Few films have been analyzed as much as Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological horror film The Shining. Although the story itself is fairly straightforward, there are so many mysteries in the text and subtext that viewers can keep finding new things to analyze. Some of the analysis is fascinating, while some of it is utterly insane.
The 2012 documentary Room 237 explores all kinds of theories about the greater meaning of The Shining, and it’s kind of hilarious how far some of these people reach. One guy suggests that the whole story is a metaphor for Kubrick helping fake the moon landing footage, all because in one scene Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater.
Another woman rambles on about how her son once drew a picture that resembled something in The Shining, and I’m frankly not even sure what she’s getting at. Is she suggesting her son wrote The Shining? There’s a guy who played the movie forwards-and-backwards at the same time, another woman obsessed with a poster of a Minotaur that’s not even a Minotaur, and all kinds of nonsense to pad the thing to 90 minutes. In fact, there are only two theories in the documentary that seem to be pulled from someone’s head. The first is that Kubrick’s film is about the Holocaust, and while I don’t think there’s enough evidence presented to form a solid argument, I can see where the theory stems from. The other is that the film is about the slaughter and removal of Native Americans, and this is the one that has always intrigued me.
Bill Blakemore is interviewed about this topic in Room 237, and you can read his article from the mid ’80s here. The YouTube channels Rob Ager and Collative Learning (both created by Rob Ager) have videos suggesting similar theories. What’s interesting about the Native American theory as opposed to so many others is that it’s not just subtext—It’s text. In a single seemingly-throwaway line during the family’s tour of the hotel, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) says, “The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.” Inside the hotel’s Colorado Lounge, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) notices Native American artwork which she asks Ullman about…
…and we see more of this kind of artwork throughout the film.
Sure, none of the main plot points involve something directly Native American, but it is there.
That said, my personal theory takes it a bit farther. It borrows pieces from these sources I’ve mentioned, and in my research, I’ve learned it shares a lot with this 2004 article by John Capo. To me, Kubrick’s The Shining is about American imperialism and manifest destiny, and the evils these ideas have inflicted on the world. A major factor in this is the removal and slaughter of Native Americans, so I agree with a lot of the points raised to defend that argument. As with any of my film essays, I will be spoiling the entire film, so make sure you’ve seen it at least once before reading. Unlike some other essays, I will not be breaking the film down scene-by-scene, and while I will mostly be going in chronological order, I will be jumping around a bit.
The opening credits feature gorgeous shots of Glacier National Park, displaying nature’s beauty untouched by human hands.
However, there is haunting synthesizer music playing, with Jack’s car driving along the highway like a terror creeping up.
When Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) meets hotel manager Stuart Ullman, there’s an American flag on Ullman’s desk, and he is dressed in red, white, and blue.
His shirt even has red stripes to send the point home. Wendy and Danny (Danny Lloyd) are dressed in similar patriotic colors in their first appearances.
I could easily write it off as a coincidence if one was dressed this way, but the fact that it’s all three points to something intentional.
Note how Ullman tells the story about the former caretaker Grady who killed his wife and two daughters with an axe before shooting himself. He tells it in great detail to make sure Jack knows the horrible things that happened at the hotel before he moves there. However, when Ullman tells the family about the Native American burial ground the hotel was built on and the attacks that were fought off in the building of it, it’s merely a fact he gives on a tour. He doesn’t assume people would fear living at the Overlook for that reason, but the death of four white people? That’s cause for concern.
So what exactly is manifest destiny? This paragraph from History.com offers a pretty solid summary of the concept:
Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, is the idea that the United States is destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. The philosophy drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion and was used to justify the forced removal of Native Americans and other groups from their homes. The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.
There is no backing for this idea in the Constitution… or in any religious text… or frankly anywhere, yet it was a belief held by a good number of politicians and public figures, and it led to unspeakable tragedies. An even quicker summation of the concept (granted one written by someone defending it) is in the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” :
America, America, God shed His grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
It’s all summed up in those few lyrics—America is special, God made it special, and therefore ownership of the land is its destiny.
