A Minor Tour through some ‘interpretations’ of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’
‘People can misinterpret almost anything so that it coincides with views they already hold. They take from art what they already believe.’
- Stanley Kubrick
‘It’s really all going on in his head – Jack’s head.’
- Martin Scorsese
‘Interpretation’ is a word many use when they mean ‘imagination’. When somebody tells you that the first Friday the 13th is ‘a post-feminist reaction by the misogynist collective mind to the rise of women in the 1970s in the context of latent-homosexual self-loathing’ the qualifier ‘well, that’s my interpretation of it’ won’t be far behind. At least it better not. It’s possible the film in question isn’t a ‘post-feminist’ reaction, but rather the person claiming it is obsessed with feminism and misogyny and latent-homosexuality and therefore sees these things everywhere. Not only that, and I think more importantly, to refer to the movie in terms which are interpretative rather than imaginative allows the person to believe some intellectual process was going on in their heads: that their opinion is the conclusion to some real intellectual effort, not just a load of crap they’ve imagined into existence or the symptom of their underlying preoccupations. This sort of thing happens all the time. We’ve all heard someone say ‘well, that’s my interpretation’. Unless that person is translating a language, and arguing for a specific meaning as compared to another, I think it’s likely the person has just imagined that the movie is ‘about’ whatever they want it to be about. Some critics reveal nothing but their preoccupations. It is on this point that a few warnings about criticism present themselves.
Some critics choose to make a simple point in a complicated way. Why do they do this? One critic, the late Christopher Hitchens, was suspicious of those who ‘imagine they are practicing “literary theory”’ and said their decision ‘to adopt a mode of discourse that is virtually private on the page and quite impossible to keep up in ordinary speech’ was one which
may arouse our suspicion of its authenticity not because of its supposedly superior ‘difficulty’ (it is in fact a relatively simple language to decode) but because it seems to desire an existence apart from the common tongue, in which it must be said that its practitioners do not excel.
Here’s an example. In 1980 a scholarly article was published (one of many) about Ridley Scott’s movie, Alien. This is the first paragraph from that article:
An aesthetically effective mass-cultural production, Alien cleverly fuses a number of disparate cultural semes into a cinematic narrative that has considerable visual and emotional impact. At the same time, it cannot entirely conceal its own internally overdetermined and contradictory construction, which allows criticism to expose its attempt to resurrect a specific ideological figure. For the death of the alien, as Alien has it, is the triumphant rebirth of humanism, disguised as a powerful, progressive, and justifying feminism.
‘Decode’ just the first sentence. The person who typed that chose to say what he thought in a deliberately ‘intelligent’ and ‘scholarly’ way, making the article’s first point less clear than it could have been. Not a good start. That a point is made in a pretentious way doesn’t make it wrong, but how seriously should the person be taken? How seriously did they take the movie they are writing about if that’s how they choose to communicate about it? It is possible that a person who chooses to communicate in such a way takes himself most seriously of all. And why would anyone want to use a style of language which seems ‘to desire an existence apart from the common tongue’? I couldn’t possibly comment.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has attracted just as much ‘scholarly’ attention as Alien, but Ridley Scott’s movie hasn’t excited quite as many ‘fan-theories’ as The Shining. There are numerous ‘video essays’ to be found on YouTube explaining what The Shining is really ‘about’, along with peer-reviewed papers which reveal their authors’ obsessions. The ideas run from plausible to risible.
There are humans who really do believe that NASA faked the moon landings. If a person can manage to believe this, then it is an easy jump across the corridor to the other psyche-ward where they believe The Shining is Kubrick’s coded ‘confession’ on how he helped NASA fake those landings. If a person believes that, if they genuinely experience feelings of certainty when considering The Shining is such a coded confession, then there isn’t anything anyone could say to dissuade such a person. They will never be persuaded against what might be something they secretly hope is true.
I want to know what The Shining is ‘about’, but I accept that my wanting to know doesn’t mean there is one definitive answer. I’m actually convinced there isn’t one clear answer, just ideas which are more plausible than others. Take another ‘scholarly’ article, this time about The Shining.
