Kubrick has made a film uncanny on two levels. Superficially, it is about the involuntary repetition of a specific event. That event, however, is ultimately not repeated. Danny rejects his visions of the past, and Torrance sees visions of a completely different past. The inconsistencies only point to the real level of horror. Kubrick has made uncanny man’s involuntary repetition of the father-son conflict in the archetypal family. We see, then, that in any family we are all “doubles.”—Christopher Hoile
The Shining for most people is a ghost story by a talented filmmaker. And it probably is just that. But for others, it’s a well of hidden meaning that seemingly has no end. One can reach in and pull out evidence that only begets further evidence. In that way, Shining fans are good “conspiracy theorists.” Like the 9/11 truthers, those who go looking around every corner of the Overlook usually go about it in one of two ways. There are those who collect endless associations and patterns, finding continuity and gestalt in the recurrences; these are the lost obsessives. And then there are those who carry out a superficially more sophisticated endeavor by finding the real, concealed story living beneath the surface : the true paranoids.
I do not stand apart from this crowd. I too am obsessed with The Shining. I have at times agreed with probably every available interpretation. But I’m also convinced that I’ve discovered my way out—for real this time, no joke—and I would like to share my findings. The secret is quite simple: the truth is not in what is “subliminally encoded,” but rather what is in plain sight.
Whereas most interpretations of The Shining proceed by mining the depths, my own reads this endless search for the “true meaning” as a symptom of the overt and quite obvious meaning of the film: The Shining is a film about Oedipal development in a family traumatized by abuse. The fact that it is perhaps the most interpreted film of all time is paradoxically a result of the directness with which it pursues its Oedipal logic.
Shining obsessions can be broken down into three categories: 1) the undeniably true but too myopic; 2) the inventive exaggerations that aren’t obviously perceptible; 3) and the quite clearly false. In the first belong interpretatons that emphasize the themes of sexism and patriarchy, American Indian genocide, the myth of the Minotaur, the proverb, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and violence within the Torrance family.
Then there are those interpretations that are inventive exaggerations with interesting but severely stretched evidence. The hidden focus on the Holocaust (argued by insinuating that Kubrick wanted to make a film about the Holocaust but failed to ever address it directly) is one example. Then there’s the hypothesis that Kubrick was making a film about the breakup of the Beatles (perfectly timed to three consecutive play-throughs of Abbey Road).1 And finally, we have the argument that the plot, halfway through, becomes a living embodiment of the manuscript that Jack is seen working on throughout the film, and a major reason the family is at the Overlook Hotel in the first place.
The quite clearly false interpretations include the Wendy Theory, which argues that Wendy, not Jack, is the danger to the Torrance family because she is schizophrenic or suffers from Munchausen’s syndrome (the evidence for this is limited to continuity issues on the set, something people are convinced Stanley Kubrick never committed). The far more popular interpretation that is quite clearly false argues that The Shining is a coded confession that Kubrick secretly faked the moon landing footage.2
Now for the ordinary viewer who doesn’t know all the insane minute details in The Shining (like the fact that the four paintings that sit above the bed in Room 237 are monographs that Charles Darwin commissioned in the process of developing the theory of evolution), the average understanding of the movie comes down to one of two possibilities: this is either a tale of cabin fever or just a ghost story. The photograph ending should be the deciding factor in the direction of the ghost story—something Kubrick has confirmed, calling the end a reincarnation. And yet, that doesn’t stop people from insisting on the psychological.
And for good reason: the film is largely focused on the psychological developments between the Torrance family members. Sure, there are ghosts, but ghosts are only scary insofar as they’re an uncanny expression of our fears—and sometimes fears of things that we not-so-secretly want. Our psychic reality is full of conflictual wants, needs, and desires: why else do we subject ourselves to horror films? The things that we love or want to love can just as easily become the things we want to hurt. And indeed, The Shining is centered squarely on the depiction of a father deciding to murder his family. It’s too on the nose.
