Room 237: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Illuminates Living Evil
One of the most all-time ridiculous conspiracy theories is the accusation that in order to get ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race, NASA and the US government colluded to elaborately fake the Apollo 11 Moon landings of 1969.
None other than Stanley Kubrick, who portrayed deep space exploration in 2001: A Space Odyssey is alleged to have being employed as the director who staged the counterfeit Moonwalk footage for this top secret project.
This theory is mentioned in Room 237 (2012), a documentary by Rodney Ascher which explores the interpretations and alleged hidden meanings within The Shining (1980), Kubrick’s loose adaption of Stephen King’s 1977 horror novel.
The Shining tells the story of the Torrances: father Jack (played by Nicholson, Kubrick’s first choice), mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). They serve as the winter caretakers of the Overlook Hotel, a manor snowbound in the beauty of the American northwest, where the writer Jack can focus on his work.
It turns out that the Overlook has a history of bloodshed and is haunted by evil spirits that drive the already unhinged Jack to insanity, persuading him to murder Danny and Wendy. Jack is averted by Danny, the boy who has the “shining”, a psychic ability that makes him clairvoyant.
The Shining is perhaps the most mysterious and experimental of all of Kubrick’s works, so no wonder it has been subject to decades of fervent speculation by fans and professional critics alike, at worst manifesting in absurdity like the Moon landing theory.
Danny can be seen wearing a knitted sweater with a “USA” rocket design. To the Moon landing theorists Danny’s fashion sense implies that Kubrick was indeed a party to a shadowy scheme with NASA.
However, Room 237 shouldn’t just be dismissed as a medium for wild conjecture, as it definitively proved that at heart of The Shining there is an undercurrent of audience manipulation by Kubrick.
Room 237 lays out Kubrick’s set designs of the Overlook and exhibits that they are spatially impossible: when all of the scenes are pieced together occur within the sets, they show doorways leading to nowhere, walls blocking windows and rooms that would branch out into separate buildings entirely.
Room 237 considers that Kubrick may have been more faithful than King realised
Kubrick was a meticulous perfectionist, who like Alfred Hitchcock drove his actors to tears by making them retake scenes numerous times in a row, so Room 237 posits that these apparent glaring errors must have been deliberate.
This was confirmed by Jan Harlan, executive producer of The Shining: “The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track… The audience is deliberately made to not know where they're going.”
It is extraordinary to consider that Kubrick ingenious enough to use subtle optical illusions to disorientate and unnerve his audience, making them more susceptible to being frightened as the film plays out.
The Shining was lost on critics when it first released, bewildered that Kubrick seemed more concerned with aesthetics than a cogent plot. Stephen King disliked Kubrick’s interpretation because it failed to be true to the novel - which was based on King’s personal struggles with alcoholism and family breakdown.
However, Room 237 considers that Kubrick may have been more faithful than King realised, suggesting that his utilisation of psychology was not limited to his visual effects. A key reference of Ascher’s is independent filmmaker Rob Ager, a prominent Kubrick analyst.
Ager notes that Kubrick was a militant atheist with a lifelong fascination in Freudian theory, such as dream analysis. His worldview was therefore sceptical towards the ghostliness of The Shining’s surface narrative.
Ager proposes a framework for understanding The Shining that completely alters our perception of the film: that the visions of Danny are not psychic experiences. They are actually dream sequences from Danny’s viewpoint. Along with his weak-willed mother Wendy, Danny has been subjected to years of domestic abuse by the alcoholic Jack.
The butchered twins of former caretaker Delbert Grady, who Danny encounters while doing laps around the Overlook’s corridors on his tricycle, represent Danny’s lost innocence and terror as Jack’s vicious nature manifests in the isolation of the hotel. He anticipates the crescendo of violence to come.
The Shining actually illuminates the malevolence within our living condition
Jack’s conversations with the building’s “evil spirits”, who press him to murder Danny and Wendy, are merely the hallucinations and split personalities of a nasty drunk.
Jack’s encounter with the cackling zombie woman in the bathroom of Room 237 is truly Danny’s nightmare. In a dream state he roleplays as his father to confront this witch-like spectre embodying the disgust induced by Jack’s physical and emotional cruelty, and Ager suggests, incestuous sexual abuse, which Danny has repressed and locked away into his subconscious.
These reflections of childhood abuse, trauma and family dysfunction, realise new thematic layers which only make The Shining more disturbing.
The Shining - in contrast to Dr Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange - is perceived to be one Kubrick’s apolitical works, but Room 237 subverts this by devoting most its attention to recognising its political themes, the clearest of which is the legacies of racism and genocide Notably, one of the Jewish Kubrick’s unrealised projects was the Aryan Papers, a film about the Holocaust.
The Overlook was built on the graves of Native Americans massacred for their land, yet Navajo-patterned rugs and designs adorn its interior - marking the twisted triumphalism of colonialism. In the soundtrack we hear eerie echoes of Native chants and instruments - as if the spirits of the past are seeping through. In the film’s rawest scene a river of blood cascades out of the elevators, intercut with the petrified face and gaping mouth of Danny, who is paralleled as a victim.
Jack, who is a stand in for the black caretaker Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), pities himself for taking on imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden.” After he takes chase to butcher Danny and Wendy with a fire-axe and freezes to death in the Overlook’s maze, his soul is transported back in time and consumed into the building.
We see Jack in a photo from 1921, standing in a tuxedo among the “great and the good” who once congregated for grand soirees at the Overlook. With this closing shot, Kubrick punctuates Jack’s brutality and prejudice as that of the elite.
The brainstorming in Room 237 is sometimes outlandish, but Ascher and his collaborators making a compelling case that under the guise of the scares of paranormal evil, The Shining actually illuminates the malevolence within our living condition. This only enhances our appreciation for Kubrick as a master of cinema.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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