Since its release in 1980, THE SHINING has run the gamut of hypothesis and theories that encapsulates Stanley Kubrick’s film as an intricate, psychological entry into the horror genre; one that is too often ridiculed for lacking intellectual depth or foresight. While most know how far Kubrick veered from the original novel, which Stephen King has openly scrutinized, going as far to produce a mini-series in 1997, what THE SHINING does effectively is utilize time and space in a deliberate effort to entrench us in a descent into madness. Even as the opening credits scroll backwards across the screen, an effect that tells us that the beginning is already the end, we are only allowed access to so much, gliding over our ascending vehicle yet never gaining access to who or what force propels it towards impending doom. Only when it is too late, and we are in the Overlook Hotel, our murderously bloodied winter lodging, are we given entry to the past; one that is covered up with lies and fear induced rationality.
There is an intentional window cast before us, one that forces us to piece together the past while living in the present; we know Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) use to drink, that he once hurt his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and that his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) accepts what has happened while living in everyday fear (lighting a cigarette with shaking hands is only one of the subtle nuances Kubrick constructs). We are told that Danny developed a voice (Tony) inside his head, but what kind of child he was before this occurrence is imprecise, the way Jack’s alcoholism is swept under the rug, as he has now been sober for 5 months. Similarly, we are told only a portion of the Overlook’s history, as manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) informs us of a previous caretaker, Charles Grady (Philip Stone), and his cabin fever induced murder of his wife and two daughters. However, like Jack Torrance, there is a deeper and darker past rooted in the depths of our evils, as both the Overlook and Jack harbor an aggression and penchant for violence, representing the living, breathing entities of our film.
The hotel itself rests atop a Native American burial ground, and is decorated with Apache and Mojave motifs. Ullman even teases that the construction crew of the hotel had to repel attacks by local tribes. It’s a sordid past that remains closed, as we become transfixed on the idea of Jack’s family resting atop a similarly unsavory history, its roots buried deeper than we are allowed to see. It begs us to ask the question, not whether the Overlooks past atrocities occurred due to what the hotel was built atop, but whether Mr. Torrance’s madness is fashioned from a violent and alcoholic past his family has built their future on.
This is where Kubrick takes liberty with our insight into the lives of the hotel and the Torrance’s, as our window is closed and reopened a month later, a sort of madness already conceived between those passing days. When we first see Jack, it’s through the reflection of a bedroom mirror, his eyes meeting his own in an acknowledgement of the dualities that clash within; the alcoholic father that lurks in the shadows and the husband he believes he has become. Not until Jack lies to Wendy, stating that he fell in love with the Overlook right away, do we cut away from the mirror and are shown Jack for his true self; a manifestation of the hotel and of what life may have been like when nights were filled with late night libations.
Immense and sprawling, our lodging is a creature, one that twists and turns with long carpeted hallways and enormous rooms that dwarf our guests. Danny rides his tricycle through the halls, the sounds of his wheels moving from carpet to hardwood like the score that accompanied Jack when he first ascended the mountain road. There’s an unwavering sense of dread that resides at the top of the mountain, and like Danny and his gift to see moments in the future, we ourselves know what’s to come. When Wendy and Danny enter the hedge maze before the impending storm hits, it’s us that oversee the way to safety, knowing something that we cannot instruct, like the past of the Torrance’s that has already been set in stone. Both the hedge maze and the labyrinth like hotel act as traps for our family, with the way out laid right before their eyes like early warning signs. It’s the Overlook that sways control over Jack, who looks over his family with a silent disdain, placing blame on Wendy for his past mistakes.
Later in our film, after Jack has been ostracized and turned against his family by Wendy, who believes he has once again laid a finger on Danny due to her inability to forget the past, Jack enters the empty ballroom and posts up at the bar. Enraged, his reflection looking back at him from behind the bar shelves, Jack sells his soul to the devil for a beer, a moment of weakness spurred on by the crutch of his past and the power of the Overlook. Appearing before him is Lloyd (Joe Turkel), a bartender with slicked back hair and a devilishly crimson smoking jacket, one that Jack appears to know and who beckons his soul into the arms of the hotel, subsequently symbolized when he later enters room 237.
Is Lloyd a representation of the hotel or of Jack’s alcoholic past of rocks glasses and last calls? When he states that he’s the “best goddamn bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine.” there’s a reassuring sense of familiarity with Jack, as if this is a man he has encountered before. Or perhaps every soul that resides in the Overlook is a reflection of Jack’s alcoholic past. It isn’t until a couple drinks have been knocked back does our window open, allowing us to see the souls that reside in the hotel, one of them being Delbert Grady, or is it Charles? The two distinct Grady’s give a contextual separation to Jack’s two halves, one that has really only existed for 5 sobering months. Delbert symbolizes sobriety while Charles Grady symbolizes the spiraling rage fueled by drinking, and in between each is Jack Torrance, a man who is continually caught between himself and his reflection.
It’s only when our maddened caretaker steps outside the confines of the Overlook are we given a man lost to alcohol, to the fury that stirs within him that replaces the necessity to be a father and husband. When Danny leads Jack into the maze, he tricks him into succumbing to the complexity of fatherhood, as Danny begins erasing his footsteps in the snow. Is it not the son, who generally follows in his father’s footsteps? Perhaps Danny’s ax wielding pursuer isn’t his father, but a man who once was, now lost to the power of alcohol. The similarities to Charles Grady, as well as the final photo of Jack Torrance immortalized at a July 4th, 1921 ball may suggest that he never left the Overlook. Or maybe it’s simply shattering the window Stanley Kubrick placed in front of us, telling us that Mr. Torrance never escaped the bottle; that your own past is the only ghost that can ever harm you.