Where’s Johnny? Questions left over from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”
Sometimes I wonder what exactly it was that drove me to sit down and watch The Shining as a young boy. Perhaps it was at the suggestion of my father, or perhaps I had come across the iconic cover- Jack Nicholson’s gristly grin peering through a cracked door frame-somewhere in the Horror section of a doomed Blockbuster. Without a doubt, others have experienced the same fantasmic intrigue. But what exactly is it about this spine-tingling enigma of a film that has kept generations of thrillseekers at the edge of their seats for almost three decades? The burning questions we are left with when the screen finally goes black. Here are just a few.
Does Jack tell Wendy about the Hotel murders?
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Jack is being interviewed for the winter caretaker position by The Overlook’s owner, Stuart Ullman. Towards end of the interview Ullman begrudgingly discloses to Jack that “something has been known to give people second thoughts about the job”: a former caretaker, Charles Grady, murdered his wife and two daughters with an ax during his stint as the hotel’s winter caretaker. Ullman explains it was most likely in reaction to the isolation induced by being snowbound in a remote location for five months, “something the old timers call cabin fever.” Jack is unfazed, and cracks a joke to dispel the tension. When questioned, Jack replies that his family, who will be joining him, will not be affected by this bit of history either. He believes his wife, Wendy, “a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict […] will be fascinated.” But does he ever actually tell his wife about the murders?
About halfway through the film, Jack’s son Danny appears in the Overlook’s Colorado Lounge with ripped clothing and some mysterious bruises around his neck. Wendy blames Jack due to his previous history of abusing their son. She takes Danny and runs off screen, and Jack wanders off and begins hallucinating he is drinking at a full bar in the Overlook’s Gold Room. This mirage is broken when Wendy bursts in the room in a fit of desperation. She tells Jack that Danny disclosed to her that he was bruised and had his clothing torn by a “crazy woman” in one of the hotels rooms- but they are alone in the hotel.
If we are to believe that Wendy assumes there is a living, breathing intruder in the hotel, she is completely in the dark regarding the Grady family murders. If Jack had informed his wife about the murders, Wendy most likely would assume that something supernatural is taking place as opposed to a strange female burglar. After all, she is a huge fan of ghost stories and they are alone in the hotel. At the same time, Jack could very well have told his wife about the previous gruesome events. They may have become just another ghost story that mildly entertained his wife with very little belief behind it. In the end, if Jack had told his wife about the murders, she probably would assume that something abnormal was happening—it’s likely any maids would have stowed away at the Overlook for the winter. She doesn’t seem to believe in any evidence of supernatural intervention until much later in the film. Note to self: always tell your wife everything.
Does Jack shine?
Throughout the movie, young Danny has strange, abstract hallucinations of things past and things to come—a psychic skill that Overlook chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Corothers) terms ‘shining.’ All of Danny’s visions come to fruition (everything from his father getting the caretaker job, to the iconic tsunami of blood that flows forth from a set of red doors.) Because of their prophetic nature, viewers interpret Danny’s visions as valid—a true skill—as opposed to the wild imaginations of a child, or a myth from a kooky old cook. We accept Danny’s ability to shine as valid because we have evidence for it, but what about his father?
Jack has similar visions throughout the film, many of which also come to fruition. During his hallucination he meets Lloyd, the bartender, and later conspires with Delbert Grady, the Overlook’s infamous former caretaker, to murder his wife and son. Interestingly, both Jack and Danny (off screen) interact with the “crazy woman” in room 237. In Jack’s interaction with this apparition, the form turns from a youthful, long haired woman into a rotted, decayed corpse in his arms. If both Danny and Jack interact with this crazy woman, does Jack shine too?
One possible interpretation is that the crazy woman from room 237 is not a shine at all. She is one of the many spirits timelessly trapped in the walls of the hotel and both Jack and Danny have merely interacted with the same ghost. In this case, Jack does not have the ability to shine. Another theory that supports the idea that Jack does not have the ability to shine is that Delbert Grady, who inspires Jack to follow in his footsteps, is meant to represent the part of Jack’s mind that is succumbing to the same cabin fever. In the same way someone with a mental illness such as schizophrenia may interact with voices in their head, Jack is only conspiring within himself to murder his family.
