus “self-reflexively comments” on the child’s textual function, rather than decentres focus on the character.6 As a result, Kubrick’s Danny Torrance re-contextualises the evil child character, positioning the child figure instead as a vehicle of the uncanny which aestheticizes the unsettling incongruities embedded in Western ideologies of childhood.

The inner child and haunted nostalgia

Danny’s supernaturally-charged imaginary friend, Tony, is the locus of the combined subjective and temporal polyphony that the child’s supernatural communion with The Overlook hotel provokes for both Jack and the audience. Tony equips Danny with the ability to perceive how the past and future reverberate in the present, and as a result, Danny has privileged insight into his father’s own psyche: the “shining” of the film’s title. This distinctively multivalent temporal and subjective constellation would become characteristic of uncanny child characters post The Shining: notable examples include Cole from The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan, 1999) and Aidan from The Ring (Verbinski, 2001), both of whom have supernaturally-inflected insight into both suppressed traumatic pasts and doomed futures. The eerie power of such characters is not located in a malevolent supernatural force external to the child: Tony, after all, is a part of Danny’s own consciousness. The eeriness of these characters instead relates to the way they augment the temporal paradoxes ingrained within the contemporary concept of childhood. As Steven Bruhm suggests, “the twentieth century has inherited – or invented – far too many contradictions in its theories about children.”7

Danny’s characterisation exhibits childhood’s ideological intertwinement with both adulthood’s nostalgically remembered and traumatic pasts, as is crystallised by the concept of the “inner child”. Influenced heavily by Freudian psychoanalysis, the “inner child” became an increasingly prevalent presence in psychotherapy, pop psychology, and self-help books throughout the 1960s and 1970s.8 As Ben Finney states in his 1969 article advocating for the “new regressive technique” of recovering one’s inner child, “memories that have not been thought about for years become vivid realities, attitudes are expressed which are surprising and ‘unfamiliar’ to the ‘adult self’,  and emotions are relived and experienced in a way that is cathartic and gives a sense of relief.”9

The inner child concept thus extends the longstanding cultural emphasis on the personal significance of adult nostalgia for childhood. As Linda Austin points out, childhood was a crucible for influential Romantic conceptions of nostalgia formed at the turn of the nineteenth century, as “longing for childhood” manifested a “yearning for the past which we have since called nostalgia.”10 The child became romantically repositioned at this juncture as inherent to nostalgia, due to childhood’s cultural function as a “subjective product of individual narration, of a particular life history.”11 This notion continues to underpin Western definitions of childhood, as is particularly precisely embodied by the “inner child” concept. The inner child personifies adult nostalgia for our own past childhoods as a concealed, separate, but still present part of adult identity – a part that carries all the “instincts, spontaneity, openness and playfulness of childhood.”12 This configuration in turn shapes the adult’s nostalgic gaze upon actual children, who are understood in relation to the adult’s own cherished past and “inner” child. Yet psychological discourse from the 1960s onwards posit that this precious “inner child” – cultural receptacle for adult nostalgia – is also the site of foundational repressed traumas that continue to haunt the adult’s psyche. As John Bradshaw puts it, “this neglected, wounded, inner child of the past is the major source of human misery… he will continue to act out and contaminate our adult lives.”13

