A few weeks ago, I had the insatiable urge to pick apart Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is probably my all-time favorite horror movie. And so I did some examination, and I had a lot to say. I stopped the post rather abruptly while analyzing an early film scene, and then life happened: the semester picked up, I got a part time job at Torrid, a store that brings fashion to women who wear a variety of sizes (a mission I’m totally on board with), and I kept meaning to write, but it didn’t happen. I don’t like to separate my blog posts out by three week increments – I decided when I started my doctoral program that I would try to post at least every two weeks – but such is life.
In any case, tonight I put all school work on hold (sorry Tennyson, I’ll re-visit you tomorrow) as I indulge in a hopefully detailed, potentially haphazard analysis of this brilliant film. Will I make it to the film’s conclusion? Will I not? It’s anyone’s guess. First, a few warnings: 1.) Expect spoilers, and watch The Shining if you haven’t seen it, 2.) I may test out the application of literary theory randomly on some posts to prepare for my imminent candidacy exam (translation: the boring parts you might skim through), but I may not, and, 3.) From this point forward, I don’t perfectly remember the order of each scene. I might pop the DVD in the DVD player for accuracy’s sake, but I might not. My apologies if I’m not impeccably chronological. I will try to maintain the “essence” of the film in my overview. Before you read this, you might want to check out my first analysis, which examines the first 2-3 scenes of the film.
So, when we left off, Danny was lying in bed after receiving a vision from his imaginary friend, Tony, of elevators vomiting blood, a vision interspersed with fast clips of dead bodies, mutilated by an ax, engulfed in scarlet liquid. Happily, for Danny, he doesn’t always remember his visions when he wakes up, or he would be irrevocably traumatized (which he probably is, later), but Wendy is understandably concerned with the outward manifestations of his early entrance into the macabre world of The Overlook Hotel. Of course, we know that the blood-covered figures are the brutalized bodies of the late, insane Delbert Grady’s twin daughters, and the oceans of blood pouring out of the elevators are probably indicative of the hotel’s violent history – a history that is more a story, something alive, always manifesting, changing, and evolving, something that’s always being added to – than a static series of past events.
Danny’s visions might lead us to question Jack’s assessment of Wendy’s likely response to the hotel’s back story when he assures the manager, Ullman that “she’ll love it” (in that, she’ll love the fact that the hotel marks the location of a murder) because she’s a ghost story fan. A good ghost story is one thing; being stranded in an isolated hotel that was the site of a brutal murder during an unrelenting Colorado winter – with your alcoholic, relatively insane husband – is another situation entirely. But, as we see throughout the movie, Wendy has to demonstrate a tremendous amount of resistance to will any action that deviates from Jack’s plan or doesn’t place his well-being first. So it’s no surprise that Jack assures Ullman Wendy won’t be bothered by the hotel’s history, and then never mentions that history to Wendy.
After Danny’s fainting episode, Wendy leaves Danny in bed and sits in her modest apartment living room, smoking a cigarette as she talks to the doctor who has examined Danny; the doctor is a 50-some year-old woman who looks stern and kind at the same time. The conversation seems to be going fairly smoothly; the doctor remarks that it’s hard to pinpoint the impetus of episodes like the one Danny had, but that they rarely recur. And then she presses Wendy a little, digs into the family’s history. In doing so, she finds out – through Wendy’s re-telling – that one night, in a drunken rage, Jack grabbed Danny by the arm and pulled his arm out of the socket. This scene is brilliant for its complete sense of discomfort and awkwardness amidst the otherwise inviting confines of the Torrance apartment. On the one hand, it’s a stereotypical example of a wife trying to justify her spouse’s abusive behavior. “It’s just the sort of thing you do a hundred times to a child,” Wendy says to the doctor, when she describes Jack grabbing Danny’s arm to pull him away from a stack of school papers (of course, it’s not the sort of thing you do at all to a child, let alone a hundred times). “Only on this particular occasion…” she says, and she briefly explains how Jack broke Danny’s arm.
The doctor’s stoic face is arguably the most unsettling element of this scene. Obviously, she doesn’t approve of Jack’s behavior (because who would?) but as viewers, we would be more comfortable if she elicited some reaction. We ascribe doctors, after all, with a sort of authoritative position about a lot of things in contemporary society, and so we’re looking to this woman, as viewers, to be appalled, to be consoling, to be surprised, to be anything. But she just sits there, staring at Wendy. As for Wendy, she recovers Jack’s reputation quickly – and justifies her decision to stay with him – by explaining that Jack vowed never to “touch another drop” (of alcohol) and that he urged her to leave him if he does. He has taken some conciliatory action, so we’re inclined to forgive him, and to understand why she and Danny still live with him. There is a brief moment of awkward silence, a still shot of Wendy’s uncertain smile, and then we switch scenes.
