Kubrick's horror masterpiece has inspired multiple allegorical readings
Enthralling documentary Room 237 reveals the many interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying thriller The Shining. Hannah McGill considers filmgoers’ enduring fascination with the film
You can tell a lot about a person by the classic horror movie that he or she is least inclined to watch alone on a stormy night. If religious trauma lurks in someone’s psyche, The Exorcist is going to be the one that most works their nerves. If their major burden is some sexual hang-up with childhood origins, Psycho holds the most power. But if you’re dealing with a fractious, obsessive creative type, an introvert with a wayward imagination, one who sees the dark side and doesn’t necessarily play well with others – expect him or her to go all shaky in the presence of The Shining.
Adapted from Stephen King’s 1977 novel with co-screenwriter Diane Johnson, Stanley Kubrick’s film tells of writer, husband and father Jack Torrance, who takes a winter caretaking job in the imposing Overlook Hotel. He intends to use the months of isolation to produce a new book; but alone within the Overlook’s luridly decorated walls, with nothing but snow for miles around, his wife and child grating on his concentration and his historic booze problem resurfacing, Jack begins to unravel; and both he and the hotel show ugly sides to themselves. Jack’s son Danny, meanwhile, is unusually attuned to what’s happening thanks to being gifted with the ability to communicate telepathically. Just as this ‘shining’ marks little Danny out, so Kubrick’s film harbours a particular power, a capacity to disturb that goes beyond mere ghost-train scares. That’s partly because the story plays on numerous deep and widespread fears at once. There’s the classic trope of the building that retains ‘traces’ of what’s occurred within its walls, which is instilled in most of us by childhood ghost story sessions. There’s also the similarly internalised notion of the special, sensitive individual whose gifts predispose them to contact with the supernatural (an idea which is particularly appealing to the alienated adolescents who, generation after generation, supply a key component of the horror movie market). And there’s the baggage that attends the family unit: who doesn’t carry some excess cabin weight around angry fathers; passive mothers; the secrets or violence that can simmer behind smiles …?
Yet the significance of The Shining to certain viewers transcends even this level of identification. To the most devoted decoders, The Shining is a cabalistic system that covertly challenges those with sufficient ‘shine’ to figure out what it’s really about. To one talking head in the enthralling documentary Room 237, The Shining is clearly about the genocide of the indigenous American tribes. And he’s right: there are, once you pick them out, references to Native Americans everywhere … Or, wait! Is the film in fact, as another fan with a worn-out rewind button asserts, a clear allegory for Nazi Germany? No, because it’s an incest story, driven by the metaphor of ‘phantoms and demons that are sexually attracted to humans’. Or perhaps, to those really in the know, it’s Kubrick’s covert confession that he was indeed part of the conspiracy to cover up the faked moon landing? Believe their theories or don’t: these slightly deranged pearl divers come up with intriguing instances of contradiction and implication from one of the most layered, imaginative and atmospheric horror movies ever made to keep us awake at night.
Room 237 is on selected release from Fri 26 Oct. The extended, US version of The Shining is in cinemas from Wed 31 Oct.