Sunday, 16 January 2011

Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', 1980

Fig. 1 The Shining Poster
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was based on a book by the author Steven King.  It is a psychological horror film in which the audience is forced to watch the mental deterioration of a father and his murderous rage that threatens the lives of his wife and son. This film is filled with interesting ideas portrayed both physically and metaphorically, with some scenes moving from the completely abstract to the horribly real.

Fig. 2 Elevator of blood.
 One of the most powerful scenes is that of a river of blood spilling out of an opening elevator.  This stunning image was used more than once within the film with no diagetic sound, only a track of what resembles white noise.  The river of blood is first seen completely out of context, to some it may appear to be nothing but an artistic achievement but it can be interpreted as a metaphor for the gallons of blood that the hotel has drawn from countless victims over the years.  Geoffrey Cocks explained that fine words and traditional characterization were trivial compared to the power of images as a means to address larger historical and cultural issues.” (Cocks, 2006:186)  These issues he refers to could be those mentioned to the audience at the beginning of the film, the killing of many Native Americans in order for hotel to be built.  The audience is told that it was built on an Indian burial ground, so this combined with the tribal/Native American patterns mounted on the walls within the hotel signify that the blood is for them and by them. Their suffering has created a physical manifestation of their loss and the revenge they take on those within the hotel.  Cocks also believes that a close reading of Kubrick's life and work suggests that the ocean of blood flowing from the elevator in The Shining is the blood of centuries, the blood of millions, and, in particular, the blood of war and genocide in Kubrick's own century.” (Cocks, 2006:185)  The genocide he refers to is that of the holocaust during World War II.  As Kubrick was of Jewish descent he may have felt compelled to try to draw attention to such an inconceivably horrible event through imagery rather than blunt realism as it is an incredibly difficult thing for any director to portray sensitively.  

Fig. 3 Jack playing the wolf.
Continuing with the same theme, Cocks explains the role of the wolf that the father, Jack Torrance, plays before he breaks into the bathroom.  He divulged that any mention of the wolf in The Shining is a(n) (in)direct expression of a growing preoccupation in the 1970's on Kubrick's (and the culture's) part with the subject of Nazis, the Second World War, and the Holocaust." (Cocks, 2004:38)  The idea that Jack takes on this role is significant as within the narrative he is playing the dominant force that threatens the innocent party.  He becomes the symbol of all that is evil and his failing to reach his wife and son, the 'little pigs', represents the resolve that the Jewish community has to overcome the Holocaust.  Cocks also believed that their survival was significant, that "Jack Torrance's only victim (besides himself) will be Halloran, the black cook whose arrival at the Overlook Hotel...saves the lives of Wendy and Danny Torrance. By having an African-American as the victim of Jack's – and the hotel's – murderous rage" (Cocks, 2004:38-9) The film places the African-American man in the position of martyr, that his death saved the lives of Danny and Wendy Torrance.  The Nazi's racism, that extended not only to Jews but Black men and women, can be seen in the description from one of the ghosts, that Halloran is a 'nigger cook' and that Jack's son, Danny, is in league with him.  The brutal way Jack murders Halloran shows his twisted aggression towards him, he doesn't play with him as he does with Wendy and Danny but screams and kills him instantly. Perhaps showing his disdain for his racial heritage, that he considers him lesser than his family.

Fig 4. Jack's succumbed to madness.
It is this lack of emotion and mercy that suggests that his descent into madness is not only a display of how frail the mind can be but of the fear humanity has of the loss of identity and civility.  Jerold J. Abrams thought that  what dehumanization amounts to is the loss of control over our lives and the absence of choice between real alternatives.” (Abrams, 2007:233)  In The Shining, Jack is constantly being told of different horrible things that have happened either in the hotel or the area surrounding it.  It's these seeds that were planted in his mind that grew and gave him the absence of choice Abrams mentions.  As he starts to lose his grasp on reality the horrible tales become the only sure thing he can grasp and thus his only control comes from his responsibilities to the hotel and doing anything to make sure they get done.  Abrams also discussed that What is unsettling in Kubrick's films is that, like the ax-wielding Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining, we are always in danger of losing the masks of our civilized selves” (Abrams, 2007:142) It is our civilised nature that allows us to feel safe, the reliability that everyone is civilised means that there's little to fear.  However, when someone's mask of civility is removed then the person left behind is unknown to those still wearing their masks, and it is this not knowing that makes them so unpredictable and dangerous.  Civilised humanity fears what is bestial and unpredictable in nature and Jack is the prime example of what they fear most.  He acts brutally and spontaneously, unconcerned for other human lives, he is unforgiving and unrelenting until the end.

The Shining is a fascinating exploration of the fragility of the human mind.  Thomas Allen Nelson shared his view, that "The Shining concerns old projects and unfinished journeys, secret longings and frustrated desires, movements in reverse rather than movements forward, "interviews" with the Self's dark but hardly imaginary friends." (Nelson, 2000:211).  An excellent way to explain the many themes and narrative elements that this film holds.  It is one that leaves the audience feeling a little dazed and confused but also strangely satisfied.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Concept Poster (2010) The Shining Poster. At: (Accessed on: 16.01.2011)
Figure 2. The Shining (1980) Elevator of blood. At: (Accessed on: 16.01.2011)
Figure 3. The Shining (1980)  Jack playing the wolf. At: (Accessed on: 16.01.2011)
Figure 4. The Shining (1980)  Jack's succumbed to madness. At: (Accessed on: 16.01.2011)


Abrams, Jerold J. (2007) The philosophy of Stanley Kubrick. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky

Cocks, Geoffrey, Diedrick, James, Perusek, Glenn Wesley (2006) Depth of field: Stanley Kubrick, film, and the uses of history. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Cocks, Geoffrey (2004) The wolf at the door: Stanley Kubrick, history, & the Holocaust. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Nelson, Thomas Allen (2000) Kubrick, inside a film artist's maze. Indiana: Indiana University Press


  1. The Shining as Holocaust trauma re-visited; now that's a fascinating reading of the film's text - and a new slant too. The Shining it a great example of the power of ambiguity because it encourages viewers to superimpose their own readings over the original narrative; in this sense, an ambiguous film mirrors much more the audience's experience above and beyond the definitive ideas belonging to the director.

  2. interpretative 'wriggle room' - it's what gives culture longevity - the ability of something to continue to mean something to different generations etc. Too many stories lack this - mostly because producers are frightened of ambiguity, because they mostly think their audiences are brain-dead.