In contrast, Jack may have a very vivid shine while snoozing at his desk in the Colorado Lounge. Wendy shakes him awake from a screaming nightmare: he recants and tells her, in horror, that he had a dream in which he murdered both his wife and son, chopping them up into little pieces. Though he expresses intense terror and resentment of this vision, viewers cannot deny the similarity between this vision and the murders committed by the former Overlook caretaker. This dream could very well be a shine, a view into the past (or the future): the very same way that Danny shines. The schizophrenic self-coaching hypothesis also does not explain how Jack escapes the dry storage closet after being locked in by Wendy. In the film, Delbert Grady converses with Jack through the door of the kitchen dry storage. He tells Jack that he has failed in his task to murder his family and complete the process. Jack convinces Grady that he will do what must be done, and the door is unlocked. Jack is free. But how? If Grady does not exist but a voice within Jack’s head, who unlocks the door?
How did they keep young Danny Lloyd from the movie’s plotline?
One of the most famous trivia tidbits from The Shining’s production is that Danny Lloyd (film: Danny Torrence) was kept uninformed about the gruesome nature of the film he was a part of throughout production. IMDB even goes so far as to state that director Stanley Kubrick was instrumental in keeping the 6 year old Lloyd distanced from the horror of the film. The question that remains for me is, how was this possible?
On a less serious and less interpretative note than my other nitpicks, this remains a question of logistics for me. Sure, Lloyd may have been kept off-screen for the particularly terrifying scenes such as Halloran’s ax-murder and Jack’s lumberjacking of the bathroom door, but there are several distinct scenes from the film that make me wonder what pretenses were put in place to dissolve the aura of a horror movie. One example is the “redrum!” scene. Here, while talking backwards in a gargled demonic voice, Danny picks up a seven inch steak knife and slides his small thumb along the width of the blade. What was the justification for this? Shortly after, Wendy begs Danny to “Run, run and hide!” from his slowly approaching maniac father. In subsequent scenes, he runs away from his father who chases after him wielding a bloody ax. These are just some of the things that make me believe that it would have been hard for the young Lloyd to not put two and two together.
Interestingly, unlike other child-stars who skyrocketed to fame and misfortune after their first roles, Danny Lloyd decided to decline the beckon of the silver screen and turned down a career in acting. Lloyd only acted in one film after his performance in The Shining (Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy (1982).) What were the reasons that the now well-known Lloyd decided to refuse fame and fortune? It becomes clearer to me when Lloyd is compared with other child stars: Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone, Home Alone 2) for example. At age ten, Culkin was the focal point, the star of the Home Alone franchise. Heck, his open-mouth gape on the original movie poster is almost as famous as Culkin himself. Lloyd, on the other hand, was playing third fiddle to Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in The Shining. Perhaps not being the top-billed actor created a completely different environment for the young actor. To utilize this comparison to Culkin further, Lloyd was sheltered and removed from the plot of his film. One could even hypothesize that Kubrick used Lloyd for exactly what he was good for—prolonged scenes of concentration—and not much else plot-wise. Culkin in “Home Alone” would have experienced the exact opposite treatment on set. He would have been coached, trained, and immersed within his films because he was the star. In this comparison, one can see how the attention that comes with being a “star” could keep a child in the acting business, while merely being an “actor” in a film you know little about might change a young child’s perception of the occupation. Either way, last I heard, Culkin was smoking 60 cigarettes a day in a London flat and Lloyd was a science teacher in the Midwest United States. Maybe not being the star wasn’t such a bad choice after all.
I think that the question that gnaws the mind the most after finishing The Shining is simple. What’s next?
The Shining is filled with strange anachronisms, a literary term that Merriam-Webster defines as “an error in chronology, especially a misplacement of persons, events, objects and customs.” Jack Torrence and his family continually find themselves trapped in a world that mixes past, present, and future—perhaps implying that all three can take place at the same time. This bone-chilling deconstruction of time into eternity reveals itself at several points during the film. One of the most prominent examples is the celebrated and chilling bathroom exchange between Delbert Grady and Jack Torrence. Skip ahead to this tense confrontation between the two at 1:27:00 for some of the finest acting you’ll ever see from Jack Nicholson.
JT: Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here. I recognize ‘ya. I saw your picture in the newspapers. You, uh, chopped your wife and daughter up into little bits…and then you blew your brains out.
DG: That’s strange, sir. I don’t have any recollection of that at all.
JT: Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here.
DG: I’m sorry to differ with you sir. But you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.
Has Jack always been the caretaker at the Overlook? Some interpretations of the film make this possible. One device that shows this as a potential explanation comes in Jack’s choice of weapon during the finale—a fireman’s ax—the same weapon used in the fabled Grady murders as explained by Stuart Ullman in the early interview scene. By using the same weapon to hunt own his family, Jack is either replicating exactly the steps that Grady took in his gristly espionage, or Jack is Grady himself, and the story is being told for the first time, again. The Overlook presents several more of these strange, anachronistic ideas throughout the film. In the finale, Wendy runs frantically through the hotel corridors, encountering strange party guests and eventually stumbling back into the Colorado Lounge to find it filled with cobwebs and fully dressed skeletons. If we just saw the characters in the same room, beautifully lit and decorated, how can it suddenly appear as if untouched for decades?
