According to Angela Watercutter
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is arguably the most cerebral horror film ever made. The film is studied at universities, chronicled in books, and has generally inspired levels of academic analysis rivaled only by the work of Talmudic scholars. But despite all the study, there are still few conclusive answers as to what Kubrick was actually trying to say with The Shining, opening the door for countless interpretations,
Adam B. Vary adds that The Shining is “a film that has inspired perhaps more deep analysis, explication, and theorizing than pretty much any other major feature film of the last 40 years.”
Watercutter and Vary made these remarks as part of their respective reviews of Room 237, a film documentary by Rodney Ascher that profiles five people who have come up with bizarre, even conspiratorial, interpretations of The Shining.
Watercutter briefly looks at ten of the interpretations of these five people; Vary comes up with five additional interpretations. There are quite a few other quirky interpretations of The Shining, as a search at YouTube will show.
Jay Weidner, one of the five interpreters profiled in Room 237, argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s cryptic confession that he was involved in the supposed faked moon landing of 1969. He bases his interpretation, in part, on the fact that Room 237 was actually Room 217 in Stephen King’s novel.
Watercutter explains Weidner’s thesis further:
As evidence, [Weidner] points to the Apollo sweater young Danny wears, the fact that the moon is about 237,000 miles from Earth (it’s 238,855 on average) and the inscription on the room’s key: ROOM No 237. “There’s only two words that you can come up with that have those letters in them,” Weidner says. “And that’s ‘moon’ and ‘room’ and so on the key, the tag, it says ‘moon room.'” (Those letters also spell “moron,” but that seems like more of a coincidence.)
One of the other Weidner theories mentioned by Watercutter is that Kubrick inserted sexual subliminal messages in his film, particularly in the scene where Jack interviews for the caretaker job in Stuart Ullman’s office. According to Weidner, Ullman’s paper tray closely resembles a phallus.
Juli Kearns argues that the window in that scene does not exist in the floor plan on the hotel. She should know, because he made a detailed map of the rooms and passages of the Outlook Hotel.
Kearns also proposes the interpretation that Jack is the Minotaur of classical mythology and the Outlook Hotel is the labyrinth (or maze) built by Dedalus to contain the monster. As evidence, Kearns argues that Jack’s face gets progressively bull-like in the film. She also sees a minotaur in a sky poster in the film. Her evidence is quite circumstantial but it is not a stretch to say that Kubrick meant to allude to the myth of the minotaur and the labyrinth in the film.
Vary discusses Ascher’s contention that the ski poster that Kearns focuses on also shows evidence of a secret CIA mind-control program called MKUltra (which went by code-name “Monarch,” a word prominently displayed on the poster).
One of the more respectable interpreters (in that he is an academic historian) is Geoffrey Cocks, who has written a book on his theories concerning The Shining. Cocks argues that the film has a subtext that concerns the Holocaust.
Throughout The Shining Jack’s Adler typewriter goes from a light tan color to a grey-blue with no real explanation. Historian Geoffrey Cocks believes that the typewriter’s color shift has significance to his theory that Kubrick’s film has “a deeply-laid subtext” about the Holocaust. “That typewriter, that German
typewriter – which by the way changes color in the course of the film, which typewriters don’t generally do – is terribly, terribly important as a referent to that particular historical event.”
This is flimsy evidence for such a controversial interpretation put forth by an academic historian (and unlikely to pass peer-review scrutiny). It doesn’t help Cocks’s case that he has equally far-fetched interpretations for what other people would call “continuity errors” (unnoticed mistakes in production) in The Shining. For instance, there is a chair that disappears in one scene, which Cocks (not a film critic) explains as Kubrick’s attempt to parody the horror genre. Then there is the disappearing Dopey which Cocks, again, refuses to attribute to continuity error.
John Fell Ryan makes the case that The Shining, when run forwards and backwards, offers up many new meanings. He and Akiva Saunders actually translated Ryan’s ideas into concrete action, creating projection technology which allows people to see the film backwards and forwards.
Ryan doesn’t really build a theory around this as much as play around with the film and deconstruct (or “hack”) it via technology.
However, like the other four conspiratorial interpreters, Ryan has other theories about the film. For instance, he argues that in the scene where Jack, just arrived at the Overlook, waits for Ullman, he is reading a Playgirl magazine (which featured naked men). Ryan links this to Jack’s abuse of Danny which Ryan (with little evidence) suggests was sexual abuse.
Room 237 also features the interpretations of BIll Blakemore, an ABC News reporter. Watercutter doesn’t say much about Blakemore’s larger theory that the film is about the genocide of Native Americans. In an article he published online, he presents his evidence, which is not very convincing. Blakemore sees the traces of Native Americans all throughout the film (and there is quite a bit of Native American art on the floors and the walls and, in one scene, on Wendy’s clothes), though he admits that no Native Americans are shown in the film – which is somehow evidence for the presence of Native Americans – and claims that Dick Halloran, a black character, is meant to be read as Native American.
