Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Shining": Portrait of an Unholy Family

The Torrance Family Portrait by smalltownhero (source)

The highly enjoyable new documentary Room 237 has brought renewed attention and scrutiny to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). The film, a loose adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling 1977 novel, has inspired an inordinate amount of speculation among viewers and critics, and the documentary seeks to provide several possible readings or interpretations of the film. Among the theories floated by interviewees: it's about the Holocaust, it's about the genocide of Native Americans, it's about the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing, etc. Like most of Kubrick's works, The Shining is chock-full of odd and arcane details which may or may not be clues to the film's true meaning or intent. Room 237 helpfully points out many of these, and the interview subjects use these tidbits to support their respective cases, almost like lawyers submitting pieces of evidence in a trial. This makes the viewer the judge and jury, I suppose.

One theme which emerges again and again in Room 237 is that new details are liable to pop out at you every time you watch The Shining. Freeze the frame at any given moment, say the interviewees, and study the image. There's bound to be something out of the ordinary there. And, sure enough, I found this to be true when I revisited my favorite scene in the film: the one in which a terrified Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) defends herself with a baseball bat as her husband, Jack (Jack Nicholson), now completely psychotic, follows her up a flight of stairs at the far end of the hotel's vast, airy Colorado Lounge:

There are a lot of great things about this scene, not the least of which is that it manages to work simultaneously as horror, as family drama, and as pitch-black dark comedy. (Few lines in cinema make me laugh as hard as Jack's reading of "Wendy... darling... light of my life!") Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall are both mesmerizing here, employing radically different acting techniques. Famous in Hollywood lore are the stories of how unequally Kubrick behaved toward these two actors during the making of The Shining, treating Nicholson like an old pal while sternly berating Duvall in front of the crew and scoffing at her complaints. Stanley did this supposedly to coax the desired performances from his actors. This is eerily reminiscent of the making of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1940), in which director/star Welles apparently treated his co-star, Dorothy Comingore, quite cruelly because she was playing a woman who was dominated by her husband and who wound up as a broken-down drunk after leaving him. Unfortunately, Comingore's own tragic life mirrored that of her character too closely, and she died of alcoholism at 58.

Some of Kubrick's on-set behavior is captured in the well-known BBC documentary, The Making of "The Shining," directed by Kubrick's own daughter, Vivian. Indeed, Jack prowls around the set like he owns the place, while poor Shelley looks like a kid whose parents never picked her up from summer camp. Regardless of whether you approve of Kubrick's professional ethics, his techniques seem to have paid off here. Shelley's character, Wendy Torrance, is very childlike and innocent throughout the film, and over the course of The Shining, her husband Jack erodes what's left her of self-confidence and tries to bully her into submission, first through condescension ("Wendy, let me explain something to you..."), then through profane outbursts, and finally through physical violence.

What we are witnessing here is the steady and terrifying dissolution of an already-shaky marriage. Wendy at first seems ill-equipped to handle this. She is the most gentle and naive of the Torrance family, much more of a child than her own son, the intense and withdrawn Danny. With her wide eyes and beanpole physique, Wendy is almost asexual. Even her outfits look like adult-sized versions of things a kid would wear; shapeless pinafores and turtlenecks which keep her covered from her neck to her ankles. (Little wonder, then, that her husband all but salivates at the sight of a naked woman in the infamous "room 237" scene.)

Wendy Torrance, eternal optimist.
From the moment we meet her, when she is unsuccessfully trying to convince her son how great the Overlook Hotel is going to be, Wendy Torrance is a woman in deep denial. She tries to maintain an optimistic outlook at all times despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In virtually every scene she's in, Wendy tries to minimize her problems by understating them. The staircase scene is the moment when that strategy stops working for her, forcing her to resort to violence with the bat. But even here, she makes an attempt at downplaying the situation, even taking some of the blame herself: "I'm very confused. I just need a chance to think things over." But here, too, is where Jack's increasing menace -- which has been building for some time now -- has finally gotten too out-of-control to ignore. Once your husband has said, "I'm gonna bash your brains in," it's a safe bet that your marriage is beyond repair. Wendy's utter vulnerability makes her husband's brutishness all the more shocking, but "vulnerable" does not mean "defenseless." In this scene, she manages to knock her husband down the stairs. Later, she has the presence of mind to lock her unconscious husband in the Overlook's vault-like storage room and, when even that fails, slashes his hand with a kitchen knife as he uses an ax to enter the bathroom where she has barricaded herself.