Take a look at the poster for the European release of The Shining. This is one Bill Blakemore’s biggest arguments to back up his interpretation.
“The tide of terror that swept America is here.” Sure, this could simply mean King’s novel or Kubrick’s film, but I have to agree that “swept America” is a deliberate choice of words, referring to manifest destiny and the terrifying tragedies it caused.
While Wendy and Danny try to make the most of moving to an abandoned hotel for five months, it’s clear neither of them really wants to go, nor do they have much say in the matter. When Ullman asks Jack how his family will take to staying there, he pauses for just a second before saying “They’ll love it.”
Jack is already clearly an abusive father and husband, emotionally and (at least once) physically, and he pays no mind to whether his family backs his decision. He is moving people he considers less than himself to a place they don’t want to go, simply because it will benefit his own convenience. Now who does that sound like?
The themes of Westward Expansion are brought up during the trip to the Overlook when Wendy mentions the Donner Party, a pioneer group who got snowbound and infamously ate the corpses of their own to survive. It is, of course, also foreshadowing for the Torrances, who will literally be snowbound with the father figuratively trying to eat his young.
There is a lot to be gleaned from the relatively lengthy tour of the hotel that the Torrances get on the last day of business.
Note how Ullman glosses over the details of the Native American artwork that Wendy notices, but will go into every detail about the rich people who stayed at the Overlook. Wendy asks if the Native American art is authentic, and Ullman says it’s “based mainly on Navajo and Apache motifs.” That’s. Not. Authentic.
When Ullman is talking about all the people who have stayed at the Overlook, it’s interesting that he points out that four Presidents have stayed there. Now, this line is in the book too, but here Ullman just says “four Presidents” and moves on, where in the book he lists Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon. The reference to “four Presidents” brings to mind another controversial landmark built on Native American lands, which just happens to be a shrine to manifest destiny.
When Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is giving Wendy and Danny a tour of the kitchen, Danny begins to go into a trance and communicates with Hallorann telepathically, the “shining” referenced in the title.
As we zoom in closer to Hallorann, we see a can of Calumet baking powder, clearly placed in full view. In fact, if you follow the camera, which presumably follows Danny’s eye line, it is clearly zooming in on the Calumet before it switches to Hallorann. I think the Calumet is what is sending Danny into his shining mode, not Hallorann.
Calumet of course features a Native American as its logo, and the word is a French one for a Native American ceremonial pipe, called a “peace pipe” by European settlers, due to its use when a treaty was signed. Here, it can represent both the treaties that were broken between European settlers and Native Americans, and the recurring theme of planting yourself on someone else’s culture. Like the Overlook and its “authentic” artwork “based mainly on Navajo and Cherokee motifs,” Calumet is a European override of a culture that is not theirs.
Interestingly, when we see Jack trapped in the store room in the third act, the shelf is arranged like this.
Now the tragedy has been pushed to the front and cannot be avoided.
Before he ever came to the Overlook, Danny saw a vision of a river of blood pouring out of the hotel’s elevator.
So much blood pours out that the chairs start floating. At first we might think is foreshadowing, and as we learn about shining, we might think it’s the blood of the Grady family, but I think it’s more than that. Only two characters die in the film, and only one of them is killed in a bloody fashion, and the Grady family only had four members. This would definitely not be enough to create a full river of blood, but perhaps the Native American burial ground the hotel is built on would. The fact that the builders had to fight off attacks as the hotel was being built means blood was spilled in the building of the hotel, and it’s always been bubbling under the surface. Even the image of the elevator suggests that the blood is literally rising up from the ground.
In the opening scenes of the film, Wendy, Danny, Ullman, and even Hallorann (to a lesser extent) all wore at least one outfit featuring red, white, and blue. Jack was in fact the only main character not to dress like this in the early parts of the film (Bill Watson does not count as an important character. I’m sorry guy in Room 237 who spends like 10 minutes rambling about him.). However, as time goes on in the hotel, note how Jack and Wendy’s wardrobes change. Wendy, as she grows more into the role of the victim, wears darker, earthier colors one might associate with a Native American wardrobe.