Danny and Jack’s relationship in The Shining narrativizes the sinister dimensions of this self-help and therapy concept fashionable at the time of the film’s production. Danny’s shining power contributes to the reawakening of a mysterious “hidden part” of Jack, and to the derailment of Jack’s secure sense of his adult self within the walls of The Overlook. Finney characterises the inner child as a hidden “part of the [adult] personality” that continues to “influence adult behaviour and attitudes” in mysterious ways.14 Danny and his communion with The Overlook’s ghosts exteriorize this “hidden part” of Jack’s personality. Throughout The Shining, Jack becomes engulfed by his darkest inner impulses, repressed memories (including of his past abuse of Danny), and “vivid realities” from the past (to return to Finney’s terms), represented by The Overlook’s ghosts. In the manner of the inner child’s surprising “unfamiliarity” to the adult self as described by Finney, in The Shining these ghosts initially seem alien to Jack, yet become increasingly knotted to his own personal past throughout the film. Through “Tony” and his shining power, Danny thus activates and actualises Jack’s darkest inner memories and impulses, functioning like the personification of Jack’s “neglected, wounded inner child”15: Danny understands Jack’s painful pasts and inner turmoil better than Jack himself. This is most clearly conveyed in the famous scene in which, holding a butcher’s knife, Danny scrawls “REDRUM”/ “MURDER” on his parents’ bedroom door, acting out his father’s own repressed inner impulses and foreshadowing their imminent eruption. Danny and Jack’s tense relationship throughout The Shining thus conveys a menacing augmentation of the adult’s resurfacing “inner child.” Notably, Marilyn Ivy points out that much North American post-1960s “inner child” discourse circulates around alcoholism and other addictions, and alcoholism is an inner demon that threatens to engulf Jack throughout The Shining. Ivy’s literature review finds that “most American self-help literature on the inner child tends to start with the assertion of addiction” in ways that align with an “Alcoholics Anonymous” model of recovery.16 The perils of addiction in this rhetoric are thus associated with the unresolved pain carried by the inner child: in The Shining, Danny is the embodiment of this unresolved inner pain that Jack seeks to deny and suppress as he succumbs to alcoholism and murderous rage.

Notably, as well as activating and witnessing his father’s dark, hidden pasts, Danny is also cognisant of his father’s future violence: prepared with this knowledge, the child is able to escape and destroy his father at the film’s conclusion. Kubrick’s Danny Torrance thus emphasises how the child is simultaneously tasked with representing both the adult’s past, and the future beyond the horizon of the adult’s present: indeed, as Lee Edelman points out, we are unable “to conceive of a future without the figure of the child.”17 Danny is ultimately a complex and uncanny embodiment of the ways that conceptually, “the child is simultaneously opposed to, the past of, and a part of, the adult.”18 Kubrick’s Danny Torrance established a model of uncanny child character that highlights how “inner child” rhetoric troubles Romantic associations between childhood and the adult’s past. As a result, the film problematises the culturally sedimented positioning of childhood as synonymous with adult nostalgia in influential ways.

Haunted nostalgia and Danny Torrance’s uncanny children

The legacy of Danny Torrance can be found in many other influential post The Shining supernatural horror films. In The Sixth Sense, for instance, young Cole, like Danny, seems initially to be corrupted by an evil force. Early in the film, we see Cole’s long-suffering single mother, Lynn, coming across a note in his bedroom. Cole’s chaotic red scrawl is evocative of Danny’s iconic “REDRUM” written in red lipstick on the door of his mother, Wendy’s, bedroom. When Lynn sees Cole’s note as she’s cleaning up his room, her shock is registered via a series of jump-cuts that progressively close in on the letter, cinematography that simulates the juddering zoom that captures Wendy’s terrified glimpse of Danny’s “REDRUM” in the mirror, reflected to read “MURDER”. Cole’s jagged red writing, like Danny’s, captures both the child’s insecure grasp of writing and his inner turmoil, containing phrases we might expect of Danny’s father, Jack: “Quiet that damn baby. I’ll cut you I swear…I’ll kill all you bastards.”

The voice-over that accompanies this scene provides further context for this unsettling note: the voice is that of child psychologist Malcolm as he undertakes a session with Cole, and speaks of “free association writing”, in which “if you keep your hand moving long enough, thoughts and words start coming out that you didn’t even know you had in you.” As well as paralleling Danny’s own “free association” writing as he acts out his father’s murderous rage by scrawling “REDRUM” on the door, this reference to “free association” writing in The Sixth Sense highlights the continuing influence of inner child discourse on the uncanny child. In her influential book Recovery of Your Inner Child,  Lucia Cappacchione writes of discovering her own inner child through a quasi-mystical “automatic” writing and drawing process, in which she “had no idea what I was doing or why. The images appeared mysteriously on the page, as if my hand had done the drawing on its own … the symbols came from a very deep corner of the unconscious.”19 Thus, early in The Sixth Sense, Cole, like Danny, seems to be the vessel for some vaguely defined malevolent force, confounding audience expectations about his textual function. However, even this early misdirection foreshadows how the real source of Cole’s eeriness stems from his cognisance of the buried and unresolved traumas of the adults around him, and thus his symbolic function as a mysterious exteriorization of the “inner child” figure.

