People are always telling me one of their favorite horror movies is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.
In turn, I tell them about a short essay, written by Bill Blackmore for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987, outlining the subtext of the film.
Then I tell myself I’m not going to try to explain the whole article to them.
Then I try to explain the whole article to them. Poorly.
So, now, it’s posted here. This way, if someone is interested, they can come to the blog and read it. Rather than listen to me while I listen to myself talk.
Also, anyone with an interest in Stanley Kubrick movies should check out The Kubrick Site.
The Family of Man
Copyright 1987, San Francisco Chronicle
Fans found it surprising in 1980 when Kubrick turned out a movie that was
apparently no more than a horror film. The action took place at the Overlook
Hotel in Colorado, where the winter caretaker, a chilling Jack Nicholson, became
progressively madder and tried to murder his wife and his telepathic son.
But The Shining is not really about the murders at the Overlook Hotel. It is
about the murder of a race - the race of Native Americans - and the consequences
of that murder.
If you are skeptical about this, consider the Calumet baking powder cans
with their Indian chief logo that Kubrick placed carefully in the two
food-locker scenes. (A calumet is a peace pipe.) Consider the Indian motifs
that decorate the hotel, and the way they serve as background in many of the
key scenes. Consider the insertion of two lines, early in the film,
describing how the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground. These are
"confirmers" such as puzzle-makers often use to tell you you're on the right
track.The Shining is also explicitly about America's general inability to
admit to the gravity of the genocide of the Indians - or, more exactly, its
ability to "overlook" that genocide. Not only is the site called the
Overlook Hotel with its Overlook Maze, but one of the key scenes takes place
at the July 4th Ball. That date, too, has particular relevance to American
Indians. That's why Kubrick made a movie in which the American audience sees
signs of Indians in almost every frame, yet never really sees what the
movie's about. The film's very relationship to its audience is thus part of
the mirror that this movie full of mirrors holds up to the nature of its
The film is about how the all-male British military establishment, itself
forged in bloody empire-building, passed on to its off-spring continental
empire, the United States, certain timeworn army-building methods, including
separating weak males from the balancing influence of their more sensitive
womenfolk and children. The Shining is also about America's current racism,
particularly against blacks. Stuart Ullman tells the caretaker's wife Wendy
in the only lines in the film in which the Indians are mentioned. Ullman
says, "The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I
believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were
building it." This bit of dialogue does not appear in Stephen King's novel
The Shining. The first and most frequently seen of the film's very real
American "ghosts" is the flooding river of blood that wells out of the
elevator shaft, which presumably sinks into the Indian burial ground itself.
The blood squeezes out in spite of the fact that the red doors are kept
firmly shut within their surrounding Indian artwork embellished frames. We
never hear the rushing blood. It is a mute nightmare. It is the blood upon
which this nation, like most nations, was built, as was the Overlook Hotel.
No Actual Indians
Indian artwork appear throughout the movie in wall hangings, carpets,
architectural details and even the Colorado state flag. Yet we never meet an
actual Indian. But we do get to know, and like, and then see murdered, a
powerful black character, Chef Hallorann - the only person to die in the
film other that the protagonist, villain and victim, Jack. The murdered
black man lies across a large Indian design on the floor - victim of similar
racist violence. Kubrick carefully controls every aspect of his films'
releases, including the publicity. The posters for The Shining that were
used in Europe read across the top, "The wave of terror which swept across
America," and centered below that, the two word "is here." At first glance
this seemed to be a poster bragging about the film's effect on America. But
the film wasn't out yet when the posters first appeared. The wave of terror
that swept across America was the white man. As manager Ullman says in the
opening interview, after telling Jack of the horrible murders that took
place earlier in the Overlook, "It's still hard for me to believe it
actually happened here, but it did." The type of people who partied in the
Overlook included, as Ullman tells Jack and Wendy, "four presidents, movie
stars." And when the impressed Wendy asks, "Royalty?" Ullman replies simply,
"All the best people." King's novel has nothing to do with any of these
themes. As he has with other books that gave their titles to his movies,
Kubrick used the general setting and some of the elements of King's novel,
while drastically altering other elements and ignoring much of it, to suit
the needs of the multi-film oeuvre about mankind's inhumanity to man that
he's been making at least since Dr. Strangelove.
As with some of his other movies, Kubrick ends The Shining with a powerful
visual puzzle that forces the audience to leave the theater asking, "What
was that all about?"The Shining ends with an extremely long camera shot
moving down a hallway in the Overlook, reaching eventually the central photo
among 21 photos on the wall. The caption reads: "Overlook Hotel-July 4th
Ball-1921." The answer to this puzzle, which is a master key to unlocking
the whole movie, is that most Americans overlook the fact that July Fourth
was no ball, nor any kind of Independence day, for native Americans; that
the weak American villain of the film is the re-embodiment of the American
men who massacred the Indians in earlier years; that Kubrick is examining
and reflecting on a problem that cuts through the decades and centuries.
