This is the first in a series of posts on The Shining. If you’ve read this post and want to find the most recent one in the series, it’s here.
Recently, I watched a documentary about The Shining: Room 237. In it there were five or six complete nutters talking about their interpretation of the film. One said he was sure it was Kubrick’s admission of having faked the footage of the Apollo moon landings; one person was sure it was designed to be watched with the film running backwards and forwards at the same time, superimposed on itself. It didn’t really deal with the things I’m interested in though. Talking to Alex, it transpires she either hadn’t seen the film, or had seen it so long ago she couldn’t remember anything about it, so we decided to watch it, and also to read the novel. So far, we’ve only watched the film. Book impressions will follow later.
The main things I took away from the film were questions. The main plot’s straightforward enough: Jack Torrance gets a job as the winter caretaker in the remote Overlook Hotel, and takes his wife and child with him. The child, Danny, is highly prescient (a talent which manifests as his imaginary friend Tony talking to him) and knows something bad is going to happen, and something bad does. As the winter snows cut the Overlook off from the outside world, Jack descends into madness and tries to kill Danny and his mother Wendy. Pretty normal, as these things go.
But within that bare bones summary is all sorts of ghostiness: Danny keeps seeing the ghosts of twin sisters who were murdered ten years previously by their father (also a winter caretaker), Wendy sees the ghosts of a man in evening dress being fellated by another man in a pig costume, and also a smiling genial man with a great big axe wound in his head, and Jack sees the ghost of the previous winter caretaker (or maybe not…), a barman, a naked lady in a bath and scores of other guests. Oh, and both Danny and Wendy see a huge wave of blood coming out of an elevator, which isn’t really a ghost, but is definitely odd. And then at the end of the film, once Jack’s frozen himself to death in the maze, he appears in a photo from the 4th July ball, 1921. Not normal behaviour for a dead man.
And that stuff is what I’m interested in. Kubrick was notorious for being a control freak and not leaving anything to chance, so he hasn’t put those things in for no reason. They mean something. But what?
I’m leaning towards the ‘July 4th Ball 1921’ picture being the key here:
Obviously Jack wasn’t in the Overlook hotel in 1921 – that’s 59 years before the film is set. So how does he get into the photo? Is he the reincarnation of a previous winter caretaker? That’s one theory, and it’s lent some credence by the story of a previous caretaker who killed his family with an axe (which Jack himself tries to do), leading towards a ‘history repeating itself’ idea where the same events repeat themselves over and over at intervals, but I’m not sure about that. Would the caretaker be taking pride of place in the photo? I don’t think he would. If anyone, I think it’d be the owner or the manager. Also, Jack is the winter caretaker (as was the previous murdering caretaker), but the photo was apparently taken in the summer. Finally, although the photo says it’s the Overlook Hotel, the room it’s taken in doesn’t resemble the Colorado Lounge, the big ballroom in the hotel (I can’t remember the name of it) or any of the other large spaces we see in the film. I’m not talking about the decor here – that could easily have changed in the decades since the photo was taken – I mean the architecture itself. The Colorado Lounge looks like this:
And the ballroom looks like this:
But if the photo wasn’t taken in the Overlook, where was it taken? Well, having considered it, I don’t think it was ever ‘taken’ actually: there are shots of the wall where the photo is throughout the film, and that particular photo isn’t on the wall until the end of the film. It appears there after Jack’s death, among the other photos, which Ullman says are “all the best people”.
That kind of spoils my initial theory, though, which is that something happened in 1921 that brought the hotel to life (although what that should be, and why it took either 12 or 14 years depending on whether you start counting from when construction on the hotel started, or from when it opened I have no idea) and that it periodically affects people in very dark ways, eventually consuming them and taking them inside itself; and that the photo changes to include whoever is consumed. There’s another problem with my theory there though: if that’s the case, where is Grady? And even if that was the case, why should Jack get pride of place? He failed to do what I’m presuming the hotel wanted, which was to kill his family, so shouldn’t he be off in the background somewhere?
Another theory is that Jack was the reincarnation of someone from 1921 (presumably the manager or the owner, given his placing in the photo), and that he’s been brought back into the fold. That would resolve the matter of Danny and Wendy surviving, since the hotel’s main aim wouldn’t have been to kill them, it would have been to get Jack back.