In an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick warns against over-analysis by invoking Sigmund Freud’s essay The Uncanny. This is one of Freud’s several essays analyzing art and its effects on us, but it also helps to elaborate what it is about horror that makes us so squeamish. For Freud, the uncanny is “nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it.” When we’re faced with things that are horrific or traumatic, our typical response is to repress the accompanying bad thoughts. The real world traumas might end, but the anxiety-ridden response to them lives on, finding animation in our often fraught and contradictory urges and drives. The emotional reaction is “captured,” stored in our unconscious, and limited in its expression. But the thoughts don’t accept banishment to the unconscious, and reappear in unexpected or unwanted ways. This is what Freud is describing when he says that a repressed thought “proliferates in the dark, as it were, and takes on extreme forms of expression, which when they are translated and presented to the neurotic are not only bound to seem alien to him, but frighten him by giving him the picture of an extraordinary and dangerous strength of instinct.”
By all accounts, Kubrick read and was inspired by both Freud and Jung. According to one of Kubrick’s biographers, as a young adult “Freud caught his interest, and he took to pressing A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis on friends.” But more importantly, Kubrick’s co-author Diane Johnson divulged in a New York Times interview in 1978 regarding The Shining writing process that “We read Freud a lot. In his essay on the uncanny, Freud says specific things about why eyes are scary and why inanimate objects like puppets are scary in their animate shapes. We talked about the role of memory and wish in making you afraid, and we read Bruno Bettelheim’s book about fairy tales, ‘The Uses of Enchantment.’” The latter is a book by a child psychologist and psychoanalyst who describes how fairy tales are used by children to process conflicts that arise over the course of childhood—particularly those dealing with failure, sibling rivalries, anger toward ones’ parents, and, most importantly, the Oedipus complex.
These provide the key ingredients that illuminate the real preoccupations of the film: being faced with the return of the repressed and how we navigate our psychological development within our family. As Christopher Hoile identified in 1984, “if Kubrick’s intention was to focus solely on the father, it is understandable why he might read an essay about the nature of an adult’s feeling of horror. But why read a book concerning the importance fairy tales have for children if the son’s view of the events is not equally important? Understanding the complementary nature of both works clarifies the theme and parallel structure of the film.”
For Bettelheim, the fairy tale has been one of the primary ways parents across cultures have imparted some relief for their children as their little brains begin to understand how the world works. Exaggerated events and fantastical circumstances provide an understandable but sufficiently removed expression for children to deal with universal human drama. Early feelings of isolation, loneliness, and mortal anxiety—things Bettelheim says a parent “tends to overlook” out of their own discomfort—find resolution through fictional heroes tasked to discover their true identity or defeat a villainous foe. Rather than directly processing how one’s parents can be both loving protectors and stern tyrants, a fairy tale introduces a wicked stepmother or witch to serve as their evil double.
This can be easily understood through “The Three Little Pigs”—especially relevant because of Jack Torrance’s association of himself with the big bad wolf at the moment he tries to slaughter Wendy and Danny. The story is meant to illustrate the virtues of progress, both external and internal, by moving from what Freud calls the “pleasure principle” to the “reality principle.” The younger, lazier pigs who build their houses with little care in order to get the immediate gratification of play are also the ones who end up devoured by the wolf. But the third and oldest pig who takes care to build a sturdy home successfully holds off the wolf and eventually defeats him. Through the development of our ego, we learn that “intelligent planning and foresight combined with hard labor will make us victorious over even our most ferocious enemy—the wolf.”
The wolf in the fairy tale becomes a representative for the child of those things that are scary and brutal within the world, their family, and themselves. Addressing these things head on would be overwhelming, but concentrating the anxiety in a single, irrational foe makes the experience manageable. Bettelheim writes that “a child has to externalize his inner processes if he is to gain any grasp—not to mention control—of them. The child must somehow distance himself from the content of his unconscious and see it as something external to him, to gain any sort of mastery over it.” And in this way, fairy tales do for children something like what psychoanalysis does for adults: provide a medium through which people can successfully confront their many obstacles and emerge stronger and less burdened. This becomes essential for the resolution of the Oedipal conflict and the formation of people as individuals.