This ambiguity and room for interpretation is one of the reasons that The Shining still has so much stopping power after 30 years. There is always plenty left to the imagination, and we are never truly satisfied with having found any correct answers. Admittedly, this is a good thing. If the screen faded to black as Wendy and Danny growl into the distance in the Snowcat, there might be less analytical questions to answer from a cut and dry happy ending. The family escapes with their lives, but will they readjust to a new life, sans father, back in Boulder? Will Wendy remarry? Will the cops be able to put the pieces together? Fortunately, these melodramatic questions are overshadowed by head-scratcher that is Kubrick’s twist ending—perhaps the most perplexing anachronism in the film. For more than 35 years, viewers have been left with mouths agape by the film’s final shot: a black and white photograph that shows what appears to be Jack Torrence amidst a crowd of party goers: July 4th, 1921.
Shivers trickle down my back. Perhaps Jack has been here all along, and the gristly murders are repeated continuously at this snowbound hotel in the mountains. One final question remains for me, however. We learn that Grady succeeded in murdering his entire family before committing suicide—thus fulfilling the Overlook prophecy. If Delbert Grady and Jack are one in the same, the prophecy has been fulfilled before. However, in the retelling of these events that is The Shining, Jack Torrence fails to murder his family and perishes by himself in the cold. With the prophecy now left unfulfilled, does the evil at the Overlook finally rest? For me, it is interesting to note that this is far clearer in Steven King’s novel, The Shining, the entire hotel explodes due to a boiler malfunction, thus obliterating the hotel and its malicious power forever. As far as the theater audience is concerned, the Overlook Hotel will open again next May.
Here’s to hoping they have a good maintenance crew.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
The Shining (miniseries) put this movie to shame. Anyone who read the book had to have been disappointed with the movie. Just my opinion.
There are certain things that cannot be recreated from page-to-screen, and certainty thing that the screen does much better than the page. For example – the moving hedges from the novel. Kubrick did not have the technological capacity to create anamatronic bushes in 1980. He created the maze in lieu of the bushes to serve the same general purpose. I think that you have a true point. Yet IMO, film and literature are two completely separate entities and should be analyzed as such.
Thank you for stressing out that it is just your opinion.
I really enjoyed your thoughts. I think The Shining is the best of Kubrick’s works. As the years go by it seems to never go away, there is always something extraordinary to discover about it. No other films is like that to its degree.
I’ve always thought that the Shining deserved a deeper analysis than I have typically read. I’m glad you took the time to do it and show the layered questions of the movie. It’s interesting that while watching the movie you these tones emotionally and instinctually, yet you feel unclear as to why you’re so uncomfortable. Kubrick really was a unique master.
That’s really true – there is a feeling of “unsettledness” that pervades the entire film. It’s quite subtle and sits right above the surface- because most of the time you are watching relatively normal things happen. I think that’s what I was trying to do here- seek out those feelings of unsettledness and try and figure out what exactly was creating them.
I agree. I’ve just recently read the book and with the book still fresh in mind, this analysis makes so much sense.
excellent article, you raise questions here that make us all re-examine our knowledge of this classic cultural product. Some of your questions really made me rethink the plot and what was left up to viewers intuition, bravo.
Thank you Johnathan!!
I enjoyed your article of a classic that will forever, for me at least, has many questions that I seem to change my answers to, each time I watch it. I found the approach to Wendy’s inability to foreshadow a supernatural element until later in the film, a great way to provide her with an amplified horrified viewpoint of her husband. His abusive past is a key to different conversation on human fallibility. It brings to mind what people that you supposedly know really well are actually capable of (human nature). This connects to the theory that Jack could have been the killer all along, in a supernatural sense.
Amazing analytical work.
I feel the movie is about schizophrenia. This is reflected in Wendy as women’s intuition, a staple of cinematic devices. And Danny represents innate childhood imagination and it’s suppression, which is also a fairly common observation. (My son is a tiger literally 75% of the time.
I saw an art show of 5 year olds recently and about 10% of the paintings could sit along art in galleries and sell for thousands of pounds, assuming the painter could be constructed as the possessor of a career, history, development, personality, genius, godly vessel, madman, etc. I just realised how old-fashioned the art world is. And similarly, how old-fashioned this sort of critique is, which reads literally *everything* as an intentional act of often hidden communication.)
