Stanley Kubrick tackles the juicy world of haunted houses in his feverish, hallucinatory tale of madness and isolation.
Intro by Phil
Haunted houses are a building block of horror DNA. When scientists – scratch that, mad scientists – get around to mapping the genre’s genome, creepy abodes will be like the God Particle in physics: alluring, mysterious, omnipresent.
Consider Stephen King that mad scientist. In a career spanning more than four decades, he has returned time and again to suffocating madhouses with dark pasts. His third novel, “The Shining,” marked the then-budding novelist as a master of suspense and psychological mindfuckery. Released in 1977, it came after “Carrie” and “‘Salem’s Lot,” both of which explored how supernatural violence makes the mundanity of everyday life terrifying.
“The Shining” was King’s first experiment with a traditional haunted house tale, and like his literary forefathers – think Gothic masters such as Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe – King showed an uncanny ability for revealing the legitimate terror behind titillation and cheap thrills. In the vein of “Dracula” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” King’s novel ekes tension from an eerie commingling of the universal, personal and supernatural.
At the narrative’s blackened core is Jack Torrance, a man burdened by history – alcoholism, child abuse, failure after failure – and driven to madness by forces that feed off his fractured psyche. After losing his tenure for assaulting a student at an East Coast prep school, the disgraced teacher/struggling playwright signs on as the winter caretaker for an isolated hotel in the Colorado mountains. To ease the loneliness of a brutal winter, Jack brings his wife, Wendy, and their young son, Danny, who’s plagued by curious blackouts linked to an imaginary friend, “Tony.” When the family arrives, they meet Dick Hallorann, an African American chef who recognizes Tony as a psychic outlet (the titular “shining”) and warns Danny about the Overlook Hotel’s twisted nature. This place practically vibrates with a sick allure: It’s charming and inviting on the surface, yet marred by a history of bizarre happenings. Add a bit of snow, and the plush rooms and immaculate hedge maze more closely resemble a five-star prison. As Jack succumbs to the hotel’s trappings, Wendy and Danny are battered by a frenzy of horrors that flit between hallucinatory and very, very real.
The genius of King’s novel is in how it mines the deeper, darker depths of a traditional haunted house tale: Literal ghosts and goblins make occasional appearances, but they only underscore Jack’s inherently violent nature and the mounting tension between he and his family.
After more than four decades, King is still considered one of horror’s pre-eminent talents, and “The Shining” holds up as a bona fide masterpiece. It’s natural, then, that Stanley Kubrick chose the novel for his first (and only) foray into the genre in 1980. Like fellow auteur Alfred Hitchcock – who effortlessly made horror “respectable” with 1960’s Psycho – Kubrick had a penchant for dabbling in sensational fare. But he was one of the few who could elevate pulp in the same striking way, and his take on cinema was an interesting amalgam of Golden Age theatricality and Vietnam-era grittiness. As a self-professed literature fanatic, Kubrick often lent his material (typically adapted from outside works) the sort of bleak ambiguity and metaphysical wonder found in the stories of Poe and Stoker. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was a sci-fi flick with apes and a star child, after all.
King’s blend of spectacle and nuance in “The Shining” matched Kubrick’s sensibility, but more importantly for the director, it left plenty of room for tinkering. He and writing partner Diane Johnson took many of the novel’s strongest elements – the hotel, Danny’s psychic abilities, a spiraling sense of dread – and removed the campier bits, like living hedge animals. (If you want to see just how dumb that last concept is on film, check out the 1997 TV mini-series. It’s pretty fucking awful.)
And those changes are where fans of “The Shining” and The Shining get into “book vs. movie” bitch fits. Although the two essentially end in the same place, Kubrick’s interpretation of the Torrance family’s demise is more abstract and troubling. King famously bashed the film when it was released, claiming Kubrick rendered the story nearly unrecognizable with his obsessive touch and pet themes. He finally fought to have his name removed from the credits.
Even so, it’s still considered Kubrick’s most “mainstream” film, and it reinvigorated his career after the commercial failure of 1975’s Barry Lyndon. Despite its dubious honor as the director’s only film to be snubbed wholly by the Academy Awards, critics were generally kind to The Shining. Pauline Kael noted how Kubrick’s choice to shoot in bright, glaring color as opposed to Gothic shadow gives it the feel of a “waking nightmare.”