In classical psychoanalysis, the “Oedipus complex”, named after the ancient Greek play, is the central drama of childhood because of our typical familial upbringing. Our introduction to the world is through a period of radical dependence on one’s parents for the fulfillment of basic needs and protection. According to Freud, the dependency and relief from material deprivation that is intimately bound up in parent-child relationships begins to run into problems between the ages of three to seven.
In this situation, psychological drives for pleasure, dependency, and control are formed that will eventually crash against the harsh shore of reality. These unconscious desires for one’s parents formed in this early period leave a repressed impression not to be reawakened until puberty. It’s the sobering lesson par excellence that one can’t have one of their parents as their love-object and that their other parent isn’t their enemy. The failure to overcome this can mean in turn a failure to liberate oneself from one’s parents (the parents in our head) that results in psychological underdevelopment.
As imbricated in our culture as Freud’s ideas are, the Oedipus conflict is still deeply disturbing. It’s something we’re just not prepared to talk about or confront in a straightforward manner. Even when we see it, we don’t recognize it. But while not readily apparent, these unconscious desires often present themselves symptomatically. As Slavoj Žižek has said before, the unconscious is right there “on the surface.”
So what would it look like to make a film that was about Oedipal conflict? And not just peppered in—lots of movies do that. What would it look like to have an overwhelmingly (cartoonishly) Freudian movie that dramatizes the Oedipal dynamic? And not only dramatizes, but so obviously as to be unrecognizable at first? In essence, I think that’s what The Shining is: a labyrinthine production full of repetition about a horrific fate awaiting the Torrance family, only avoided by the child learning how to backtrack his and his father’s footsteps and escape the maze of violence. But because the movie deals with that which is repressed, what’s actually there on screen becomes something the audience refuses to experience, leading not only to misunderstandings but also deeply elaborate, cryptic interpretations. Such is the sad fate of Kubrick’s film: an artistic attempt to deal with the fundamental type of repression has produced many new layers of repression.
It seems necessary now to tour the film itself, so you know I’m not just making all this up.
The Shining is full of doubles and opposites, centered around father and son and their ultimate divergences. This is reflected literally in the opening shot with the lake serving as a mirror to the mountains and sky above it. The opening is accompanied by the song “Dies Irae” (literally the “Day of Wrath”) in order to invoke Judgment Day, where the good will be lifted to salvation and the bad sentenced to hell. It also happens to be the day of our protagonist’s job interview as hotel caretaker.
We are steadily introduced to the Torrance family, first Jack and then Wendy and Danny (father, mother, son respectively). We’re also introduced to the indirect namesake of the film, Tony, the “little boy” that lives in Danny’s mouth. Danny’s apparent psychic ability is introduced to us as the mirror version of himself: the first time we see Tony’s “powers,” Danny is literally talking to him by looking in a mirror. Tony gives Danny a way to process his aggressive feelings toward his parents without needing to face up to reality.
Danny’s hostile or guarded feelings are initially on display against his own mother, who is referred to as “Mrs. Torrance.” But Tony’s first appearance, according to Wendy, is around the time of Danny’s first physical assault at the hands of his father—when Jack dislocated Danny’s arm by violently ripping him away from some scattered papers. In a revealing sequence of dialogue, Wendy first says that Tony appeared around the time Danny was put in school but revises herself to admit that it was connected to the incident that took him out of school. Her attempts to avoid Jack’s violence toward her son only become more pronounced throughout the film.