Most of the actors, even the seasoned actors like Nicholson ….extremely overact in this movie….on purpose it seems.
Shelley Duvall always evokes a grimace or two from me 😐
I read the Novel of The Shining a couple of years ago. It’s interesting, the differences. I saw the film long before reading the book. Was always struck by the fact Kubrick used King’s novel, as it is pulp horror fiction. Usually used more literary efforts I thought? But on later inspection the novel is actually quite good. The scenes where Jack is becoming obsessed with reading news clips in the boiler room. The boiler itself, similar to the fireplace in The Amittyville Horror? The killer topiary animals, replaced by the maze in the film, that move only when not being looked at (like the angels in Doctor Who). The roque(sp.) mallets that Jack uses, replaced by an axe in the film. And Tony being a little boy who lives in Danny’s mouth, sometimes seen in the distance. Redrum is there though. Isn’t it interesting how murder can seem a terrible word for a child, but has become normalized for adults? When Murder She Wrote came on TV in the 80’s, just the title and idea horrified me at the time.
You know he has written a recent sequel? I read that one as well. Along with some of his other recent works. Doctor sleep doesn’t read as well as the other, original ideas. One I haven’t gotten to yet is 11/22/63 witch I fear upholds the official lone patsy narrative. Mr. Mercury presents a good recipe for a James Holmes, or sandy hook guy, crossed with Norman Bates, for lone nut home grown terror. Under the Dome has a brain tumor induced serial killer. In Doctor Sleep, King makes mention of a character from his son Joe Hill’s novel N0S 4A2 and Christmasland, where Children are kidnapped and taken to. Also in Doctor Sleep a brief mention about “Finders” searching for gifted children to steal their Shining power, through traumatic ritual killing.
Of the earlier King novels, Pet Semetary is almost polar opposite of The Shining. The movie was pretty bad. The book is great though. Very similar, with native, manitou motifs and compromised father figure, wife, son, wise old guy who helps out, etc. But in this one it’s all reversed, what happens to everyone. Especially in the books, because Halloran survives. The idea’s Levenda brings up in Sinister Forces. Or HP Lovecraft. The fear of the unknown, lurking in the New England countryside. Kubrick leaves most of that alone. Better portrayed in Larry Fessenden’s low budget indie The Manitou, or Ravenous. There’s a new low bug with Kurt Russell, Bone Tomahawk, which had some potential, but blew it. There’s a film of Ghost Story too. Though all lesser films on their own merits, of course.
Lesser films indeed. Along with Twin Peaks (1st season) and some of Lynches other work, The Shining stands out as one of the best. Movies of King’s books don’t have a good track record mostly. Romero’s The Dark Half is good. Trying to think of anything else along those lines. Maybe Suspiria? Any ideas, or suggestions?
Lai- thank you for your insightful comments. I actually haven’t read Dr. Sleep. I am not a huge fan of King novels- as you explained, they tend to be quite a bit pulpy for me as I reach for things with a bit more meat on the bones. That being said, I think the horror book to horror film is an extremely interesring dynamic because the tactics an author uses to make a novel frightening are drastically different from those a director uses to make a film frightening- while also sharing some similarities. I am excited to see how Idris Elba takes on King’s “Gunslinger” and Dark Tower series for these reasons. If what you’re looking for is great horror films based on fiction, I would totally reccommend John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness.” Loosely based off of Lovecraftian fiction- very meta, quite cult but also scary in its own special way. JAWS is also based off of a novel of the same title by Peter Benchley. Being a New Englander, I’m totally biased. But for me that is the most prime example of novel-film in the horror genre I can think of!
This isn’t just a movie masterpiece. In relation to its meaning and its plot, The Shining is an onion. Cleverly constructed, with layer upon layer of meanings , plot lines and clues. Simply wonderful.
All im going to say is people connects dots that might not have been fully intentional.
If the creator didn’t intend something but the audience finds it, does that mean it’s not there?
Dude that has got to be the most kickass analysis I’ve ever read.
There’s the view of all rational adults that it’s a well made but simple story of a guy who goes crazy which has become the obsession of people who are batshit crazy.
Watched it last night and my head still hurts from the many sub-themes within the movie.
A great movie for any night! I love it for plane flights, that way everyone around me can watch too 😈
Personally I can’t get beyond THE SHINING being so dull and lacking in tension – the ultimate non-terrifying horror film. Much rather watch Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, LOLITA or STRANGELOVE.
Wonderful in-depth critique on The Shining.