With all respect to Mr. King, he misses the point of Kubrick’s version – the novel and film are two entirely different products of two entirely different minds. King shows a surprising level of empathy for Jack, and when his caretaker is finally overcome by the hotel, the result is equal parts tragic and horrific. Kubrick, on the other hand, relentlessly assaults his characters and audience in a way that borders on psychotic, all while slyly satirizing haunted houses and the entire horror genre.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a wintertime trip to the Overlook Hotel and see if Kubrick’s tale has any horrors left to reveal.
Wanna watch? The Shining is available on DVD and Blu Ray, both of which come with several modern documentaries and Vivian Kubrick’s low-key “making of” feature. Streaming and digital rental is offered by all the usual suspects, expect for Netflix.
Chris: It has been awhile since we posted. Good intro!
Wow… Where to start with this one? I have a feeling our readers are in for a long one, since we both love this movie to pieces and there are layers upon layers to talk about. So, let’s start off by talking characters.
I would like to offer up the theory that there are only three main characters in the film: The hotel, which includes an assortment of ghastly guests; Jack and his wife, Wendy; and finally, Danny and the black man, Dick Hallorann. Each character has severe interpersonal and intra-personal challenges, and the three characters create quite the dynamic story.
What do you think about that, Phil?
Phil: You’re right – it’s been a while. In the interest of full disclosure, The Shining is one of my favorite films in any genre, period. Along with spiders and puberty, encountering the film as a youngster was a truly terrifying experience, but I’ve returned to it countless times since and it holds up. As you said, there are layers upon layers, beginning with vividly imagined characters.
I see where your head’s at by breaking the film down into three main figures (the hotel, Jack/Wendy and Danny/Hallorann), and I agree that the Overlook itself should be treated like a living, breathing being, with motivations beyond your average pile of art-deco carpeting. While I’d argue that Jack and Wendy can’t quite be lumped together, I like how you’re paring the list down to the bare minimum. It mirrors the deceptive simplicity of Kubrick’s narrative. He introduces a small core of characters and sticks with them throughout, showing how they suffocate each other and slowly succumb to the hotel’s overbearing sense of intrigue and dread. Sure, later scenes involve lush parties with tuxedos and ball gowns, but such feverish indulgences skirt the line between reality and hallucination. More on that to come.
These central characters feel alive and vital, partly because Kubrick doesn’t give a damn about genre conventions. Like his previous efforts – Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, even 2001 to an extent – he fills the screen with actors who command attention, even if they don’t look factory-made for the story at hand. We get none of the vacuous, pretty faces so common in slasher films, which were arguably the hot shit in the early ‘80s. With The Shining, you have a bona fide film star, Jack Nicholson, who sports a mangy beard and thinning hair to match his increasingly demented version of reality. As Wendy, Shelley Duvall is far from classically beautiful, but she embodies a sort of pitiful, helpless humanity most slasher bait can’t muster – of all the characters, she comes closest to an audience surrogate. Their son, played by Danny Lloyd in his first (and last) screen role, begins as a forgettable rugrat, yet his performance deepens to set the bar for decades of fucked-up horror brats to come.
In a similar fashion, Danny’s psychic counterpart, Hallorann, flirts dangerously close to becoming a “mystical black man” figure, but Scatman Crothers’ performance is nuanced and refined, particularly in the first act. Kubrick’s casting choices seem disparate, but they work: The film’s flashier, more indulgent scenes resonate because we’re invested in the Torrance family, or at least sense that they could be real people, no matter how unreal their situation becomes.
But back to your original theory, Chris. Why do you break The Shining down to three main characters, and how did you come up with those pairings?
Chris: Alright bro, you are absolutely right. The characters just feel alive. I came up with those categories because it makes sense to me – Danny and Hallorann just make sense as being two halves of a whole for the story. They make a connection right away and it reappears every act, until it finally brings Hallorann back to the hotel. They have the connection and interaction of one character, and complete the same roles in the film.
Now, onto the hotel. Like you said, one must categorize it as a “Character,” not just for the obvious ghosts that inhabit it and interact with the other characters, but for the physical property. Not unlike another movie, When a Stranger Calls (1979), the building and grounds play a key part in how the audience reacts to the unfolding events. In The Shining, the grounds are menacing from the get-go: the hedge maze, the vastness of the hotel, the narrow halls, the gigantic kitchen and the constantly varying color palette per area all play a big role in Jack’s psychic break. The huge rooms, in which he spends the majority of his time in, make both Jack and the audience feel so small they bring his insecurities forward. The hotel has such a key role in how Jack/Wendy and Danny/Holloway interact that it must be categorized as a character.