As we learn later in the film, Cole’s disturbing behaviour, like Danny’s, stems from his ability to see unquiet spectres who have not yet confronted the traumas that continue to haunt them in death. Cole knows all along that Malcolm is one of these ghosts. As a result, in a parallel of Danny’s fraught relationship with Jack, Cole is tasked with addressing Malcolm’s unresolved past traumas and interior conflicts. In similar ways to Danny, Cole eerily conflates childhood’s symbolic associations with the hidden inner past of the adult self and the child’s conceptual function as embodiment of futurity: an individual in the present who will eventually outlive the adult. Indeed, in The Sixth Sense, the twist reveals that while he has insight into the adult’s past that exceeds the adult’s own self-awareness, Cole already has outlived Malcolm. The uncanny relationship between the central child and adult character is, as in The Shining, metonymized by a famously tense scene highlighting their impossibly tangled closeness and distance. Cole lies in bed and Malcolm sits beside him, looming over him and offering comfort in a paternal manner. While mid-shots of both characters in this position suggest their physical intimacy and growing closeness, the alternating close-ups of each character as Cole finally tells Malcolm his “secret” – that “he sees dead people” – highlight the chasm of misunderstanding that remains between them. At this point, Malcolm understands Cole’s secret to be a symptom of mental illness, rather than realising that it actually reveals a sinister hidden truth of his own (non)existence that he is yet to come to terms with. Cole thus bears the traces of Danny Torrance, whose supernatural powers also afford him uncomfortable insights about his own paternal figure that simultaneously highlight the two characters’ coalescence and impenetrable detachment. Cole, like Danny, is embroiled with the adult’s dark pasts in a way that subverts childhood’s function as the personification of adult nostalgia.

Cole and Malcolm’s intimately detached conversation in The Sixth Sense

Doctor Sleep and conflicted nostalgia

Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep ambivalently reflects upon the significant influence of The Shining on this conceptually and aesthetically fecund uncanny child trope, and in particular reflects on the uncanny child’s problematisation of nostalgia. The sequel centres on the grown up Danny Torrance’s own quest to confront his traumatic childhood memories: personal memories of his time at The Overlook that are simultaneous with the extra-diegetic cultural nostalgia associated with Kubrick’s The Shining. Thus, while the film indulges in nostalgia for this beloved and influential horror film, it also underscores how this very nostalgia is antithetical to The Shining’s themes and narrative. In particular, it reveals how such nostalgia sits uncomfortably with the uncanny child trope at The Shining’s centre: a trope which problematises how childhood is ideologically positioned as the vehicle for adulthood’s nostalgic longing in the Western cultural imaginary. In Doctor Sleep, rather than highlighting the tension between nostalgia and repressed trauma typical of “inner child” rhetoric, nostalgia itself operates like a haunted and haunting force.

Doctor Sleep’s conflicted approach to memory and nostalgia is exacerbated by the dual nature of the past the film continues on from and commemorates. On one level, the film is a direct sequel to Kubrick’s The Shining, as is signalled by the iconic Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind music from the original film that opens Doctor Sleep, and by the familiar diamond-shaped carpet pattern from Kubrick’s The Overlook that fills the screen in the film’s opening minutes. On another level, however, the film rewrites the past represented by Kubrick’s film to make it better fit the narrative crafted by Stephen King, who has famously long hated Kubrick’s loose adaptation of his book.20 Flanagan’s film is, after all, an adaptation of King’s Doctor Sleep, the sequel to his original novel. This multilayered past haunts the film in ways that also relate to its use of the uncanny child trope.

