From leaky blood elevators to ghost twins to typewriting solitude, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” seems to be one of the most frightening horror films of all time. But Why?
When horror comes to mind you may think of films like “The sixth sense,” “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare On Elm Street”. But let’s not forget Kubrick’s masterpiece “The Shining,” what makes it so horrifying is the suspense. Kubrick’s film adaptation from Steven King’s novel of the same name was not only unfaithful but changed to show the audience something else. Stephen King, outraged by this, went on to make his adaptation of his book in the ’90s: But why would Kubrick do such a thing? To spite Stephen King? To tell a hidden story? To admit filming the moon landings? Well, the documentary “Room 237” further explores these suspicions and adds a dimension of suspense.
During the filming of The Shining, Kubrick wanted to be as authentic as possible that means getting genuine reactions from his actors. This is why Kubrick would constantly have them do retakes sometimes in the triple digits. This would drive Shelly Duvall and Nicholson’s characters to slip into genuine madness. Slowly over time, the editor noticed that take after take Nicholson’s and Duvall’s actions were becoming more unhinged. The later takes would mostly be used. This authentic crescendo into insanity is what makes the horror more frightening. The film documentary “Room 237” talks about how Kubrick’s adaptation was less of a Stephen King adaptation and more of an adaptation based on real events. Throughout the film, there are subtle hints that give it away. Clues such as the genocide of the Indians, the Moon missions, the holocaust, and Kubrick’s subliminal messages to Stephen King.
One subtle subliminal message in the film is the Native American genocide by white settlers during the colonial times. Throughout the hotel there are Native American fabrics and tapestries hanging all over the walls. Native American heads printed on the baking soda boxes in the cellar. This was an intentional set design choice made by Kubrick, not done by accident. The Overlook Hotel’s name is very symbolic because the hotel “Overlooks” everyone and everything within and below it. It is said that the hotel was built over an Indian burial ground. Which is ironic because the Indian genocide was being overlooked by the people that run the hotel, by the audience and overlooked by most of society that has just forgot about it. By doing this Kubrick is adding a dark undertone for what is yet to come. At The hotel Jack is the Over-looker. His job is to overlook the hotel, he has a family to overlook, while the previous Over-looker overlooks him however, Jack neglects overlooking his family while he is busy overlooking his work. All this while some strange things overlook him and his family. Could it be the ghosts from the Indian burial ground? Angry restless spirits determined to be avenged? Maybe this could be the answer to all the paranormal activity throughout the hotel. We don’t know. Kubrick never answers and leaves us in the dark. This ambiguity of shadow and darkness can be used in the films favor because somethings are better left untouched. When they messed with the Indian burial ground, spirits would make themselves known and show themselves to Jack and his family. Once disturbed it affects the family Jack tries to kill his family with an ax.
Another message overlooked in this film was the NASA and Kubrick message. If the Shining was full of hidden messages, then Kubrick’s confession of faking the moon landings should be in it. In “The Shining” Room 237 was “off limits”, the room that no one was allowed to go in, but why? Because we would know the truth? In the novel it’s Room “217", however this minor deviation suggests that Kubrick was moving away from the book and basing his film on reality, perhaps personal experiences. Kubrick’s excuse for the Room change was because he didn’t want to scare potential guests from staying there, however when checked this hotel doesn’t even have a Room 217. In the documentary “Room 237” the real reason was to reference studio 237 where he faked the moon landing. 237 is also used because the earth is 237,000 miles away from the moon. Also in the movie the keys labeled rOOM No 237 can rearrange all caps to spell Moon. Why would Kubrick have a tracking shot ending with the keys if it is not important. In another scene we see Danny playing with his toys while wearing a NASA Apollo 12 sweater.
Furthermore the scene where he starts to get angry at his wife can have multiple meanings when looked at in a different light. Jack says “Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a contract, in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principle is? Do you?”. On the surface this may seem like he’s just going crazy with his job as Overlook. Jack getting angry with his wife may seem spontaneous and a crazy reaction, however subliminally it can be a subversion for Kubrick’s contract with the government. The responsibility that Kubrick has accepted by signing this contract with NASA and the government prevents him from saying anything about. Kubrick did this ingeniously by speaking through Nicholson’s character as if it could’ve been a conversation between Kubrick and his wife. This spontaneous reaction is also oddly out of time and place for his character to talk about it. Jack was focused on his work as a writer when he randomly switches to his other occupation as the Overlook. There was nothing wrong with the hotel, the problem was with Jack being brain stumped. It of course is very ironic how Jack questions the ethics and morals of his wife when he’s the one that starts to chase Wendy and Danny. Making it that more frightening.
Kubrick being an experienced visual artist with a background in photography, everything in The Shining is done intentionally. The use of mirrors is constantly used throughout the film, not to be mistaken. The movie opens up with a shot of mountains with its reflection of those mountains in the water below. This tells us for the rest of the movie reflections mirroring each other will be necessary to watch out for, if not even more crucially important than the opening. We first see Danny’s use of his powers in a bathroom mirror talking to himself. This is the truth. Danny has a special power, a sixth sense or sorts is the premise which will later be confirmed with the hotel staff member that says he has the same power as Danny. In another scene Jack realizes the woman he’s kissing is a corpse while looking at a mirror. Without the mirror it looks like a beautiful young woman, but with the mirror we see a decaying corpse. It is not necessarily an imaginary illusion, but a manifestation of what Jack wants to see compared to what is. The ghost twins are clearly mirrors of themselves. The predecessor Over-looker before Jack, is a mirror of Jack and his family. The last Over-looker murdered his family hence where the ghost twins come from. This is direct foreshadowing of events soon to unfold. In certain scene lengthy shots of Jack and Wendy talking to each other is done through the reflection of a mirror. Although more shots could be seen with Jack’s reflection. Hence truth to be found within our characters of who they really are and what they are capable of. Is this all related to Danny and the “shining”? Perhaps even the Overlook itself is a mirror. The guests are only tortured by the evil they bring with themselves. Looking through these mirrors the characters’ true selves are revealed. Jack’s history with endangering his son and being an alcoholic are amplified once in the hotel while his son is perfectly fine.Danny and Wendy remained un-corrupted because unlike Jack they have less demons inside.
To go a step further with the use of mirrors, things can only be understood in reverse. Danny’s RED RUM graffiti can be encrypted by a mirror. When looking at “R E D R U M” in a mirror it spells M U R D E R which foreshadows the attempted murder a few scenes later. The way Danny was able to elude Jack in the maze was by going in reverse. Jack was following Danny’s footsteps in the snow. To confuse Jack Danny cleverly backtracked his steps in his own footprints. This worked. Which shows that by going in reverse Danny not only was able to escape Jack, but also to prevent the spirits from controlling him.
Overall The Shining (1980) is a classic work of horror, but not only for the upfront reasons many would think. It is a much needed case study to be carefully analyzed and combed through to find out what is so terrifying about it. There are so many elements needed to be explored further like the maze, doubles, color use, fairytale allegories, Room 237, Danny’s imaginary friend and so much more. Also just as interesting was the creative decisions Kubrick did to adapt the book, mainly by throwing out Stephen King’s screenplay and making his own. Although an unfaithful adaptation from the source, still a masterpiece nevertheless.