I decided to write this essay after watching Room 237, a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the hidden meanings that some people claim to see in it. The bulk of this documentary frustrated me: it’s an interesting piece of work and it brings some novel ideas to the table – but these ideas, for the most part, feel very vague and very lazy and take the word tenuous to a whole new level.
The theories in Room 237 tell us more about their theorists than the movie they discuss; they obsess over disconnected minutiae and never ask how (or even if) their hand-picked evidence fits into the wider narrative of the movie. When the documentary came to a close, I felt like a huge investigative opportunity – and the key thematic point of The Shining – had been missed.
So I thought I’d try to capture my own take on the subject.
There’s a lot to be said for the guiding principle of Occam’s Razor – which stresses that the fewer assumptions you make about something, so much the better. I feel The Shining contains one very clear and well-rendered message and to imbue it with unrelated meaning is to do the film a disservice. For me, this movie has always been about alcoholism and its destructive effect on the self and on the family.
The essay I’ve put together below will argue in favour of this.
I should state upfront that this is not a critique of Stephen King’s 1977 novel but an exploration of Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation. The two stories are necessarily different and I don’t propose to compare them here, although it’s certainly worth mentioning that alcoholism is a key theme in King’s novel and the author was battling an alcohol addiction when he wrote it. Also worthy of note is Doctor Sleep – King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining – in which Danny Torrance is revisited as an adult with an inherited drinking problem.
I should also make it clear that this essay is based on the European edit of Kubrick’s movie (119 minutes long) and not the US edit (144 minutes long). In creating the European release, the director removed 25 minutes of footage, most of which takes place outside of the Overlook Hotel. The US edit offers more backstory while the European edit leaves much of this open to speculation. Once again, each version tells a deliberately different story and I don’t intend to draw from both of them; I’m focusing solely on the European release, the cut reputedly preferred by Kubrick.
“Great party, isn’t it?” – Alcohol and addiction in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
© Russell Norris 2014
In many ways, The Shining owes a lot to a storytelling technique perfected by Ernest Hemingway. The Iceberg Theory or “Theory of Omission” suggests that surface details, handled correctly, can create hidden depths that are all the stronger for being unseen. It’s a powerful way to imply something big by revealing something small. In Papa’s own words:
“If a writer knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Film fans and critics have hypothesised for more than three decades, now, that Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 foray into psychological horror is merely the tip of an iceberg. The one-eighth floating on the surface draws the mind to the seven-eighths lurking beneath, it’s argued, in ways that other scare flicks rarely seem to manage. Just as Hemingway spawned generations of copycats but no recognised equals, so too did Kubrick, with The Shining, give us a stylistic technique that’s been endlessly copied but arguably never matched. The Theory of Omission, then – in the right hands – seems to prove the old adage that less really can be more.
Because let’s face it: this movie, rather famously, leaves an awful lot unsaid. On one level, it’s an almost conventional tale of madness and murder. On another, it’s a puzzling allegory that never quite reveals itself. When you watch The Shining, various subtexts are somehow at play, operating on lower planes that approach the subliminal.
Some viewers put this down to suggestive editing: those fleeting shots of the Grady Twins that seem to intrude from your own mind, for example. They ascribe it to the hypnotic use of sound and space: Danny’s tricycle gliding from soft carpet to hard wood, pursued by the floating eye of a Steadicam. They cite the cryptic placement of patterns and motifs: the recurring hive-like carpet outside Room 237 and the phallic floor designs within it. Any number of these elements working together, consciously or otherwise, could be responsible for the eerie effect produced – and this air of concealed possibility gives the film much of its unique staying power.
For many, watching The Shining can feel like a brief brush with a sixth sense. Viewers seem to accept, instinctively, that something unspoken is trying to be heard. They hope to tune into it and unlock it, like a Magic Eye poster that shows you a secret if you stare at it for long enough. In this vein, the film has practically become a Rorschach Test: observers tend to find the meaning they most want to see in it and these interpretations have taken many forms, over the years. The genocide of the Native Americans; the Jewish Holocaust; the Apollo 11 moon landings; the Oedipal Complex; a 2012 documentary that’s occasionally remarkable and often ridiculous.