It’s also in these early moments that Kubrick leans into horror tropes, often to the point where they border on parody, functioning to distinguish deeper horrors. These include the verbal references to isolation, the cabin fever resulting from a man being shut in with his wife and two daughters and ultimately killing them (“hard to believe that it happened here, but it did”), Wendy being referred to as a horror film addict, the child psychologist saying, “Kids can scare you to death,” the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, and Wendy calling the hotel a ghost ship. It’s most visually conveyed through Wendy’s cigarette ash, which grows as the tension of her confession to the child psychologist about Tony’s origin also grows. It finally breaks off screen once she says “Something good did come out of it,” and explains that Jack quit drinking.
While watching Roadrunner, Danny expresses fear of going to the Overlook even before Tony “shows him” anything. The implication that the family will be locked in together for months upon months must already be understood at some level and triggers Danny’s anxious vision of the river of blood and the twin girls. It should therefore be apparent even before they move into the Overlook hotel for the winter season that the family has been roiled with pain emanating from Jack.
If the unconscious is where the repressed lives, the Overlook hotel is a kind of eerie sensory deprivation tank that isolates the family from society, leaving only the unconscious. Wendy, expressing a lightheaded feeling as they approach the hotel, says the “air feels differently.” They’re literally ascending toward a new headspace where they’ll stay for months. The drive is also where Wendy and Danny ask about the Donner party, leading Jack to explain that they had to resort to cannibalism to survive—“They ate each other up.” How’s that for setting expectations?
On closing day, the hotel manager, Stuart Ulman (who stands in as hotel superego, representing the interests of “all the best people”) approaches Jack, offering a tour. Jack says that he needs to “collect [his] family,” but after the dissolve, he’s joined only by Wendy. Where’s Danny? He’s alone playing darts in the game room. Why would he be left alone after Wendy had told him in the car that she’ll make him something to eat at the hotel? Moreover, why is he playing a dangerous adult game? This prompts the appearance of the twins again. Their appearance and reappearance three times in the film obviously harken to the story of the former caretaker’s familial massacre, but they also provide Danny a warning.
The twins are “simultaneously an image of an event in the past and of Danny’s fear for the safety of himself and his other self, Tony.” Their persistence proves to be a lesson for Danny in developing his reality principle, similar to the repetition found in the The Three Little Pigs. Hoile writes, “as in a fairy tale, the twin girls appear to Danny three times, the third time actually speaking to him saying, ‘Come play with us.’” For Danny to escape what awaits him, he too will have to forgo play.
Later, accompanying his mom through part of the hotel tour, Danny also encounters the hotel head chef, Dick Hallorann. Dick introduces Wendy and Danny to the various rooms in the kitchen, including a storage room that he quite audibly calls “the story room.”3 This brings on the first undeniable supernatural happening at the hotel, when Dick shines to Danny. In line with fairy tale tropes, Dick is Danny’s magic guardian.
He tells Danny that the Overlook is a place that shines: “When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say, like, if someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things anyone can notice, but things that people who shine can see.” Ultimately all members of the Torrance family will see ghosts, but this power is presented like a psychological flashlight, illuminating the repressed. People who can shine must also face down those demonic forces that will appear in the hotel much like in a dream or a fairy tale (“pictures in a book”).
Seemingly out of nowhere, Danny asks Dick what’s in Room 237. Dick warns Danny not to enter. While Danny successfully learns to avoid the twins directly, he is ultimately drawn into the forbidden room by a toy: a tennis ball, which is notably the plaything of his father. Rather than call out for Jack, Danny walks in, only to see himself in his baby blue sweater through a double set of mirrors, looking for mom. Forbidden rooms in fairy tales, according to Bettelheim, mean sexual knowledge, the taking of virginity, and punishment. In his explanation of the plot of the fairy tale, “Our Lady’s Child,” he writes, “When the girl is fourteen—the age of sexual maturation—she is given keys which unlock all rooms, but is told not to enter one of them. Tempted by her curiosity, she opens its door. Later she denies that she has done so, despite repeated questioning. As punishment she is robbed of the ability to speak, since she has misused it in lying.” Danny too will lie about his experience in Room 237 and go mute.
