I suspect that very few of you know what ‘The Shining’ is really about. You might think you know; you might talk about themes of isolation, claustrophobia, and the darkness in the human spirit made manifest as a “haunted” hotel. But you’d be wrong. You probably aren’t aware of the hidden messages about the dangers of going off the gold standard. You didn’t even know that it was a hidden confession from Stanley Kubrick explaining that he faked the moon landing footage. You hadn’t the slightest clue of its hidden warnings about the Mayan apocalypse in 2012. And you…okay, you probably knew about the secret subtext relating to America’s treatment of Native Americans. That one’s so well-known that even Cracked.com covered it. But you probably didn’t know about all of the hidden meanings, because you simply can’t. There’s so many hidden meanings that there’s a whole other movie coming out just about all the meanings in the first movie.
In all seriousness, what does make ‘The Shining’ such a popular subject for such a diverse range of “cryptic meaning” essays? Surely if Kubrick really had a message he was trying to convey, no matter how cleverly he concealed it, you’d expect to get some kind of consensus as to what it might be. But (for those of you who really don’t feel like sitting through a 40-minute YouTube video, or spend an hour or so looking at screenshots) Kubrick’s film almost seems to become a sort of Rorshach test, continually revealing cryptic messages that just happen to exactly coincide with the researcher’s personal perspective. Why? What is it about ‘The Shining’ that makes it more confusing than ‘The Prisoner’? What makes this film the one that people fixate on, while ‘Donnie Darko’ (to name another cult film that plays its cards close to the vest) seems to avoid these kinds of questions? I don’t know that we can ever know for sure, but here are my suggestions.
1) Kubrick isn’t talking. Well, I mean…of course he’s not talking now, but even when he was alive, he wasn’t talking about his movies. Kubrick had a reputation as a notorious recluse, but it would be more accurate to describe him as someone who just didn’t give interviews. He was perfectly content to be social, but he also hated the way that filmmakers who loved to talk about their work had reduced watching a movie to a sterile exercise in spotting the things the director had talked about in a magazine. He didn’t want you to be thinking about the technical reasons that the hedge maze had replaced the hedge animals (budget constraints, for the record–moving hedge animals weren’t technically feasible in 1980.) He wanted you to be watching the movie, and to let you come to your own conclusions about it. Seen from a certain point of view though, a reclusive movie-maker who doesn’t want to talk about his movies because he wants you to “work it out for yourself” can sound like someone who’s embedded a secret meaning. The more mystery invested in the process, the more people expect from the ultimate solution. “Some people are just crazy” is not going to satisfy them.
2) Kubrick had a reputation as a perfectionist. Time and time again, as you read these analyses, you’ll come across a phrase that’s almost word-for-word identical every single time: “A legendary perfectionist like Kubrick certainly wouldn’t allow such an obvious continuity error.” It is a prima facie assumption made in all of these analyses that any apparent mistake in the film must be placed there deliberately, as Kubrick was known for being a perfectionist. These must be hidden messages, because Kubrick doesn’t make mistakes.
This is, of course, an assumption so wrong that it almost has to be unpicked word-for-word. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, true, but “perfectionist” in this case doesn’t mean “meticulous about set continuity.” Kubrick’s reputation came from his habit of shooting far more film than was necessary, sometimes doing 80-100 takes of a single scene, in order to get the widest possible ranges of performance from his actors and to force them to genuinely inhabit their characters. ‘The Shining’ was no exception; Kubrick spent 200 days in principal photography for a 144-minute film. (This means that on average, Kubrick shot about 45 seconds of usable footage per day. Almost certainly, there must have been whole months worth of days where he shot nothing at all that he used in the final film.) Kubrick was a perfectionist in that he wanted the perfect take, and was willing to shoot as long as was needed until he got it; and once he was armed with all those perfect takes, he would go into the editing room and spend months assembling them into a finished film.
But there’s a big difference between that and being precise about continuity. In fact, Kubrick’s approach works against tight set continuity; when you’re shooting 30, 40, 50 takes of one shot, even going back the next day for more, then of course tiny details aren’t going to be the same from shot to shot. Kubrick wanted the perfect emotional resonance, not the perfect amount of sandwich eaten from moment to moment. Even if he did notice the continuity problems (and he almost certainly did) what was he going to do once he was in the editing booth? Throw out the best performance because the scrapbook was on the wrong page? Kubrick had to be aware that only obsessive viewers notice continuity mistakes to begin with, and he almost certainly had more important things to concern himself. But to the ‘Shining’ enthusiast, each of these tiny mistakes has to be a deliberate message, because they assume Kubrick is a genius who doesn’t do anything by accident.