Her one outfit even features Native American designs on it.
Meanwhile, as Jack grows into his role as oppressor, he is now the one wearing an outfit of red, white, and blue.
In fact, this is the only outfit we see Jack wear from an hour in until the end of the movie (save for the final shot).
While Jack should be working on his novel, we instead see him a throwing a tennis ball against the wall… right at a huge Native American-inspired mural.
Before we even see what Jack is doing, we hear the loud booming and echo of the ball hitting the wall, which suggests cannon fire or gun shots. Perhaps Jack is waking up the ghosts of the past by constantly attacking them.
This fades into a scene of Wendy and Danny running and playing outside, and Wendy’s first line is “The loser has to keep America clean.”
This is a reference to the anti-pollution nonprofit Keep America Beautiful and its famous “Great American Cleanup.” And what was the famous ad campaign that went with that cleanup?
Known as the “Crying Indian” ad, the ad campaign featured a Native American man (Iron Eyes Cody) mourning what America had become, particularly in regards to industry and pollution. To send the point home that is what Kubrick is referencing, Danny repeats the phrase “Keep America Clean” twice in this very short scene.
Up until this point, the only supernatural goings-on are 1) Danny’s visions of the hotel, 2) Danny’s telepathic communication with Hallorann, and 3) Danny seeing the Grady girls once in the game room. However, after this, Danny becomes curious about Room 237, sees the Grady girls in the hallway, and finally goes into Room 237.
What’s the thing that leads Danny into Room 237? A tennis ball, presumably the same one that Jack threw repeatedly against the Native American mural. Danny is playing with his cars when a tennis ball rolls down the hallway and winds up right in front of him.
Danny then gets up and walks down the hallway, where he sees there is a key in the cracked door of Room 237, and he walks in. We don’t see what’s in there though, as the scene fades out.
Jack’s scene at the bar with Lloyd is one of the first scenes that really made me start thinking about The Shining on a deeper level. It’s a shocking scene the first time we see it, because Jack sits at the bar, completely distraught, and seems to will the bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) into existence.
However, it’s his conversation with Lloyd that is the really intriguing part. When Lloyd pours him his first bourbon, Jack says, “White man’s burden, Lloyd my man. White man’s burden.” While one could assume he is merely saying alcoholism is a burden on him, the phrase itself comes from an 1899 Rudyard Kipling poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” In the poem, Kipling encourages white people to “Take up the white man’s burden” and colonize what he considers to be the weaker, non-white peoples of the world. Kipling wrote it as an ode to the British Empire primarily, but he also shared it with Theodore Roosevelt in hopes that it would win Americans to the side of conquering The Philippines. The poem is inspired by the same ideas that brought about manifest destiny, that white people are somehow better inherently and must spread their greatness throughout the world by conquest.
Jack tells Lloyd he’s the best bartender “From Timbuktu to Portland Maine—Or Portland, Oregon for that matter.”
There’s that sea-to-shining-sea idea of manifest destiny again, the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific, and the choice of Oregon brings to mind the Oregon Trail. His next line is “Here’s to five miserable months on the wagon and all the irreparable harm that it’s caused me,” which is of course a reference to his now-ruined sobriety, but also references the Oregon Trail, where settlers in covered wagons would travel west on treks that would usually last 4-6 months. It’s interesting that it’s the months on the wagon that have caused irreparable harm, because if it only refers to Jack being sober, what harm has he done in that time? He broke Danny’s shoulder in the past, but that was the last time he drank.
This could very well be nothing, but it’s interesting to me that in the book, Jack’s signature drink is Jack Daniel’s (a lame joke as his full name is John Daniel Torrance), but in the film, it’s bourbon on the rocks. I am not a whiskey snob and will not be getting into the debate about the differences between whiskeys and bourbons, but in 1964, Congress officially declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” I wonder if Kubrick changed Jack’s signature drink to have a little fun with this double meaning.