This is what explains Kubrick’s decision to change Stephen King’s Room 217 to his own Room 237. Bettelheim argues that “numbers stand for people: family situations and relations” and that three in particular stands for “the child himself in relation to his parents.”4 One could go further—and here we’re in the outer reaches of my own fantasy world—and say that the triad of numbers are, like the Torrance family, out of order. The real disentangled number, 327, is a play on the typical age range “3 to 7” in which children pass through the Oedipus complex.5
The camera, representing Danny’s perspective, pushes into Room 237. But before we can enter, the film dissolves to Wendy, who, acting as the real hotel caretaker, inspects the boiler. She soon thereafter discovers Jack, spit dripping from his lips, as he comes out from a horrible nightmare which he claims involved chopping her and Danny up with an axe. Danny emerges with a torn sweater and choke marks, sucking his thumb and still in shock from a strangulation he apparently suffered in Room 237. When Wendy asks Danny what happened, Jack is visually sitting between their eye-line. The prime suspect is, of course, Jack.
The evidence, from the point of view of the audience, is provided in the scene immediately preceding Danny’s visit to Room 237. The sequence beginning with “Monday” opens with Danny and Wendy watching the movie Summer of ’42, a film about a teenager’s first sexual encounter with a woman older than him. Danny asks Wendy if he can go to his room to get his fire engine toy, to which Wendy says yes, but to be quiet because Jack is napping. Danny trepidatiously enters into his family’s hotel suite, finding his dad unable to sleep. Jack in turn beckons for his son to approach him; the camera shows us two Jack’s, one with his back to us and one facing us in a mirror, along with Danny. There is quite palpable fear in Danny that has left him frozen in the presence of his father. When Jack repeats a fragment of the Twins’ dialogue, telling Danny that he’d like to stay in the hotel “for ever and ever and ever,” Danny asks him if he’d ever hurt him and Wendy. Jack asks Danny if his mother had planted that idea in his head, before overemphasizing how much he loves him with a few tense embraces. The drum cymbals then crash into the title card, “Wednesday.”
Independent film critic Rob Ager has created a popular interpretation that this scene should be understood as the lead up to Danny being sexually abused. This is substantiated with a bear motif running throughout the film—a pillow pet, a bear painting over Danny’s bed (mirrored by the two naked children painting over Jack and Wendy’s bed), a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal in the apartment, a black bear stuffed animal on the lobby floor, and finally the man in the bear costume giving a blowjob discovered later by Wendy. Ager argues that all of these thematically link Danny with the man in the bear costume. This is in addition to the observation that earlier in the film when Ulman approaches Jack in the hotel lobby, he’s reading a copy of Playgirl with a front cover featured article titled “INCEST: Why Parents Sleep With Their Children.” Perhaps the best example of a movie involving an adult having sex with a minor that conceals the actual sexual acts through cuts and innuendo is Lolita—a film also directed by Kubrick 18 years prior to The Shining.
Whether or not you find the interpretation convincing, the film is undeniably about overcoming the anxiety Danny faces about experiencing real abuse at the height of the Oedipal period. The fact that there is some ambiguity in the idea that Jack has further abused or even sexually molested Danny is consistent with Oedipal conflicts broadly. The film is not dealing with reality but with something overlaying it—fantasy, masked as supernatural. For our purposes, whatever actually happened to Danny in either the Torrance apartment or Room 237 is perhaps less important than the fact that something did happen, on one register or another.