But there’s another much simpler way to deconstruct the inner workings of The Shining, one that takes its cue from the topmost details of Kubrick’s iceberg. When Ernest Hemingway was asked to write the shortest story he thought possible, he came up with this: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” It’s so short it’s not even a complete sentence but, thanks to the power of suggestion, what it doesn’t say tells us volumes. Via surface details, you can feel the weight of a burgeoning iceberg forming below.
Similarly, what do the top-level facts tell us in The Shining? They make it clear that the Torrances are a troubled family and Jack Torrance is an abusive husband and father, a problem exacerbated by alcohol. These are the simple narrative signposts set up throughout Kubrick’s movie but they’re quickly forgotten by many viewers as soon as bleeding elevators and ghostly hotel guests come into play.
This is a story that speaks literally and metaphorically. The metaphorical elements, symbolic and obscured from immediate view, quietly support the literal elements laid out in plain sight – and both levels of storytelling point in the same direction. Jack Torrance, like Ernest Hemingway, is a professional writer. And just like Hemingway, he’s also a major alcoholic. The Shining can easily be interpreted as a chilling exploration of alcoholism: its destructive effects on the family unit and the nightmare it wreaks on the addict trying to beat it.
It’s essential here to reemphasise the importance of psychological horror, the subgenre in which this film officially sits. Kubrick’s classic is very often labelled a horror movie, giving a skewed perception of the field it’s playing on. Psychological horror relies on the latent fears that come from within, not the active menace that comes from without. In a horror flick, a man is afraid of a demon because he knows it’s real. In psychological horror, he’s afraid of a demon because he can’t be sure it isn’t real. A small difference perhaps… but ultimately a big one and it helps to consider The Shining closely in this light.
The Road to Recovery
Inside their VW Beetle en route to the Overlook Hotel, the Torrances seem stifled and preoccupied. Jack is gruffly resigned, as though he’s being forced into a trip he doesn’t want to take. Wendy makes stilted conversation to break the silence as Danny listens glumly from the back seat. This is supposed to be an exciting family adventure but no one is happy. The atmosphere is straining beneath the weight of a problem that can’t be discussed.
This feels like an intervention, whereby Jack Torrance is being removed from the self-repeating cycle of substance abuse. The Overlook Hotel is secluded high up in the mountains, much like a sanatorium or a rehab retreat. Ostensibly, Jack is going there to find inspiration and work on his writing but in essence, he’s driving there to go Cold Turkey.
It’s worth noting that when Wendy mentions the Donner Party and their famous tale of cannibalism, everyone briefly seems to find some common ground – including Danny. All three travellers can relate to this grim idea but who, in this symbolic scenario, is preying on whom? Maybe Jack resents the family commitments that are slowly eating away at his freedom. Perhaps Wendy and Danny fear that Jack’s alcoholism, left unchecked, will soon consume their lives.
Shortly before this conversation, as Kubrick tracks the vehicle from above with his iconic helicopter shots, the fifth movement from Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz can be heard – a piece of music allegedly composed under the influence of opium. It’s an unsettling score in its own right but if you add this extra layer of resonance, with its echoes of substance abuse, the foreshadowing of this car journey becomes all the more ominous.
Jack’s job interview with Mr Ullman and Bill Watson, General Manager and Assistant Manager respectively at the Overlook Hotel, is a by-the-book moment of exposition until you start to question its tone and plausibility. In Room 237, Juli Kearns theorised that Ullman’s office is architecturally impossible, containing a window and a light source that cannot be real. There are other indications, too, that this meeting is inherently phoney – something staged and unnatural.
From the outset, Mr Ullman seems to say all the wrong things at all the wrong times. He sells the job he’s recruiting for woefully short, rendering it entirely unappealing: “It’s not a very demanding job…. the winters here can be fantastically cruel.” He implies heavily that Jack Torrance won’t be able to handle it: “For some people solitude and isolation can, of itself, become a problem.”
