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Strange Interpretation: Why ‘The Shining’ is Subliminal Genius, Not Cryptic Confession

Strange Interpretation: Why ‘The Shining’ is Subliminal Genius, Not Cryptic Confession

Danny Lloyd in The Shining (1980)

There is no other filmmaker who has attracted as much wild speculation and feverish discussion as the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Iconic, unique, celebrated, and the subject of wholesale apocryphal revisionism, the man credited with creating a masterpiece in every major genre is revered no longer so much as a director but as the posthumous leader of a movement. Kubrick is a cult. It speaks volumes of his enigmatic ventures that despite being the creator of the marvelously nebulous 2001, the film in his curriculum vitae which has left the most searing mark and the most varying schools of interpretation is his treatment of a Stephen King horror story. Films have been made, thousands of hours have been spent pouring over every detail, and lives have been changed by the pursuit of a holy grail within his subtext. Even today, 34 years after its release, The Shining debate rages on.

It’s not hard to see why. Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, the fantastic 2012 documentary exploring the theories of Kubrickian acolytes convinced they have deciphered a cinematic puzzle box, only skims the surface of how far the odyssey goes. Put into the context of his other works, particularly his final film Eyes Wide Shut and his journey into space and the unknown, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining can mean anything and, apparently, everything: A cryptic confession that he filmed the bogus moon landing footage; a declaration of his membership within the Illuminati; or reference to atrocities both of the colonial era and the Holocaust. These views and thoughts would be dismissed as the ramblings of a collection of fractured minds were it not for the fact that even the craziest notions do bear evidence. There are pieces and hints to be found, contradictions and sources of bafflement and mystery, which point towards an outlandish speculation. In short there is clearly something going on within The Shining.

Shelley Duval, Danny Lloyd & Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980)

Kubrick’s alteration of the novel’s family dynamic proved hugely significant

Whether this means Kubrick deliberately laced his movie with a hidden message or not is unclear, however. We have to remember the nature of the beast; this is a man with an infamously dark sense of humor, who often enjoyed in the spoils of torment. One could make the argument that much of the film’s enigma is baseless suggestion to create unrest and would be just as creditable as the man next to him suggesting it’s about the labyrinth. However, a more important factoid about Kubrick that should be kept in mind is his fastidious, almost obsessive commitment to a vision. He would read literally thousands of books on a subject being treated in one of his movies, even if it never came to fruition. Relationships were cultivated with stars and colleagues during production only to be abandoned in post. Most famously, his singular approach required hundreds of re-shoots and takes that would emotionally drain his actors; usually the ultimate goal. And, such as he was a slave to detail, every single thing in his movie is there for a reason.

If we are to, for a moment, dispense with the belief that Kubrick is attempting to tell us something unrelated to the story of Jack Torrance and his broken family, we are lead to an interesting fork in the road. The first thing that should be taken is gospel is that this is not a faithful adaptation of King’s novel, something which the legendary author’s opinion of the equally legendary movie should prove without a doubt. Thus, many story elements and themes are no longer prevalent or even relevant. Many factors within the film that have led to speculation and analysis in latter years and which were singled out for criticism upon release are simply not intended to be mysterious (many critics savaged The Shining, and the film was infamously nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards, for Shelley Duvall and Kubrick himself). Letting go of the book’s influence rapidly changed the picture. This is a different Jack, a different Wendy, and, as a result, a very different story.

Shelley Duval's oft-criticized performance sheds light on Kubrick's method

Shelley Duvall’s oft-criticized performance sheds light on Kubrick’s method

While book-Jack is determined to rebuild his family while remaining sober, movie-Jack is reaching the end of his sobriety with increasingly gnarled lapses not into boozing but into madness. He terrifies Wendy, already put upon by son Danny’s bizarre behavior, and has made her into a constantly exhausted and brittle figure. Shelley Duvall’s performance is often criticized but should be reappraised since it brilliantly reflects the evils of her situation. If her delivery sounds fake and stilted, like she is constantly on the brink of hysteria, it is because she is.

Her relationship with Jack and the trauma that brings, not to mention Danny’s gift and the difficulties this has brought, has forced her into attempting to remain upbeat and chipper even in despair. It’s a surface projection that has grown desperate and unconvincing. It is a portrayal that was torn out of Duvall by Kubrick’s unethical emotional torture and bullying, unforgivable but not pointless sadism. This method is significant for two reasons other than storytelling; the first is that it shows how far Kubrick was willing to go to get what he wanted for the film; the second is that it represents what manner of trickery he was opting for to create the film’s unforgettable atmosphere.

The contrast suggested Jack Nicholson & Danny Lloyd were acting in different films

The contrast suggested Jack Nicholson & Danny Lloyd were acting in different films

It is this atmosphere and tone that is the principle reason why the film is celebrated as one of the greatest horror movies. There is dread oozing from every frame, coating the audience in unease and discomfort like a river of blood. It is achieved by various tools. The most obvious examples would be genius sleights of hand, such as Danny’s adventures through the Overlook’s corridors on his tricycle. However, these are more examples of how to create suspense and play simple but hugely effective mind games with the viewer. Building up to a scare with music and cinematography but then not delivering is a great way to put the audience on edge.

