I first watched Stanley Kubrick’s uncanny The Shining (1980) where I watched all the great 80s horror movies, from Poultergeist to The Evil Dead —in the dark, sacred confines of my best friend’s basement. Though other films were more terrifying, The Shining was—and still is—like nothing I had ever seen: horror transposed into pure cinematic poetry. I sat transfixed in front of the glowing television set, swallowed up in the biblical deluge of blood pouring out of those elevator doors.
Largely panned when it was first released, Kubrick’s cult masterpiece has become, for me, what it has become for everyone—a dream we can’t seem to let go of, an odd hallucination haunting us in oblique ways. Not a week goes by where it doesn’t surface again in some Internet meme or pop culture parody (this week: a version starring small rodents).
Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance, tormented writer-turned-axe-murderer, has become iconic—“heeeere’s Johnny!” The typographic horror of the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene is perhaps one of the greatest depictions of on-screen madness (as well as the inherent dangers of trying to make it as a writer!). We feel the terror of Torrance’s wife and their psychically “shining” son as the father loses his grip on reality in the isolated hallways of the Overlook Hotel; their struggle to get out of the haunted ski resort induces a kind of cinematic claustrophobia on the part of the viewer. It is a harrowing viewing experience.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the most enduring images of the film are not about the plot points, but those which give visual expression to psychic disintegration—little Danny Torrance riding his scooter around the corner, only to be confronted by the archetypal creepy twin girls; the blood in the elevator, a torrent straight out of Exodus; “REDRUM” scrawled on the wall; the sickening embrace of the dead woman in the bathroom of the infamous room 237. These are images which leave a mark on us, which even as they play out in eerie silence leave our eyes ringing.
Because of their uncanny persistence, we can’t leave the film alone. Its many complexities are explored in the 2012 documentary Room 237, currently streaming on Netflix. As Rodney Ascher, the director of the documentary, reminds us, Kubrick’s film is much more than a horror movie. Like the great auteur director’s other films, there is not a single aspect of mise-en-scène—what appears within the frame—which occurs by accident. Each seeming continuity error, grotesque scene, and eerie coincidence serves an esoteric purpose. The Shining, to borrow an image from the climax of the film, is a labyrinth into which we are irrevocably drawn; like the Overlook Hotel, as the trailer for Room 237 puts it, the film itself offers “many ways in” but “no way out.”
Room 237 plunges us into the labyrinth. And once we are in the maze of interpretations of The Shining, it becomes clear just how many twists and turns there are. Conspiracy theories, visual minutiae, allegories, trompe l’oeil—these all coalesce and swirl about each other in a haze of semiotic signs and signals.
The Shining is read against the rest of Kubrick’s impressive oeuvre–2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, even Eyes Wide Shut–looking for visual and thematic clues about how the film’s narrative conceals a deeper layer of meaning. Medieval allegorists would be proud.
One interpreter of the film sees the repressed theme of the film as the killing and mistreatment of the Native Americans by colonizing European settlers. This is an elaborate yet internally convincing interpretation which takes as its starting point a seemingly inconsequential image of an Indian on a Calumet baking powder can, shown briefly in a scene in the hotel’s pantry. Another interpretation is centered on archetypal myths and fantasies about death and violence. A poster of a skier on the wall is thought to be the beastly Minotaur of Crete who stalks Theseus through the halls of the labyrinth. Jack Torrance is lost in the maze of not only the Overlook Hotel, but his own mind.
Even the most ephemeral visual elements of Kubrick’s film are taken as semantic clues, pointing to multiple (re)interpretations and obscure polysemies. The Overlook Hotel is mapped out, revealing inconsistencies with the placement of rooms, windows, and stairwells, hallways that lead nowhere–it is an impossible structure, an Escher-like maze.
The explanatory theories presented in Room 237 become increasingly outlandish. Most fantastically, The Shining is interpreted as Kubrick’s secret apology for helping fake the moon landing. Scenes are analyzed and deconstructed ad absurdum, the most minute details of the frame pored over. Interpreting the film becomes itself a kind of hermetic or kabbalistic enterprise, full of secrets and unveilings.