He goes on to describe the Charles Grady murders, giving gruesome details as though he’s relating a quirky local anecdote: “He killed his family with an axe, stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the west wing and then he put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth. The police reckon it was what the old-timers call cabin fever.” Mr Ullman is not behaving like a typical interviewer; he reveals too much in a predetermined, knowing way. Bill Watson, by contrast, doesn’t say a single word for the entire duration of the scene. He observes from his armchair in impassive silence, like an invigilator in an exam room.
This feels like a mock interview, the kind of exercise Alcoholics Anonymous might arrange for a reformed drinker trying to get back into work. As Jack enters the room, it’s no simple pleasantry when he’s offered a cup of coffee. It’s the ultimate symbol of temperance and it sets the tone for Ullman who, in the role of inquisitor, is here to test Jack’s sobriety under pressure.
He says things that no employer would ever say in real life, throwing curveballs into the conversation in an effort to catch Jack out – and Jack, by and large, seems unfazed by it all. His answers sound rehearsed and self-satisfied, like a man who’s been through this fake routine a dozen times before and can reel it off by heart. Bill Watson, meanwhile, watches and appraises this performance like a parole officer. When Ullman brings up the previous caretaker’s mental breakdown, you can almost feel Watson giving Jack full marks for his textbook response: “Well, you can rest assured Mr Ullman – that’s not going to happen with me.”
It’s significant that Danny has his first vision of the Blood Elevator at this point. As he stands before a mirror, talking about his dad to his imaginary friend Tony, he instinctively senses trouble up ahead. Ullman’s interview may smack of successful AA therapy at work but Danny has a different take on the situation. His father has, in fact, learnt how to hide his problems from society at large – just enough to secure a long stretch of unsupervised employment. The floodgates for renewed substance abuse have just, metaphorically, been thrown wide open.
Talking to Tony
Imaginary friends are a common childhood construct and Danny’s relationship with his invisible friend Tony seems fairly typical at first. Tony is Danny’s emotional mouthpiece, letting him say the things he’s too scared to bring up directly. Just before Jack gets the job at the Overlook, Wendy asks her son how Tony would feel about living in a hotel for a while. “I don’t want to go there, Mrs Torrance,” replies Tony, airing Danny’s natural resistance to upheaval and change. Tony acts as Danny’s sounding board, too, letting him talk to himself about his impending trip to the Rocky Mountains away from the eyes and ears of his parents.
But Tony becomes more than this after the Torrances settle into the Overlook. Just before Dick Halloran, head chef at the hotel, goes home for the winter – Danny tells him: “Tony is the little boy who lives in my mouth.” “Do [your parents] know that Tony tells you things?” Dick asks. “No: Tony told me never to tell them” replies Danny.
Tony’s true purpose is a secret, then. He dutifully appears whenever Danny feels threatened; when he comes upon the murdered Grady twins in an empty hallway, for example, or when he hesitates outside the door to Room 237. Tony acts as a warning signal and a safety check.
In short, he’s a defence mechanism – the kind of strategy a child might develop to cope with an abusive parent. Usually, Tony lives at a conscious level and Danny can hold a two-way conversation with him. But when imminent danger is so great that Danny’s life is put at stake, Tony commandeers the unconscious mind and becomes all-consuming in an effort to reach out for help.
Later on, when Danny slips into a trance and walks through Wendy’s bedroom chanting “REDRUM” over and over again, his survival instincts have gone into overdrive as he tries to save himself and his mother from Jack’s destructive alcoholism. Is it any wonder that murder is equated in Danny’s mind with red rum? Alcohol is literally being spelt out as the culprit for his father’s descent into violence.
Danny and Dick
The relationship between Danny and Dick Hallorann is chiefly one of empathy. On the face of things, it’s the shared skill of telepathy that gives them a unique connection – but The Shining does suggest an affinity going deeper than this. As they sit together in the Overlook kitchen, eating chocolate ice cream, their conversation starts to resemble a session of child counseling. Dick takes the role of youth mentor, encouraging Danny to discuss his worries and his imaginary friend Tony.
