How The Shining Examines the Immortality of Evil

What's The Shining really about? We delve into the underlying theme of Stanley Kubrick's horror classic...

Jack Nicholson in The Shining
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Few horror films have been as closely studied and intimately dissected as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The simple story of a family ripped apart by the effects of a remote, haunted hotel, Kubrick’s film has only grown in mystique since its release in 1980. Clearly, there’s far more going on below the surface, but what does Kubrick’s imagery and symbolism – much of it unique to the film, and absent from Stephen King’s source novel – actually mean?

Rodney Ascher’s superb 2012 documentary Room 237 pulled together some of the more outlandish theories about The Shining. It’s Kubrick’s veiled confession that he helped NASA fake the 1969 Moon landings, goes one line of thinking. No, it’s an allusion to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, says a different theorist. Wrong again, another voice suggests: it’s a retelling of the Minotaur myth. Often these theories are based on incidental background details – a home-knit Apollo 11 jumper, the specific make of a typewriter, a tin of baking powder, a poster that looks a bit like a mythical beast if you squint hard enough.

There’s a richness and attention to detail and ambiguity in Stanley Kubrick’s movies that invites this kind of close study, though few films in his career have sparked quite so many varied readings as The Shining. To an already crowded list, we offer an additional theory: The Shining‘s about the immortality of evil.

Kubrick embarked on The Shining in the wake of 1975’s Barry Lyndon, his glacial period film which, despite its reputation today, was a critical and financial failure at the time. The director therefore threw himself into a more commercial project: an adaptation of The Shining. Stephen King’s novels had made him phenomenally popular in the mid-1970s, and King was among a generation of storytellers who took horror out of the castles and capes of Dracula and Frankenstein and into the modern era.

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King’s novels Carrie (1974) and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) took paranormal powers and vampirism into the 20th century, just as such hit films as Rosemary’s Baby (based on the novel by Ira Levin) and The Exorcist (adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own book) had introduced a classier, more contemporary brand of horror in cinema.

When Kubrick took on The Shining, he was therefore following a fashionable trend among respected filmmakers. Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, and Nicolas Roeg had all crafted deeply individual horror films in the 1960s and ’70s. The decade also introduced such wayward talents as Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid).

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When Kubrick started work on The Shining, he showed off the work of another upcoming filmmaker he greatly admired: Eraserhead, the surreal, immensely disturbing debut by David Lynch. The Shining would, of course, wind up being wildly different from Eraserheads monochrome hellscape, yet Kubrick evidently appreciated how Lynch used sound and imagery to create an oppressive atmosphere of dread.

To Stephen King’s later chagrin, Kubrick wasn’t particularly interested in adapting The Shining beat for beat. For one thing, the filmmaker didn’t have much time for stories of ghosts and the afterlife–something Kubrick told King in no uncertain terms one day in the late ’70s. As King recalled in a hilarious (and bitter) anecdote, Kubrick called King up at 7 am one morning, completely out of the blue, and said, “Hi. Stanley Kubrick here. I actually think stories of the supernatural are optimistic, don’t you?”

King, hungover, covered in shaving cream, two kids screaming in the background, gripped the telephone and murmured, “I don’t exactly know what you mean by that.”

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“Well,” Kubrick replied, “supernatural stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death. If we survive death, that’s optimistic, isn’t it?”

King asked, “Well, what about hell?”

There was a long, ominous pause, like the silence after a thunderclap.

“I don’t believe in hell,” Kubrick said and hung up. 

Kubrick therefore set about reworking his own vision of The Shining with screenwriter Diane Johnson, using only the basic framework of King’s story. A husband, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who has telepathic powers, spend the winter at the Overlook, a grand hotel located in the mountains of Colorado. Jack intends to use the months of seclusion to write a novel. The malevolent spirits in the hotel, on the other hand, have other ideas. As strange apparitions manifest themselves to both son and father, Jack’s already threadbare sanity begins to unravel…

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The shoot of Kubrick’s The Shining was legendarily difficult, as the filmmaker’s exacting methods took their toll. Nicholson and Duvall were required to provide take after take–a pivotal stairway confrontation between the pair was shot anywhere from 45 to 125 times depending on whose account you believe. Scatman Crothers, who plays the hotel chef Dick Hallorann, spent so long reciting his lines in front of the camera that he eventually lost his temper with Kubrick.

By the time filming had concluded in 1979, Kubrick had spent about a year at Elstree Studios, obsessing over individual scenes and tiny details. As cast and crew began to crack under the pressure of all the script rewrites and long work days, it must have felt at times as though the production itself was descending into madness.