Following Wendy’s accusation that he strangled Danny, Jack makes his way to the Gold Room bar, violently lashing out as he passes mirrors on the wall (a conjuring of sorts) before Lloyd the bartender and several rows of booze appear in front of him. He proceeds to rationalize his violence against his son, referring to Danny both as a “son of a bitch” and, multiple times, “the little fucker.” He would do “any fucking thing for him.” Jack’s admissions to Lloyd are linked through the utterance of “five months,” which appear throughout the film. Jack’s toast to “five miserable months on the wagon and all the irreparable harm that it’s caused me” is contrasted with him insisting in the job interview of needing “five months of peace.” Previously Wendy has told us that Jack’s five months of sobriety has also meant five months since he assaulted Danny. Jack’s acceptance of the glass of Jack Daniels also symbolizes breaking his abstention from abusing his son. His entire conversation with Lloyd is then an extended denial of being the one who in fact strangled (and molested) his son. The racist and sexist utterances only reinforce this fall into the repressed.
Wendy interrupts the confession to alert Jack that Danny has told her that a crazy old woman produced the bruises. Are we back to ghosts harming the Torrances? Freud also tells us that it’s entirely possible for an abused child to change the sex of his aggressor to understand his mistreatment as a form of being loved. Our first real look into Room 237 comes from Jack, an adult point of view, but it mimics both Danny’s observed entrance into the Torrance hotel suite and what we presumed happened when he entered Room 237. Like Bergman’s Persona or Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we have scenes repeating a single moment from different perspectives. In this case, the event is simple: a boy walks into a bedroom.
Danny was warned about Room 237, the Oedipal room, and suffered the consequences. Jack is also punished for giving into temptation. When he peers into Room 237’s bathroom, he finds a nude woman stepping out of the bathtub. She approaches him and reaches for his throat before embracing him for a kiss. But while this occurs, Jack looks into the mirror to find a far older woman in a state of decay. Fantasy has turned into a disgusting horror. He backs out, locks the woman in the room, and, like Danny, proceeds to lie to Wendy about his investigation.
When Jack tells Wendy there was nothing in Room 237, Wendy nevertheless insists that they should leave the hotel. Jack’s aggressive reaction is intercut with Danny’s reaction, mouth wide open, and the elevator of blood—an elevator shaft full of blood releasing itself. His parents’ argument leads Danny to the realization that his mother can’t protect him. They’re not leaving the hotel so easily.
Jack storms out of the suite to revisit the Gold Room, but this time it’s in the midst of a 1920’s ball with over a hundred ghostly guests. This is where Jack meets his magic guardian, Grady, in a blood-red bathroom. As has been pointed out many times before, Jack’s eyeline when he’s conversing with ghosts always has him looking into mirrors. This gives credence to the idea that these are hallucinations. But they can also be understood as surreal representations of someone rationalizing with himself. Ulman told Jack the story of Charles Grady slaughtering his family during the job interview, and it has become raw matter for his unconscious encounter with Delbert Grady. It’s a bit different in the details, just as details shift in a dream, but it serves Jack’s desires sufficiently. He expresses to Delbert his wish to punish Danny (punish for what?) and that “his mother” interferes by getting in the way of what he wants to do to him. Delbert’s response is that Jack should “correct” his family.
The divergence between father and son is now firmly established. Whereas Danny successfully avoided the Twins and left Room 237 fortified as Tony, his protective mirror-self, Jack has left Room 237 embracing his murderous mirror-self, Grady. This transformation is effectively the creation of Danny’s parental rival for Wendy’s affection and attention (Danny’s Oedipal father). Jack’s seemingly irrational desire to “correct” (murder) his son makes sense from the perspective of Danny and his unconscious desires and fears. What’s really real in the hotel is real according to Danny’s psychological conflict.6
Jack has been portrayed up to this point as quite negligent of his adult duties: he offers no real affection to Wendy, who is often providing or offering food for Jack even while accusing him of horrendous acts. Until the “All Work and No Play” scene, Jack also seems utterly indifferent to his “responsibilities to his employers.” Wendy truly acts as both caretaker in the context of the Overlook and the family. Moreover, Jack acts like a boy, spending his time playing with a tennis ball, sleeping in late, neglecting his responsibilities. And, given that he’s unable to be the writer he wishes to be, a dull boy at that. Wendy and Danny are the actual couple—something Jack realizes and resents. Jack’s writer’s block and sexual frustration,7 repressed throughout the film, now reappear as a desire to hurt his family.