Even the name of the room Jack is drinking in is important.
The Gold Room brings to mind the gold rushes that brought so many people west, whether to California or Colorado, where The Shining is set. The California Gold Rush caused irreparable harm to the indigenous people of California, through disease, starvation, upheaval, and the California Genocide. In his book An American Genocide, The United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846–1873, Benjamin Madley puts the lowest possible number killed in this massacre at 9,492, and the 1925 book Handbook of the Indians of California estimates that the indigenous population of California was almost literally decimated by all of these factors, going from as many as 150,000 in 1848 to 16,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.
The next time Jack enters the Gold Room, it’s no longer just him and Lloyd, as the place is full of party-goers from ages past. It is here that he bumps into the ghost of Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), the man who killed his family with an axe years ago.
There is some confusion (and many theories) about why the man is called Delbert Grady here, but Ullman calls him Charles Grady in the beginning of the film. All I will say is that as far as my understanding of the film goes, they’re the same character.
Grady encourages Jack to “correct” his wife and son in the same way Grady “corrected” his wife and daughters. Grady, a Brit, is passing on his legacy of colonialism to Jack, an American. Despite acting and dressing like a butler, Grady speaks with Received Pronunciation, also known as the Queen’s English, suggesting someone in control of an empire is passing this legacy down.
Then there’s Grady’s mysterious insistence that Jack has “always been the caretaker” of the Overlook.
I know that a lot of theories about the film rely on this statement (which seems to be backed up by the final image of the film… I’ll get there.), but let’s really look at this. Jack has always been the caretaker? In a literal sense, there is no way this can be true. Obviously, as the movie goes on, any of the Torrances could be unreliable narrators, but we see Jack get hired early on, before everyone is going crazy (even if Jack is halfway there already), and we know for a fact Grady was once the caretaker. Grady also tells Jack this in King’s novel, where there is nothing to suggest that Jack has always been there. I don’t think we can take this statement at face value.
Instead, I think Kubrick includes it to tie back to Jack’s earlier reference to “White Man’s Burden.” Grady is telling him that it has always been his destiny to be the caretaker at the Overlook and to try and kill his family. Keep in mind that Grady says that he knows Jack has always been the caretaker, because he too has always been there. This is also a lie, as the Overlook was only built in the early 20th century. Like the men who built the Overlook and the American expansionists who believed in manifest destiny, Grady is erasing the past and supplanting himself there instead.
Grady also brings it to Jack’s attention that Danny is communicating with Dick Hallorann to help him out. In the book, Grady refers to Hallorann as the n-word and Jack merely says “Hallorann?,” but here, he repeats the word back to Grady. It’s in this scene, where Jack fully accepts what he believes to be his “destiny” and fully embraces his racism, that he fully commits to killing his family.
In the book, Jack tries to kill his family with a mallet used in the game of roque (a variant of croquet), but in the film, it’s an axe. While the reason could easily be nothing more than a roque mallet not being as scary as an axe (Or, if we’re being honest, scary at all), but I think there’s a bit more to it. The image of Jack running with an axe, and particularly the one of him cutting through the door, brings to mind settlers felling trees with axes in the name of westward expansion.
In the book, Hallorann is only injured in his attempts to help the Torrances, but in the film, he is axed down moments after entering the Overlook. Make any joke you want about the Black guy always dying first in slashers, but Kubrick knew what he was doing here.
Let’s go back to History Channel’s description of manifest destiny.
The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.
While this ultimately led to the Civil War, for a time it led to more states being created, which in an attempt to please both sides led to more slave states being created. In the name of manifest destiny and westward expansion, more Black people were harmed. Like in so many American tragedies, minorities suffered a disproportionate percentage of the fallout. Hallorann’s brutal and quick death also shows the attitude American expansionists had towards anyone standing in their way.