At the beginning of Doctor Sleep, we are reunited with young Danny Torrance as he rides his tricycle around The Overlook hotel’s halls, the camera steadily following him from behind. This sequence mirrors the influential Steadicam long takes that captured Danny exploring the hotel via tricycle in The Shining. At the beginning of Doctor Sleep, Danny pauses at the infamous Room 237 that haunted both Danny and his father in Kubrick’s film. At this moment, Danny slowly turns to face the door, and the audience finally glimpses the child’s face. This Danny is of course not the Danny Torrance, performed by Danny Lloyd, that we remember from Kubrick’s film. The child actor, Roger Floyd, looks similar and wears the same clothes and haircut, but his appearance and performance simulate this figure from the past, rather than recapture him. From this moment, the audience is thus made aware of how Flanagan’s film continues on from the past represented by Kubrick’s film but also carefully reconstructs it. This confrontation with a past that is not quite as we remember it captures the very essence of the uncanny: as Nicholas Royle points out, “the experience of experience as double”21 is at the crux of the uncanny’s amalgamation of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Less commonly acknowledged is how such eerie doubling of past experience is also central to nostalgia. As Dylan Trigg articulates, “nostalgic memory is necessarily untimely and uncanny. Nostalgia corresponds with the past, but only insofar as it replicates the past and forgets it.”22 Similarly, in his theorisation of nostalgia, Adam Muller outlines how “the past in question” when we experience nostalgia is “not really the past as it actually was.”23

The experience of nostalgia tends to paper over or defy conscious recognition of how reminiscing about treasured pasts entails a collision between one’s lived past and the re-writing of that past in the present. However Svetlana Boym’s influential work has identified two oppositional nostalgic impulses that complicate this denial. “Restorative” nostalgia “manifests itself in total reconstruction of monuments of the past”,24 whereas the more critically engaged “reflective” nostalgia contains a kernel of awareness of the uncanny experiential doubling inherent to nostalgia. Reflective nostalgia thus “dwells on algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance”, in so doing “perpetually deferring” or problematising nostalgia’s longed-for homecoming to a treasured past.25 As a result unlike restorative nostalgia, reflective nostalgia, in the words of Muller, “provides an opportunity for reflection in the present, for the novel exploration of time’s strange and surprising nonlinearity.”26 Muller suggests that restorative and reflective nostalgia are mutually exclusive impulses: “different cognitive operations (different epistemological orientations towards the world)” and “attached to different sentiments.”27 However, Doctor Sleep engages both forms of nostalgia in ways that retrospectively reflect upon the complex conceptual functions of the uncanny child trope.

The film often exhibits restorative nostalgia that seeks to recapture a celebrated cultural past: Kubrick’s original film. Doctor Sleep tends to depict this past as static and frozen in time, while at the same time implicitly rewriting it to fit an agenda of the present. These signs of restorative nostalgia pervade the film: in addition to the resurrection of the original film’s music and iconic imagery at the beginning, when the characters finally venture back to The Overlook hotel at the film’s climax, they witness the river of blood that pours from The Overlook’s elevators, in imagery that precisely replicates this famous moment from Kubrick’s film.28 Periodically throughout Doctor Sleep, iconic ghosts from The Shining re-appear in the manner of a nostalgic “Greatest Hits” band compilation album, including the decaying old woman who emerges from the bathtub to haunt Danny and Jack in Room 237, and Horace Derwent, the tuxedo-wearing ghost with blood trickling down his face who raises a glass to declare “Great party, isn’t it?” This celebration of a beloved past throughout Doctor Sleep is restorative because while cherishing this past, the film seeks to resolve its controversial gaps and enigmas. As Margot Blankier points out, The Shining was not well-received when it was first released, not just by King himself but by prominent film critics who deemed the film to be too confusing, including Pauline Kael, who asserted that the film “just doesn’t seem to make sense.”29 Flanagan’s film, in the manner of restorative nostalgia, patches up The Shining’s narrative ambiguities in a way that carefully reconstructs this treasured monument to fit the needs of the present narrative. For instance, Jack Torrance’s strange behaviour in the walls of The Overlook is neatly reinscribed in Doctor Sleep as a symptom of supernatural possession by the ghosts that haunt the hotel, which accords with the construction of the character in King’s books. Furthermore, the enigmas of Danny’s “shining” power are smoothed over and clarified in Doctor Sleep via lengthy explanations of the mechanics of the power from various characters (in particular, the ghost of Halloran, Danny’s ill-fated mentor from the original film). A number of scenes depict in a literal manner Danny’s interior mental processes as he confronts various ghosts from The Overlook: closing his eyes tight, Danny mentally “locks” the ghosts inside large treasure chests in his mind. This clarity around Danny’s “shining” contrasts with the original film, in which Danny’s interior workings and thoughts are eerily impenetrable to his mother, to his father, and to the audience, emphasising the child’s unsettlingly ambiguous textual function. Flanagan’s film thus celebrates the past while filling in its gaps, in ways that, to return to Boym’s descriptions of restorative nostalgia, “rebuild the lost home” that nostalgia seeks to recover and “patch[es] up the memory gaps.”30