They do not, however, sustain a mood as dark and malignant as the film achieves by other means. The score, none of it original music, is used beautifully and inappropriately. Quiet dialogue scenes are given terrifying menace and foreboding by the use of a swelling, taut score. Lingering shots on characters doing little create suggestion and doubt. The unhinged nature of Jack Nicholson’s performances constantly flirts with the viewer’s expectations. In contrast, Danny Lloyd’s role is one of sweet innocence belonging to another film, reflecting Kubrick hiding the nature of the film from his child star. Scenes not even slightly horrifying and filmed to be just that. Nowhere is a safe haven. Everything is off-kilter. And this is before we get into the real meat, the biggest ‘aberration’ that lends weight to speculative theory. In a word, continuity.

Much of the reasoning for the idea that Kubrick is telling us something behind the visual and audio stems from a glaring contradiction in the film’s frame, one that becomes so blatantly obvious upon a closer look that it almost defies belief. A director so famed for his meticulous nature and almost unhealthy demand for perfection has allowed in his film glaring continuity errors and scene imbalances. Between takes, chairs move and rooms seem to change structure and purpose. The geography of the hotel seems to make no sense. There is a hitherto unsolved riddle involving Grady the caretaker, and also the respective ages of his daughters. This is all basic information that is wrong within the film, almost amateur mistakes by a true master of movie direction, oversights that defy comprehension. Why would Stanley Kubrick spend months filming a single, thematically unimportant scene but manage to miss this? The easiest answer, of course, is that he didn’t. He knew it was there, and probably made sure it was. So much of the mystery comes down to who can best explain this particular puzzle. And the most obvious explanation can be found by asking oneself what the effect of these ‘errors’ was.

Again, it all comes back to the atmosphere, except this time it is truly a master’s take. Famed for his fondness for the psychology of his work, Kubrick no doubt had a full understanding of just how important the subconscious is to a viewer’s experience. Most directors are taught at the earliest stage that a huge proportion of what they put on screen will not be noticed consciously, yet will not escape the attention of the subconscious. It is the perfect spot to hide information, whether to build up a plot twist or to deconstruct a character’s arc. Afterwards, the viewer will have no trouble believing what has occurred because it was signposted before on an unconscious level. It’s the reason why huge narrative alterations in The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Shutter Island, and Fight Club are so satisfying; clues were hidden throughout those films, in that periphery of subliminal recognition. Watching the movie again, after you know what is going to happen, it all seems so obvious, almost screaming at you. And it was. Your subconscious picked up the morsels of revelation and kept them for the journey while your conscious mind was busy elsewhere with the foreground. To quote Harry Plinkett, “you might not have noticed, but your brain did”.

Observant viewers have noted the presence of an object within the river of blood

Observant viewers have noted the presence of an object within the river of blood

Of course, The Shining doesn’t have a twist (whether you believe Jack also ‘shines’ is down to your own personal take). But the conscious blind spot is used just as fully and effectively for other reasons. The continuity errors, so noticeable and egregious, evade your attention but are picked up by your subconscious, which quickly alerts you that something is wrong. But it can’t communicate such a complex message, so instead it creates unease and discomfort. You know something is weird, and it feeds into your fears and phobias but cannot be identified. Kubrick plays with this gleefully.

There’s the strange patterns he weaves in carpet designs, the disparity between the hedge maze model’s layout and the actual maze, or the odd use of reflections as if hinting at symbolism. References to violence in history, or to Apollo 11, are just part of his canvas. Most mindblowing, perhaps, is that in the famous elevator-of-blood scene, there is an unidentifiable object to be found within the claret, something which even in freeze-frame cannot be discerned. It could be a body, or it could be a chair. But again, considering how difficult a process this sequence was to film using scale models, the idea that it is a prop or piece of equipment that wasn’t noticed in editing doesn’t ring true. Or perhaps the visual cues tipping their hat to the Illuminati best tipple your glass; once more, this can be read as a deliberate evocation of dark ideas to further put you on edge. All of this is for you, Kubrick at his pomp filling your head with unclear thoughts and doubts, making it impossible for you to sit comfortably. It’s akin to somebody playing with your mind.

The Shining: one of the most celebrated horror films of all time

The Shining: one of the most celebrated horror films of all time

And this is what Kubrick did, both in The Shining and in his other films. He was fully aware of how important it was to fill his frame with information, both as a means to convey his story and his message but also to create an imprint of the viewer’s thoughts. Just as Hitchcock milked every last drop of his creative inspiration to deploy visual clues for thematic purpose, Kubrick layered subtle misdirection and red herrings into the image, all for the purpose of mood and atmosphere. In the hands of another director, The Shining wouldn’t work. It would be a confusing, confounding mess. With the master almost literally pulling the strings, it is an absolute masterpiece of psychological horror because it plays psychological warfare with its audience, challenging them at every turn to spot the subterfuge. It is not so much the story of the Overlook hotel and Jack Torrance’s breakdown that chills the blood, it is the sense that what you watched was possessed by a dark spirit, cruel yet playful. Style over substance, perhaps, but so damned effective.

So deeply does this go, in fact, that it has created the cult and spawned the likes of Room 237, sending observant fans into overdrive as they attempt to find a deeper and more profound meaning to their experience. It is almost an example of filmmaking evil, to manipulate the audience so intimately. The charade almost went too far. Were he alive today, basking in his aura of mystery and reflecting on what his exhaustive efforts had created, Stanley Kubrick would probably grin darkly at what he saw as an added bonus.

— Scott Patterson