Sound of Moviegoers
And in a final stroke of brilliance, Kubrick physically melds the movie
audience leaving his film with the ghostly revelers in the photograph. As
the credits roll, the soundtrack ends, and we hear the 1920s audience
applaud, and then the gabble of that audience talking among themselves - the
same sound the crowd of moviegoers itself is probably making as it leaves
the theater. It is the sound of people moving out of one stage of
consciousness into another. The moviegoers are largely unaware of this
soundtrack, and this reflects their unawareness that they've just seen a
movie about themselves, about what people like them have done to the
American Indian and to others. Thus to its very last foot, this film is
trying to break through the complacency of its audience, to tell it, "You
were, are, the people at the Overlook Ball." The opening music, over the
traveling aerial shots of a tiny yellow Volkswagon penetrating the
magnificent American wilderness, is the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath"), part
of the major funeral mass of the European Roman Catholic Church. This movie
is a funeral, among other things. And it was Hitler's Germany, another
genocidal culture, that first produced the Volkswagen. At the end of the
movie, in the climactic chase in the Overlook Maze, the moral maze of
America and of all mankind in which we are chased by the sins of our fathers
("Danny, I'm coming. You can't get away. I'm right behind you"), the little
boy Danny escapes by retracing his own steps (an old Indian trick) and
letting his father blunder past.
Maze and Hotel
Kubrick carefully equates the Overlook Maze with the Overlook Hotel, and
both with the American continent. Chef Hallorann emphasizes to Wendy the
size and abundance of the kitchens, remarks upon the extraordinary elbow
room (so attractive to early settlers) and begins his long catalog of its
storerooms' wealth with those most American of items: rib roast, hamburger
and turkey. The Calumet baking powder can first appears during Hallorann's
tour of the dairy goods storage locker. In a moment of cinematic beauty, we
are looking up at Hallorann from Danny's point of view. As Hallorann tells
Wendy about the riches of that locker, his voice fades as he turns to look
down at Danny and, while his lips are still moving with words of the
abundant supplies, Danny hears the first telepathic "shining" from
Hallorann's head as he says, "How'd you like some ice cream, Doc?" Visible
right behind Hallorann's head in that shot, on the shelf, is one can of
Calumet baking powder. This approach from the open, honest and charismatic
Hallorann to the brilliant young Danny is an honest treaty, and Danny will
indeed get his ice cream in the very next scene. The other appearance of the
Calumet baking cans is in the scene where Jack, locked in the same dry-goods
locker by his terrified wife, is talking through the door to the very
British voice of ghost Grady. Grady speaking of behalf of the never
identified "we," who seem to be powerful people, is shaming Jack into trying
to kill his wife and son. ("I and others have come to believe that your
heart is not in this, that you haven't the belly for it." To which Jack
replies, "Just give me one more chance to prove it, Mr. Grady.") Visible
just behind Jack's head as he talks with Grady is a shelf piled with many
Calumet baking powder cans, none of them straight on, none easy to read.
These are the many false treaties, revoked in bloody massacre, that the U.S.
government gave the Indians, and that are symbolically represented in this
movie by Jack's rampage to kill his own family - the act to which Grady is
goading Jack in this scene. Nor is the treaty between Grady and Jack any
less dishonest. For Jack will get no reward for doing Grady's bidding, but
rather will reap insanity and death.
Kubrick has sought to expose in several of his movies before this one the
delusionary tricks by which big powers get weak males to do brutal and
ultimately self-destructive battle. We never see ghost Grady in this scene,
but if we're wondering whether the voice of Grady is just in Jack's head or
comes from the "real" ghost who can do real damage, we are chillingly
convinced when we hear the pin being pulled out on the outside latch of the
locker door. All ghosts in this movie are real horrors in America today, and
indeed in most cultures present and past. The second set of ghosts seen in
the movie is that of the British twin girls - Grady's murdered daughters,
alike but not quite alike. The represent, quite simply, duplicity, and not
only the duplicity of the broken treaties with the Indians. Only young Danny
sees these twins; children have a sensitivity to duplicity in the adult
world around them. Kubrick is examining in this movie not only the duplicity
of individuals, but of whole societies that manage to commit atrocities and
then carry on as though nothing were wrong. That's why there have been so
many murders over the years at the Overlook; man keeps killing his own
family and forgetting about it, and then doing it again. This is why, too,
Jack has such a powerful sense of deja vu when he arrives at the Overlook,
as though "I'd been here before." Later Grady tells him, "You are the
caretaker (who murdered his children). You've always been the caretaker."
("Born to kill," perhaps as the ads for "Full Metal Jacket" proclaim?)
Kubrick is not a moralist. He's an artist, a great one, and along with the
greatest artists he is holding the mirror up to nature, not judging it.
Though he has made here a movie about the arrival of Old World evils in
America, he is exploring most specifically an old question: Why do humans
constantly perpetuate such "inhumanity" against humans? That family is the
family of man.