Central to many of the interpretations, and endemic to the film itself, is the sense of repressed trauma. Did Jack abuse his son Jimmy? Are there things forgotten which are coming to light? Perhaps the whole film is about the Freudian “return of the repressed”–be it America’s colonial past, the Holocaust, or devastations more psychological and internal. The river of blood gushing out of the elevator comes from a hidden wound in the heart of the century. Jack’s madness is the natural response of a man trapped in this terrifying recurrence.
Room 237 is, in documentary terms, an extended video essay, never cutting to “talking heads” but rather investigating cinematic questions by layering multiple audio commentaries over the film itself. It does not bring us out of the film, but circles around it, moving in closer—an ever-deepening hermeneutic spiral. In keeping us within the world of the film, it shows us paths through the maze, but never lets us out.
This kind of video-based film criticism expands, rather than demystifies, the quasi-spiritual appeal of The Shining. Just as I sat immobilized in my friend’s basement, reaching some kind of slack-jawed teenage horror-movie enlightenment as the frame filled with blood, it is a film we get lost in. We are not sure how to move through it. As one writer puts it, “the maze concept requires that an audience be tested and challenged, even to the point of confusion if it fails to shine and remember not only how it got into the film…but how it got lost.”
For this reason, Ascher in Room 237 also profiles those who have tried to navigate the film in different temporal dimensions using video editing technology. In one particularly compelling interpretation by artists John Fell Ryan and Akiva Saunders, the last shot of the film is taken and superimposed over the first shot, and so on over the entire film so that the film becomes a palimpsest moving simultaneously backward and forward in time (The Shining Backwards and Forwards, 2011). Scenes float atop one another, creating another visual layer of filmic ghosts to foreshadow future events and suggest narrative/psychological parallels. The film ends/begins with both the winding road leading to the Overlook Hotel and the past/future apparition of Jack Torrance’s face in the historical photograph.
Since Room 237 came out, filmmaker Jon Dieringer has gone one step further and created The Shining Backwards and Forwards and Inwards and Outwards in High Definition Anaglyph 3D (Chaos Mix), which pushes this Douglas Gordon-esque video practice to its perceptual extreme. Here the maze begins to expand beyond the frame and further into our consciousness. [A similar recombinant aesthetic guides the viral Red Drum Getaway mashup which through compositing creates a kind of Hitchcock-Kubrick metafilm. Jimmy Stewart from Hitchcock’s Vertigo follows Danny’s tricycle around winding corners into scenes from 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. ]
Remixing The Shining into a new, even more complex form–where it plays backwards, forwards, and in multiple dimensions at the same time – reminds us of its uncanny power, the way it lingers in our eyes and brains. Rather than straightforward viewing, the film calls for a way of watching film that goes beyond the visible. If the filmmaker is a mystic, Kubrick here reveals himself as a kind of kabbalistic poet, drawing us deeper into the hermeneutical mysteries of the filmic “text.”
The Shining is a film that we can no longer watch without preconceived notions–countless “paratexts” influence our reception of it–and as Ascher’s Room 237 points out, it is endless in the meanings it yields. Perhaps the best way to appreciate its enduring power is to think of the “marks” it has left on us. St. Teresa of Avila was pierced by a burning celestial arrow. The extremities of humble St. Francis of Assisi were imprinted with the bleeding wounds of Christ as he prayed atop Mount La Verna. Kubrick’s mystical vision, which we all now share, was of blood pouring out of an elevator and an inescapable maze. Perhaps the language of mysticism, with all its talk of illumination and flowing blood from innumerable “cuts,” gives us a richer way of talking about this intertextual maze of cinematic meanings. In our film viewing, we open up to this strange and bloody imprint of the otherworldly, the spiritual, even in the ghostly margins of a thirty-year-old horror film.
We sit still, perhaps in the dark of a suburban basement, and are initiated for a few fleeting moments into a strange and indescribable reality beyond our own. It is thus on the silver screen where, to crib from William James, “unpicturable beings are realized…with an intensity almost like that of a hallucination.” But what if it turns out we are not hallucinating at all? What if The Shining is a cultural dream we can’t wake up from? What if, in other words, we’re still in the maze, trying to find our way out?