This comes to a head when Wendy discovers Jack’s manuscript is nothing but the phrase “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy” written over and over. Jack confronts her about what should be done about Danny—a conversation we’re informed that Danny can hear. This encounter, full of repeated phrases (and filmed a record 127 takes on set), is where Jack threatens to bash Wendy’s brains in. She responds by striking Jack with a baseball bat, first on his hand, and then his skull. Up until this confrontation, Wendy has perpetuated the internal dynamic within the family, earlier justifying Tony’s existence to the doctor and Jack’s abusive behavior. Now she is unable to kill Jack, despite the plain threat he represents to her and Danny. Instead, he is locked in the kitchen storage (story) room.
This situation has presented a problem for typical explanations of the film that argue for the psychological: if the ghosts don’t open the pantry door, who lets Jack out? This is the moment that Kubrick said leaves us with the only explanation that the supernatural is real. But according to some analyses, including Rob Ager’s, the only other explanation is that Danny opens the door, thus setting up an ending whereby Danny is luring his father into the hedge maze like a trap. This is plausible since we’re led to believe Danny/Tony are aware of the entire situation by the presence of Tony the Tiger over Wendy’s shoulder in the kitchen.
But if we accept the rules of a fairy tale, then we have no problem saying that Jack is let out by his magical guardian Grady rather than Danny. Jack escapes simply because Danny must face him. In turn, Danny successfully summons Dick Hallorann to attempt to save him and Wendy, just as Jack has begun chopping down the Torrance suite’s bathroom door.
In a dreamlike ending, Jack and Danny, now fully their mirror-selves, do battle to the death. Jack, fully acting as Oedipal father, chops down Danny’s magical guardian Dick [Hallorann] with an axe before beginning his final pursuit of Danny out of the hotel and into the hedge maze. The fear of parental-rival has become manifest horror.
But over the course of the film, Tony has successfully prepared Danny for this moment. While Danny spends much of the movie circling the hotel on his big wheel, repeating the same turns over and over much like a neurotic with a symptom, he actually discovers how to leave the maze. Multiple viewings of Roadrunner cartoons (where the weaker but cunning roadrunner character successfully outsmarts and defeats the bloodthirsty coyote), repeated trips through the hedge maze with Wendy, and encounters with both the Twins and Room 237 have given Danny his own unconscious raw matter to confront his fear. Hoile writes, “just as Torrance had led his family into the maze of the hotel, Danny leads his father into the garden maze. If the first is the maze of horror and the intestines, the second is the maze of sport and the mind. Torrance is now on Danny’s own territory.”
Danny’s own cunning foil for Jack involves walking backwards in his snowy footprints, ending the trail of metaphorical breadcrumbs Jack is following. This is paralleled with two other instances in the film where Danny’s parents have demonstrated how to walk backwards in order to deal with an oncoming threat: Jack in Room 237 vs. the rotting old woman,8 and Wendy vs Jack in the Colorado Lounge. Only this time the suspense is built through Jack’s pursuit from behind—“I’m right behind you, Danny.”
Danny escapes his own fantasy double by successfully fulfilling his murderous wish—the successful murder of his father. In the typical Oedipal drama, as worked out in an individual psychoanalysis, this is carried out in fantasy, relieving the subject of the conflict so as to be able to live less encumbered by it in reality. Danny learns that there is no way out of the maze without first going back. This leads him to follow the footprints in reverse safely to his mother and ultimately away from the hotel. It is only when he stumbles out of the maze that we hear Danny speak, not as Tony, but with his own voice again. The second transformation is complete.