Finally, onto Jack and Wendy. They are one character: Jack is the right brain and Wendy is the left brain. Jack is the creative one, an aspiring writer who has the imagination to create the world of ghosts and hauntings inside the hotel. He is the susceptible one to alcoholism and abuse, both of which are typical of the right brain’s psychology. Wendy is his opposite, the left brain, the thinker. She is the logic behind the madness of the character. She tries to solve the problems of the hotel, of Jack and of Danny. To me, it just makes sense that they are one character, dealing with the problems of another character, the hotel, in different ways.
Jack and Wendy interact with each other in a way that doesn’t feel organically like two different people, not the way that Jack and the hotel or Danny interact. And the same goes for Danny and Hallorann with each other – they don’t feel like two different people. And this feeling, along with the above reasons, brought me to the conclusion of three main characters.
How do you feel about that?
Phil: I have all sorts of feelings, baby, and I see the underlying logic behind your connections, particularly the right brain/left brain breakdown of Jack and Wendy. Like an overly imaginative child (shades of Danny?), Jack’s creative tendencies and frightening inability to control his brutal, animalistic instincts make him an ideal foil for the hotel’s supernatural power. His obsession with history and storytelling – remember his creepy fascination in the film’s opening scene, with its graphically grotesque tale of the previous caretaker’s madness? – brings to mind a detail explored heavily in the book but only glimpsed at in the film: A scrapbook of newspaper articles cataloging the hotel’s sordid past.
As imagined by King, the scrapbook is a simple and unobtrusive way to embellish the narrative and give a bit of bloody backstory, but it also becomes the cornerstone of Jack’s never-seen play (or novel, as it’s described in the film.) His heart nearly bleeds for the hotel of newspaper lore – he sees it as a sumptuous oasis blackened by a cavalcade of gangsters, murderers and whores, and it’s a credit to King’s talent that readers sense the tell-tale signs of an unhealthy relationship, even before Jack goes full-on batshit.
The scrapbook plays a smaller, nearly invisible role in the film – it’s little more than an unadorned prop sitting on Jack’s writing desk – but its foreboding presence is felt just the same. For all the talk of Kubrick raping his source material, his ability to craft a living, breathing world for his characters borders on obsessive, and his work is more vivid for it. The “Kubrick Project,” a massive installation at the Deutsches Filmmuseum and Deutsches Architektur Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, houses hundreds of primary materials from the director’s films – including Jack’s scrapbook. Compiled by Kubrick from actual newspapers and magazines, the scrapbook is teeming with lurid headlines involving murder, telepathy, disasters and more. The contents are never seen on film, but the simple act of creating such a macabre collection is unmistakably bleak, and it more than reinforces Kubrick’s dedication to the characters, even if they’re slightly different than King’s originals.
In another sense, the director’s trademark intensity mirrors Jack’s insanity – the creation becomes the creator, and vice versa. Now, I know that sounds cute at best and idiotic at worst, but it’s hardly far-fetched, particularly after reading Shelley Duvall’s account of the filming process and her tumultuous, almost abusive working relationship with Kubrick. This can be interpreted in two ways: 1) The director created an environment where the actors were surrounded by madness, even when the cameras weren’t rolling, or 2) He’s a raging misogynist with a long history of berating his female characters, sort of the forefather to lady-haters like Lars von Trier. I wouldn’t argue with either claim.
Believe me, Chris, all of this has a point. Collapsing the film’s main characters into three camps makes a certain amount of sense – you’ve found quite a bit of overlap, and it’s pushing me to reexamine how and why these characters interact the way they do – but it shortchanges them as distinct people, and it downplays the meticulous care Kubrick and co-writer Johnson put into their creations. Look at Jack and Wendy: I agree they have an intriguingly fucked-up dependence on one another, but I’m hard-pressed to see them as one character. From the first-act scene of driving to the Overlook, they just don’t seem like a single unit, especially when left alone with each other and Danny. Their relationship is defined by contrast and conflict. I could see Jack trying to murder his family again and again and again, maybe not in real life, but at least in his mind. The hotel simply acts as the catalyst, turning his fantasies into a sick reality.
But we can get back to Jack and Wendy later. I want to dig a bit further into Danny and Hallorann – after all, they share the film’s titular psychic ability. Without their contribution, the story would be missing a very important (though not exactly vital) layer. So, let’s start there: Give me your thoughts on the “shining.” People who don’t like the film complain it’s a weak, unimaginative and cheesy device, not to mention distracting as all hell when it, um, “talks” through Danny’s finger.
