Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has been discussed by cinephiles since its release in 1980. It follows the story of “recovering” alcoholic and struggling writer, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his (seemingly) psychic son, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), and a woman trying her best to deal with her disturbed husband and child, Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall). When Jack takes on a winter job as the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in its off-season, the family spends a long winter isolated in the hotel, and madness ensues. (Warning: if you haven’t watched the film, you might get a little lost and encounter some spoilers!)
There are many theories about the real meaning of the film, but let’s subscribe for a moment to the theory that there are no psychic events (like posited in this analysis on Collative Learning), but rather a personification of madness in isolation represented as the hotel. The wild turn of events is brought on by Jack’s madness and abuse of his son, and their visions are the coping mechanism of two disturbed minds in isolation.
There are several clues that the “psychic” events in the film are actually dream sequences, produced by Danny’s mind to cope with the abuse of his father. For instance, Room 237 has the same exact layout as the suite the Torrances stay in, and Jack’s encounter with the woman in the bathtub bears an uncanny resemblance to Danny entering the room while his father is supposedly asleep to retrieve his toy fire truck. (In case you need a reminder, Wendy tells Danny to enter the room quietly to retrieve his toy, since Jack is asleep, but when he enters, Jack is sitting on his bed and motions to him to sit on his lap. Danny expresses fear and his father swears he wouldn’t hurt him, but there is a jarring change in the musical score and we cut to a different scene.
In the following scene, Jack is lured by an attractive naked woman in Room 237, but when he approaches, she turns into a witch-like creature who reaches for his neck, chasing him out of the room.) The former scene is accompanied by eerie, sad music despite being a relatively optimistic conversation between father and son. The writer of the analysis poses that after we cut to a different scene, Jack proceeded to strangle Danny, and it wasn’t a woman in Room 237 who strangled him, but Jack. The scene with Jack and the woman is then a warped version of the events, where Danny dreams of himself as Jack, and of Jack as a creepy, monster-like creature. Though Jack/Danny is enticed to enter by the woman/Jack, she quickly turns into a monster trying to hurt him, just like Jack turned violent and hurt Danny.
Additionally, any scenes with Room 237 occur around times where Danny is said to be asleep, or when it’s nighttime. Danny’s mind likely changed the traumatic events with his father and channeled his trauma to an imaginary room in the hotel he is trapped in because that reality is easier to cope with than being trapped with an abusive father. This also explains why he developed an imaginary friend who seemingly “possesses” him during stressful events in the film. Danny’s psychic abilities can be explained by a dissociation caused by trauma. But if Danny’s psychic visions are dreams, what about Jack’s ghostly encounters?
As mentioned earlier, Jack Torrance is a struggling alcoholic with abusive tendencies. We know he hurt Danny in events prior to the start of the movie, so the likelihood of the abuse continuing, especially during a time of isolation and stress, is high. Any encounters Jack experiences happen when he’s near a mirror. In the scene after Jack’s alleged encounter with the creepy woman in Room 237 (which we’re assuming was actually Danny’s mind coping with his father strangling him), Jack sits at a bar with a mirrored wall. Rather than being distraught by the encounter with the woman, he was actually struggling with guilt after hurting his young son. He covers his eyes, avoiding his own reflection, and when he opens them, a bartender is there offering him a drink, an escape. Though Jack wasn’t actually getting intoxicated in his visits to the bar, his mind was stressed from the isolation and guilt, and it constructed a narrative where he is not the one to blame, a narrative where the hotel’s spirit inhabitants are the ones torturing him and his son, where he is not the abuser. Both Danny and Jack descend into their own versions of madness, with Wendy as tragic collateral damage.
Why, then, is the Overlook Hotel full of impossibilities and contradictions? (Check out this video, also by Collative Learning, for examples). And what the heck does this have to do with quarantine? No one theory seems to arrive at a definitive explanation for the meaning of the film, but given what director Stanley Kubrik said of the film in a 1980 article for the Washington Post, “It’s just the story of one man’s family quietly going insane together,” I’m proposing that the events of the film should be considered within a greater context: a not-always-literal depiction of the detrimental effect isolation has on the human mind.
The Overlook Hotel is a confusing, mind-bending fortress of solitude, a visual and spatial representation of an under-stimulated, socially-deprived mind. What is more horrifying than an abusive parent, a disturbed child, and a parent who won’t intervene and stop the abuse, all trapped together in isolation for months? (Granted, this perpetuates a dangerous stereotype of the abuser being the father and the mother being too weak to protect the child, but that is a conversation for another day.)
Jack is a violent alcoholic, too disturbed to face his guilt; Danny is an abused child who developed a split personality (Tony) and imaginative alternative narratives to cope with his father’s abuse, and Wendy is a mother terrified of her abusive husband but unable to stand up to him. They are left to their own devices for months and Jack’s abusive tendencies escalate, Danny’s psyche ruptures even further, and Wendy is forced to take action when Jack’s violent abuse gets wildly out of hand. Their journey is convoluted and difficult, not always easy to grasp, much like a maze or an impossible spatial layout, but somehow, the movie ends with two survivors and an abuser confined to the past.
At a time when the world is stuck inside, many in domestically abusive and dangerous situations, The Shining resonates more strongly than ever, and while we hope nobody’s situation escalates like the Torrances’ situation, we do send our support to anyone who is having a hard time stuck inside, who doesn’t get along with their family, who feels as if they’re going insane. If Danny and Wendy could make it, so can you. So will you.
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