Yet, at the same time, the film also exhibits reflective nostalgia in its depiction of Danny Torrance, the archetypal uncanny child now grown up. Danny appears as a child in Flanagan’s film only as a figment of the adult character’s memory, in simultaneity with the audience’s collective memory and nostalgia for the young Danny of Kubrick’s film. In one strange scene, Danny appears as a child standing before a mirror. His eyes suddenly change colour from dark brown to pale blue. On a surface level, this scene disjunctively smooths over the visual incongruity between Ewan McGregor – who plays Doctor Sleep’s adult Danny – and both Danny Lloyd, the child who played Kubrick’s Danny, and Roger Floyd, who plays the child Danny in Flanagan’s film, who both have dark brown eyes. Yet at the same time, this brief scene reminds the audience of the impossibility of recapturing childhood pasts: in the words of Kathryn Bond Stockton, “the child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back. It is a ghostly, unreachable fancy”.31 The relationship between the adult and child versions of Danny in Doctor Sleep highlights, rather than conceals, nostalgia’s tendency to re-write childhood experience to fit the narratives of the adult’s present identity.

When the adult Danny finally returns to The Overlook hotel at the film’s ending, the “lost home” of his childhood that has haunted him throughout adulthood has not been rebuilt in the manner of restorative nostalgia. It is now a decaying, collapsing structure. Yet the shimmering Gold Room that so enticed his father remains intact and resplendent, and it is here that Danny comes face to face with his father, in a literal return to his traumatic past. At this moment, both the character and the audience are reunited with the monstrous Jack Torrance, who has long haunted Danny and likely many audience members. Yet, like the child version of Danny we meet early in the film, this is not the same Jack that terrorised Danny 39 years ago: this return is not to “the past as it actually was.”32 In this film, Jack is played by Henry Thomas, an actor who looks somewhat like Jack Nicholson and delivers a muted impersonation of Nicholson’s celebrated performance: as Flanagan has explained, “we’re using the Kubrick visual language” so the creators opted for “someone we recognize as Kubrick’s Torrance. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Jack Nicholson.”33 Like Floyd’s Danny, this character thus replicates the past, but does not recapture it.

Diegetically emphasising this uncanny doubling of the past, when adult Danny and his father reunite, they do not refer to each other as father or son. Echoing the famous scene from The Shining outlined at the beginning of this essay in which the characters’ embrace on the bed, their evident familiarity with each other is undercut by the way they address each other as strangers. Jack begins the conversation by saying “Slow night, Mr Torrance”, and when Danny starts talking about his painful memories of his father’s alcoholism, Jack says “I think you have me confused with somebody else.” Their uncomfortable aloofness is also emphasised by the stilted, mechanical nature of their conversation and the bar between them, which forecloses any possibility of physical closeness. They are captured conversing in static, side-on mid-shots that recall the clinical, lengthy mid-shot of the pair on the bed in The Shining. When Jack’s face is finally depicted front-on at the end of the sequence, it becomes particularly clear to the audience that this is not the Jack Torrance we remember, even though in this shot Thomas’ performance most clearly reproduces Jack Nicholson’s. Yet at this juncture, although Thomas convincingly imitates Nicholson’s famous vocal and facial performance, the line he speaks is not from Kubrick’s film. Instead, the line references Torrance’s dialogue from King’s book and the TV mini-series Stephen King’s The Shining (Garris, 1997) that King himself wrote: “are you gonna take your medicine?” Thus, the scene conjures multilayered pasts that evoke unfamiliar familiarity for the audience, paralleling the discomfort experienced by Danny Torrance during his uncanny reunion with his father and traumatic childhood memories.

