The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - Jack Nicholson - Jack Torrance - Philip Stone - Charles Grady - bathroom - Overlook Hotel - Gold Ballroom

The Shining
1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick

At the end of The Shining the camera tracks in on an old photograph in the hotel lobby revealing Jack as the Overlook Hotel’s long-ago caretaker. The photo poses a tantalizing question. Was Jack part of a cycle of evil larger than the madness we’ve witnessed? This twist seems to tip everything toward a supernatural explanation, after the movie has so delicately balanced supernatural and psychological reasons for Jack’s collapse into murderous rage. In one gesture the photograph turns a linear narrative into a cyclical loop, leaving the audience’s heads spinning and questioning what is real.

To end a movie on an enigma like this is a neat trick. After so much has seemingly been resolved, it throws the audience back into the story. Nevertheless it’s easy to pull off, a simple rhetorical device that doesn’t change the story as much as it unsettles the viewer. In fact the real sleight of hand is not the twist itself, but the way it distracts viewers from the real ending. After Jack’s mysterious appearance in the photo, the shot zeroes in on the inscription below him identifying the image as the 1921 July Fourth ball. The year is what usually shocks people, but the date of July 4th raises even more questions. What exactly does The Shining have to do with the United States?

The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - Danny Lloyd - Danny Torrance - sandwich - Tony - Bugs Bunny

The date of the national holiday on the photo might be simple happenstance if only the whole movie weren’t so filled with Americana. The Torrance family wears an awful lot of red, white, and blue, including the disturbingly mismatched outfits Wendy and Danny are introduced in. Danny wears shirts or pullovers with Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and an “Apollo 11 USA” rocket ship, and Jack wears a shirt with an eagle across it. There are prominent U.S. flags in Mr. Ullman’s office, the Colorado Room, and the Forest Service station. Danny’s bedroom is decorated with Peanuts and Disney cartoon characters, and Wendy is introduced reading Catcher in the Rye. Racing into the maze, Wendy tells Danny the loser has to “keep America clean”. The Rocky Mountains are quintessentially American, as are the Native American design motifs in the hotel. The Torrances are a stereotypical white American family straight out of a mid-century television show like the one Wendy and Danny watch in one scene. Even the baseball bat Wendy defends herself with is a piece of Americana.

The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - mountains - lake - Rockies - opening

The Shining opens with a majestic aerial panorama of the Rockies, creating an impression of vastness that carries into the Overlook Hotel, a grand old mountain lodge with cavernous rooms that dwarf the characters: the Colorado Room, the Gold Room, luxury suites like Room 237, the endless kitchen and enormous bathrooms, the long corridors, even the hedge maze outside. The hotel is like a middle-class family’s fantasy of a mansion, so unbelievably outsized that it’s almost necessary to believe the family is not alone there. It’s all too good to be real. Danny has an entire game room to himself, the kitchen is stocked with all the food they could want, and the three of them have all the leisure time they need to enjoy the windfalls of their situation.

All of this fits the image of America as a land of plenty. The opening shots emphasize the nation’s abundance of land, and the amply provisioned kitchen mirrors its agricultural wealth. The United States is the most prosperous nation in history and the modern age’s dominant power. It occupied the Earth after World War II the way the Torrance family occupies the hotel, as custodian and ruler. Through the middle of the century the United States stood unscathed and economically unmatched while other countries struggled to rebuild.

The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - Jack Nicholson - Jack Torrance - job interview

But The Shining is a horror movie, not an ode to the glories of the United States. Amid all this wealth is something unspeakably sinister. The Torrance family has been blessed, at least temporarily, with awesome abundance, but they absolutely waste it in every way. In one of the scariest moments Wendy finds that Jack has been squandering his time typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” again and again. The horror mounts with each page she flips through, revealing a scale of wastage that can only be explained by some horrible madness.