Dick wants Danny to know he’s not alone, that he’s not the only person in the world who can “shine”. He also hints that certain people shine for a reason. In Hallorann’s own words: “When something happens it can leave a trace of itself behind… say like if someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice but things that people who shine can see”.
Hallorann’s analogy of burnt toast isn’t just a simple way to explain something complex to a child; it’s an implication that he, too, had a troubled childhood of his own. Dick tells us that he and his grandmother could both shine, conducting entire conversations without ever opening their mouths. This evokes a sense of complicity, of a shared solidarity in tough family circumstances. Perhaps Dick had an abusive or alcoholic parent, too – and maybe this conversation with Danny resembles one he had with his grandmother many years ago, when she in turn offered Dick her own mentorship.
Themes of parentage and legacy, of history doomed to repeat itself, are subtle but important in The Shining. If Dick has been through a damaging experience in his own youth, then he knows all too well how the negative traces of it can persist into adulthood.
Because, when you look at him closely, is the head chef at the Overlook Hotel as squeaky-clean as he initially appears to be? When he gives Wendy and Danny their grand tour of the kitchens, he’s chatty and friendly and we’re supposed to like him from the get-go. When he has his heart-to-heart chat with Danny, we intuitively know he’s a decent and protective kind of guy.
But why, when we later see him in the seclusion of his Florida bedroom, are his walls adorned with half-naked women? The lewd painting above Hallorann’s bedstead exudes a pornographic shade of red; his dimmed bed-lamps and his silk pajamas seem somehow seedy in this context. A brief window has been opened onto his private life and it feels uncomfortably sexualised, jarring with what we thought we knew of him already. Perhaps Dick Hallorann isn’t quite so wholesome, after all. Perhaps childhood trauma has tainted him.
When Danny sends out his telepathic distress signal, with his own innocence on the brink of loss, it resonates so powerfully with Dick that he’s utterly paralysed. “To shine”, therefore, could mean to have a fine attunement to the threat of corruption in your youth – and, in adulthood, a desire to resist the corruption that’s been handed down to you. Danny doesn’t want to become like his father and he shines when Jack’s behavior threatens to scar him for life. Quite possibly, Dick has already become like his father and he shines in an effort to atone for his sins.
When Dick and Danny talk to each other at a kitchen table, two visual clues seem to corroborate this. Danny, the young boy, sits below a row of sharpened kitchen utensils that all point downwards; the knives are already out for him. Dick, the old man, sits in front of the storeroom where Jack Torrance – soon to be his killer – will later be imprisoned; a tomb for men who have let their demons overtake them.
Jack Torrance in Withdrawal
When the Overlook Hotel empties for the winter, leaving the Torrances alone, Jack soon starts to exhibit some classic symptoms of alcohol withdrawal – the first being insomnia and stupor. He looks drawn and haggard as he mopes about the hotel. When he sits on a bed with Danny, unshaven in his bathrobe, he tells his son that although he’s tired he just can’t sleep. Recovering alcoholics often find it hard to sleep without the soporific effects of a nightcap.
Danny seems to recognise this sign of an incoming fall from the wagon when he asks his dad outright: “You wouldn’t ever hurt mom and me – would you?” Jack’s reply is typical of the resentful alcoholic. He immediately puts the blame on Wendy, leaving Danny caught in the middle between his parents.
Later, when his wife and child are playing in the hotel’s maze, Jack slips into an empty thousand-yard stare – indicative of catatonia triggered by a withdrawal from booze. Jack’s mood swings are telling, too, alternating between irritability (snapping at Wendy when she interrupts his writing) and euphoria (his gleeful chat with Lloyd the bartender).
Sudden withdrawal from a dependence on alcohol can also cause depersonalisation i.e. a sense of watching oneself act, of participating in a dream beyond one’s own control. Jack Torrance can often be seen looking at or appearing within the confines of a mirror – sitting on the bed with Danny; talking to Lloyd at the bar; standing with Mr. Grady in the gentlemen’s toilets. This suggests that Jack is slowly disassociating from his sense of self, that we cannot always trust in his drifting point of view.
