Overlooking the Self: ‘The Shining’ as an allegory of American Imperialism

Shelley Duvall (left), Danny Lloyd and Jack Nicholson head to the Overlook Hotel in 'The Shining'

In The Shining, writer-director Stanley Kubrick presents the chilling tale of Jack Torrance, a middle-aged, all-American family man who slowly loses his mind to forces of the supernatural. When he accepts the position of caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, a massive, swank institution ornately decorated and expensively furnished, Jack opens himself up to the physical manifestation of his alter ego, a ghostly force destined to hack up his wife and son with an ax.

Throughout the film, we learn three pieces of information central to the film’s thematic progression. First, that the Overlook has quite a sordid past and remnants of the past still linger in the hallways and guest rooms of the hotel. Next, that Jack’s young son, Danny, has a form of extrasensory perception, not to mention an alter ego of his own. And, most central to the story, we discover that when given the chance, forces of evil will drive humankind to commit inhumane acts.

While the tale of ghosts and ax murderers is at the heart of the film’s plot, Kubrick has painted a much more complex tale — a portrait not just a dysfunctional family, but the portrait of a dysfunctional society. He has planted within the walls of the Overlook a profile of the historical injustices of a nation and its people.

The Shining is a film about America. How the American society treats its inhabitants is metaphorically explored through the film’s characters and situations. The members of the Torrance family inhabit specific ideals of American society. Jack is the provider, the caretaker with no real feeling of self-worth. He exhibits extreme anger at the recognition of this quality and displays this anger toward the people he controls. Menial work is beneath him, which is why the “caretaker” does no work at all — it is all done by his slave-like wife, Wendy, who represents the weak and submissive female. She is characterized by dependences — chain smoking, watching soap operas and clinging to her oppressive husband out of fear and out of love for her son, Danny, the brutalized child whose personality has been squashed by society and who must thus resort to watching television alone and talking to his imaginary friend, personified by his index finger.

A good deal of the mise-en-scene in the film represents traditionally American aspects. In the sequence when Jack first arrives at the Overlook to interview for the position, there is an abundance of American flags throughout the hotel, most notably the small one on Ullman’s desk. Also, when we first see Wendy and Danny, they are dressed exclusively in patriotic colors — Wendy’s garish outfit and Danny’s red and white pajamas. Later, we see Danny in a red, white and blue jacket and a Mickey Mouse shirt — a blatant reminder of the American corporation and the consumer culture which fuels it.

Shelley Duvall in The Shining.
Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

The Overlook Hotel is America. Like the United States, it was built over an Indian burial ground. The very name of the hotel suggests the popular American practice of over-looking the injustices it has committed. Two memorable sequences in the film support this. When Danny views the blood flowing out of the elevator doors, he is watching the blood of the Indians seep silently toward him. In the sequence when Danny rides his big-wheel through the halls of the Overlook, Kubrick uses sound in a hypnotic fashion to make a clear point. The loud grumbling of Danny’s toy on the hard floor is juxtaposed with the silence when he rides over the Indian tapestries. The grumbling can represent the vigor of American colonialism and the silence of the tapestries functions as a metaphor for the compliant Native American inhabitants.

Typical American egocentrism is represented by a number of characters and exchanges in the film. When giving the Torrance family a tour of the Overlook, Ullman proudly rattles off who has stayed there in its history — four presidents, movie stars, “all the best people.” But this ideal is most apparently espoused by the character Grady, appearing in flashback, who murdered his family ten years prior to Jack’s arrival. Grady is British, and during the scene in the bathroom he is quite intent on pushing his traditional views onto Jack, the American. Grady desperately wants his young protégé to murder his own wife and son. Historically, the United States broke away from England to escape its empiricism and values, only to become more violent and forcefully assertive of its own ideals. In similar fashion, Jack completes Grady’s cycle of violence by attempting to kill his family.

Dick Halloran, the head cook at the Overlook, is the only important minority character in The Shining and, interestingly, the only person actually murdered in the film. Racism in America, however, didn’t begin with African Americans. It began with the Indians, the first inhabitants of the country. African Americans may be considered the modern equivalent of the Native Americans, so it is fitting that the only black character in the film is killed. It is in this role that Halloran may be viewed as a symbol of victims, in general, and, more specifically, of the Native American. It is he, an innocent, who ends up paying the price in the end. This comparison is made clear by a number of shots involving a can of food.

When Halloran is showing Wendy around the kitchen, there is a shot in which a can of baking powder is placed perfectly adjacent to him and held for an extended period of time. On the can is a picture of the profile of an Indian and the profile on the can is a perfect match to Halloran’s. The can looks almost out of place and is placed intriguingly close to him, hinting that Kubrick wanted the viewer to make this association of the film’s literal and metaphorical victims.

Later in the film, when Halloran is on the plane en route to the Overlook to save Danny, there is a long shot in which Halloran’s profile is emphasized. It again matches the Indian on the can of baking powder. Finally, the can makes another appearance, when Jack is locked inside the food storage closet. As Jack agrees to slaughter his family, the innocents, we see the can with the Indian on it, again presented in quite a visible manner.

In the scene where Jack converses with the bartender Lloyd, he mentions the Rudyard Kipling poem “White Man’s Burden”, the title of which refers to the historical belief that it is the duty, or “burden”, of the white male to spread his ideals — thought to be universally supreme — to the non-whites. This spreading of ideals was often accomplished through violent methods and usually employed an end justifies the means ideology, meaning that murdering select groups along the way was a fair price to pay for the spread of white ideology. The Overlook Hotel, with its fine décor to hide the blood of the past and its long list of illustrious guests, personifies this theory.

Danny Lloyd in The Shining.
Danny Lloyd in The Shining.

In the final moments of the film, Kubrick employs a long tracking shot which zeroes in on a photograph of a 1921 ball at the Overlook. The date of the celebration is July 4 — Independence Day — the date marking the destruction of the original people of the country and the official establishment of a new civilization. It is only fitting that the Overlook be the center of a grand celebration on the anniversary of the ugliness on which the country is built.

The Shining has made its way into the lexicon of the classic horror genre for its creepy storyline, the eerie ambience it evokes, and the frighteningly convincing work of its talented cast. But it is much more than a ghost story. The film is Kubrick’s observation that America was forged in hypocrisy, on a failure, on a refusal to acknowledge the violence from which it was born. The violence remains silent today because of a typically American refusal to look in the mirror, where all the ugly truths in the film are exposed — REDRUM spelled correctly, the true appearance of the girl in the bathtub. It is Kubrick’s assertion that by refusing to look within ourselves we are refusing the face the truth.

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John Capo

John Capo is a writer and director from New York. He has written a feature film, a two-hour television pilot and several short films. He is also a graduate of the Theater Arts and Film program at SUNY Purchase.

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