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On Saturday evening, home alone, I finally watched The Shining. I have no explanation for why I hadn’t seen it yet; despite everything, the film and I just hadn’t crossed paths before now, strange as that seems. The long-delayed experience may have affected me quite profoundly. I’ve hardly been able to sleep in the two nights since — not from anything like fear, but very much from simply thinking about this movie. I got up to start writing this blog post at around 4 AM on Monday.
I very much wish to start tearing into some popular analysis of the movie — quite readily available, given 35 intervening years to settle — but I want to briefly outline at least my own surface-level take of the plot before I read any better-argued viewpoints. I do have a window open to the film’s Wikipedia page, but do so only to Command-F out details like names and room numbers; I squint against accidentally reading any of the summary or analysis there. So:
Something profoundly wrong happened at a black-tie soiree in the Overlook Hotel on July 4, 1921, so wrong that it left the hotel permanently haunted by ghosts of the event. (Not the ghosts of the individuals at the event, but of the event itself, per Dick’s careful explanation to Danny about how those possessing “the shining” can directly sense the lasting psychic scars that terrible past occurrences can leave on a place.) The wrongness didn’t take the form of something as obvious as a mass killing, or else the hotel’s hallway would hardly have reason to display a cheerfully framed photograph of the party, 60 years later. But it did involve rich white guys wearing blood-spattered tuxedos with animal masks, toasting fellow revelers with “Hell of a party, eh?”, all of which I read as cinematic shorthand for something very grim afoot.
(I also read it as very Bioshock, of course. I said “Well, that’s a bit Bioshock” out loud for the first time when Jack, on his way to revisit the Gold Room, blinks at a vision of a hallway deserted but strewn with half-deflated balloons and other party debris while old-timey ballroom music echoes from an uncertain distance. If I had previously read or been told that that video game’s setting owed a clear debt to Kubrick, then I’d forgotten.)
The ghosts sulk and slumber during the hotel’s lively summer season, but over the dark, quiet winter they begin to bleed back out of the walls. (Sometimes literally.) During this time, the ghosts hunger for more mayhem, and do their best to extract it from the hotel’s tiny, rotating over-winter population. They seek to reinforce their presence at the Overlook by encouraging more terrible events there, shoring up the echo of hyperlocal psychic pain that encodes their waveform, ensuring it will carry them forward another year. They scored with whatever horrible thing happened in room 237, and they got lucky again in 1970 with Grady’s grisly murder-suicide.
The ghosts’ reach has limits: they can only affect people with minds receptive to their influence, due to either weakness or sensitivity. Who knows what may have troubled Grady — and we learn even less about the occupants of room 237 — but the film presents Jack Torrence as rickety mess from the moment we meet him. Racked with guilt over injuring his son, but clearly desperate to return to the booze he swore off because of it. Recently fled a stable job in Vermont to go hide with uncertain prospects in the mountains of Colorado, and seeking to withdraw even further by wintering at the Overlook. Oblivious (or maybe just uncaring) as to how his desires may conflict with those of his family, and lying to himself about his calling as a writer. The ghosts know they have a winner the moment he steps foot in the hotel for the job interview.
As they rouse themselves for the family’s arrival, little Danny picks up on the ghosts’ salivating anticipation that clung to his dad after he came home, struck into brief catatonia by terrible visions while he brushes his teeth. Danny’s “shining”, combined with his extreme youth and incautious curiosity, leave him vulnerable to the ghosts, but in a blunt way. Later in the story, the apparition of the woman in the bathtub can terrify and even physically bruise him, but it cannot subtly shoehorn into his psyche the way that it and all the other Overlook ghosts drive Jack deeper into madness, day by day.
In the end, the ghosts fall short of fulfilling their Plan A of recapitulating Grady’s massacre, which had worked out so splendidly for them ten years earlier, but they do well enough. Even though the film does not give us an explicit before-and-after of it, I read the final shot of Jack’s likeness among the 1921 partygoers in the framed photograph as a display of the malevolent ghosts’ success at reinvigorating the hotel’s psychic aberrance with fresh blood.
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