Jack and Danny’s uncanny reunion in Doctor Sleep

The scene that follows, in which Danny and Jack converse in an angular red bathroom as Jack tries to wipe a stain from Danny’s pants, clearly echoes the famous bathroom exchange between Jack and the ghost of Grady, the previous hotel caretaker, in which Grady suggests that in fact it is Jack who has “always been” The Overlook’s caretaker. In Doctor Sleep, Jack is still the caretaker, but this past is not as it once was, and this Jack is not the same Jack. The adult Danny’s return to his childhood past exposes how this past has not remained fixed or static. We are forced to acknowledge in this scene that nostalgia “belongs neither to the present, the past, nor to the future, and yet it remains in some way attached to all three of these temporal zones.”34 In Flanagan’s film, the adult Danny’s negotiation with his “inner child” thus illuminates the distinctive “temporal ambivalence”35 and polyphony of nostalgia. This eerie temporal incongruity is augmented by the fact that both the audience’s and adult Danny’s nostalgia for the child Danny is simultaneous with a return to the character’s repressed childhood traumas.


Danny Torrance’s vast influence on the uncanny child trope is refracted in Doctor Sleep’s problematised nostalgia, which engages in a push and pull between the opposing impulses of restorative and reflective nostalgia. It is worth noting that Kubrick’s The Shining, along with its uncanny child character, evokes a destructive form of nostalgia: R Barton Palmer goes so far as to call Kubrick’s film “anti-nostalgia.”36 By nostalgically returning to this “anti-nostalgia” film, Doctor Sleep underlines the deeply uncanny potentials of nostalgia not typically registered in scholarly or personal accounts of the phenomenon. The film thus reveals how both nostalgia and the uncanny, to use Claire Raymond’s description of the uncanny, blur “innocence with experience, a feeling of return to the known merged with an eerie difference.”37 In Doctor Sleep, the audience is cognisant of a multitude of Danny Torrances, including Ewan McGregor’s adult Danny, the child Danny performed by Danny Lloyd in Kubrick’s film, and the child Danny played by Roger Floyd in Flanagan’s film. Throughout Doctor Sleep, other Dannys circulate around these versions, including the Danny from King’s books and the rendition of the character in the TV mini-series, both of whom were threatened by Jack with a line absent from Kubrick’s film: “are you gonna take your medicine?” This line is snarled by Doctor Sleep’s Jack Torrance at the above described climactic moment, as if to conjure a traumatic memory for the adult Danny, even though it is Kubrick’s film that is positioned as Danny’s past in Doctor Sleep. The problematic, uncanny nostalgia of Doctor Sleep suggests that adulthood is not haunted by a single “inner child”, but by many. Like the eerie Grady twins from The Shining, who are doubles of each other without being quite identical, this array of Danny Torrances crystallises the distinctive combination of familiar unfamiliarity embedded in uncanny dread, but also in nostalgic longing. In her description of Diane Arbus’ famous photo of twin girls that was Kubrick’s inspiration for the Grady twins, Raymond articulates how “the doppelganger is the privileged symbol of the uncanny. The twin is that configuration through which the self, rather than solidified and made whole, becomes partitioned or nullified. What are you if another is exactly like you? The double erases you.”38 In Doctor Sleep, the adult Danny’s childhood reminiscences work to multiply, partition, and nullify his identity in this way. Doctor Sleep thus reveals how nostalgia for The Shining is an inherently fraught impulse. Both The Shining and the uncanny child trope that the film popularised are odes to the eeriest and most troubling elements of nostalgia – whether it be adult nostalgia for past childhoods, or cultural nostalgia for a revered film.


