In my previous post comparing Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining with Stephen King’s vastly inferior TV miniseries, I offhandedly mentioned the staggering variety of “conspiracy theories” surrounding Kubrick’s film without going into particular detail about any of them. I didn’t think it was necessary to exhaustively catalogue all the crazy interpretations that have appeared over the years, not only because there are endless sites already doing just that (hell, Shining conspiracy theories even have their own wiki, and just last year a documentary called Room 237 outlined the most common ones), but also because I think the great majority of them are utter, overreaching horseshit. No, I do not believe that Kubrick was trying to send us secret messages about faking the moon landing, or about CIA mind control, or about the Holocaust, or about the impending Mayan apocalypse.
Artists, particularly ones of Kubrick’s caliber, absolutely do put hidden meanings and subtexts into their work, and it would be silly to argue that they don’t. This doesn’t mean that they’re trying to impart some kind of secret knowledge about the universe’s inner workings or anything; it’s just that they’re trying to make their films or books or whatever a richer experience for their audience by adding “clues” to underlying themes for the viewers to puzzle out on their own. It’s hard to deny that Kubrick’s The Shining is loaded with this stuff, and obviously a great deal of it was deliberate, because that’s what artists, at least good ones, try to do.
After my recent rewatch of the TV miniseries, I spent several hours poring over different people’s interpretations of Kubrick’s film, and then decided to rewatch his 1980 adaptation with the various “conspiracies” in mind. After the film, the God of Hellfire and I were discussing it yet again (and yes, I can totally see why this movie has spawned so much obsessive speculation since it came out, thank you for asking), and suddenly, the GoH had something of a revelation (and this will be kinda funny later, I promise).*
Here’s the deal. Several of the so-called conspiracy theories out there (and I hesitate to call them that; I prefer to call them subtexts or motifs) have hit upon different facets of Kubrick’s overarching theme. But the GoH’s post-film epiphany (and all credit to him, as it was his excited discourse that inspired me to wade into the fray and write this post) seemed to tie together many of the more reasonable theories put forth by others into one coherent whole. I slogged through several pages of Google searches to see if anyone else had come up with this particular angle before, and while I found it hinted at in several places, I found no one who had laid the entire thing out in a clear framework the way the GoH did. If after reading this post you can find someone who has hit upon this exact slant, then kindly point me in that direction, but for now, I’m going give tentative props and kudos to my sexy male counterpart for coming up with what seems to be a pretty original take on Kubrick’s masterpiece. So let me see if I can break this all down.
Exhibit One: Native American Genocide
By far the most common and obvious subtext attributed to The Shining has to do with the slaughter of the Native Americans. Near the beginning of the film, as he is giving the Torrance family a tour of the Overlook, manager Stuart Ullman tells them point blank that the hotel was built over a Native American burial ground, and further, that a few “Indian attacks” had to be “repelled” while the Overlook was under construction in the early 20th century. In addition, the hotel itself is decorated in a Native American theme (Navajo and Apache, according to Ullman), there are several conspicuous placements of cans of Calumet baking powder (Calumet uses a Native American in a warrior’s headdress as its logo, and the word “calumet” means “peace pipe”), and many of Wendy Torrance’s fashion choices bear Native American-style motifs. There is also Jack’s twice-repeated use of the phrase “white man’s burden” to Lloyd the bartender as he is downing his bourbon (with alcohol being yet another purported tool of the natives’ subjugation by whitey).
Other interpreters of this particular thematic element have stated that Kubrick was making a not-so-subtle indictment of the Native American genocide, and it’s easy to see how they come to that conclusion. In this scenario, Jack represents the “white man” who subjugates his wife and son the way the Europeans subjugated the native population. But according to the GoH’s reading of it, this is only tangentially correct. I will go into more detail about this after I’ve laid out all the tendrils, so just be patient.
Exhibit Two: The Minotaur’s Maze
Another fairly obvious touchstone in Kubrick’s film is the repeated reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The director significantly changed King’s hedge animals to a hedge maze, and Wendy even compares the hotel itself to a maze as Halloran is showing her around the kitchen. In addition, the carpet patterns in much of the hotel’s decor are decidedly mazelike. Further, there is one scene that shows an increasingly bullish-appearing Jack lurking menacingly over a model of the maze, staring down at it as tiny simulacrums of his wife and son navigate their way through the real labyrinth outside. And at the climax, of course, Jack chases Danny through the maze, his speech becoming more and more animalistic as the chase progresses. Danny even finds his way out of the maze by following his father’s footprints in the snow, just as Theseus followed the golden thread (it’s also significant in this context that the main ballroom of the Overlook is called “The Gold Room”).
Exhibit Three: The Faust Connection
Right here is where we’re getting close to hitting upon the underlying framework that ties the disparate elements together. It is significant that the phrase Jack utters just before the first appearance of Lloyd the bartender is, “I’d give my soul for a drink.” Seconds after this pronouncement, Lloyd is standing before him and immediately indulges his wish, and it is from here that Jack’s true downward spiral begins. So in this sense, Jack has just made a Faustian bargain with the Devil, or in this case the “spirit” of the Overlook hotel, represented by Lloyd. Further evidence of this particular theme comes in the very final moments of the film, when we see a closeup of the black-and-white photo from 1921 on the wall of the Overlook. Jack is standing before a crowd of jazz-age partygoers, with his right hand raised, palm facing toward us, and his left hand by his side, pointing toward the floor. This strange pose subtly recollects the Tarot figure of Baphomet, aka, Satan, y’all.