The horror film in particular elicits a ‘digestive’ response from the viewer: for example, one may say of such a film, ‘It scared the shit out of me,’ or ‘It made me want to throw up.’ [..] This essay explores how Kubrick’s horror film presents a narrative of digestion: the revelation of hidden depths seen by the mind and not necessarily the eye alone.
That is from another serious ‘critic’ who is unaware that they are possibly projecting their preoccupations onto the film. The idea the eye can see something without the involvement of the mind is an odd one. Several pages later the same person offers the following:
As Jack is lured into the hotel’s collective of white male supremacy and misogyny, Wendy is pulled more deeply into a compulsion to be a competent mother and wife. [..] We never see her ‘shine’, or see ghosts, as do Jack and Danny, because Wendy is busy doing the practical, traditionally earth-based work of women.
To say Wendy never sees ghosts is incorrect. She is the one who sees the man with another character dressed in a bear-suit, kneeling at the foot of a bed. She also sees another man wearing a tuxedo. This man, whose head is split open, has his own close-up and actually speaks to her, saying, ‘Great party, isn’t it,’ while holding a glass of bloody bourbon. These two sightings occur just after Jack is released from the store-room. How odd that the person who wrote the above missed something so obvious. Could it be that the person who typed that Wendy never sees ghosts has failed to spot that she does because this doesn’t fit with what she wants to be true? That paragraph might tell you more about the woman who typed it than the film she’s typing about. Don’t forget, the paragraph comes from an article in a peer reviewed journal.
Some ideas about the film’s subtext involve the massacre of the American Indians. The hotel’s lounges are decorated with tapestries and rugs which make this connection, and the manager, Ullman, tells the Torrances that some attacks were repelled when the hotel was built. I do not think The Shining is ‘about’ the massacre of native Americans, but do think the film uses their example as a way to make a point about luxury and wealth being supported by the bones of the poor, allowing ‘all the best people’ as Ullman has it, to stay at the high-end resort. The surface implication, offered by Ullman as he walks the Torrances around the grounds, is that ghosts are unhappy that the hotel is there and so haunt the place and make bad things happen as revenge. This doesn’t make any sense at all because those ghosts are choosy about when to haunt. One thing is definite: the happenings at the Overlook have not damaged the hotel’s popularity. During his interview, Ullman tells Jack about ‘the incident’ which occurred in the winter of 1970, many years before. The ghosts – if it was they who sent Grady mad – haven’t bothered haunting the winter caretakers since 1970. All has been quiet at the Overlook for years before Jack shows up. And that small detail is the first clue to what might really be going on during the movie.
I am not interested in any comparison between Stephen King’s novel and Kubrick’s film. The film only slightly resembles the book and I am concerned with the film only. Taking something from the novel and applying it to the movie to enhance understanding of the movie is a mistake if the ‘something’ isn’t in the film, too. There are many things in the novel which are not shown in the film. In another ‘scholarly’ article on the domestic abuse question in the film, the author refers back to the novel several times to do this very thing.
In his novel, King goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jack’s pathology was caused by his own childhood abuse. He devotes several pages to Jack’s recollections of his violent alcoholic father, who would sometimes drop his son without warning while they were playing.
On the following page she suggests why Jack becomes possessed by the evil forces:
his susceptibility to that possession grows out of having been abused as a child and having witnessed the abuse of his own mother. He is already haunted – and to some extent controlled – by his own traumatic childhood.
This is all very well if Kubrick also goes to great lengths to establish this, but he doesn’t; however domestic violence is integral to understanding the film, and the question of domestic violence dominates a scene early in the movie.