  1. In this essay, the Director’s Cut of Doctor Sleep is analysed
  2. Jessica Balanzategui, The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema: Ghosts of Futurity at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), p. 11
  3. Ibid., p. 12
  4. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 121): his characterisation early in the film leads us to believe that the film will participate in the then popular trend of evil child films. As Jameson suggests, “we’ve had enough experience with horrible children … to be able to identify sheer evil when someone rubs our noses in it.”[5. Ibid., emphasis in original, p. 121
  5. Ibid, p. 122
  6. Balanzategui, p. 43
  7. Steven Bruhm, “Nightmare on Sesame Street: or, the Self Possessed Child,” Gothic Studies 8.2 (2006): p. 98
  8. Ben Finney, “‘Let the Little Child Talk’: A New Regressive Technique,” The American Journal of Psychotherapy 23.2 (1969); W. Hugh Missilidine, Your Inner Child of the Past (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963); Muriel James, “Self Reparenting: Theory and Process,” Transactional Analysis Journal 4.3 (1974); Ruth Carter Stapleton, The Gift of Inner Healing (New York: Bantam Books, 1977); Arthur Janov, The Feeling Child: Preventing Neurosis in Children (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973); Lucia Capacchione, The Creative Journal: The Art of Finding Yourself (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1979)
  9. Finney, p. 230
  10. Linda M. Austin, “Children of Childhood: Nostalgia and The Romantic Legacy,” Studies in Romanticism 42.1 (2003): p. 75
  11. Ibid., p. 76
  12. Deborah Wesley, “The Divine Child,” Psychological Perspectives 62 (2019): p. 446
  13. John Bradshaw, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child (New York: Bantam, 1990) p. 7
  14. Finney, p. 230
  15. Bradshaw, 7
  16. Marilyn Ivy, “Have You Seen Me? Recovering the Inner Child in late Twentieth-Century America,” Social Text 37 (1993): p. 237
  17. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) p. 11
  18. Balanzategui, p. 13
  19. Capacchione, Recovery of Your Inner Child (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991): p. 26
  20. Joe Dunthorne, “Was Stephen King right to hate Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” The Guardian, 06 April 2013; Will Ashton, “Stephen King’s Hatred for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Explained,” CinemaBlend, 05 November 2014
  21. Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 183
  22. Dylan Trigg, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), p. 245
  23. Adam Muller, “Notes toward a Theory of Nostalgia: Childhood and the Evocation of the Past in Two European ‘Heritage’ Films,” New Literary History 7.4 (2006), p. 748
  24. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 41
  25. Ibid., p. 49
  26. Muller, p. 755
  27. Ibid., p. 756)
  28. Indeed, in the trailer for Doctor Sleep, this shot was taken directly from the 4K remaster of Kubrick’s original film. However, it was reshot for the final version. Sandy Schaeffer, “Doctor Sleep Features 3 Shots From The Shining,” ScreenRant, 06 November 2019
  29. Margot Blankier, “‘A Very Serious Problem with the People Taking Care of the Place’: Duality and the Dionysian Aspect in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” The Irish Jorunal of Gothic and Horror Studies 13 (2014), p. 3
  30. Boym, p. 41
  31. Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009) p. 5
  32. Muller, p. 748
  33. cited in Jacob Hall, “The Story Behind the Most Important Scene in Doctor Sleep,” SlashFilm, 12 November 2019, https://www.slashfilm.com/doctor-sleep-jack-torrance-scene/
  34. Muller, p. 739
  35. Ibid, p. 750
  36. R Barton Palmer, “The Shining and Anti-Nostalgia: Postmodern Notions of History” in The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, Jerold J Abrams, ed. (Lexington: Kentucky, 2007), p. 203
  37. Claire Raymond, The Photographic Uncanny: Photography, Homelessness, and Homesickness (Cham: Palgrave Macmllian, 2019), p. 138
  38. Ibid, p. 147

About The Author

Jessica Balanzategui is Senior Lecturer in Media at RMIT University. Jessica specialises in screen genres for and about children, and horror and the Gothic. Her work has been widely published in journals such as New Media and Society, Convergence, The Journal of Visual Culture, Television and New Media, and Celebrity Studies. Her books include The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema (Amsterdam UP 2018) and Netflix, Dark Fantastic Genres, and Intergenerational Viewing (Routledge, with Baker and Sandars, 2023). Jessica is Founding Editor of Amsterdam UP’s Horror and Gothic Media Cultures series.

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