The outcome of everything we’ve just witnessed is then left on a cliffhanger. In the novel, the Overlook is blown up. But in Kubrick’s it still stands. Although Danny’s successful exit of the Oedipal phase allows him to enter into and deal with reality, the fact of the overlooked as such remains. Like the unconscious, the Overlook will never be destroyed; it must be lived with. This is, of course, the meaning of the final black and white photo, depicting Jack at a hotel party in 1921. This is where the doubles go when the fantasy is dissolved. In a final sick joke (not unlike Kubrick’s ending in Dr. Strangelove), we roll credits over Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, The Stars And You,” a song describing an everlasting love… you can piece this one together. The Torrances might have left, but the Oedipal father still rules the roost in the unconscious, the place that overlooks us all.
The film has created a curious reaction. By diving so directly into Oedipal fantasy, summoning the fears of a child and opening up a tension between psychological and supernatural, it has led its audience to go looking for a reality that undergirds the narrative. If only we could find what’s really going on under the fantasy, they say… but can’t ever put their finger on it. Of course all horror films deal with the repressed or the taboo, but by taking on the granddaddy of them all, The Shining has produced yet a new repetition of that which we would rather repress.
(1) This interpretation asserts that the Beatles are less of “the meaning” and more of crucial keys that assist Danny in discovering the correct way out of the maze. “Please don’t think I’m saying King was consciously forging a Beatles implosion parable, but I think Kubrick saw that a big part of its truth—the truth of this novel—was in how the death of the Beatles specifically, and the horrors and heartache of the 20th century’s major events generally, influenced the conceit and the writing and became a major component of its truth. Redrum Road wouldn’t work if the songs didn’t seem to be speaking to the events on screen. And while you do have to become a bit of an Abbey Road expert to see how that’s so or how consistently so it is, once you get to that point the two become almost inseparable.” Emphasis added.
(2) This last explanation is more of an accusation than an interpretation, insofar as it hinges on the idea that Kubrick the artist in fact filmed the Apollo moon landings, and then used the film as a means of confessing this. Leaving aside the fact that the “evidence” for this theory is dependent almost entirely on a single scene in the movie, to make this explanation credible one would need to find substantive evidence outside the movie that Kubrick in fact filmed the moon landing. To my knowledge, outside of some highly dubious photographic analysis asserting the presence of front-screen projection and scotchlite screen material in NASA stills, there is no evidence.
(3) The “story-room” provides fertile inspiration for many interpretations of the movie, all of which try their best to read into the objects things that get away from the obvious story. There are separate and conflicting analyses that focus on the Tang, the Calumet baking powder, the Kool-Aid, the Kosher Dill Slices, the yellow cling sliced peaches, the Heinz tomato ketchup, the bags of salt, and the numbers printed on the boxes.
(4) Bettelheim continues: “Surpassing the two stands in the unconscious for doing better than the two parents. In respect to his parents the child feels abused, insignificant, neglected; to excel them means coming into his own, much more than triumphing over a sibling would.”
(5) In The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim states that, “before and well into the Oedipal period (roughly ages three to six or seven), the child’s experience of the world is chaotic, but only as seen from an adult point of view, because chaos implies an awareness of this state of affairs.”
(6) Mark Fisher writes, “The horrors that stalk the Overlook’s corridors belong to the Real. The Real is that which keeps repeating, that which re-asserts itself no matter how you seek to flee it (more horribly, it is that which re-asserts itself through the attempts to flee it: the fate of Oedipus). The Overlook’s horrors are those of the family and of history; or more concisely, they are those of family history (the province, needless to say, of psychoanalysis).”
(7) The Overlook sits on Mount Hood, which is a dormant volcano. Something Kubrick was aware of.
(8) This sequence may just be Danny’s dream fantasy of either punishing his father or self-identifying with his abuser.
Cale Brooks is not sure if reading the entire Freud reader was really necessary to write this article. He is also the video editor at Jacobin Magazine.