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Labyrinths of Reason

What is Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, “The Shining” about? That is to say, where does the horror come from?

Is it about writer’s block? (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”) Alcoholism? (We know Jack had a drinking problem before they get to the hotel, and he shows all the brittle signs of a dry drunk.) Autism? (Danny is certainly a special child, and that can take a toll.) The claustrophobia of the Oedipal triangle? (What finally sets Jack permanently on a demonic path is when Wendy believes he caused the bruises on Danny’s neck, and runs from him carrying her boy, screaming, “you son-of-a-bitch – how could you?”) The anomie of modern existence? (All Danny seems to do up there in that hotel is ride in circles and watch television.)

Or does the horror come from the hotel, from echoes of the things that happened there before that were “not all good” – like the grisly murder of two twin girls by their father, Delbert Grady? (Grady is the one who ultimately seduces Jack to murder.) Or from horrors that date before the hotel’s construction – such as the Indian burial ground that, we are told, lies beneath the hotel’s foundations? (Native American motifs abound in the hotel, from the stained-glass windows to the pictures on the walls to the cans of Calumet baking powder in the storage room.) Or from the infernal regions themselves? (The bartender, Lloyd, first appears when Jack offers to sell his soul for a drink; when he tries to pay for it, he says Jack’s money isn’t good, that the drink is courtesy of “management” and that Jack, who wants to know who’s buying the drinks, needn’t concern himself with that question – at this point.)

Or is it just cabin fever?

The answer would appear to be, “yes,” which is to say, “no.” Coleridge referred to Iago’s “motiveless malignity” but this is deduced from the fact that Iago supplies us with too many motives for his actions – his injured pride at being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio; his contempt for Othello’s own undeserved reputation; his conviction that Othello – and Cassio as well – have been carrying on with his wife, Emilia. Precisely because so many motives are readily supplied, we see that we are to distrust them all, and stop looking for a proper motive.

The same is true of the source of the horror in “The Shining.” If we look for it, we find it with alarming ease – indeed, we find a plethora of plausible sources. Which makes us doubt that any of them can be it. After all, if Jack’s alcoholism is to blame, then why tell us about the Indian burial ground? And, as with Iago in Othello, this should lead us to conclude that this movie isn’t playing by horror rules; that the search for a cause of the horror is to miss the point. It is the cause.

“The Shining” is a very cold film, rarely putting us “with” the victim or creating the pulse-quickening suspense of seeing the knife as it approaches the victim from behind (there is one such shot, and it’s a notable exception). Shots tend to be long and symmetric; geometry predominates over anything organic. The hedge maze is the emblem of the film.

But it’s not a puzzle to be solved, and its unsolvability is what engenders the intellectual horror. The films contains numerous perplexing gaps of continuity. Some might be written off as errors – the chair that disappears between one shot and the next, for example. The characters who enter one pantry and emerge from another. And if the hotel has an impossible geography, well, that’s the movies for you – a set is not a real place. But why should a typewriter change color? And some discontinuities are in dialogue. Why should Jack, at one moment, tell Lloyd he’s been dry for five dreadful months, and then tell him at another point that the injury to his son happened three years ago, when we know that he gave up drink after he hurt Danny one drunken night?

You don’t notice these discontinuities when you watch the film, but the cumulative effect is for the hotel to become a dreamlike environment. We don’t ask why that’s what it is – because we are experiencing being in that nightmare state, which is how the horror is brought home to us. In much the same way, Othello puts us in the psychological position of falling under Iago’s spell, as Othello does, in part by having Iago spin a literally impossible tale – if you timeline the play, there was literally no opportunity for the supposed affair between Cassio and Desdemona to happen, and yet nobody in the play seems to notice this.

All of which is to say that Kubrick, in his intellectual way, is offering us the experience of the mind breaking down, rather than telling a story about a mental breakdown. As such, if we are to keep our heads we have to surrender to the experience, for a time, but remember that, like Dick Halloran says to Danny about the nightmare visions he has, it’s just pictures. It isn’t real.

But not everybody can keep their heads.

I saw “The Shining” again recently at a midnight showing at IFC, pursuant to seeing a new documentary about crackpot theories of the “real” meaning behind the movie, called “Room 237” (a reference to the room that appears to be the epicenter of horror in the hotel, for reasons that – again – are not explained). Some of these theories are making category errors about elements that really are in the film. So yes, there are a bunch of Native American motifs and references, but no, “The Shining” is not an allegory of the genocide of the American Indians; the whole Indian burial ground under the hotel is a horror cliche, which is why it’s in the film, but “The Shining” would be a far more conventional horror movie if it were simply a story of Native American ghosts exacting revenge. And yes, the use of the hedge maze should recall the legend of the minotaur, but that’s what we call an allusion, not a secret, esoteric meaning.

But then there are the theories that make more than a category error. Like the fellow who thinks “The Shining” is a secret confession of Stanley Kubrick’s involvement in faking the moon landing. (Though, as he takes pains to make clear, he isn’t saying that the moon landing itself was faked; he’s saying that the footage of the moon landing was faked.)

Cranks, of course, will be cranks. But what would induce someone to make a movie like this? To step through the film frame by frame, play it backwards, put all these crank theories out there as serious efforts to grapple with a work of art? Even if it’s true that Kubrick liked to put allusions in the corners and backgrounds of the frame; even if it’s true that he liked to pepper his films with the visual equivalent of Joycean puns, that doesn’t mean there’s a “secret message” in the film. Why would there be?

The resort to esoteric, secret meanings behind reality is a psychological comfort when the capriciousness of that reality is too threatening. When we badly need reality to make sense – to be sending us a message – secret codes and vast conspiracy theories provide that sense.

So in a way, the existence of “Room 237” is a testament to the success of “The Shining” in capturing the unassimilable horror of reality. If it weren’t so terrifying, nobody would see the need to tame it by explaining what it’s really about.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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