Jack may also be experiencing periods of blackout or amnesia. When Room 237 mysteriously opens itself and Danny goes inside, Jack is deep in the throes of a nightmare in which he’s killing his wife and son. After Wendy wakes him from his bad dream, Danny enters the room in shocked silence – bearing the marks of a recent physical attack.
Jack is bewildered when Wendy accuses him of violence but he also has the hesitant look of a man who can’t entirely account for his own actions. This is the brand of paranoia that heavy drinkers know all too well. Is Jack’s memory beginning to fail him? Did he in fact attack his own son, something he’s been guilty of before? His withdrawal from addiction is starting to manifest itself in new and troubling ways.
This reaches its apex when Jack starts to see the hotel’s previous inhabitants, starting with Lloyd the bartender and ending with hundreds of party guests in the Gold Room. If we accept that The Shining is not, at its core, an outright story of the supernatural, then Jack Torrance could be suffering from alcoholic hallucinosis – a temporary psychotic disorder involving visual and auditory hallucinations. These hallucinations are often threatening or accusatory in nature, captured perfectly by Lloyd’s gentle recriminations (“Drink up, Mr. Torrance. It’s not a matter that concerns you”) and Delbert Grady’s assertions that Jack is not in control of his wife and son (“Perhaps they need a good talking to, sir. Perhaps… a bit more”).
Jack Torrance in Relapse
When Jack escapes to the empty bar of the Gold Room, he’s reached a tipping point. Wendy and Danny have closed ranks against him and his need for a drink has built up to fever pitch. He enters the bar seeking solace and release, a man reconciled to his alcoholic relapse. Jack Nicholson’s opening line as he leans on the bar-top, head in hands, comes straight from the thematic core of The Shining: “God, I’ve give anything for a drink. I’d give my goddamn soul… for just a glass of beer.”
Jack is willing to give away everything for a life of self-indulgence. His plea is positively Faustian and it precipitates the arrival of Lloyd – materialising from thin air with a fully stocked bar at his back, like a scheming Mephistopheles. The glass of bourbon Lloyd pours out, liberal and free of charge, is the beginning of the end for Jack. By accepting it he’s made a pact with his addiction that will put him back on a path to self-destruction.
“White man’s burden, Lloyd my man… white man’s burden,” smiles Jack as he takes his drink, referencing an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling, the gist of which is that a price must be paid by men who carry the weight of responsibility. Jack is failing his responsibilities as a husband and a father and he’s paying the price by sliding back into substance abuse. It’s fitting, therefore, that he chooses this moment to confess his previous sins to Lloyd – admitting that he has, in fact, broken Danny’s arm in the past.
When Wendy rushes into the bar, believing there’s a madwoman in Room 237, Jack receives a temporary reprieve. Danny has told her his dad isn’t responsible for his bruises, saying that a crazy woman in the hotel hurt him instead. Could it be that he’s exhibiting the stubborn love of a child for a wayward parent, trying to protect his father by lying to his mother – a lie that unwittingly pushes Jack Torrance deeper into debauchery?
As Jack investigates the foreboding bedroom, carpeted with a phallic pattern in vivid purple, his weakening mind wanders to adultery. Kubrick saturates this lengthy scene with the sound of a throbbing heart: a heart stimulated by alcohol and, when Jack encounters a naked young woman in the bathtub, by growing sexual intrigue.
Jack’s inhibitions have been dampened by drink and he embraces the Siren-esque woman in Room 237 without a second thought. When she’s revealed, from the viewpoint of yet another mirror, to be an old and rotting corpse, Jack pays the price yet again for his subservient return to alcohol. His illusions are shattered and he’s forced to stare the ugliness of his actions square in the face. The old lady he has kissed jeers at him with knowing mockery as he retreats from Room 237.
