not in our stars, but in ourselves
Here’s the terrible thing about conspiracy theories: you’re unlikely to find someone else who agrees that yours is entirely right. If you’ve accepted the “conventional wisdom” about how something happened, then of course you’ve got plenty of other sheeple who see it your way; however, if you think the government is controlling the weather with chemtrails, or Donald Trump is the Manchurian Candidate, etc., etc., you’ll probably find a few dozen people squabbling with you when it comes to the details of your theory. And so, as much as I love a good conspiracy theory, I found myself rolling my eyes all the way back in my head at some of the interpretations posited by the film “scholars” interviewed for Room 237. They’ve all performed impressively close readings of The Shining, but they’ve all come to vastly different conclusions – some more creditable than others.
Director Rodney Ascher – who’s been careful to note that neither he nor the Kubrick estate necessarily sign off on any of the views expressed herein – has assembled analysis and interpretations from five longtime fanatics of The Shining and what it “really” means. Bill Blakemore, based on the general manager’s offhand remark that the Overlook was built on an Indian burial ground and on the appearance of Calumet-brand baking soda, thinks that The Shining is really about the white man’s genocide of Native Americans. Geoffrey Cocks, based on repeated instances of the number 42 (the year the Final Solution was enacted) and repeated appearances of eagles (symbols of the Nazis, as well as many other authoritarian states), thinks that The Shining is really about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns, based on her own painstaking attempts to construct maps of the Overlook Hotel and on the literal labyrinth just outside, thinks that The Shining is about the Minotaur and other such impossible mythological beasts. John Fell Ryan, based on his ingenious decision to play the film backwards and forwards at the same time, thinks that The Shining is really about a bored genius who decided he wanted to make a batshit-crazy horror movie that’s about moving forwards and backwards all at once. And Jay Weidner, based on Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater and on one of Jack Torrance’s furious speeches about the immense pressure he feels from his employers, thinks that The Shining is really about how Kubrick filmed a fake moon landing and laced clues about it throughout his wild horror movie.
As is almost always the case with such things, each Shining enthusiast can cite examples in the text of the film, as well as biographical details from Kubrick’s own life, to support their variously far-fetched claims. But of course, the Vigilant Citizen can find examples to support his claims in all kinds of pop culture; and his claims, remember, are that the Illuminati control us all. Perhaps someday I’ll eat my words, but I don’t quite think that’s the case. (Although I’d certainly give credence to a not-so-secret Deep State agenda…but that’s a conspiracy theory for another time.) If you’re devoted enough and crazy enough, you can find Baconian acrostics in the works of Shakespeare; you can find “evidence” in the Bible to support Nostradamus’ proclamations; you can find John Lennon’s murder confessions where he was really just saying “cranberry sauce.”
Nevertheless, I don’t want to discount the idea that there’s more to The Shining than meets the eye. Of all the readings of Kubrick’s film, I think Ryan’s is the best and most insightful. We see some examples of the clips from the beginning overlaid with clips from the end, and there really are some startling overlaps: the scene with the butchered Grady girls lines up with Jack Torrance’s insane, dead-eyed glare – making his face look like a particularly terrifying clown, as the bloody areas of the murder scene line up almost perfectly with his eyes and moth. The notion that Kubrick was bored and looking to shake things up is probably far closer to the truth than anything else posited in Room 237: never doubt a genius’s need to troll people. He very well could have devised The Shining as a film meant to flow in two directions at once, simultaneously. He out-Dark Side of the Moon‘d us all. And Kearns’s careful work interrogating the architecture of the hotel, with its “impossible windows” and other bizarre features, leads to solid proof of what we feel when we watch: that Kubrick, ever the control freak, deliberately included these architectural incongruities and continuity “errors” to ensure that the viewer feels just as off-kilter as the Torrances do. Blakemore thinks that the “enigmatic” Bill Watson, a small and slight and somewhat more tanned hotel employee than his boss, Stuart Ullman, is meant to represent some sort of resentful Native American figure; on the basis of Cocks’s insistence on the Holocaust metaphor, I almost see it more as a relationship between a Jew and an Aryan. See, they’re getting to me, too! The one theory I can’t quite bring myself to get behind is Weidner’s moon-hoax “confession” – but even then, there are clues, very possibly inserted by Kubrick for the specific purpose of getting people’s dander up: Danny’s sweater, changing the room number from 217 in Stephen King’s novel to 237 in the film (because Earth is 237,000 miles from the moon), etc. It could be coincidence, it could be intentional, it could be confessional. We’re unlikely to find out any time soon from Kubrick’s own mouth.
After seeing Room 237, I wanted to rewatch The Shining myself to check all these theories out while they were fresh. There is plenty to dive into, plenty of symbolism, plenty of semiotics and signifiers and signifieds; it’s not unlike a Poe story, in that respect. At least one of the commentators in Room 237 – and curse me, I didn’t make a note of who it was – brings up the prevailing understanding of the significance of dreams. In some sense, they’re just rehashed emotions, ideas, questions, and anxieties from your waking life; in another sense, they’re attempts to explore why you feel/think/ask/worry as you do; and in yet another sense, they’re connecting your concerns to the rest of the world. Cinema creates dream worlds of its own: in fact, when you’re there in the dark, watching the film projected on a bright shining (!) screen, you’re in a state not unlike that of a dream. And so, The Shining‘s wild and conflicting conspiracy theories attached to it by Room 237‘s crew all make sense, as much sense as dream interpretation. Only the dreamer can know for sure, and the rest of us can just have fun guessing.
My guess, for whatever it’s worth: it’s mostly a portrait of an abusive marriage. We see plenty of warning signs in the way Wendy speaks about and to Jack that she’s all too used to tiptoeing around him – lest his temper flare up again. Danny is much more bonded to his mother than to his father; some of this is explained in the film by the fact that Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder after a drunken rage; some of it is merely suggested. The issue of Playgirl that Jack thumbs through in the Overlook’s lobby on his first day of work included a story about incest. Danny seems much more uncomfortable and dazed than frightened when he’s alone with his father – as if he’s been alone with his father many times, and it’s always ended horribly, but less horribly if Danny just doesn’t cry or scream. But hey, this is all far less exotic and exciting than the idea that Kubrick faked the moon landing. I understand if you’d rather believe Mr. Weidner than me.