‘The Shining’: psychology, the supernatural, and bad carpets

The Shining (1980) begins with stunning arial shots of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle travelling along a mountain road, and doom laden classical music suggesting that something disturbing will happen.

The story doesn’t dwell too much on the setup, which purposefully ladles on the foreshadowing, alerting us to the distinct possibility that Jack Torrance is an unstable wildcard, and that his son, Danny Torrance, is a peculiar child. First, the job interview for the position of winter caretaker is heavily referenced with dire warnings about a previous caretaker who went crazy from cabin fever, and, second, his wife’s meeting with a social worker reveals that Jack injured his son’s shoulder one evening, after he’d come back from a drinking session. Even as they drive up to the hotel, Jack seems distant to both his wife and child, coming across simultaneously as patronising and short tempered. (He later reveals that he experienced a disturbing sense of deja vu during the journey.)

Once at the hotel, Danny continues to experience disturbing hallucinations, which we later understand to be supernatural visitations. Meanwhile, Jack is unable to concentrate on his work and develops writers block, which he then blames on his wife who he accuses of constantly interrupting him. Jack, his wife, and son, all have supernatural experiences, but Jack suffers the most. Pushed to his breaking point, he increasingly spends time in The Gold Room, holding conversations with ghosts — unable to distinguish reality from the supernatural.

In the scene where Jack meets Danny in the bedroom, he effectively says goodbye to the boy, promising that he could never hurt his son. This is the last we see of the real Jack before he becomes ‘possessed’ and turns into an axe-wielding psycho. It’s clear from Jack’s handling of the ghost in the bathroom — his complete denial of the event — that he’s unable to come to terms with the paranormal. We can probably assume (like his son) he has also experienced supernatural hallucinations, and this might be why he’s been drinking excessively? Or, some sixth sense within him is subconsciously aware of the impending doom. Alternatively, it could be explained simply as a character not be coping with his life well. His inability to acknowledge the experience of the female ghost in the bathroom presents the audience with yet another ‘red flag’ about his character.

As Jack’s condition deteriorates he appears to live almost completely within the supernatural world, having conversations with the hotel’s resident ghosts. Jack even pledges to a previous caretaker (who murdered his own family), that if he opens the food store door (his wife has locked him in there for her and Danny’s protection), he will teach his family a lesson.

The film climaxes with Jack’s full blown insanity, or demonic possession (take your pick), and he pursues them with an axe. In the final shot the camera slowly zooms in on a black and white photograph, hanging on a wall in the hotel, reaffirming to us that the whole event has a spooky supernatural context. The origin of the evil force in the hotel emanates, we previously learnt, from a Native American burial ground that was disturbed during the hotel’s construction. This scenario seems a little cheesy for a Stanley Kubrik film, because it’s straight out of The Amityville Horror (1979).

Kubrick was keen to produce a hit (his previous film, Barry Lyndon, although critically acclaimed, had been commercial flop). This explains the mainstream supernatural theme (over, say, a straight story chronicling Jack’s psychological disintegration). Interestingly, Kubrick screened David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) to the crew, hoping that would give them a sense of the tone he was after.

The Shining is an astonishing piece of work, with incredible attention to detail, the hotel’s interior shots were produced on a completely constructed stage, with the interior decoration — the carpet designs, bathroom colour schemes, and The Gold Room (the Vincent Van Gough room?) reinforcing the psychological discord. In some respects the hotel’s interior has parallels to the inside of the space craft in 2001 — it’s a mostly empty space, a kind of in-between world where a central character (Jack and Hal) goes off the rails. The Gold Room even has echoes of the Rococo room at the end of 2001.

The Shining
The Shining

The Shining combines meticulous and deadpan observation that Kubrick is renowned for, with a popular horror story that has broad appeal. It is a warning about strange and disturbing forces being unleashed into the world, and Jack’s psychological breakdown. But, it is also a celebration of a mother’s determination, and ability, to protect herself and her child.