In the original cut of The Shining, there was one extra scene that was included after Jack is frozen to death but before we see him in the final photograph. This scene was screened at the premiere of the film, but Kubrick cut it out later. We only have the drafted version of the scene, as the scene itself no longer exists, but it involves Danny and Wendy in a hospital recovering and Stuart Ullman coming to visit them. He insists that they come to his house in Los Angeles to stay for a while and get things in order, and at the end, he throws a tennis ball to Danny, the same one that led him into Room 237. This suggests that Ullman was in on it the whole time, and knew exactly what he was doing in hiring Jack. Take a look at this quote from Ullman:
Mrs. Torrance, I’d like to take the liberty of suggesting that you and Danny come and spend a while at my place in L.A. At least until you get your feet on the ground. It would be great for Danny. It’s right on the beach. You fall asleep with the sound of the waves, and in the morning you open the shutters and there you are—ocean—blue skies and sunshine. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all. I’ve got a marvelous housekeeper and two spare bedrooms. I really think this would be the best thing for you and Danny. I won’t take no for an answer.
If Jack’s was ultimately a failed attempt at a metaphorical Westward Expansion, this is the completion of it. They’ve gone all the way west to the Pacific. Like the American expansionists, Ullman is insistent in his belief, uncaring what others think about it. He won’t take no for an answer, and as the tossing of the tennis ball suggests, his intentions are not good.
Alright, let’s talk about the final image of the film. The picture of Jack Torrance… or a man who looks like him… or his ancestor… or his ghost in a photograph from the Overlook’s July 4, 1921 Ball is one of the most perplexing and debated images in all of cinema.
Personally, I find this scene one of the most chilling in all of The Shining, mainly because no one should be in the hotel at this point, yet we are clearly following someone’s point of view. We slowly walk the hallway as Ray Noble’s “Midnight, the Stars and You” plays, and we finally zoom in on that image.
Kubrick was a photographer originally, and the image of Jack Nicholson was seamlessly airbrushed in over this Joel Grey lookalike.
Maybe Jack’s soul is now absorbed by the hotel, or maybe he is the reincarnation of someone who once worked at the Overlook years ago. However, I think Kubrick is trying to show that Jack is now a part of history. Regardless of the terrible things he did, he will now be remembered like this. Just like he was literally frozen in the snow, he is now frozen in history, and people will defend his legacy.
Even in something of a meta sense, inserting Jack into this photo is rewriting history. Like the Overlook itself, Kubrick took something historical and built his own legacy on top of it. Jack was not the caretaker in 1921—He was an abusive father and murderer in 1980—but this is how history will remember him. There’s also the fact that the photo is labeled “July 4th Ball.” Here they are at the Overlook on America’s birthday, quite literally dancing on the graves of dead Natives.
Again, this is a real photo from the ’20s, but obviously Kubrick chose it for a reason. In an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick called every face around Jack “an archetype of the period.” I think it’s particularly interesting how much this man…
…looks like a young Rudyard Kipling.
I’m not suggesting the man in the photo is Kipling (who was far older and balder in 1921) or that Kubrick thought it was, but the resemblance might not be a coincidence.
The Shining has always been an enigmatic film, as it subverts or outright ignores so many common horror tropes. It’s an isolationist horror with only a few characters, but the hotel is huge and expansive. It features a mad man with a sharp weapon, but he only creates one victim before biting it himself. It’s a ghost story, but the effect to which the ghosts are real is ambiguous. While I feel pretty confident in some of the points I’ve raised here, others are possibly just in my head. I think it’s intentional that the ghosts start to manifest not long after back-to-back scenes featuring clear Native American imagery, and as things get worse for Jack, the tragedy of the Native Americans is pushed forward, as we see things like the Calumet cans and the river of blood emphasized. Things like wardrobe feel intentional, especially for a perfectionist like Kubrick, and the lines of dialogue that reference Native American culture and colonialism are sometimes repeated in the same scene so we don’t miss them.
Regardless, The Shining is a story about a white man who, for no reason besides personal gain, takes people he doesn’t care about from their home to a place they don’t want to go, where he breaks promises to them and ultimately tries to kill them. Maybe it’s a story about more than just one person doing that.