So while I was watching this infamous scene and thinking about all of these things, I started noticing a strange yet undeniable visual motif. While Wendy is on the staircase, Kubrick films her from angles in which there is bright light behind her, making it almost appear as if she is glowing. First, the light comes from the giant windows of the Colorado Lounge, which are reminiscent of the large stained-glass windows in churches and cathedrals. Then, when Wendy is further up the stairs, a lighting fixture on the ceiling behind her suffuses the scene with a warm glow. Meanwhile, Jack advances on her threateningly, but smiles all the while and even taunts her like a schoolyard bully, repeating her name in silly voices: "Weeenddeeeeee... Weeeenndddeeee..."

Devil or angel? Sinner or saint? Jack makes the "devil sign" and Wendy Torrance has a halo in The Shining

I could not help but notice that when Jack Nicholson delivers the famous "darling" line, he very briefly makes the sign of the horns, an offensive hand gesture sometimes associated with Satanism and the occult. Nicholson, let's not forget, played the earthly embodiment of Satan a mere seven years later in The Witches of Eastwick and famously referred to himself therein as a "horny little devil." At the time, having Jack Nicholson play the Devil struck many critics as type-casting. Meanwhile, look at that light fixture behind Shelley Duvall. Kubrick consistently composes the frame so that the chandelier is directly over her head, making it look like a halo. That's when I realized that the Torrances could be seen as a kind of grotesque parody of the Holy Family: Jack as Joseph, Wendy as the Virgin Mary, and Danny as Jesus.

Mary, Jesus, and Joseph
Jesus and Mary, of course, get all the affection and attention from our world's roughly 2 billion Christians. They have statues, paintings, songs, and numerous Holy Days of Obligation in their honor. Poor old Joseph -- my namesake, incidentally -- seems to have gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop in this arrangement. His young virginal wife was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and would forever after be known for her sexual purity. Despite popular belief, the term "immaculate conception" does not refer to the virgin birth of Christ; instead, it is Catholic dogma that Mary, from the moment of her own conception, was untouched by original sin. She alone among mortals got a lifetime free pass from God, and in return, she remained sexually untouched. Growing up Catholic, I could not help but wonder what effect this must have had on Joseph, a mortal man who must have had the same sexual desires as any man but who was forever doomed to a life of chastity.

Others have wondered about this, too. In his massively controversial 1985 film Hail Mary, director Jean Luc Godard updated the story of Christ's virgin birth to modern times and gave us a sexually frustrated Joseph who eventually comes to accept his fate. "I never touch you. I stay," he tells his wife. Much more fun than Godard's film, though, is "A Bad Kid," a triumphantly tasteless short story from 1999 by UK satirist Michael Kelly. Kelley's story takes the form of a monologue by Joseph and is written in the voice of a crude, working-class Britisher who loathes and resents his literally holier-than-thou son and wife and who doesn't hesitate to express these feelings through physical violence. Throughout the story, Joseph's tone is remarkably reminiscent of Jack Torrance. Jack, too, has abused his son physically on at least one occasion. Here's a representative excerpt from Kelly's story in which Joseph describes his relationship with Jesus:

In all the times I had cause to thrash my stepson during his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, he almost never stood up to me, the jessy. I suppose in fairness if he had done I would have put him in hospital, but the way he just stood there passively, as he did now, looking so bloody meek and mild and saying, "I forgive you," the superior little sod, used to enrage me even more. 
"I'll teach you to forgive me, you little bastard!" I yelled, and leathered him some more.

Later, Joseph speaks ruefully about his wife:

God, she gets on my wick at times. Sitting on her arse all day smiling and being tranquil and radiant and full of grace, and glowing a bit. I've never liked to talk about this much, but she definitely glows. Does your wife glow? No, I didn't think so. Mine does. No, you can't notice it so much in daylight, but at night you can read a book by it. Come to think of it, he never needs a candle when he gets up for a piss either. What a fucking family.

In this story, as in many paintings and mosaics, Jesus and Mary give off a kind of visible glow... a shining, if you will. As I pointed out earlier, Wendy herself seems to "glow" or "shine" during the staircase sequence. That's one detail Shining-ologists never seem to give much attention: the title. Is it possible that the extrasensory perception in King's story is called "shining" because of some religious significance?  The gift of "shining" is reminiscent of the so-called "telekinesis" in King's first full-length novel, Carrie, which is likewise fraught with religious symbolism and a specifically Christian horror of sex.

Room 237: Result of Jack's sexual frustration?
Now let us consider Jack and Wendy Torrance as Colorado's answer to Joseph and Mary. Like the famed Biblical couple, Jack and Wendy travel a great distance to an inn, The Overlook, where the inkeeper (Mr. Ullman, played by Barry Nelson) gives them modest accommodations. Since the Overlook is closed between Halloween and May Day, why is there no room at this inn? Because the other rooms are occupied by the ghosts of the hotel's past. Like Mary and Joseph, Wendy and Jack have a sexless relationship. The occasional chaste kiss -- and never on the lips -- is as much physical affection as we'll ever see from them. If the Torrances never have sex, how was Danny ever conceived? The aforementioned "room 237" scene may well be brought about by Jack's sexual frustration. Of course, like Joseph, Jack is not allowed to experience sexual pleasure even in a fantasy. The gorgeous woman he encounters in that room turns into a decomposing hag in short order, and Jack flees in terror.