3) The movie is different from the book. This is true of just about all adaptations, of course, but there’s a little more to it here. One, Kubrick didn’t discuss why he made the changes he made when adapting the novel. (See above.) Two, it’s assumed that a legendary perfectionist like Kubrick wouldn’t make arbitrary changes unless he had a grand vision to them. (See above.) And three, King and Kubrick were legendarily at odds over the adaptation, with King going so far as to write and direct his own adaptation that was more to his liking. With the theme of “changes from the book” highlighted, everyone’s attention is drawn to them. And again, we’re back to the “hidden messages” territory, with every tiny alteration assumed to have cryptic meaning, from the hotel’s origin to its final fate and everything in between.
Again, though, this assumes that Kubrick was able to work in the realm of pure art, with no concessions needing to be made to practicality. Subplots like the simmering conflict between Ullman the hotel manager and Jack, or backstory like his assault on a student at Stovington Prep? Dropped for time, perhaps, because the movie is already over two hours long and there’s not even a mention of them. Wendy and Danny seem different because the characters wound up being interpreted by actors, and because certain elements had to be emphasized and dropped to get the film down to a manageable running time. Logistically difficult effects, such as the destruction of the Overlook Hotel or the moving hedge animals, had to be dropped completely. Nobody ever gets to do everything the way they want to entirely…except maybe George Lucas, which may explain why it’s not such a good thing…and Kubrick is certainly no exception. But if you’re not willing to believe that, then each change takes on a special significance.
4) The ending is ambiguous. Sure, we know that Jack died. But then we get that last cryptic scene, of the photograph in the empty hotel filled with mysterious people and Jack at the center. The caption, “July 4th Ball, 1921.” It has to mean something. It’s the final shot of the film, the one that Kubrick wants us to leave on, the one he wants to resonate in our heads as we’re leaving the theater. He actually went so far as to cut an epilogue out of the film after it reached theaters, so that all we see is the cut from Jack’s body to the mysterious photo. A cryptic ending like that is one that demands endless analysis, deeper investigation, because we want things to make sense. And that ending really, really doesn’t, at least not in a logical and linear sense. (It says a lot that even after “notorious recluse” Kubrick came out and blatantly explained the ending to everyone, people still don’t believe it.) Whatever conclusions you come to about the final shot, you bring something of your own ideas and experiences to it…which leads us to…
5) People really, really like to create patterns. It’s human nature, and the final element that brings the first four together. Once you’ve decided that there is a hidden meaning to ‘The Shining’, once you’ve started looking at it not as a film but as a series of cryptic messages encoded into tiny details, then there’s a sufficiently large mass of data present that you can draw any number of connections between data points based on your own personal viewpoint as a lens. Think that Kubrick was a numerologist? Examine the time codes, you’re bound to find a pattern of significant shots at significant times. (Because Kubrick didn’t really put in any scenes that he didn’t think were important.) Want to find messages about your own personal political, mystical, or historical views? They’re bound to be there if you think symbolically enough and are willing to put in some work massaging the data. (Remember, numbers are infinitely transformable. Add, subtract, multiply and divide and 7/4/1921 can become any set of numbers you care to name.) And ultimately, you will come away convinced that Kubrick’s message was about exactly what you want it to be about. It’s a comforting thought, really. Kubrick must be a genius for hiding such an intricate message in the film, and you must be a genius for being able to find it. The two of you no doubt think alike, and wouldn’t we all want to think of ourselves as being in the company of geniuses?
For myself, I don’t think there is a hidden message in ‘The Shining’. I think that Kubrick, like all great artists, loved ambiguity, and loved to insert it in the work instead of forcing his own conclusions onto you. You are required, by design, to think about what’s going on in front of you because the answers are not provided, and Kubrick isn’t telling because your answer is probably better than his anyway. I think he’d probably be impressed at some of the creativity people have brought to finding meanings in his film…even if I can easily picture Wendy looking at Jack’s manuscript and reading, “It can be ruled out that Stanley Kubrick didn’t notice this obvious mistake as he precisely edited the shot that way for a reason and we all saw it happen…”