Chris: Phil, you highlight perfectly how Jack and Wendy can be one character. The hotel is the catalyst. In the car, you are right – they are very clearly two separate characters. But once in the hotel they transform into a multidimensional character, kind of as if the hotel is the main character and Jack and Wendy are two parts of its schizophrenic psyche. They are two people with two personalities, both brilliantly written for the screen, but they are so contrasting to the core that they feel like one character with an intense interpersonal turmoil the audience is a part of.
As for the “shining” and the communication through Danny’s finger: To those critics complaining it’s weak and unimaginative, I say you had no childhood. For a kid trying to figure out something new, giving an unknown voice some sort of personification (a.k.a. his finger) would make the new discovery less terrifying. I think that was brilliant, as it gives this innocent kid a way to communicate his thoughts without cheesy voiceover or weird fake friends that would make the story overly complex and weaken the film.
Phil: I’m going to tweak your argument a tad, just so we can find a sort of common ground on this idea of separate but overlapping characters, because try as I might, I think everyone in this film is is too rich and vivid to be conflated. The hotel is definitely a catalyst for the intense violence and psychological turmoil as the film progresses, but more so than that, it’s a catalyst for the “shining” each member of the Torrance family shares. After all, they’re a family: Danny’s telekinetic abilities may be the most powerful – I think part of that comes from the influence of childhood imagination, as you point out – but they had to come from somewhere, and the various experiences Jack and Wendy have throughout the film (especially in the latter half) prove that his parents have a bit of the shine in them. The two just may not realize it, or at least not consciously like Danny or Halloran.
Of the two adult Torrence’s, Wendy’s psychic abilities are probably the weakest – she sees only what the hotel wants her to see, like the shockingly brief encounters with a bloodied butler or dog-on-man phillatio. Jack, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to pin down. As an alcoholic, it makes sense he’d have very little control over his urges, desires, wants and – bear with me – telekinesis. Take one of the film’s most curious scenes, when Wendy locks an unconscious Jack in the hotel’s massive food locker. Shortly after he comes to, he hears the disembodied voice of Mr. Grady, the caretaker who murdered his two young girls and told Jack to kill his son. The two caretakers have a brief conversation until, slowly and surely, the door creaks open and Jack roams free for the film’s terrifying final act. Wendy supposedly locked the door, so who (or what) opened it? I’d argue it was Jack, unconsciously channeling a long-dormant form of telekinesis. He doesn’t control it, per se – he just encounters a situation dire enough to channel it effectively, and unlike Wendy, he finds strength in the hotel’s darkness, not fear.
Yet all this blabbering about projected fears and shared psychic abilities and bizarro BJs ignores one crucial aspect, something even Kubrick touched on in many interviews about the film: Is The Shining a ghost story? Do we ever see any actual spirits/ghosts/poltergeists, or is everything Kubrick shows – Lloyd the bartender, Grady the caretaker, an entire fucking Fourth of July soiree – just a manifestation, imagined by a flesh-and-blood psychopath and influenced by a hotel ripe with supernatural power? Chris, let me have it.
Chris: Alright man, it is a ghost story, but only when it comes to the old lady in the tweenage boner bathroom scene and the twin girls, and in both cases, it’s little Danny and his “shining” that manifest the ghosts. The parts of the film you’re talking about definitely point more to a psychopath and the gruesome hotel meant to take him out. I think bringing up Jack’s alcoholism is a great thought, but what’s unique about that – and further proves he is psycho – is that there is no alcohol in the hotel. It’s a manifestation of the hotel and Jack’s mind. This, paired with the hotel’s prodding, makes Jack’s escape from that silly freezer perfectly sensible.
Now Phil, bro, this is a great opportunity for us and our audience, and I want to point it out. We both obviously adore this film, but this is the first time we’ve had a major disagreement about the way we view a film. Try as we might, we can’t agree on my initial character analysis. I feel like we have both lay down solid arguments and are both correct, but having such opposing viewpoints is a first for us. I appreciate that we can’t find a common ground on the characters – I’m just pointing this out because I’m interested to see why you might think that is. We both love The Shining and have had pretty similar watching experiences during other films, but why do we have such a backwards watching experience with this one?
