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.
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.
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.
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