Jack tries to hide his shame, like a drunkard covering his tracks, when he reports back to Wendy that the hotel room was in fact empty. And he sinks a little lower when he tries to invert his guilt by turning the blame against his son and his wife: “I think he [Danny] did it to himself…. Wendy, I have let you fuck up my life so far but I’m not gonna let you fuck this up!”
Danny has a fleeting internalised glimpse of “REDRUM” as his father storms back to the Gold Room – Jack’s newfound inner sanctum that’s suitably peopled, now, by a growing number of hallucinatory characters. The bar is inexplicably full of them as a decadent party from the Roaring Twenties gets into full swing. Tuxedoed men and elegant flappers sit at tables drinking cocktails and, crucially, Jack accepts it all without batting an eyelid.
This is the escape he wants, the haven he craves. When he cheerfully returns to Lloyd at the bar, his words are loaded with inference. “Hello Lloyd: been away but now I’m back.” Jack has abstained for long enough and he’s made the decision to let his addiction loose. He asks for “the hair of the dog that bit me” and Lloyd is more than willing to oblige. He pours out another bourbon, urging Jack to drink up and ask no questions about his pre-paid booze.
Delbert Grady, in white gloves and swallowtail coat, is delivering a tray of alcohol when he collides with Jack. He handles the mishap with professional grace, leading the way to the bathroom where he dabs away at Jack’s clothes with genteel servility. Grady’s manners are impeccable at first; he’s polite and well-bred and a model of respectability. Jack likes his old-world fussiness and quickly takes a shine to him.
When he catches Grady’s surname, however – and watches him carefully in a bathroom mirror – the conversation takes a sinister turn. In a slow transformation, played brilliantly by British actor Philip Stone, Grady’s true character rises up to the surface. Like a man waking from a dream, confronted by a host of repressed memories, he turns from cordial waiter to manipulative bully in the space of thirty seconds. The effect is remarkable and easily the most haunting moment of the film. Jack Torrance, previously full of bravura, is quickly intimidated by Grady’s calmly overbearing presence.
Grady’s behaviour brings an ancient Roman saying to mind: in vino veritas (“in wine there is truth”). He is reminiscent of a man who, under the liberating influence of alcohol, will shed his politically correct persona and allow his true opinions to be known – however unpalatable those real opinions may be. Grady, we quickly learn, is an old-school racist. He belittles Dick Hallorann and racially abuses him, tacitly urging Jack to share in his prejudice. He makes it clear that he’s a sadist, encouraging Jack to discipline his wife and child and use violence if necessary to force their obedience.
When he ultimately admits that he’s a murderer, having “corrected” his wife and his two wayward daughters, he doesn’t do it with regret or remorse – he states it with boastful pride, glad to have successfully done his duty. Grady evidently identifies with Jack Torrance and seeks to influence him. When he tells Jack “you’ve always been the caretaker”, perhaps he’s suggesting that men like them are essentially the same person; men who won’t be controlled by their families, who yearn for late-night parties, exotic bars and a bachelor’s life without any consequences.
“Your son has a very great talent. I’m not sure you’re aware how great it is. He’s planning on using that talent against your will.” Grady’s words are an attempt to point the finger at Danny; the boy has awakened to his father’s alcoholism and is the true impediment to Jack’s personal freedom. With no one else to turn to, Danny has sent out a telepathic distress call to Dick Hallorann. Together, they form a complete picture of broken innocence: Danny the corruptible boy and Dick the corrupted adult. Delbert Grady has no time for the pawns of domestic abuse: he sees them as targets for elimination – and Hallorann will soon feel the full force of this warped point of view when he’s murdered in cold blood by Jack.
When Wendy discovers Jack’s unattended typewriter, it’s clear that her husband has reached the point of no return. He’s given in to his baser impulses and now they occupy his every thought: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has overtones of Prohibition and the temperance movement – and the historical public reaction against it. The revellers in the Gold Room resemble archetypal drinkers from a speakeasy, enjoying illicit alcohol as they flout the rules that society expects of them. It’s no wonder that such a place manifests itself for Jack at the Overlook and that he feels so comfortable there.
