By Jed Mayer | Press Play December 20, 2012 at 8:31AM
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is not generally considered a family picture, but it is certainly one of the most brutally honest films ever made about the nature of family relationships. I discovered this when seeing the film for the first time with my father when I was fourteen. My father took me to dozens of R-Rated films when I was growing up, which reflected, I think, his trust in my maturity rather than any negligence about what was morally appropriate for children (though there was some of that too). Many of my fondest memories of my father involve going to the movies, and going to R-Rated films was something we usually did together, without my Mom or my sister. For two guys who hated sports, this was our equivalent of playing catch. We’d seen plenty of horror films together, but I never anticipated that a horror film would hit quite so close to home as The Shining.
The Torrance family at the film’s center undergoes a traumatic experience of isolation, in which their darkest fears and desires are unleashed. While the Torrances’ isolation is most intense during their stewardship of the Overlook Hotel, it in some sense precedes and anticipates their snowbound stay. During Jack’s interview at the Hotel, Wendy and Danny are shown alone together, eating lunch. As the camera pans towards the housing complex where they live before moving to the Overlook, the audio track conveys the sounds of children playing—but during the lunch scene Danny says that “there's hardly anybody to play with around here.” Kubrick’s signature long-focus composition frames mother and son starkly against the panoramic spread of their disordered apartment, emphasizing their isolation in the midst of the frame’s wide visual field.
We learn during Jack’s interview that the Torrances have just moved to Colorado from Vermont, but it is not until a pediatrician is called in to check on Danny after he experiences a blackout that we learn more of the details of their past life. During this interview the camera focuses on Wendy, as she awkwardly describes to the doctor how Jack once dislocated his son’s shoulder in a fit of drunken rage. The violence of the event is masked by Shelley Duvall’s nervous smile and chirpy voice, her forced cheeriness deflecting the viewer’s empathy. The alleged “happy ending” to the story, that Jack quit drinking as a result of this incident and hasn’t had a drink for five months, is further undercut when we shift from Wendy’s face to that of the doctor, who looks frankly horrified. The camera resumes its deep focus, isolating Wendy from the doctor by framing them on either side of a series of bookshelves with the books arranged in a nervous zigzag. While today we might expect a call to Child Protective Services, in the world of The Shining such confessions only serve to further isolate the family.
Tense social moments like this make their eventual isolation at The Overlook Hotel something of a relief. Indeed, I often think that, if offered, I would take the Torrances’ job in a heartbeat. The cavernous ballrooms, mountain views, and labyrinthine hallways of the Hotel have always seemed utopian to me, an atmospheric synthesis of an old English estate and a cabin in the woods. In this respect the setting is reminiscent of the ghost stories of M.R. James, an English antiquarian whose tales frequently depict encounters with the monstrous and macabre in quiet country vacation spots. The Shining is itself a strange kind of ghost story, with at least three kinds of hauntings going on. As the Hotel Manager is showing the Torrances around the grounds, he reveals that the Overlook was built on an old Indian burial site. These ancestral spirits may be responsible for the disturbing events that have taken place over the years of the Hotel’s existence, the most recent of which was committed by the former Caretaker, Delbert Grady, who murdered his wife and two daughters with an axe before killing himself with a shotgun.
For all of the film’s stylistic and dramatic originality, these ghostly elements lend it a surprisingly traditional quality. Its wintry setting nudges the film towards the now-forgotten tradition of the Christmas ghost story. The most famous example of this Victorian tradition is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but hundreds of such stories were published in the popular Christmas editions of the many family magazines that began circulation during the periodical publishing boom of the mid-nineteenth century. M.R. James himself would invite friends and family to his home to recite ghost stories around the fire, and the BBC later honored this tradition in the 1970s by presenting televised versions of his and Dickens’ ghost stories during Christmas. While the Victorians may have been the first to market this tradition, telling haunting tales around the fire is a venerable custom in most cultures, particularly during the Winter Solstice, when the forces of night and darkness threaten to devour light and life.
Several years ago, I was delighted to discover how well The Shining works as a Christmas ghost story, when my wife and I were spending the holiday with her family. After Christmas dinner we got into a conversation about times when we’d been snowbound, and this led us gradually to a discussion of Kubrick’s film. We reminisced on favorite scenes while sipping hot toddies, until we all agreed that watching this would be much more entertaining than our traditional viewing of A Christmas Carol. Just as the cold outside makes the warmth inside more welcoming, so the vision of a family tearing itself apart onscreen makes one feel closer to the family on the couch. Jack Nicholson’s malignly comic performance provides just the right sense of dangerous hilarity, heightening the sense of camaraderie, and the whole family can cheer at the end as Danny ingeniously escapes his father’s pursuit and reunites with his mother. It’s easy to forget, but The Shining actually does have a happy ending.
The film has become a family tradition for us, but underneath the sense of kinship and connection with my in-laws that the film seems to foster, are more disturbing family memories. Like Jack Torrance, my father was an alcoholic, and several scenes in the film capture the experience of being the child of an alcoholic better than any film I know. In particular, I find especially troubling the scene where Danny quietly enters the chamber of his sleeping father to retrieve his toy fire engine and finds his father sitting awake on his bed. In a kind of narcoleptic daze Jack calls Danny over for a little talk. As disturbing as is Jack’s affectless attempt at speaking on a child’s level, what most troubled me about this scene when I first saw it with my father was the benumbed wariness of Danny’s responses to his father’s affection. What is most unsettling about being the child of an alcoholic is the sense of uncertainty: I never knew which version of my father I was dealing with from night to night, and this is what I saw in Danny’s response.
I wondered if my father saw it too. I suspect he did. I know that I came to see things a little more from my father’s perspective after seeing this film, through its painfully honest portrayal of the alcoholic’s struggle to stay sober. By the time Jack utters the anguished line: “God, I'd give anything for a drink. I'd give my god-damned soul for just a glass of beer!” I believed him, and felt something of the frustration and self-loathing my father must have felt but never expressed to me. More powerful than the haunting by aggrieved Indian spirits or the souls of the murdered Grady family is the haunting of the Torrance family by what they aren’t able to say to one another. Watching The Shining over the years with friends and family, I’ve realized that sometimes a horror film is the only way to say I love you.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.