The more I think about that, the more I like it. Jack’s being treated like royalty in his hallucinations or time travels or whatever they are, with Lloyd and Grady being deferential to him, even though he’s only the caretaker. Lloyd tells him that “Your money is no good here. Orders from the House.”, just after Jack declares “I’ve been away, but now I’m back.” And actually, it’s worth remembering here that the very first time Jack meets Lloyd the barkeeper, he’s told his credit is ‘fine’, but then the next time, once he declares he’s ‘back’, he gets treated like an honoured guest instead of a customer. It’s further worth mentioning that the first time he goes into the bar, he finds it empty and says, disappointed: “God, I’d give anything for a drink. I’d give my god-damned soul for just a glass of beer.” So he offers to sell his soul, and then starts to see Lloyd and Grady, commits to it (“I’m back”) and ‘the house’ starts to pamper him, then when he’s dead, the hotel claims his soul and sticks him in the photo. It’s all about Jack. Killing Wendy and Danny is more of a way to show he’s serious about dedicating himself to the Overlook than an actual aim. The fact that he doesn’t manage it is unfortunate, but rather beside the point.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information about either 1921 or who Jack could be the reincarnation of. He can’t be the reincarnation of Grady, because Grady the winter caretaker committed his murder-suicide spree only ten years previously. But things aren’t exactly as they might seem here, either. Grady, the caretaker who murdered his family, did so in 1970, but his daughters don’t really seem to be dressed the way girls in 1970 would be (though, it being ten years before I was born, I’m perfectly happy to be corrected about this). They seem to me to be dressed in older fashions. This is interesting, but on its own it wouldn’t mean anything. However, there’s something even weirder going on here: these can’t be caretaker Grady’s daughters. Ullman tells Jack that Grady’s daughters were: “…two little girls — I think they were eight and ten…” The twins that Danny sees are definitely twins, so they can’t be eight and ten. That means they can’t be Grady’s daughters, but they’re shown brutally murdered with an axe, just the way Ullman says Grady killed his daughters, with one exception. Ullman says Grady “…killed his family with an axe, then stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the west wing…” The girls in the film aren’t in a room, though, and they’re definitely not stacked neatly:
I guess that image could have been from before Grady stacked them in the room, but when taken with the fact that they’re not eight and ten, and that they don’t seem (to me) to be wearing 1970s dresses, I suspect they’re not Charles Grady’s daughters. How can this be? Well, here’s a thing: Grady, the 1970 caretaker, is called Charles. When Jack starts to see things, he meets a man dressed in a dinner suit, acting as a butler. That man introduces himself as “Delbert Grady”. He and Jack have the following conversation:
- Jack: What do they call you around here, Jeevesy?
Grady: Grady, sir. Delbert Grady.
Grady: Yes, sir.
Jack: Delbert Grady.
Grady: That’s right, sir.
Jack: Eh, Mr. Grady… haven’t I seen you somewhere before?
Grady: Why no, sir. I don’t believe so. [continues cleaning Jack’s coat] Ah ha, it’s coming off now, sir.
Jack: Eh… Mr. Grady… weren’t you once the caretaker here?
Grady: Why no, sir. I don’t believe so.
Jack: You, er, a married man, are you, Mr. Grady?
Grady: Yes, sir. I have a wife and, uh two daughters, sir.
Jack: And, er… where are they now?
Grady: Oh, they’re somewhere around. I’m not quite sure at the moment, sir.
Jack: [takes Grady’s cloth and wipes his hand with it] Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here. I recognize you. I saw your picture in the newspapers. You, uh … chopped your wife and daughters up into little bits. And … then you blew your brains out.
Grady: That’s strange, sir. I don’t have any recollection of that at all.
Jack: Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here.
Grady: I’m sorry to differ with you, sir, but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir, I’ve always been here.
So, there are several oddnesses here. Grady’s name changes from Charles to Delbert. He claims to never have been the caretaker. Jack says he saw Grady’s picture in the newspaper, but we know that he found out about the caretaker from Ullman, not from a newspaper. Jack could have looked up the incident in the newspapers after finding out about it from Ullman, but I got the impression from the film that the interview took place very close to the time the Torrances actually went to the Overlook, and they wouldn’t have had enough time for researching old murders. He also says that he’s never been the caretaker – that Jack is the caretaker and always has been. Finally, Delbert claims to have no recollection of killing his family. That’s odd in itself, because only seconds later, he says:
- Grady: My girls, sir, they didn’t care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a pack of matches and tried to burn it down. But I corrected them, sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I … corrected her.