What seems important to note here is that the viewer’s initial assessment of Wendy is likely to be an inaccurate one, and I wonder if Kubrick was counting on that. There is, unfortunately, if not a negative stigma, at least a negative assumption about women involved in unhealthy – and especially abusive – relationships. There is, at times, the inaccurate assumption that women who stay in such relationships are weak, even though being in an abusive relationship for a period of time can happen to any woman, including “strong” women (and here we might question what it means to be “weak” and “strong” anyway). And, we are likely to judge the otherwise maternal Wendy as not doing enough to protect Danny. Conversely, Jack does not have a history of hurting Danny (or Wendy), and Wendy at least implicitly agrees that she’ll leave Jack if he drinks again or if a similar episode transpires. Wendy, whether accurately or not, views the situation, at least in part, as an accident, and her decision to cover for Jack and stay in the relationship is probably not an uncommon one, even among very strong women. She will prove, as the seasoned viewer knows, to fight for her own well-being and the well-being of her son – intelligently and valiantly – later in the film. But her conviction and temerity will come as a surprise to the viewer who has formulated an inaccurate impression of her alleged weakness in this scene. As for Jack, we may be sympathetic toward him at this point, but we don’t fully trust him when we hear this story (if we did before).
And if we don’t fully trust Jack when we hear about his at least somewhat abusive history, we’re downright creeped out about by him in the next scene. Jack, Wendy, and Danny are driving through the Colorado mountains on their way to The Overlook. Jack and Wendy are in the front seat, and Danny’s in the middle of the back seat, leaning forward and in between them to be part of the conversation. Jack is noticeably distant during much of this conversation – staring forward intently, responding to Wendy in a somewhat disinterested, monotonous voice, and telling Danny that he should have eaten his breakfast when Danny says he’s hungry. His unempathetic response to Danny’s hunger stands in stark contrast to Wendy’s more parentally satisfying assurance that “we’ll get you something to eat when we get to the hotel, doc.” One wonders, in this scene, if The Overlook Hotel – which clearly manipulates Jack like a helpless, unsuspecting puppet later in the film– is already luring him in, enfolding him in its malevolent embrace. Is he always this distant and sarcastic? Does he always look this bored? We may assume we’re seeing the typical, every-day Jack in this scene, because Wendy appears unaffected by his lack of interest and expression, but perhaps the change in his demeanor is happening slowly and subtly because of the hotel’s proximity. Perhaps this is an example of dramatic irony, during which the viewer can see Jack’s gradual transformation, even though the characters in the story – Wendy and Danny – aren’t yet privy to it.
And if our discomfort is intensified by Jack’s seemingly odd behavior, the car-trip conversation fodder only deepens our anxieties. The conversation turns to the Donner Party, as the family notes that they’re approaching the area where the Donner Party was found. When Jack explains who the Donner Party was, Danny asks, innocently, “you mean they ate each other up?” His child-like recounting of the presumably horrifying experience of eating human flesh when you have no other food options is weirdly ironic, but what’s more unnerving is what the former presence of the Donners in this area tells us about the land.
In general, in a text or film, we may see the land as something fruitful that augments the characters’ well-being, or something hostile; of course, there are various in-between gradations of friendliness and fruitfulness, and land can be both fruitful and hostile at the same time. But by inserting the story of the Donner Party into the car conversation while the family drives through the mountains – indeed, by highlighting that the land was so cruel and relentless, so unable to provide, that people had to eat other people to survive – Kubrick foregrounds the seemingly majestic Colorado mountains, which house the hotel, as infinitely formidable. We come to understand environment as a hostile entity at this point in the film, even though winter has yet to begin. We realize that despite the deceptive beauty that surrounds us, the Torrances will be, like the Donners, at the mercy of a harsh Colorado winter in the mountains. At least indirectly, by devouring livable space and creating barriers, the unfriendly environment of mid-winter Colorado seeks to destroy the Torrances the same way it forced the Donners to submit to cannibalism. And of course, this is another remnant or trace – another trace of the constantly shifting history that marks the space the Torrance family is entering as odious, as the site of tragedy. Pardon me for using an incredibly cliché – and somewhat insensitive – metaphor, here: this scene, though executed elegantly and subtly, is like a bad car wreck that you want to look away from, but can’t. The ambience is so unsettling that I delight to partake in the discomfort that Kubrick’s created and the knowledge that something even more terrifying is on the way, even as I long to escape the cramped, tired car that’s slowly carrying our protagonists to a startling slice of hell.
We are, then, surprisingly relieved to see the interior of the majestic Overlook when the family arrives at the hotel, the barrage of normal looking hotel staff walking through the hallways, and Stuart Ullman, in his managerial suit, waiting to give the family the hotel tour. This is another “relief” scene, unless you’ve seen the movie before. If you’ve seen The Shining, you know it’s about the last sigh of relief we get before the film ends, so – either consciously or subconsciously – you’re bracing yourself for a difficult hour and a half of film (I’m approximating). And since I’ve written, now, a total of 5 or 6 single spaced pages on the first half-hour of the film (between my last post and this one), it looks like this series will indeed continue at a later date – likely with many parts to come. Perhaps I’ll even watch the film again before the next series installment. In any case, my mind has meandered to a relatively dark place, so I think I’ll revert to Tennyson (who’s at least slightly less dark) and leave the rest of my analysis for later. Comments on your experience watching The Shining or your interpretation of the film below are always welcomed and appreciated, on the scenes discussed above or other scenes that intrigue you!