by Taylor K. Long
“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” —Stanley Kubrick
A can of baking powder. A typewriter. A handmade sweater. A poster of a downhill skier.
To Stanley Kubrick, these might have been easily explainable props to help set the mood for his provocative 1980 thriller, The Shining: an ingredient commonly found in dry cellars; a common tool for writers; a piece of clothing suggesting an attentive mother; a decoration you’d expect to find in a snow-surrounded hotel. But to the obsessive Shining viewers featured in this year’s equally-engrossing documentary, Room 237, these items are much,much more than casual set-pieces with a moderate amount of intention. Instead, they serve as cornerstones for various theories about what they believe to be the film’s hidden, deeper meanings.
Many of the notions put forth by the theorists featured in Room 237 range from the odd to the downright bizarre. For Bill Blakemore, the Calumet baking powder— when coupled with the Native American-inspired decor of the Overlook Hotel, and the mention that the hotel was built on a Native American Burial Ground—becomes evidence of his argument that The Shining is really about the genocide of the Native Americans. Juli Kearns sees a poster of a downhill skier hanging in the rec room, but knows the film has already mentioned that there’s no skiing at the Overlook. So she sees something entirely different in that poster: she sees the minotaur at the heart of the garden-hedge labyrinth. Kubrick doesn’t want to show us what’s really going on, she says.
Amid each seemingly outlandish theory that supposedly explains the mysterious events laid forth in The Shining, the subjects in Room 237 uncover intriguing details that only arouse further questions. Why is Jack Torrance reading an issue of Playgirl in the lobby on his first day on the job? Is the smashed red VW beetle—the original color of the Torrances’ car in Stephen King’s novel—some sort of “screw you” message Kubrick was sending to King?
Kubrick’s notoriety as a meticulous, detail-obsessed, perfectionist auteur makes his films ripe for this kind of hyper-analyzation, and a single viewing of The Shining is enough to understand why the film draws so much attention and obsession. It’s a horror film without the usual horror tropes, a claustrophobic thriller based on an almost childlike fantastical premise (what if you lived in an empty hotel?). It’s a balancing act between psychological madness and supernatural terror, and we’re never quite sure which is responsible for what. A little knowledge of Kubrick would suggest that he wanted it this way—he felt that knowing the intentions of a film often ruined it for the audience, that they (we) want to be mystified. And in that vein, it surely seems like Kubrick would’ve taken great pleasure in Room 237.
"While it’s clear that their beliefs are firmly-held, what comes across most is their enthusiasm. The goal here doesn’t necessarily seem to be convincing anyone else, but simply the excitement at sharing what they’ve discovered."
However, in a recent New York Times interview with Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s longtime assistant, Vitali states that Kubrick “wouldn’t have wanted to listen to about 70 or maybe 80 percent of Room 237,” because it’s “pure gibberish.” Which raises a series of interesting questions. Does it really matter how plausible these theories are? Most of the interviewees seem aware, to some extent, that they’re in the minority when it comes to their interpretations of The Shining. While it’s clear that their beliefs are firmly-held, what comes across most is their enthusiasm. The goal here doesn’t necessarily seem to be convincing anyone else, but simply the excitement at sharing what they’ve discovered. And isn’t the ultimate testament to The Shining not whether or not it’s understood, but simply that it has moved so many people to try to understand it, to research it, to watch it over and over and over again? How important is it, truly, for there to be a “right” or “wrong” answer?
Leaving things unanswered is the easiest way to stir up debate, and Kubrick had plenty of experience as an instigator. Many of the participants in Room 237 mention first being drawn to Kubrick through 2001: A Space Odyssey, a similarly vague, discussion-worthy work. But the more room you leave for questions and interpretation, the less control you can take of what those questions and ideas are. Viewers grasp onto things like baking powder cans, typewriters, skiing posters, and sweaters, because they’re hungry for answers. Everything becomes fair game.
Part of what makes The Shining so unsettling is that there are so many variables, it’s hard to know where to start asking the questions. Take, for example, Jack being freed from the pantry after Wendy has locked him in. Jack is heard talking to the ghost of the former caretaker, Grady. But the ghosts and spirits up to this point have been fairly passive, just showing up in hallways or bathtubs. They haven’t crossed into the realm of physical action. So does Grady’s ghost take the next step and open the door? Or, as one theorist suggests, is it actually Danny who opens the door, using his “shining”? And if it is Danny, why is he freeing his psychotic, murderous father?
Before seeing Room 237, it had never occurred to me that Danny might be more than just a victim, but now I love the idea that he might actually play a larger part in the action than is made obvious. Part of the joy of all this analysis is that you don’t have to buy into an idea whole hog to be affected by it—even a single piece might change the way you view a film entirely.
Still, an idea doesn’t necessarily need to be plausible to be interesting or affecting. Hands down, my favorite interviewee in Room 237 is Jay Weidner, who thinks that The Shining is about Kubrick confessing to his wife that he helped fake the moon landing footage (not the landing itself, he insists, just the footage). It’s the theory that comes up most in pieces about the documentary, and the one that people make the most fun of. To me, though, the fact that it seems so ridiculous at first is exactly what makes it so fascinating—it’s so far out there that it starts to straddle the “truth is stranger than fiction” line. It starts to sound almost plausible.
Rodney Ascher, the director of Room 237, was attracted to the personalities reflected in each theory. The Shining, he says, is “a compelling work of art that acts as a kind of mirror, especially for thoughtful people, who see aspects of themselves that are among the most precious things they have experienced.” Reading the bios of the interviewees paints a clearer picture of what he means. Blakemore, who puts forth the Native American genocide concept, is a veteran, as well as a foreign and domestic correspondent who’s covered a multitude of civil wars. He says outright that, for him, genocide was everywhere when he first saw The Shining. Juli Kearns, she of the minotaur and Cretan Labyrinth myth, is a playwright and novelist. What Kubrick may have intended with The Shining—or what any director intends for any film, for that matter—simply doesn’t stand a chance against the personal experiences each viewer brings to their own interpretation of a film. Or maybe that’s precisely what Kubrick, with his supposedly 200 IQ, intended: for each audience member to come away with their own vision of horror, their own allegory for the events at the Overlook.
It’s this thought that makes Room 237 so intriguing—and ultimately so freeing—for anyone who creates art that may one day be exposed to a larger audience. What each viewer brings to a movie, what each reader brings to a book, what each listener brings to an album; these biases and influences can’t be controlled. You can control your craft, the words or shots you use, the characters you create, what you show or don’t show on screen—but you simply can’t control what someone has internalized from the news that day, what their relationship with their parents is like, what they do for work. And these things will undoubtedly influence how someone reads your book, views your movie, or hears your music.
In reading about The Shining—as is tempting to do after watching Room 237— someone notes that every time Jack is talking to a ghost, he’s facing a mirror (or some other kind of reflective surface). Are the hotel’s ghosts simply reflections of Jack’s demons, the way that Jack and The Shining seem to be reflective of ours? Without these kinds of questions, would The Shining be as gripping?
Maybe, but Room 237 wouldn’t be.
Taylor K. Long is a writer, editor, and photographer. She lives in rural Vermont with her cat, Alcatraz.