STANLEY KUBRICK WAS A GENIUS OF HIS TIME. Sad to say, many geniuses don’t live long enough to be redeemed by the very fabric of secret societies that they wish to unravel to the unsuspecting world.
If you’ve read the book you’ll see what Kubrick was trying to do, he made a long story short.. end of discussion
Very true- some cuts had to be made! But for a film lasting around three hours, I hesitate to describe it as “short”!
A friend of mine was very good friends with the designer on TS. He asked the designer about this stuff, after all, much if it refers to production design decisions. The designer said that there was no intention behind most of this stuff. Which basically refutes 90% of all the analysis done on the film. What can be said is that Kubrick was a genius at hood winking audiences. And that’s pretty much all.
I can’t truly be sure what your friend, the “production designer”, thought about the film’s intention. These are simply questions that arise from me, an audience member, after watching. As far as I’m concerned, audience interpretation has little to nothing to do with authorial intention. If the creator didn’t intend something but the audience finds it anyway, does that mean it’s not there?
I’ve only finished watching the movie for the first time and I gotta say holy hell are you on some to something.
It gets better every time!! Thanks friend!
What I always found interesting was the way King disliked aspects of Kubrick’s interpretation. Not necessarily with the plot itself, but the characterization of Shelly Duvall’s character. For his time King always seemed to write fairly liberated female characters, and the literary version of Wendy provides much more resistance to Jack, and provides an interesting contrast that isn’t provided in the same way in the movie.
you know filmmaking has stagnated when there are like 5 stanley kubrick documentaries/themed films in the past 3-4 years but no new directors that are as good as kubrick when he was starting out
I loved ‘The Shinning’ scared the shit out of me. It’s been years since saw it, but this piece brought back so many aspects that I didn’t see, I am going to revisit the film, make a list and compare.
Please do! Let me know what you find!!
I agree with all of these questions. I ask myself them every time I’ve seen The Shining, and though I don’t get the most complete of answers upon third or fourth rewatches, I am still perplexed and hypnotised. Great article!
For me the film’s ambiguity has made it as good as it is. There is no way that I would go back to watch it again and again if I knew everything that was going on. I can take something new away from it every time. It’s a great film to discuss as well, I have yet to find a person that has the exact same thoughts on it as me. Defiantly the best Kubrick film in my opinion, his genius really showed here.
Great article! The Shining is one of my favorite horror films, and I read the book a few years ago. While I actually prefer the film to the book, I think the book did provide some interesting insight into some of the more ambiguous/seemingly random things that come up in the film. Still need to read Dr. Sleep!
I love the book as well – I think you are right in that they posses different elements and offer a great compliment to one another. I personally love the end of the book and the resolution to the conflict there as much as I love the ending of the film. It’s interesting how two very different ways of concluding the same story can be equally as successful.
Loved reading this article. I wish I’d read the book before watching the movie. Loved your analysis of this movie! So many new and interesting ideas. I’ll have to watch again and see what I think!
That’s pretty impressive that Kubrick was able to shield Lloyd from the violent content of the film. Interesting note: Kubrick had to something similar before. For “Dr. Strangelove,” he didn’t want the actor Slim Pickens–the guy who plays the pilot–to know the film was a satire. Pickens only saw his segments of the script, and was convinced that he was starring in more of a Charles Bronsonesque war picture. The things Kubrick would do to fulfill his vision.
Definitely gotta recommend the documentary Room 237 for anyone wanting to go down the rabbit hole of wacky The Shining theories.
A really interesting article, it makes me want to re-watch/read the Shining again!
I really dig the way this article is written. It addresses a slew of ideas while still keeping the main point accurate and well executed. Nice work!! Love The Shining!
Good questions you raise here. I don’t have answers for you, but you’ve given me the chills just thinking about this film again. For me, it’s not the action so much as the music that scares the bejeezus out of me. I shall have to rewatch it again in search of some answers…
I personally made the decision to read the novel before watching the film. I can honestly say I absolutely love both versions, they are extremely different, yet share similar characteristics.
Watching an interview with Stephen King, he did mention in his novel, the Overlook Hotel burns… and in the film it freezes. He says this was the difference in temperament between the two talents; he was warm and Stanley Kubrick was cold.
I understand where King is coming from, I don’t believe Kubick was out to deliberately ruin King’s work at all. That’s why the title of the film is ‘Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining’.
Although I do give the book the slight preference, as I am a Stephen King fanatic… and to say I knew a lot about Kubrick and his style would not be true. The film still gave a tense, eery feel to the story that was enjoyable, and it certainly gives a new spin on it.
Kudos to both King & Kubrick.