By: Jay Dyer
“Down the years, he had a phrase that he repeated like a personal mantra to hold at bay anyone who pressed him too closely about the “meaning” of his work, or his own “intentions.” It came from an essay by H.P. Lovecraft, like Stephen King a popular manipulator of the occult: “In all things that are mysterious-never explain.” The edict applies to Kubrick’s own work, but even more to himself.” Stanley Kubrick, Director by: Walker, Taylor and Ruchti, pg. 274
Generally considered one of the best horror films of all time, the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of the Stephen King story The Shining, is not lacking in interpretive creativity on the part of critics and analysts. Freudian psychoanalysis combined with esoteric speculation generally garner much of the review space, but in my estimation the Shining is about something much more obvious, yet obscure. I believe the film adaptation is intended to convey the same message as King’s, and that is demonic possession. Not merely possession of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), but of the spectral haunting of America itself, in terms of its dark past in relation to the Native Americans. Indigenous animistic spiritualism undergirds the film, manifesting in a kind of generational curse upon Jack, as we will see.
Initially, the camera perspective appears to fly in from an aerial vantage, as if it were the view of a spirit or demon. From the camera’s vantage we also see a lake with and “as above, so below” reflection of a lonely islet in the midst of vast mountains. Signifying isolation, Jacks desire to be rid of his family is reflected in nature, but as we will see, mirrors and reflections will be displayed prominently in the film to convey reality behind the veil, in the spiritual realm.
Hovering then over the mountains, we eventually see Jack driving towards the ominous Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Built in 1907, the site was chosen for its seclusion and scenic beauty, yet there is a darker side to this locale: It seems to draw dark forces into its midst. While the hotel is “real,” we will discover in Jack’s mind it begins to take on an other-worldly, almost portal aspect. Jack has in fact chosen this location purposefully because the “writing” of the story is not his novel, but his gruesome reenactment of spiritual sacrifice that is required for his entrance into the hall of fame – the abode of the “beautiful people.”
The interview scene conveys this overtly Americana façade that clues the viewer into the dual symbology of the film, where the Overlook is both Jack’s degenerating psyche and a microcosm of the United States. With a friendly, charming veneer, the baby boomer generation has a dark side that is portrayed both figuratively and literally in Jack’s brutality and the mystic locale of the Overlook. In this sense, America is not baseball and apple pie, and Manager Ullman’s JFK-esque appearance masks his own potential to actually be nefarious, while surrounded by icons of Americana, from flags to paintings to Native American artworks.
It is here that Jack divulges his desire for solitude and isolation, suggesting the non-interventionist policies of pre-New Freedom Initiative America. It is also worth noting that the photos in Ullman’s office appear to be the same images that will conclude the film (as will be shown below). Ullman reveals to Jack the history of the caretakers involved a previous mass murder, where “cabin fever” resulted in an instance of madness. Danny, we begin to learn, has a special talent by which he can presage the future, which is the film’s title, “shining.” Walker, Taylor and Ruchti explain, highlighting my point about animism and Native American traditions:
“Carothers [Dick Halloran] is a great casting success. His talent for ‘shining” springs from the animism associated with blacks, but Carothers’ features, ancient and weathered like an Easter Island monument, also lend the story more gravitas. He’s the hero, although a sacrificial hero.”
Jack explained to Ullman his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) is a “confirmed ghost story and horror film fanatic,” but as we see from the imagery in the Torrance apartment, Wendy actually shares an interest in the occult, including numerous books on witchcraft, as well as the notorious Catcher in the Rye. Because Jack has come to despise his family, whom he thinks are holding him back from greatness, it will come into his mind (through the suggestion of the demonic) to create a real horror for Wendy.
Danny experiences a supernatural premonition and blackout at this point, knowing they are destined to undergo the Overlook ordeal. We begin to suspect Danny has been abused as his alternate persona appears to be a spirit named “Tony,” who lives in Danny’s mouth and stomach. In my opinion, the usage of inverted stars here is intentional, as we later discover Jack has physically and sexually assaulted Danny (resulting in his traumatic break and “Tony”). Interestingly, in accounts of spiritual possession, there are instances of spirits inhabiting certain areas of the body in precisely this way.
Indeed, as Rob Ager has correctly elucidated, the abuse appears to be generational, and intergenerational conflict and Freudian/Oedipal envy (Jack resents Danny) will occupy much of this story. Ager is also correct in his insights concerning the cartoon programming Danny has apparently received, as Jack will become the “Big Bad Wolf,” utilizing the Disney and nursery rhyme mantras during his psychosis. This is also why cartoons are consistently playing and seen throughout the film, including numerous references to fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel and classical works of mythology with Theseus and the labyrinth’s minotaur.
Ager is also perceptive to connect the old hag in the bath tub to the classical notion of the seductive nymphs or sirens that turn into hags or cause sailors to crash upon the rocks. Looking over the books visible in Wendy’s living room, we can see an interest in witchcraft in The Magic Circle (or is Jack the witch?) and Mother Goddess, as the counselor learns Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder in a drunken rage. Wendy, however, is partly to blame in this, as she is willing to let this trauma go on Jack’s good word. Recall as well the “magic circle” also appears…..
The rest of this analysis is now in print form in my best selling book, Esoteric Hollywood: Sex, Cults & Symbols in Film which can be purchased (signed copies) by clicking on the image:
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