Let’s not overlook this horror classic about a haunted hotel and the madness of a man.
Today was going to be a different film from 1980 called The Ninth Configuration directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of The Exorcist. I had heard it was a horror film, but it actually was really more of a drama about the meaning of life, containing some horrific moments. So, since I was expecting a psychological horror film from 1980, I thought, what better choice than one of the scariest, classic horror films of all time.
This trailer sets up the film brilliantly, and should only have been 30 seconds long. It’s a voice over explaining how a previous caretaker had gone crazy and killed his family with an axe, accompanied by some suitable imagery. Cut to Jack Nicholson, “that’s not gonna happen with me.” Boom! Everything you need to know right there. The rest of the trailer is just gratuitous!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
I’m going to eschew from using a complex summary of the film today, just so there’s more space to discuss. In short, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) become the caretakers for the Overlook Hotel in Colorado during the winter. While attempting to write his novel, Jack slowly devolves into madness. His son Danny, who has a precognitive gift called “shining,” is forewarned about Jack’s destructive mental state, allowing him and Wendy to escape, while Jack freezes to death in the harsh winter. Hopefully that makes sense, as you probably are not reading this article unless you’ve seen the movie.
“I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir. I’ve always been here.” – Delbert Grady
Since these 31 Days of Horror articles are meant to be shorter snippets and not the Cinemanalysis articles published here at RetroZap, I’m only going to focus on one aspect of the film. Plenty has been written and discussed about The Shining over the last 40 years, and I’m not planning on cutting any new ground, but trying to unravel some of the complexities of a deeply constructed film.
The Shining is a film with voluminous layers of meaning, that can be watched and rewatched over and over again, gaining new insights each time. In this article I’d like to specifically focus on its use of mirrors, doppelgangers and symmetry.
The appearance of mirrors and reflective surfaces is an oft-used horror trope, and is used by Kubrick to show the duality of characters. The first use of a mirror is at the beginning of the film when Danny is brushing his teeth and the little boy in his mouth “Tony” lets him know that Jack got the job as caretaker. The mirror reflects Tony as a manifestation or another aspect of Danny’s personality. In a later scene at the Torrance’s apartment in the Overlook, Jack is shown in both a mirror and in real life as he beckons to Danny. In this case the mirror reveals the dual nature of Jacks personality as the hotel begins to take control of him.
The mirror continues to reveal the dual nature of characters next showing Jack the true nature of the lady in room 237. When the attractive young woman gets out of the tub and heads towards Jack she appears as a beautiful nude. Jack is eager to embrace her. But he soon is horrified by the glimpse of her he sees in the mirror as a scabby, aged, hag. Jack denies these events to Wendy later, claiming that nothing happened when he investigated. He denies the truth of the other aspects shown to him. An initial clue that he is slipping further into madness.
Mirrors also are evident in the Gold Room, behind the bar, where the liquor shows up magically between his entrance and his discussion with the bartender Lloyd. They also feature in the bathroom as Delbert Grady explains Jacks place in the hotel. The final denouement reveals the crux of the plot also using mirrors. Danny has been saying, and repeating the word “redrum” over and over, writing it on the door with Wendy’s lipstick. It’s only when she sees the word in the mirror that she, and the audience, understands that Danny is talking about “murder!”
As with mirrors, doppelgängers present a duality of characters in more than just a reflection of themselves. They are still reflections of a sort, but reveal themselves in more subtle and detailed ways. Doppelgänger literally means “an apparition or double of a living person.” They manifest primarily with Jack Torrence who is revealed at the end of the film as having existed in a 1921 photo from the Overlook. Grady and Lloyd both mention to Jack that he’s always been there. How audiences choose to reconcile this reveal in the final shot is up to them. But it seems that Kubrick’s idea is that Jack exists both in 1980 as well as 1921.
As an isolated example this doppelgänger may not be as strong until you factor in the odd history of the men named Grady. At the beginning of the film the manager, Mr Ullman, tells Jack the story of Charles Grady, who killed his wife and two daughters at the hotel in 1970. Later when Jack is in the Gold Room he bumps into a waiter who identifies himself as Delbert Grady. Jack questions Grady about his time as caretaker which he denies having been. He claims that Jack has always been the caretaker and knows nothing about the deaths of a family. A short while later however he tells Jack how his daughters tried to burn down the hotel so he corrected them, just like he corrected his wife. This could be seen as a continuity error, but given Kubrick’s attention to detail through his body of work, this is just not the case. Delbert is a doppelgänger of Charles in the same way that the 1921 Jack is a doppelgänger of 1980s Jack.
Kubrick’s use of symmetry is not confined to The Shining, but appears in other films of his such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. The symmetry of the portions of the hotel Jack frequents continues the motif of a mirror reflection. The Colorado Room, where Jack spends most his time working on his “novel,” is designed as a mirror image set. The left and right sides are similar, with the desk and chair centered throughout the symmetrical space. It’s also shot with Jack centered in the frame, allowing both sides of the image to be balanced. The staircase, too, at the back of the room, where Wendy first hits him with the baseball bat, is symmetrical as well, with two smaller stairs coming up from the left and right to a center case leading upstairs. Outside of this room, the hotel is often described as maze-like, including an actual hedge maze, which by definition could be seen as asymmetrical. But the order, and composition of symmetry still reveals itself in the places Jack goes. The hedge maze, while winding and apparently random, is a mirrored reflection on either side. The orange and burgundy carpeting on the second floor and the green and purple carpeting of room 237 are both repeating, symmetrical patterns.
The only place that Jack frequents that does not have this idea of symmetry is his apartment. When he’s seen in his bedroom, he’s either had a nightmare that he’s killed Wendy and Danny, or is sitting, staring into the distance with a creepy look on his face. Of course, this is also the location where he attempts to kill Wendy with the axe. His lack of success there, and his eventual downfall in the maze could be looked at as the introduction of chaos (asymmetry) into his natural order (symmetry). Something that was always part of his personality. Wendy and Jack both tell different sides of the story in which he injured Danny for spreading his papers all over his office. Chaos vs order. Is Kubrick trying to insinuate that chaos is actually greater than order?
The next time you watch The Shining, take note of the use – or absence – of symmetry, the use of mirrors, or doppelgängers. These are just some of the many things that will make your next viewing more enjoyable.
- I had a chance earlier in the year to visit Stephen King’s inspiration for the Overlook Hotel – The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. The “haunted” room there is 217, rather than the 237 as shown in the film. The remake of The Shining, that was shown on ABC as a mini-series, was shot at The Stanley.
- Please enjoy some wallpapers for your mobile device based on the symmetrical carpeting in the Overlook Hotel. These were created specifically for this post on 31 Days of Horror at Retrozap.com!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.