‘Corrected’, in this case, is clearly a euphemism for ‘hacked to pieces with an axe’. So despite claiming to have no recollection of being the caretaker who murdered his family, he’s more than happy to admit to having a wife and two daughters, and to having ‘corrected’ them. So… could caretaker Grady have been the reincarnation of this Grady? Is the Overlook calling all its reincarnated staff from 1921 home? Does Grady have his/their own photo somewhere? Are all of the photos on the walls of the Overlook from some other staff member who’ll be there forever? (Speaking of ‘forever’, I wonder whether it’s relevant that the twins want Danny to stay there and “…play with us forever… and ever… and ever” and Jack tells Danny that “…I wish we could stay here forever… and ever… and ever”?)
What of the woman in the bath in room 237 that tries to kill Danny and seduce Jack? Well, as with all my questions, there’s so much missing information that it’s impossible to form a proper theory that isn’t full of holes. But I’ve got a theory anyway. Jack is unravelling relatively quietly during the winter, but nothing much out of the ordinary has been happening. He’s sat at his desk, asleep, dreaming that he’s killing Wendy and Danny. It’s definitely not a nice dream – he’ll be very distressed when he wakes up – so Jack isn’t yet committed to ‘coming back’ to the Overlook at this point. While he’s dreaming, Danny goes into room 237 and is attacked by the woman. We don’t see it happen, but presumably it’s the woman in the bath. Jack wakes up and is crying to Wendy (the last time we see them in any sort of affectionate situation, if I recall correctly) when Danny walks in, bruised and with torn clothes. Wendy jumps to conclusions and accuses Jack of abusing Danny. This is what tips Jack into siding with the hotel – he then goes into the Gold Room and sees Lloyd for the first time (claiming he’d sell his soul for a beer). So is Danny’s curiosity the thing that kicks the hotel into high gear in its scheme to regain Jack?
Jack then gets told about the woman in room 237 by a hysterical Wendy, and goes to investigate. She’s right – there is a woman there. She’s naked and in the bath, and gets out and kisses Jack, which he’s pretty into.
Mind you, she then turns into a rotting corpse, which understandably freaks him out. She’s all aged and green and missing an eye, but she’s laughing, so he scarpers.
But something happens between him fleeing and him arriving back at his apartment, because by the time he gets there, he’s calm and collected, and denies finding anything. There’s no telling what that is, since we don’t see any of it in the film. But in my mind, it’s that Jack finishes siding with the hotel, and from that point onwards is committed to killing his family. Maybe he goes back to the bar and talks to Lloyd? Maybe the hotel speaks to him directly? Whatever triggers it, he’s sworn to The Overlook from that point onwards. I have another question though: why does the attractive woman change to the old woman and terrify Jack? If the hotel is trying to get Jack on its side, surely seduction would be a better tack than terrifying? I’d personally be more tempted by a hotel that stuck to seduction than one that started kissing me, then turned into a walking corpse. Perhaps it’s meant to be a promise and a threat? Sort of a ‘this (the attractive woman) is what you can have if you do what the Overlook wants, and this (the dead old woman) is what you’ll get if you don’t’?
Actually, I’ve got one more question: what happened in room 237? Halloran seems really freaked out about it (maybe he’s had his own taste of a sexy lady turning into a watery hag…), and forbids Danny to go in there. But given that there are murdered girls wandering the halls, it must have been something worse than a woman drowning in the bath. Perhaps Halloran knew the bath woman would try to hurt Danny, whereas the girls wouldn’t? Or perhaps something worse did happen in there?
As for the river of blood, the axe-man who says “Great party, isn’t it?”, or the pair of guests caught mid-bj, I’m even less sure. At a guess, the axe-man and the gay men are ghosts/apparitions from the party in 1921 that started the Overlook’s evilness, but as for what happened then, I don’t know. Something bad, presumably, since the man got an axe through his head. Are the gay couple there purely for titillation? That doesn’t seem to match Kubrick’s deliberate directing nature, but I really can’t think of any other reason for their inclusion. And the river of blood? I suspect that’s purely a symbol for all the death that has occurred in the hotel over the years, and will continue to occur if the hotel gets its way.
Maybe the novel will answer some of these questions for me. What do you think about this stuff, Alex? What did you take away from the film?