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.