If critics struggled with The Shining when it finally emerged in 1980, then maybe that’s because it didn’t adhere to the conventions of a typical horror movie. The Overlook’s supernatural threat, if it exists at all in the movie, is kept ambiguous. Its pace is slow and deliberate; and unlike the Jack Torrance in King’s book, who’s initially presented as a flawed yet likeable character before the ghosts get to him, Jack Nicholson’s protagonist is fairly cold and sinister before he even sets foot in the Overlook. 

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This latter point is surely deliberate, however. Kubrick’s implication is that, far from being corrupted by the evil presence in the Overlook, Jack Torrance is simply given license by it. The evil’s already present in Jack, and it merely takes a few nudges from the Overlook’s remote location and ghostly echoes to bring it out into the open.

The Shining‘s opening credit sequence could be read as the first hint at this. As Wendy Carlos’ doom-laden electronic music plays in the background, a helicopter shot follows Jack Torrance’s journey through the Colorado countryside in his car. The camera becomes a detached, floating spirit, hovering over or just behind the central character–much as it does through the rest of the film in those celebrated Steadicam shots Kubrick so insistently employs. Evil is following.

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In King’s novel, there’s the suggestion that the Overlook has somehow sucked up the evil things that have taken place within its walls. Kubrick goes a step further, with a character’s line that the hotel was built on an old Indian burial ground implying that the presence may be older than the structure itself. And if we follow the theory that The Shining isn’t about ghosts but about evil, then this certainly makes sense. Evil doesn’t inhabit buildings, it inhabits human beings–even ordinary, unremarkable ones like Jack Torrance.

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There’s plenty of support from Kubrick to support this reading of the film; in Paul Duncan’s Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films, the filmmaker said:

“There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.” 

Stephen King was certainly confronting his own demons when he wrote his novel. The inspiration from The Shining came to him during a stay at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, where King fused a stay in the real room 217 (supposedly haunted) with the difficulties he was having as a father of two young children.

“Sometimes you confess,” King said in The Stephen King Companion, published in 1989. “You always hide what you’re confessing to. That’s one of the reasons why you make up the story. When I wrote The Shining, for instance, the protagonist […] is a man who’s broken his son’s arm, who has a history of child beating, who is beaten himself. And as a young father with two children, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children…”

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The Shining therefore de-emphasizes the moving topiary animals and ghosts of the novel and focuses the story more squarely on Jack Torrance’s growing capacity for violence. The Overlook becomes a place where, away from the gaze of society, moral laws are suspended, and Jack is given license to do all the things he’s long fantasized about. As Jack drunkenly confesses to Joe Turkel’s impassive barman, Lloyd, he’d already subjected his young son to violent abuse before he even set foot in the Overlook:

“For as long as I live, she’ll never let me forget what happened. I did hurt him once, okay? But it was an accident. Completely unintentional […] a momentary loss of muscular coordination.”

The Shining then ties the evil of domestic violence to evil in a more general sense. Evil doesn’t just reside in Jack; it’s everywhere. As the sinister Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) tells Jack, “You’ve always been the caretaker. I’ve always been here.” 

The references to the genocide of Native Americans, as picked up by other theorists, could tie into The Shining‘s theme of evil presenting itself in different ways. The elevator doors opening, the blood gushing up, seemingly from the foundations of the Overlook itself, could be a symbol of the hotel’s grim past and the country it resides in as a whole.

In the same scene with Jack quoted above, Delbert Grady uses a racial slur to describe Dick Halloran that strikes out of the film like an ice pick–an example of another kind of evil that sticks to our species like a leech. Perhaps this is what Jack means by the odd, apparently throwaway line: “White man’s burden.” If we don’t feel guilty about the skeletons in our species’ closet, then maybe we should.

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Away from The Shining, Kubrick’s films frequently explored the darker continents of human nature–particularly the destruction wrought by flawed men. His adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita was about the horrors wrought by a sexual predator. At its heart, Dr. Strangelove was about how a world led by neurotic, sexually repressed men might be obliterated by nuclear weapons. A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket both dealt explicitly with violence and dehumanization.

The Shining could therefore be seen as a continuation of those themes: a continuation of the things “inherently wrong with the human personality,” but in a horror context. It’s not the ghosts in haunted houses we should be afraid of, Kubrick seems to suggest, but the demons that lurk within ourselves.

Time and again, the director returns to the symbol of the maze: the hedge maze in the Overlook garden, the incomprehensible network of corridors in the building itself. This is The Shining‘s lasting, chilling implication: the blacker sides of human nature are hardwired into our DNA. Inextricable. Inescapable.