Interestingly, in one of the film's ugliest lines, Jack complains about Wendy to the spectral and possibly imaginary bartender, Lloyd (Joe Turkel): "Just a little problem with the old sperm bank upstairs." Equating Wendy to a sperm bank tells us that Jack sees her as little more than a receptacle for the male seed, which is pretty much how God used Mary. Some observers think of Joseph as being cuckolded by God in this respect. The sign of the horns we saw Jack using earlier is, by some accounts, Italian in origin and meant to signify the proverbial cuckold's horns. A man whose wife is unfaithful wears horns that everyone but he can see. The Torrances' son may have been conceived through methods other than normal human reproduction.

This brings us to young Danny Torrance, the story's stand-in for Christ. Though his physical body is eminently human, Danny is possessed of a great supernatural power which even he cannot comprehend. His mysterious summoning of the Overlook's handyman, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), is akin to Christ being visited by the Three Kings, who were led to Bethlehem by a star. Elsewhere in the film, Jack encounters the ghostly Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) who is keenly aware of Danny's power and tries to convince Jack to kill him. This is analogous to the story of King Herod the Great, who in the Book of Matthew (Matthew 2:1-4, 7, 16) orders his soldiers to kill all male children two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding neighborhoods because he has heard from his astrologers that the King of the Jews had been born there.

I cannot say whether Stephen King or Stanley Kubrick ever meant The Shining to mirror the story of the Nativity or depict the Holy Family in any way. However, this famous narrative is so deeply hard-wired into our minds through decades of repetition and cultural indoctrination that it may seep into our fiction whether we want it to or not. One of the great gifts of Room 237 is a belief expressed by one of the interviewees to the effect that alternate meanings may be found in works "regardless of author intent."

Amen to that.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Joe. Should we listen for you in the sequel, Room 238?

  2. Thank you, Craig. No kidding here, I was going to title this "Room 237 and a half." But as these things go, the project soon grew out of hand. I started revisiting all the other Kubrick films -- not so difficult when a guy only makes 13 movies -- and began formulating a whole book, Perfection Subverted: A New Reading of Stanley Kubrick, arguing that most of his films are about what happens when seemingly "perfect" things -- places, plans, people, machines, systems, marriages -- start to malfunction. A lot of people say Stanley was a perfectionist, but he was really more interested in flaws than perfection. Topics might include how Jack Torrance is the spiritual descendant of the HAL-9000 computer and General Jack D. Ripper. Also: how Alex from A Clockwork Orange and David from A.I. have a lot in common. And why are there so many marriages -- always deeply troubled ones -- of single-child couples in his movies?

    You can see how a project like this could grow out of proportion, so for now I'm limiting myself to this one aspect.

  3. Love this! For one, I've always had to defend Shelley here, because so many folks want to say "I love The Shining, everything except Duvall, she's awful." I defend her performance here to the death, and I think, as you say, a lot of it is the fact that she's playing a mousy and abused wife. Now this is VERY different from the book, where Wendy is a very attractive and more forceful woman (i.e., why Rebecca Demornay was cast in the more faithful miniseries). Duvall is used perfectly here, and it's a shame that so many people want to focus on her being 'whiny.'

    I never thought of the Mary/Joseph dynamic, but I like it quite a bit. I still haven't seen Room 237, but I'm looking forward to doing so, and then eventually applying every theoryto a rewatch.

  4. I would highly recommend Room 237. I'm a long-time, die-hard defender of Shelley Duvall's performance, too. (And, for that matter, basically everything she's in. She's one of my favorite actresses.) I watched the miniseries and did not care for it. DeMornay's character is so much less compelling to me than Duvall's. Danny, too, is much less interesting when he's played by a professional kid actor giving a "professional kid actor" performance. I don't think Shelly's Wendy is whiny at all. She never once complains about anything trivial, which is the essence of whining. I've never understood that argument, though I've heard it a lot. I think her Wendy is a very vulnerable woman whose only defense against life is optimism. When I watch The Shining, it's her -- not Jack or Danny -- with whom I identify. She's my on-screen surrogate.

    There's one really heartbreaking scene in this movie which I didn't mention. Perhaps I will if I write more about this film. It's when Wendy is talking over the radio to the local police. She's so lonely, and she clearly wants to keep the conversation going because she has no other adults in her life to talk to, but the policeman politely cuts it short. Jack is utterly unapproachable, and Danny is disappearing into his own world. That radio is her only connection to the world. Destroying it is one of the absolute cruelest things Jack does to her.