Wendy has intruded on this effort at escapism for the last time and Jack, for the first time since arriving at the hotel, turns violent. As he rebukes his wife and works himself up into a rage, Kubrick reintroduces the Blood Elevator – a visual cue that Jack’s limits have been breached. Jack’s voice turns thick and watery at this point, too, like a man drowning in his own wrath. His resulting tirade against Wendy explains a lot:
“Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities to my employers? Does it matter to you at all that the [Overlook] owners have placed their complete confidence in me? Do you have the slightest idea what a moral or ethical principle is? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities?”
These words seem out of place, coming from Jack. They sound like echoes from the authority figures of his past, his father or a disappointed schoolteacher perhaps, as they reaffirm the precepts he’s failed to live by as an adult. This moment resonates heavily with Mr Ullmann’s earlier job interview. Jack now realises he’s about to prove his employer right by failing him and he wants to lash out at his perceived reasons for that failure: Wendy and Danny.
Some critics (including Stephen King himself) have complained that Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is brash and over the top, often verging on the ridiculous. His slide into madness is much too quick and easy, they say; a licence for an already eccentric actor to overact. But what if the audience, as Jack regresses backwards to a state of inebriation, are supposed to watch him become a ridiculous version of himself? From here on in, Jack Torrance will turn into a gross caricature of the person he once was, behaving in ways that would mortify and probably horrify him when sober.
The same goes for the complaints levelled at Shelly Duvall for her portrayal of Wendy: critics passed her off as a weak-willed and annoying character – but are we supposed to be viewing her through Jack’s eyes? Seen through the distorting lens of alcohol, are Wendy’s flaws being amplified so we can enter further into Jack’s emotionally biased world? Likewise with Danny Lloyd in his pivotal role as Danny. He comes across as abnormally composed and intelligent and maybe this is an image that his father has superimposed on him – because he’s secretly envious that his son is already showing signs of growing into a better man than he is.
When Wendy knocks Jack unconscious and imprisons him in the kitchen storeroom, Delbert Grady pays him a visit from beyond a locked door. In keeping with the accusatory voices sometimes heard by chronic alcoholics, he criticises Jack and tries to run him down. “I and others have come to believe that your heart is not in this. That you haven’t the belly for it.” Jack’s response calls to mind an unreliable employee trying to reason with a boss on the verge of firing him: “Just give me one more chance to prove it, Mr Grady. That’s all I ask.” It’s a symbolic moment and not necessarily a literal one when Grady unbars the door and lets Jack out. He’s been given one final chance to forge the selfish new life he yearns for.
In Room 237, Bill Blakemore finds great significance in the cans of Calumet baking powder visible in the storeroom’s background. These cans feature a prominent logo of a Native American chief and symbolise, he argues, the European oppression of the Native American people. But could they not equally symbolise the correlation between Native American populations and a tendency for alcohol abuse? The Calumet motif could easily be a nod to Jack’s central weakness and the true cause of his downfall. The same cans are seen in the storeroom when Dick Hallorann first “shines” with Danny. Again, this foreshadowing feels apt. Danny has developed this defence mechanism to cope with Jack’s alcoholism and Dick, a potential veteran of abuse himself, knows all about the dysfunctional undercurrent represented by the Calumet cans.
The Point of No Return
From the moment Jack escapes from the kitchen storeroom he recedes further and further from reality, like a wino throwing himself into the binge to end all binges. By the time he reaches Wendy and Danny and takes an axe to their bathroom door, his personality has disappeared altogether – replaced by a gleeful, intoxicated rage.
When Dick Hallorann returns to the hotel in his snowmobile, Jack instinctually knows to take care of him first. Dick represents an unwilling but lifelong fall from grace; corruption was thrust upon him from an early age and he hopes to save Danny from the same repeating cycle. Jack Torrance, on the other hand, has chosen to take his fall willingly. If he wants to live a life unfettered to the past, he needs to eliminate everything that Dick stands for and destroy his alliance with Danny.
