Room 237 came across my desk at least a year ago. It may have been longer than that; it’s hard to remember. But it was the kind of documentary I’d been waiting for. A film that promised to dissect one of the great movie mysteries: the real story of The Shining. I immediately told any friend that had even a passing interest in Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. This documentary looked like the kind of in-depth analysis I thrived on; certainly it had to be better than Kubrick’s Gold Story, a nutty approach to the film that basically amounted to the idea that Kubrick was condemning the United States’s move to leave the gold standard. Room 237 offered a glimpse into the depths of The Shining unlike any other examination had heretofore.
It’s mostly crackpot theories. Back to the drawing board.
I encountered The Shining in my early 20s, in a film adaptation course. The film found me at the perfect time; I was young, curious, and considered myself someone feverishly attempting to develop cultured tastes. If I was going to watch a horror film, it could only be a film from Stanley Kubrick. This was a time in my life where I was practically surrounded by Kubrick films. I never became obsessed with the man and his work like some do. In fact, I found it difficult to fathom how that was possible–certainly there are some thematic and stylistic threads connecting each film to the rest, but the man had a genuine knack for creating incredibly different films. 2001 and Barry Lyndon each contain marvelous technical innovations in special effects and camera technology, but they look nothing alike.. A Clockwork Orange is not Eyes Wide Shut, though both deal with violence–sexual, emotional, or otherwise. And Paths of Glory is not Full Metal Jacket, even if both comment on the atrocities of war.
And then there’s The Shining.
To me, The Shining was always the outlier. It stood outside the rest while still a part of the Kubrick canon. I took a full semester course on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I’ve only ever obsessed over The Shining. Something about it has stayed with me over the years. It’s not because it’s a perfect adaptation–hardly. There are canyons of difference between the novel and the film. For all their differences, however, they do have one idea in common: both tried to turn their respective genre on its head. For the film, that meant a horror movie taking place in broad daylight, not the under the cover of night. Ghosts who politely chat rather than haunt. And it meant a monster not found in myth, but within.
I don’t intend to analyze the film from start to finish, but I want to offer an idea that could go a long way towards reconciling some of the theories that have been bouncing around the internets for some time now. Mostly, I just want to find a way for The Shining to make sense, and I think I have.
The assumption in that last sentences is that The Shining doesn’t make sense. And it’s true. As a sequence of narrative events, The Shining is a (mostly) coherent story. If you’ve never seen it, the plot is actually pretty basic: a family is charged with the car of a hotel and the father goes crazy and tries to kill his family. Distilling the plot like that leaves out the divots in the fabric of the story, the hidden junctures of belief and impossibility. Case in point: there’s a boy that lives in a character’s finger.
That’s an easy oddity to point out; what isn’t so easy to understand is the geography of the hotel. In short: the hotel just doesn’t make sense. Watch Danny (the boy with a boy in his finger) ride his Big Wheel through the ground floor of the hotel: suddenly, he ends up on the second floor. Stuart Ullman’s office can’t exist in its location–there’s a window, and the office is in the middle of the hotel (for more on this, check out Juli Kern’s excllent essay, The Shining – A Comparison of the Green Hall Behind the Office and the Red Hall) Ironically, the hedge maze makes more sense than the hotel. Inside the Overlook, rooms disappear, space shrinks and expands, and the whole thing ends up like some kind of cartological nightmare.
And then there’s time. Charting time in The Shining leads only to confusion and frustration. One intertitle notes “Wednesday,” another “8am”, and still another “A Month Later.” The first intertitle reads, simply “Closing Day.” Audiences are never given enough detail to pinpoint a timeline. The duration between these times is fuzzy, at best. When Jack Torrance is knocked out, there is no way of knowing how long he is unconscious. The film famously ends on the shot of a photograph dated 1921. Mapping a timeline for this film would likely be accomplished by way of a spirograph instead of a ruler.
Therefore, like all good theories on understanding a horror film, I opted for quantum physics as a means to analyze The Shining. If you think of The Overlook Hotel as a part of a rip in space and time, then the film makes a little more sense. Danny got to the second floor by driving his Big Wheel through a pocket universe (this also explains room 237 and Ullman’s office). When Jack orders a drink in the Gold Room bar, he really is talking to Lloyd; when Wendy Torrance walks in, Lloyd disappears not because he’s a ghost, but because he slipped back through a wormhole. Later, when Jack comes back for a drink at the bar, he stepped into a new point in the space-time continuum–and thus, into a New Year’s Eve party (and he actually did and did not have the cash in his wallet, but thanks to a switch in the ‘all possible worlds’ phenomenon, his “no cash” self took over; thankfully, Lloyd is a generous bartender). Jack only wrote “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” because he kept starting a paragraph over and over, lost in a temporal loop. But like all good nexuses of quantum flux, the ride couldn’t last.
Eventually, the nexus falls into entropy. Wendy starts to slip into alternate dimensions. Jack, unconscious and in the pantry, wakes up to hear voices through the void; these voices coincide with material reality being warped and a door’s lock opening as a result. Wendy becomes physically haggard as a result of this dimensional shift; Jack goes insane. Danny, as a young child, is more adaptable to the shift in physics. The hotel collapses in on its own time, eventually trapping Jack in the past while Wendy and Danny are able to escape.
It’s not quite as sexy as the film is admission of a faked moon landing or as a commentary on masculinity. But it does explain the film, even if it’s a bit of a stretch. Explaining the film, to be honest, doesn’t do a lot for me. And maybe that’s the real truth behind my love of The Shining. After thirty four years, it’s still mysterious and magical. People obsess over this film, pouring over each frame and wondering what intentions crafted it just so. The inability to find the “real truth” of this film is its greatest gift and its greatest frustration. What The Shining gives us, then, is a fixation on the impossible, the fear of the familiar, and the wisdom to know the difference.