Sure, Goddess, I hear you saying, but all of those theories have been put forth many times, so what the hell is so compellingly new that you felt you had to blather on and on about it? Well, hear me out now. How can these three seemingly different themes be all of one piece? The GoH thinks he knows how, and it can be summed up in two words: Black. Magic. Or perhaps more specifically, ancient pagan religion, fostered through blood sacrifice and ritual.
I admit it sounds sort of crackpotty at first blush, but consider the following:
1. During his first interview at the Overlook, Jack wonders why the hotel is closed during the winter months, since it seems that the skiing up there would be fantastic. Ullman tells him that it would not be cost-effective to keep the 25-mile road leading up to the Overlook open, and then significantly adds that at the time the hotel was built, its clientele were not interested in winter sports as much as they were the “seclusion” of the Overlook’s location, and its beautiful natural view.
2. As Ullman is showing the Torrances around the hotel’s interior, he mentions that scads of movie stars, presidents, and other prominent folks (including well-known gangsters, though he doesn’t explicitly mention that) have graced the Overlook’s hallowed halls. “Royalty?” Wendy asks. “All the best people,” answers Ullman.
3. Near the end of the film, as Wendy is frantically running around the hotel looking for Danny, she briefly sees an apparition of a clearly Very Important Dude in a tux getting blown by a man in a bear costume. While this is going on, and at several points subsequently as Jack chases Danny through the maze, the soundtrack of the film treats us to background “music” that sounds an awful lot like ritualistic chanting.
So what do these three details mean in relation to the well-worn theories I outlined above? Well, in the GoH’s perceptive scenario, the Overlook itself can be seen as a sort of temple of black magic, or perhaps more concisely, a place of ancient pagan worship much like the sacrificial temples of the Mayans, the Happy Hunting Grounds of the Native Americans, or the Valhalla of the Vikings. It was created, either deliberately or accidentally, to act as a place that “shined,” that used the power of sacrifice — either through blood or the psychic energy of people with the “shining” — as a consecration to create a vortex of eternal debauchery akin to a type of hell (or perhaps a heaven, depending on your perspective).
Think about it. The Overlook was built as a playground for the wealthy elite. Said elite were keen to make sure that the location was “secluded.” Not only was the hotel slapped right on top of an Indian burial ground, but Native Americans were “repelled” (i.e. killed, sacrificed) during its construction. Further, the hotel was then festooned with Native American symbology. The Colorado Lounge in particular, with its tall stained glass windows, high ceilings, and Jack’s writing desk in place of an altar, looks like nothing so much as a sort of pagan cathedral.
Not only was this made to be perhaps a sort of mockery or inversion of the Native Americans’ spiritual beliefs (in much the same way the Satanic Black Mass can be seen as an inversion of Christianity), but also as a type of co-option or embracing of the primal qualities of those that were sacrificed. Why would the wealthy elite who patronized the hotel want it to be so secluded, after all, unless they were planning on using it as a place to indulge their “baser” natures and embrace the primal, the primitive, the savage, the animalistic? Murder, crime, debauchery, decadence, endless partying, wild sex: these were the “rituals” in this new “industrial” tribe of rich white elites. (Incidentally, this may be why Halloran was able to work at the Overlook for so long without being assimilated, because by being black, he was of the wrong “tribe.”) They didn’t just want to plow under the “pagans,” you see, they also wanted to become them, or at least become like their own perception of the “savages” as man close to a state of nature. By indulging in their “primitive” shenanigans and trying to overcome their own detachment from nature, they perhaps inadvertently created something that a tribe of “primitives” would have created on purpose: a cult of nature that was fed with blood and sex magic.
So they built a swanky pleasure palace on sacred ground, tamed the natural landscape into a regimented hedge maze, and then proceeded to out-savage the “savages.” Ullman’s demarcation of the Overlook’s clientele as “all the best people” was perhaps Kubrick slyly insinuating that the rich degenerates who stayed at the hotel were not the “best” people at all. Maybe they weren’t even the worst people. They were just people like any other, prone to brutality and primitivism just like anyone else, though afforded greater latitude in their pursuit of degeneracy because of their exalted status. This is why the “animal” theme recurs, not only in the Minotaur allusions (the child sacrifice theme is clearly pertinent in this myth, and what were the Greco-Romans known for if not pagan debauchery?) and the bear costume, but in subtle animal motifs that appear in Danny’s drawings, background posters, characters’ clothing, and other places around the hotel.
And this is why the odd chanting on the soundtrack recurs, as a sort of cue to the viewer that the temple is about to accept a new infusion of blood and energy. The Overlook indeed strikes a Faustian bargain with its chosen victims: make a sacrifice of blood (Grady’s daughters, Halloran, the attempted killing of Wendy and Danny) and for you and your sacrificial victims, the “party” will continue forever.
*One of the more out-there theories that I didn’t go into in this post concerns Kubrick’s supposed use of recurring numbers in the film. While there’s no doubt that certain numbers turn up more than you would expect by chance alone (42 and 12 most prominently), and there is probably some reason why Kubrick chose to do this (especially since he deliberately changed the number of the scariest room from 217 in the book to 237 in the film; as others have pointed out, 2+3+7=12 and 2x3x7=42), I’ve always been of the opinion that the various “numerological” theories put forth about The Shining mostly strain credulity.
But in light of the GoH’s reading of the Overlook as a sort of “Satanic temple” metaphor, I thought I’d toddle on over to some numerology websites and see if those numbers had any particular significance (and yes, since you ask, I am a little embarrassed that those sites are now in my Google cache). I’m not gonna say that there’s necessarily anything to these numerological interpretations, but interestingly, in the Bible, Revelation 13:5 states: “The Beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months.” The number 42, you guys. Douglas Adams was right!
So…The Shining and ancient magic: yay or nay? Please throw hosannas or brickbats as the case may be. And until next time, Goddess out.