Wendy has no need to tell the doctor about Danny’s injury to begin with, and when asked, could have lied about how it happened. She is ashamed, however, for she covers her face – ostensibly to put a cigarette in her mouth, but the timing is interesting – when the doctor asks about it. Once she knows she has no choice but to relate this incident, she begins by using the ‘just one of those things’ line. If this is Wendy covering for abuse (as some have suggested) she isn’t doing a very good job. If she wanted to hide physical abuse, then why tell the doctor to begin with? Why not leave out that her husband had been drinking? There is a simple reason to explain her embarrassment on one hand yet her willingness to reveal what happened. This is expository dialogue, allowing us to know that Jack is dangerous. This doesn’t mean domestic abuse has been going on, but it does suggest Jack has a temper, and it’s worse when he’s been drinking; indeed, the whole conversation implies Jack was fired from his teaching job, and for a serious reason, causing him to be unemployable, thus requiring them to move away. It might be a better question to ask, not what The Shining is ‘about’, but what really happens, what does that which we see represent? There are many possible ‘interpretations’ but the following seem to be grounded in the genuinely possible.
The first explanation is to say that what we see represents what happens, that what appears to be the case on the surface level is indeed the case: a man is possessed by malevolent spirits which make him try to murder his family. This explanation is the least likely to be true. There is always subtext in all forms of fiction, and the idea that Kubrick didn’t have things going on ‘under the surface’ is an idea too silly to spend any time on. The Shining is a work which contains small and significant details. In a genuinely scholarly article, Catriona McAvoy shows that the Kubrick archive has a note dated 30 March 1978, which lists ‘Salinger, Carson McCullers, Sherwood Anderson’. She says that this ‘seems to relate to the decision of what Wendy should be reading in the scene’. The scene in question is the apartment based, ‘road-runner’ scene, where Wendy is sat with Danny, reading The Catcher in the Rye. The point is that, if Kubrick is thinking of what book Wendy should be holding for no more than a few seconds of screen time, and the book is never mentioned in any case, then it is fair to assume that the film contains many other details which appear inconsequential, but are specific and deliberate.
The second explanation is linked to the first, that what happens on the surface is what is actually happening, but the expository dialogue mentioned before offers the explanation of how the spirits were able to get into Jack’s head to begin with. That he has a temper and is a drinker is the weakness they use to access his mind. Indeed, in the scene with the bartender, Lloyd, Jack states he’d sell his soul for a glass of beer just before Lloyd appears.
The third explanation links to the quotation from Scorsese. This idea is that the scenes of madness and ghosts and violence are, in ‘reality’, scenes from Jack’s novel, and that the Grady story Jack hears in the interview inspires him to write a novelised version of that event. He is impressed by this tale, telling Ullman, ‘that’s quite a story’.
The fourth explanation links to the third. The scenes of madness and violence are indeed part of Jack’s novel, but the novel represents what he wants to do to his family: the Grady tale inspires a novel which is Jack’s own sick murder fantasy. Yes, this does assume Jack actively hates his wife and son, and in addition it assumes the Overlook isn’t haunted to begin with. Of all the possible explanations this one is the most likely.
Assuming there’s no chance that the first explanation is correct, what is wrong with explanation two? The problem is in the question of the dilution of the horror. It is simply the case that, if Jack’s psychological weaknesses are exploited by the hotel’s forces, then he is a victim along with his wife and son. This is obviously less horrible than it might be and I could discount this explanation for that reason alone. This explanation is used in King’s novel. We learn that Jack had an abusive alcoholic father, and it is the damage left in his mind by his father which makes him vulnerable to the ghosts in the hotel. I think Kubrick touches on this aspect of Jack’s character (Wendy’s expository dialogue with the doctor) but doesn’t bother to give it a source (his own father’s abuse) because it’s just not relevant to the film and doing so would dilute the horror even more. If Jack just happens to be a bad-tempered alcoholic on his own account, and the ghosts use this weakness, he is, as stated, a victim. If we also learn that he is that way because he was abused himself, then he’s even less to blame for his actions. He might as well have a brain tumour affecting his behaviour. Stripping away all the cycle-of-abuse stuff makes Jack more horrifying because if he’s not a victim being exploited against his will, he is a man who wants to hurt his family.