Phil: I don’t know, man. I always saw The Shining as a relatively straightforward ghost story, but after more than a decade, I’m not so sure. And Kubrick’s personal thoughts on the film don’t exactly help, like those he gave in Michel Ciment’s book, “Kubrick: The Definitive Edition”:
“I think the unconscious appeal of a ghost story, for instance, lies in its promise of immortality. If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist. If they do, then there is more than just oblivion waiting beyond the grave.”
Based on that quote, it sounds like Kubrick envisioned The Shining as a ghost story filled with hope and promise, not the grim, bleak tale of domestic horror you and I enjoy. But maybe our disagreement with the director himself cuts to the core of your last question: Sure, we’ve both stubbornly argued for different interpretations, but in all honesty, that’s not a cause for concern. One thing I love about cinema (and fiction in general) is how a rich, multi-faceted story almost always leads to passionate debate, whereas routine offerings are given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down with little thought. It’s why The Shining – and Kubrick’s oeuvre as a whole – continues to be picked apart year after year after year. Hell, it’s probably why Stephen King is so vocally against the film – even the guys in charge can’t agree. At its eerie conclusion, this film is about much more than cool deaths and last-minute twists; it’s a slow-burning experience that begs to be taken as a whole, with interpretations as varied and colorful as the rooms in the Overlook Hotel.
Chris: Speaking of hotels, there are two different accounts of how King came up with the idea for his book. Both have to do with The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, which is a place we both grew up in during Colorado summers. It’s nice to have such a rich ghost-story hotel right in our backyard. Maybe for a future post we should go stay a night, do the ghost tour and blog about our different experiences. Eh?
Back to the topic at hand. I never really saw The Shining, even a decade ago, as a full-on ghost story. It scared the piss outta me the first couple viewings, but it wasn’t solely because it was a ghost story; it was also because I didn’t understand what the hell was going on during most of the film. And that’s why, today, I draw the conclusion that it’s part ghost story (Danny’s experiences) and part psychological enigma (Jack, Wendy and the hotel).
Without question, one thing this movie offers the audience is plenty of memorable moments. They’re the type of moments Hitchcock was famous for, like the shower scene from Psycho, or the plane scene from North by Northwest, or the balcony scene from Vertigo. All of these moments share a glorious thing, in that they were so shocking and original and memorable that they have been redone in spoof, homage and allusion ever since. The Shining, Kubrick is (or should be) proud to say, has many of these same moments: “redrum,” the ballroom bartender scene, Wendy’s crazed escape from her husband, the chopping through the door scene… the list is endless, and everyone from Guillermo del Toro to Matt Groening seems to have referenced this film at some point.
And that right there is the true reason why this film is so adored and will stand the test of time. I think our different views on the film, and the countless other experiences people have with it, will continue to make The Shining a masterful film in the horror canon.
Phil: I could go for a haunted house blog… The last time I visited the Stanley was for a sorority formal in college, and needless to say, I came close to rivaling Jack on the drunk and delusional scale.
But anywho, I’m glad you brought up The Shining’s lasting influence on pop culture. It leads to my final thought: Not only is this film a chillingly effective psychological thriller (definitely) and ghost story (still on the fence), it also pokes fun at the tropes so familiar to horror fans, all while becoming a trope itself. Right off the bat, I can’t help but think that Kubrick is fucking with us, layering the gruesome tale of past murders over legends of an Indian burial ground and Halloran’s grim warnings about room 237. (As I mentioned, King’s book gets even loonier, adding a whole subset of mafia killings and mass murders.) Point is, the Overlook isn’t just a haunted house – it’s THE haunted house, creating a supernatural hellscape while also commenting on the inherent ridiculousness of most horror films. This over-the-topness is spoofed wonderfully by The Simpsons in one of my favorite “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. I’m sure Groening and his writers sensed Kubrick was laying it on thick, so they took the hint and ran with it.
And now that we’re talking about The Simpsons and meta-textual commentary, this review has covered just about everything imaginable. Any final thoughts?
Chris: Same frequency, man. I’m so glad that we always just meet where one of us intends. It’s like we have the shining…
On that note, I hope our readers enjoyed this long-overdue post. Next up is a witch hunt, but until then, Phil and I will continue to shine together, and this film will always be the dopest of dope haunted house films. Can I give it a 3, Philly?
Phil: Without a doubt. A 3 it is.
Chris: 3 – If you are over the age of 18 and still haven’t seen this movie, why are you even on this blog?!
Phil: 3 – Still one of the strangest, scariest and richest horror films ever made, good for hours of arguing with friends and more than a few sleepless nights.