The first time I saw Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, I had to turn it off during three key moments, before returning to it hours later with enough courage to face its more terrifying scenes. I'm not sure why I thought walking away from the movie would keep it from creeping into my nightmares. It's something I share in common with Joey Tribbiani, who hides from his copy of Stephen King's original book by keeping it in his freezer. ("You're safe from it if it's in the freezer?" Rachel asks. "Safer," he answers.) I'd like to say I was a kid on first watching; alas, I was an adult man (if I could ever truly be described as such). Returning to what lived on in my memory as "the scariest film I'd ever seen" was an imposing task. That said, I had the benefit of recently viewing the documentary Room 237, which analyses every frame within an inch of its life to bolster some fairly nutty fan theories. Perhaps this time, I prayed, The Shining would seem almost comically silly. Yeah, not so much.
The Overlook Hotel has a bit of a history, but so too does the Torrance family, making them ideal caretakers for this tragedy-strewn structure over the quiet winter months. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) just wants to get some writing done while his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) keeps the place ticking along, leaving son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to explore its seeming haunted nooks and crannies. After venturing into Room 237 - which the Overlook's chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) specifically warned him about - Danny emerges with marks on his body, signalling some kind of beating. An hysterical Wendy immediately accuses Jack, unearthing a previous instance of abuse that the family had hoped could be buried under the pure white snow. The increasingly agitated Jack heads to the hotel's ballroom, where he finds himself surrounded by party guests, and incited to murder by Grady (Philip Stone), who may or may not be the ghost of the former caretaker; the one who dismembered his wife and twin daughters with an axe decades earlier.
There is so much more. I'm not entirely sure how to work into the synopsis key plot points such as Danny and Hallorann's shared gift of telepathy, Tony, the boy who lives in Danny's mouth, or the bit where Wendy catches a tuxedoed man getting a blow job from someone in a dog suit. As the doco Room 237 attests, there's enough meat in Kubrick's adaptation to allow for multiple interpretations of its meaning (e.g. that the whole thing might be a comment on the Holocaust, and perhaps even an apology by its director for faking the moon landing). The one widely discussed reading that seems to hold real weight is the suggestion that its events are a metaphor for America's wholesale slaughter of Native Americans. There are certain blatant references to such tragedies from America's past - the Overlook was built over a burial ground - as well as explicit quotes ("White man's burden."/"Keep America clean.") and not so explicit allusions (the Calumet cans in the storeroom) that further make the case.
Those readings are somewhat valid, and I certainly believe someone as fastidious as Kubrick did little by accident (I also believe he got a kick out of intentionally messing with viewers). On this rewatch, however, I found that it worked best as a far more intimate - and literal - parable about a violent past taking its toll; just one of domestic abuse. To quote Hallorann, describing why there might be ghosts and such roaming the Overlook, "When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind." The Torrances are running from their questionable past with little success. The traces remain wherever they go, sometimes manifesting in increasingly horrific ways. Were Danny's bruises caused by spirits, or are they from Jack's hand, years earlier? Is the nude woman Jack kisses in 237 representative of his growing resentment towards his wife, or perhaps the materialisation of an extramarital fling that really did occur? Does Grady - as far as we know, an apparition - really release the crazed Jack from the locked storeroom, or did Wendy have something to do with it, perhaps echoing her willingness to take her husband back after he beat her son? I don't have the answers. No one does. That's why we will all continue to revisit it (even me, provided I can work up the nerve again).
Kubrick famously sent the cast batty with his insistence on multiple takes, and though I don't believe any of the performances are for the ages, they add to the picture's disquieting texture (perhaps because of the actors' frustrations). Even if The Shining no longer causes me to sprint out of the room, it remains a truly disturbing, upsetting, yet entertaining, and freakishly funny watch. Kubrick's disorienting visual language, the intentionally impenetrable and sometimes contradictory collision of messages, not to mention the oddball design touches (the bizarre nude portraits in Hallorann's bedroom!) help retain its legacy as one of the most inscrutable, idiosyncratic, and intimidating horror movies ever made.