For all the wealth and bounty in The Shining, there is equal corresponding waste. Jack isn’t the only idle character; Wendy and Danny also fritter away their time playing, eating, and watching TV. You would expect Danny to be home-schooled, but there is no sign of it. The hotel itself is a monument to waste, with its gold-leafed ballroom and slaughtered wildlife – a bearskin rug, moose and buffalo heads – decorating its rooms. Mr. Ullman tells Wendy the hotel was built over a sacred American Indian burial ground, so the land, like the United States, has been stolen and profaned. Wendy’s nightmare vision of a man receiving fellatio from a bear suggests the rape of nature.

The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - Dick Hallorann - Scatman Crothers - Florida - telephone

The movie is sensitive to the racial divide in the United States, where the sins of waste are concentrated in white America. If Dick Halloran, the hotel’s black chef, wastes a flight across the country and a trip in a rented snowcat over long mountain roads for nothing, it’s not for lack of a good purpose, but rather because he is cruelly cut down by a white maniac. In real life people of all races waste their time and potential, but for the privileged waste is a matter of choice.

It is common sense to say that wastefulness begins with taking things for granted. Kubrick is always interested in characters who arrogantly imagine themselves lords of time and space, but who fail to make the best of their generous gifts. At the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Alice has to correct Bill when he speaks of being awake “forever”. Jack Torrance makes the same error when he tells Danny, “I wish we could stay here forever and ever and ever!” just as the Grady twins invite Danny to “Come and play with us forever and ever and ever!” The prospect of spending forever playing like children is scary enough, but the real horror is that people so often wish for it. To ask for all the time in the universe is not a sign of appreciation for the time one is given; it’s more likely rooted in a wish to waste time.

The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - Danny Lloyd - Danny Torrance - Overlook Hotel - carpet - cars - ball - pattern

The Shining is not some frivolous horror movie calculated to scare its audience for the thrill of it. It’s scary because it reflects real horrors that exist in the world. It says that horror is the most appropriate response to people who cavalierly rule the Earth without gratitude for the abundance they’ve been given, or which they’ve usurped for themselves. Moreover, The Shining traces an inevitable connection between a wasteful attitude and murderousness. It is precisely because Jack Torrance is so utterly insensitive to his blessings that he devolves into insane savagery. The hotel’s labyrinth of corridors leading in impossible directions, and the hedge maze outside, are physical correlatives for a brain turned in on itself, oblivious to surrounding reality.

The link between waste and murder is introduced early, first as ironic – cannibalism is palatable to children if they learn about it on TV (television is always associated with waste; even the famous line “Here’s Johnny!” alludes to the Tonight Show) – and then as innocuous when Jack asks Danny whether he’s finished “bombing the universe” in the game room. But as the movie progresses the connection grows more serious. Even by the end Kubrick isn’t finished with the topic. It’s no accident that his next film, Full Metal Jacket, is also about how the destructive arrogance of the United States leads to murder.

The Shining - Stanley Kubrick - Grady twins - Louise Burns - Lisa Burns - Overlook Hotel - corridor

Given how often The Shining points to America, it’s remarkable that one thing is distinctly not American. The Grady family – Delbert Grady and his twin girls – speak with British accents. The British Empire, after all, had preceded the United States as the world’s “caretaker”. The photo of another Jack Torrance at the end is not so mysterious after all; it posits a historical cycle of recurring arrogance, wastefulness, and murder.


Saboteur – Pattern of Americana throughout the movie

The Naked Jungle – Wastefulness as a consequence of modern civilization’s dominion

Last Year at Marienbad – Large hotel with a barroom and long corridors that don’t connect logically; formal garden or maze outside; startling multiplication of a photo or a sentence

Barry Lyndon – Allusions to the United States and its wasted potential; significant date at end

Full Metal Jacket – Murderousness of the United States; Mickey Mouse reference

Eyes Wide Shut – The word “forever” as a sign of overreaching; waking up from nightmare about hurting the one being told; something important hidden in a low cabinet with a sliding door