The idea that the film cuts between scenes of ‘reality’ and early scenes in Jack’s novel is one which does make sense: as the novel progresses, we see ‘Jack’ become more and more deranged, until Wendy says she wants to take Danny away from the hotel, triggering the final psychosis in Jack, as the hotel’s ghosts want Danny for his ‘shining’ ability, and can’t let him escape. The problem with this idea is the same horror-dilution problem. If Jack is writing a novel, using the Grady killings as his source inspiration, then that isn’t horrific unless he secretly wants to chop his family into pieces, which is why explanation four is where the horror is to be found. If Jack is just writing a novel then there would be no need for Wendy expository’s dialogue at the beginning. If we’re watching Jack’s novel play-out, then he might as well have just won father-of-the-year award. The horror rests on his real hatred of his wife and son, in the real world.
One thing becomes obvious if the scenes of violence and ghosts are happening in Jack’s head. It can’t be avoided that the hotel isn’t haunted. This is the exact opposite of what the film presents to us; but, that the hotel is haunted is part of the surface explanation, so shouldn’t be too hard an idea to reject. The idea that a haunted something – house, hotel or whatever – isn’t haunted wouldn’t even be original to the movie.
In 1959 Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen King called the novel ‘As nearly a perfect haunted-house tale as I have ever read.’ This quotation sits on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback, is placed above the title (and above Mrs Jackson’s name) so it’s obvious the publisher was happy with it, and why. The first paragraph of the book was noteworthy for King. Discussing the haunted house tale in Danse Macabre, he suggests the house requires an ‘historical context’ – a ‘dark history’ – and that ‘Jackson establishes it immediately in the first paragraph of her novel, stating her tale’s argument in lovely, dreamlike prose.’ This is the novel’s opening paragraph.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
King says of the opening that
Analysis of such a paragraph is a mean and shoddy trick, and should almost always be left to college and university professors, those lepidopterists of literature who, when they see a lovely butterfly, feel that they should immediately run into the field with a net, catch it, kill it with a drop of chloroform, and mount it on a white board and put it in a glass case, where it will still be beautiful…and just as dead as horseshit.
He then goes on to offer some analysis of the opening paragraph. King says he has neither the skill nor the inclination to offer a full analysis of Jackson’s dreamy opening. I’ll believe him about the inclination bit. I’d bet he knows exactly what Jackson’s opening does. What does King say about it specifically? What he says about it first of all is interesting in itself. He states that
It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a live organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because (although here I should add that I may be making an induction Mrs Jackson did not intend) it does not dream, it is not sane.
Does the opening ‘suggest’ Hill House is a live organism? I suppose it does, but ‘suggest’ is right. All humans are live organisms, and the first sentence tells us that to remain sane, live organisms need to dream. By ‘dream’ Jackson could well mean ‘fantasise’ or even ‘hallucinate’ as both these describe ways the mind of a live organism, a human one at any rate, can escape reality and therefore maintain sanity. However I am unconvinced the first sentence actually refers to Hill House. It seems like it does, given the sentence which follows, but one needs to try to explain Jackson’s words ‘not sane’ to make this idea work. Could she be telling nothing but the plain truth when describing Hill House as ‘not sane’? A house is indeed ‘not sane’ because it is a house, an object, not a live organism. Though something is ‘not sane’ does not mean it must therefore be ‘insane’ – just as if something did not ‘turn left’ does not mean it necessarily ‘turned right’. I think Jackson added ‘not sane’ into her description of Hill House to link it in the minds of readers with the first sentence, and could do so because to describe the house this way is still to tell the truth about it. If readers take it to mean something else, then good: that might be the point – but Jackson hasn’t lied to anyone. Once this piece of clever misdirection is complete, Jackson can then tell the plain truth about the house in more detail, knowing the reader will not be reading it as the plain truth. (Remove ‘not sane’ – thereby uncoupling it from the first sentence. Does it sound quite so creepy?)