Dick Hallorann dies quickly and passively. As he walks down the long passageway in the Overlook lobby, stoic and unarmed, there is something sacrificial about his slow approach towards death. Perhaps he knows the end is near and perhaps he accepts his destiny. When Jack plunges his axe deep into Dick’s heart, he’s killing a man who was already a long-term casualty of familial abuse – his spiritual demise is now a physical one and Jack, the very embodiment of the destructive forces that have blighted Dick’s life, is perfectly cast as his executioner.
It seems fitting that Dick isn’t the first Overlook inhabitant to fall foul of an axe. The same thing happened to the Grady Twins who, when they coax Danny to “come and play with us”, serve as a stark reminder of childhood innocence cut short. They illustrate purity terminated in its infancy – and maybe that’s why Danny is the only character who can see them.
For the first and only time in The Shining, as Danny is chased into the Overlook maze by his insensible father, Wendy also witnesses a series of apparitions. Her visions are not fuelled by alcohol and, importantly, they are not the same apparitions her husband has been seeing. They serve instead as a flash of insight into Jack’s deteriorating state of mind.
She sees an animalistic dog-man and a posh gentleman engaged in a sex act, indicating a total loss of inhibition and the release of suppressed desires. She sees a bald man with a bleeding head wound, merrily raising up his drink. He is the perfect picture of an oblivious drunk, unaware of his own injuries and caring only for the exhilaration of the moment. “Great party, isn’t it?” he enjoins Wendy with a happily glazed look in his eyes.
Wendy sees the Blood Elevator for the first time, too, at this point – covering the hotel in a thick Dionysian flood – and her insights are finally brought into line with Danny’s. She now understands the true forces that have been locked up inside Jack all along, primal compulsions that are running free and subsuming everything in their path.
By the time Jack enters the Overlook’s maze, he is nothing more than a baying drunk. He screams after his son – yelling out “Danny Boy” in a deranged imitation of the popular Irish drinking song – as he loses his bearings in the snow-heaped hedgerows. Studies have shown that chronic use of alcohol leads to changes in brain chemistry and one of the key areas affected is Spatial Memory, the skill that rats (for instance) will depend on to find their way out of a laboratory maze.
Stripped of his lucidity, Jack has nothing but Danny’s footprints to guide him and it’s interesting to watch a complete role reversal taking place. Children are supposed to follow in their parent’s footsteps but Danny Torrance, running for his life from his corrupted and blood-crazed father, has no intention of doing so. Instead, he forces Jack to follow after him and uses his youthful clarity to outwit the clouded fury of his dad.
When Jack loses Danny’s trail, he is truly on his own. His wife and son have slipped from his grasp and he’s trapped for good in a labyrinth of his own making. As all of his faculties begin to shut down, his former life stumbles to an inevitable end and slowly fades to white.
The epilogue or visual coda of The Shining is a summation of everything that Jack Torrance is, was or ever would be. Jack is physically frozen when he meets his fate in the Overlook maze but at the same instant he is spiritually and emotionally frozen, too.
Kubrick shows us the photo from the July 4th Ball 1921 because it exemplifies the utopian existence that Jack always longed for: always at a party, always having fun, always sipping on a bottomless drink. Jack Torrance is forever stuck in the dreamlike stasis of an alcoholic, free from everyday accountability and perpetually living for the here and now. He has renounced his family for the bottle and, from the look on his face, he couldn’t be happier about it.
Jack is not the first man to do this and he won’t be the last. Delbert Grady chose an identical path long before him and it’s only a matter of time before another alcoholic comes along to take Jack’s place. These men are one and the same breed, men who refuse to accept the role of “caretaker” (father, husband, employee) and choose a carefree life of self-gratification instead.
This recurring sequence of vice is nothing more than history repeating itself. As Kubrick’s final shot approaches the framed photos in the Gold Room, it’s worth remembering that Jack’s snapshot is simply one of many. His story is one component in a vast catalogue of human folly and, be it 1921 or 1981, the nature of sin is enduring and universal – and doomed to replay itself down through the generations.