Over the last 35 years, humanity has achieved many great feats: the end of the Cold War, the creation of the Internet, four more identical films in the Rocky franchise. Yet one lingering mystery still plagues our species’ mere mortal brains — Stanley Kubrick’s seminal classic, The Shining. For most people, The Shining is a mildly surreal horror about a man who goes crazy in an isolated hotel, and subsequently attempts to hack his family to death with a fire axe. To others, the film’s surface story is a convoluted charade that cloaks the real thematic thrust.
Yet no one has quite tapped into the heart of Kubrick’s vision. Above all else, The Shining is his personal revenge story.
Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237 delves into the unhinged world of “Shining obsessives,” people who spend so long scrutinising the film they make Jack Torrance look sane. Every aspect of the 1980 film’s 144 minute running time has been the subject to eagle-eyed examination in the hunt for hidden symbolism, messages and meaning.
Does the constant Native American symbolism, typified by the headdress emblazoned Calumet baking soda cans, point to a film about the Indian genocide? Or maybe the number 42 (2x3x7, you do the maths), which recurs throughout the film, represents an obvious nod to an allegory for the Nazi holocaust, and/or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? But no, that can’t be it — the film is definitely Kubrick’s admission to faking the moon landings for the U.S. government in 1969. Why else would Danny be wearing an Apollo eleven jumper on a launchpad-shaped carpet?
Those are just three well-regarded conspiracy theories, they don’t even take into account the Overlook Hotel’s illogical layout, alluring continuity errors or the links to Kubrick’s other work. You may say there is no veiled significance lurking in The Shining at all, but Kubrick supposedly had an IQ of 200 and was laboriously meticulous in all of his work. He took a whopping 137 takes of Shelley Duvall backing away from Nicholson, and reportedly only looked through the camera with a magnifying glass so as to catch every minute aspect of his shots. Based on what we know, any oddities in the film are likely examples of purposeful directorial technique.
So just what is The Shining about? I can tell you it’s not about Minotaurs, genocides or moon landings at all. Its message is simpler than that. The Shining is, at its core, a film about terrible hotel service.
“Ahhhh,” I hear you gasp, staring out into the middle distance as the idea hits you. “It’s so obvious!” You and I are on the same page now, but let’s go through it just to be sure. The Shining is Kubrick’s way of airing his grievances with the hospitality industry. Kubrick was notoriously intolerant of hotels, scarred by a well-known incident where he and his family were turned away from a Holiday Inn on the pretense that his beard was simply too unsettling to the other guests. Shying away from film shoots or scenes that would in any way feature hotels, Kubrick saw Stephen King’s novel as a way to finally fulfill his longtime vendetta.
The Overlook Hotel is the culmination of every negative experience found in a hotel. Jack Nicholson — in many ways a stand-in for Kubrick himself — is the unlucky guest whose mental will is broken by the sheer incompetence of the Overlook staff. When you boil it down, The Shining is a glorified Planes, Trains and Automobiles for the hotel industry.
You can re-watch The Shining and reduce almost every moment involving Jack to an allegory for an irksome hotel experience. In fact, the whole narrative structure is based on the false promise of a relaxing holiday at a tranquil resort, and indeed, the Overlook seems like the ideal setting to blow off some steam. Yet once the Torrances arrive, they’re quickly plunged into a hellish test of endurance by the lack of basic amenities, services and comforts any reasonable person would expect at a four star hotel.
Even the strangest moments in the film can be explained as illustrative of torrid hotel experiences. Consider the infamous shot of blood gushing from the elevator, a repulsive but clear exaggeration of inadequate plumbing. Think about the film’s closing moments which feature Jack frozen solid, Kubrick’s demonstration of the horrors of air conditioning units wedged on the coldest setting. In Room 237, the Overlook’s dark and mysterious heart, Jack witnesses a woman terrifyingly transform from a blonde American beauty to a rotting old lady in his arms. Here, the ideal American woman represents hotel rooms everywhere; no matter how clean and pristine they look at first, they’re actually crawling with bugs, dirt and decay under the faucets and sheets.
Perhaps Kubrick’s biggest gripe with hotels is their staff. During Jack’s rampage, Dick Hallorann, the psychic caretaker, is called telepathically to Danny’s aid. Yet it takes Dick hours to reach him. When he does arrive, Jack kills him with an axe instantly. The imagery couldn’t be more plain; Kubrick frowned upon slow and inept room service so much that he believed they deserve to die for their tardiness.
But where does Danny’s psychic “Shining” power fit into the “Vendetta Theory”? Danny is lonely and bored at the Overlook because the hotel has failed to provide proper childcare services. Without this important hotel amenity, Danny lacks opportunities to find companions in his own peer group. This isolation means Danny is forced to create an imaginary friend in desperation. The lack of childcare also means there’s no respite for strained parent Jack; he’s forced to look after his demanding son 24/7, ultimately contributing to his decent into madness.
The Shining has been one of the great enduring enigmas of cinema – or it was, anyway. While the more bombastic theories about the film’s true meaning are captivating and intriguing, they’re entirely wrong. Kubrick wasn’t focused on the gravitas of global coincidence and inhumane mass murders when he made The Shining – he was merely attempting to make a film that successfully depicted the very worst of the hotel industry. That classic moment when Jack crashes through the door bellowing “Here’s Johnny!” unquestionably captures the lengths you’ve got to go to when the bathroom lock is faulty.
Sadly for Kubrick, his attempts to vilify and dismantle hotels was severely undermined by the trendy hipster release of The Grand Budapest Hotel. An Oscar nomination for Anderson’s quirky film may just have confirmed Kubrick’s worst nightmare: hotels are here to stay.
With the mystery of The Shining solved, it’s on to another giant of American cinema. Next week, I’ll explain how David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is really just a convoluted rehash of classic Disney films. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say this: it’s no coincidence that when you combine the letters Diane Selwyn and Betty Elms, it creates a perfect anagram of Mufasa.
Alright, you got us. This article was written in jest for April Fool’s Day. The Shining remains a fantastic entry in Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable filmography, and as far as we know, it has very little to do with imaginary feuds between the director and the hotel industry. We wouldn’t blame him, though. Why does checkout have to be noon every bloody time? It’s almost like they don’t want us to sleep in.