Blakemore also goes for the sexual sublimation thing. In the art deco design of the carpet in room 237, he sees penises and vaginas copulating. Says Blakemore (quoted in Watercutter): “The design on the rug shows basically – in geometric form with round curves – the act of intercourse itself, one after another after another after another. . . . Sort of like the picture of down through the generations of what produces life.”
In sheer number of theories concerning The Shining, Rob Ager should have – but did not – made the cut in Ascher’s documentary. Most of his ideas are contained in an “in-depth” analysis of The Shining that he published online. You can also find a number of his analysis videos at YouTube, including the one where he contends that the two twin girls in the film are not Delbert Grady’s daughters, the one where he claims that there is something meaningful in the river of blood, and the one where he asserts that Kubrick inserted a secret message condemning the gold standard, in the photograph that we see at the end of the film.
Why are there so many wacky interpretations of The Shining? Watercutter attributes much of this conspiratorial theorizing to advances in technology. She writes:
There was no internet when The Shining was released and it would be a while after it played in theaters that VHS really took off, so the capacity for obsessive watching and re-watching, frame-by-frame analysis, and sharing of theories online is only something that’s been around in the latter part of the film’s history.
We can only guess what kind of theories will arise in an even newer technological moment, when anyone at anytime can stream the film, playing it forwards and backwards to their heart’s content.
We are now in what writer Chuck Klosterman recently dubbed “Immersion Criticism”: the kind of in-depth interpretations of popular culture that can only come after watching a particular piece of media dozens of times. “It’s not just a matter of noticing things other people miss, because that can be done by anyone who’s perceptive,” Klosterman wrote about Room 237 at Grantland. “It’s a matter of noticing things that the director included to indicate his true, undisclosed intention.”
Vary puts the onus on the director, Stanley Kubrick. Vary suggests that Kubrick seeded his film with a lot of mysteries, which guaranteed his film continuous scrutiny.
Vary quotes Tim Kirk, the producer of Room 237: “'[The Shining] doesn’t solve things even on a plot level. What happened in room 237? We don’t really know. Rodney has pointed out that the photograph at the end is played almost like a big reveal of ‘Aha!’ But it’s not really. If anything, it just deepens the mystery’” (qtd. in Vary).
Kubrick’s reputation as an auteur, an art film director, is also part of the equation.
Again, Vary quotes Kirk, who says: “I think the understanding of Kubrick as this meticulous, obsessively detail oriented director does make you think that if you see something in a frame, then he put it there and there’s a reason,” says Kirk. “That is a jumping off point for a lot of people. . . . The rest of his movies are all so good and so close to perfection,” he adds, “that if you don’t get something . . . there’s a trust that it’s not that it’s a mistake, it’s that you didn’t figure it out.”
This is what I call argument by mise-en-scène. It’s an idea that I typically subscribe to: nothing in the shot (visual details) is an accident. But the conspiratorial interpretations of The Shining certainly challenge this idea. The Shining is a cautionary tale in regards to interpretations. That is, what you say the mise-en-scene isn’t necessarily so. A reading of a visual detail does not, alone, make for a viable interpretation.
Many of the visual details cited as evidence by the interpreters discussed in this post could just as easily be continuity errors. At the moviemistakes.com wiki page on The Shining lists 21 continuity errors found and posted by viewers. (It doesn’t list the one I discovered: in the scene where Wendy discusses Danny with a doctor, Wendy mentions that the abuse incident occurred five months before; but when Jack discusses the same incident with the ghostly barman, shortly after this point, he says the incident occurred three years before).
So now I present my own conspiratorial interpretation. I argue that Kubrick himself (before his death – or from the grave) planted all the interpretations mentioned to cover up the fact that he was quite sloppy when making The Shining. He wanted people to be distracted from the fact that he messed up on the Grady daughters, the prop left in the river of blood shot, the changed typewriter, the missing chair, the missing Dopey, the floor plan of the hotel, and the changed room number. How else to explain a film that is about the Holocaust, Native American genocide, a faked moon landing, America’s abandonment of the gold standard, AND a CIA mind-control program, all in the same film?
The only possibility is that Kubrick floated those theories himself. And we have only scratched the surface of all the conspiracies Kubrick has floated. It’s only a matter of time before someone links The Shining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Mayan Apocalypse.
I see all these future theories coming down on us like a river of blood. Prepare yourself. . . .
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Angela Watercutter, “The 10 Most Outrageous Theories About What The Shining Really Means”, Wired Magazine (March 29, 2013).
Adam B. Vary. “5 Conspiracy Theories About ‘The Shining’ That Aren’t In ‘Room 237.’ Buzzfeed Entertainment (March 28, 2013).