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The ending sounds spooky, but it would be true of anyone who walked around a house by themselves. They would walk alone if that house wasn’t haunted. In other words the first paragraph disorientates the reader; allows the reader to think the ‘problem’ – or the ‘issue’ as we might now say – lies with house, but really the problem lies with the humans who come to stay there. Hill House isn’t haunted (the book’s title does rather give this away) but making the reader think it is allows the writer to pull a massive piece of misdirection on the reader. Given this example there is no reason to assume the Overlook hotel is haunted, and every reason to assume Kubrick is doing something more complicated than showing us that the surface action is what really happens.
One aspect of what I’ve said so far needs defending. The critic should not assume things into existence just to make his pet-theory work. The explanation which rests on fewer assumptions is the most likely to be true when dealing with ‘interpretation’. So why should it be assumed that Jack is writing a novel? If it is the case that he hates his family, and it is the case his murder-fantasies are being written into his novel, then why assume a novel, why not say that the scene of ghosts and madness and murder are just his fantasies? The novel is an additional assumption which needs to be justified.
The psychoanalyst, Matthew Merced, proposed an explanation for what we see in The Shining which assumes the hotel isn’t haunted, but does not assume Jack is writing a novel. He defines Jack Torrance as a ‘grandiose narcissist’ who reacts, with hallucinations and violence, to his inability to write.
Jack clearly thinks of himself as a writer. During the interview, Jack is introduced to another character as a school teacher; Jack clarifies quickly the he is ‘formerly a school teacher’. Jack states that he is a writer and teaching was only a way to make money, as if being a school teacher is beneath his dignity. Jack’s identity as a writer appears to be part of his grandiose sense of self. We have no evidence that he has attained any success through his writing.
On the following page, Merced notes that we don’t know for sure why Jack is no longer a teacher, and he states that
The caretaker job appears to be Jack’s last chance. At one point while at the hotel, he derisively asks Wendy if she would prefer that they be back in Boulder where he could shovel driveways or work at a car wash.
Merced doesn’t seem to want to reach the conclusion that Jack was fired, and for a serious reason. As stated, I think the expository dialogue from Wendy when talking to the doctor, and their recent arrival in Boulder, suggests Jack was fired and they had to move away: that Jack doesn’t suggest going back to teaching as a job-option seems to make this even more likely. This backstory is part of the underpinning of Merced’s idea: Jack thinks he is a writer. This is significantly different from wants to be a writer. The free time he has at the hotel to write finally confirms that he isn’t a writer, and this blow to his grandiose, narcissistic-self causes the hallucinations and the madness as a form of ego-preservation.
The reason that Merced’s theory doesn’t quite work is that both Wendy and Danny see ghosts. If the ghosts and visions are inside Jack’s head without being in Jack’s novel then how do Wendy and Danny see them? For this reason it is reasonable to assume that Jack is trying to write his story, but all he can manage is to repeat the phrase ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’.
The idea that the action, or a significant part of it, takes place inside a character’s head is not odd at all. The movie version of the musical ‘Chicago’ is a film in which the musical numbers take place in Renee Zellweger’s imagination. The song ‘Class’ was filmed, sung by Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta Jones, though Zellweger’s character is not present to witness them so cannot imagine their discussion as a song. For this reason the number was cut from the film. So why film it to begin with? The answer is that they didn’t know when filming it that the songs would be presented as existing only in Roxie Hart’s imagination, it was something thought about later. This is why the argument which tries to weaken the view that Jack is writing a novel by mentioning cut scenes from the movie – specifically the ‘hospital scene’ where we learn that Jack’s frozen body has not been found in the maze – doesn’t work because the idea some of the action takes place in Jack’s novel needn’t have been decided upon when that scene was shot. It’s a genuinely creepy film, but perhaps not for the obvious reasons.
‘Kubrick made a majestically terrifying movie, where what you don’t see or comprehend shadows every move the characters make.’
- Martin Scorsese
Amy Nolan, Seeing is Digesting. Labyrinths of Historical Ruin in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, Cultural Critique, 2011, no.77, pp 180-204
Andrew Tudor, Why Horror? The Peculiar Pleasures of a Popular Genre, Cultural Studies, 1997, Vol. 11 (3), pp 443-463
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 Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, 2014, pp 3-16