Lost in Kubrick’s Maze and ‘The Shining’s ‘Room 237’

Marco Lovisato
Marco Lovisato

In one of the most memorable scenes from ‘The Shining’ (Stanley Kubrick 1980), we observe the main character, Jack Torrance ( Jack Nicholson), as he stares at a scale model of the hedge maze outside the Overlook Hotel, where he works as a winter caretaker and lives with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his child Danny (Danny Lloyd) in almost complete isolation from the outside world.

After having lingered on the psychotic face of Jack – who appears to be already on the brink of insanity — Kubrick cuts to the object of his gaze.

What we are presented with resembles the scale model of the maze; but inside it we see two moving figures as tiny as ants, who, in the next shot, are revealed to be Danny and Wendy.

This eerie use of editing suggests that the two of them are simultaneously in the real labyrinth and in Jack’s mind, secluded from the rest of the world and subjected to the psychopathic attentions of their deranged father-husband. Scenes like this, filled as they are with symbolism, contributed to the initial tepid reception of the movie.

Despite the massive promotional campaign organized by Warner Bros., ‘The Shining’ “was met in 1980 by confusion and rejection from mainstream reviewers and a lukewarm response from audiences”. They perhaps expected a more traditional horror movie, in the vein of box office hits like ‘The Exorcist’ (William Friedkin 1973), that was more faithful to Stephen King’s source novel.

With ‘The Shining’ Kubrick created a movie so unique that it is difficult not to read it as a direct challenge to the viewer. Nonetheless, despite its complexity, the film has been redeemed over the years by critics and audiences. What at first intimidated spectators has gradually stimulated their imagination. Since its release, ‘The Shining’ has acquired a large and loyal fan base, dedicated to dissecting each frame in search of hidden meanings.

Out of this phenomenon, filmmaker Rodney Ascher made a documentary, ‘Room 237’ (2012), which aimed to be, as the subtitle reads, “an enquiry into ‘The Shining’ in nine parts.” ‘Room 237’ tracks the influence of ‘The Shining’ on several generations of moviegoers by focusing on the observations and theories of five people with different professions and interests who are linked by their genuine obsession with the movie.

Thanks to a clever use of editing, which creates a visual complement to the theories discussed in the film, ‘Room 237’ showcases five of the many possible deconstructions of ‘The Shining’.

Numerous small details of scenes and dialogue are closely scrutinized and integrated into the interviewees’ personal paranoid theories which, they claim, demonstrate that the puzzle of ‘The Shining’ hides a world of secrets.

In the first part of this article, I argue that ‘The Shining’ is a perfect subject for the hermeneutic divertissements of contemporary cinephilia because its enigmatic structure makes it suitable for repeated viewings.

In addition, the movie’s aptness for close analysis tells us a lot about Kubrick’s farsightedness: he created a film that became fully enjoyable and comprehensible only after the development of modern home video technologies.

In the second part, I will show how ‘Room 237’ is more than a simple documentary on ‘The Shining’, as it offers an enlightening insight into the film consumer of the Internet era — a consumer who is also a producer of new contents and who constructs new audiovisual material by remixing pre-existent footage.

The maze is a recurring element in analyses of ‘The Shining’ because of the enigmatic nature of mazes themselves and their mythological roots. Moreover, the maze was Kubrick’s original contribution, for there are no references to it in the novel.

In the movie, the maze plays a key role in two important sequences. The first is mentioned above, while the second is the scene in which Jack pursues his own son through the maze and which ends with Jack, the Minotaur, dying in its centre.

References to a maze, or labyrinth, are also present on a formal level in the many visual cues that evoke mazes, from the pattern of the rugs, to how Danny, followed by Garret Brown’s ‘Steadicam’, rides his tricycle along the hallways of the hotel, which causes the viewer to lose all sense of space and time.

For the viewer, getting lost in the labyrinth of the film itself is very easy, and making sense of the film’s enigmatic structure has given rise to many different interpretations.

The five collected in ‘Room 237’ range from formal and stylistic analysis to elaborate conspiracy theories. Divided into nine chapters, ‘Room 237’ dedicates each chapter to a different element of the film and analyses its smallest details.

The film is not a conventional visual film analysis, but rather shows how The Shining can incite viewers to look for hidden meanings. Of the five interviewees, playwright Julie Kearns emphases the maze itself, observing that it is mirrored in the architecture of the Overlook Hotel.

Journalist Bill Blakemore, meanwhile, carries forward the observations made in his article ‘The Family of Men’, in which he claims that “The Shining is an allegory of the massacre perpetrated by the white men against Native Americans”.

Historian Geoffrey Cocks interprets Kubrick’s film as a reminder of the Holocaust, as he had argued in his book ‘The Wolf at the Door’, while conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner argues that ‘The Shining’ represents Kubrick’s attempt to atone for his involvement in the alleged falsification of the 1969 Moon-landing (Weidner 2011, Weidner 2017).

Finally, projectionist and video-artist John Fell Ryan illustrates the effects of superimposing the movie by projecting it forward and backward at the same time.

All the contributions aim to discover Kubrick’s supposed secret intentions and to expose the hidden meanings of the film. “Orientation” is the keyword: the five enthusiasts approach the film as if they were entering the Overlook’s maze, guided to the heart of the film by the Ariadne’s thread of their personal theory. But their theories are far from definitive and give rise to further enigmas rather than offering genuine answers.

For example, Kearns appears too exuberant in wanting to reconnect all the elements of ‘The Shining’ to the figure of the maze, to the extent of seeing, or purporting to see, a Minotaur in a poster that clearly portrays a skier. Nonetheless, her comments on the impossible geometry of the Overlook are persuasive.

Using accurate spatial references, Kearns shows how Kubrick transformed the set into an impenetrable maze. With the aid of digital graphics, she guides the viewer inside the maze and provides him with the tools to find a way out.

Although as in a real maze, every turn in ‘The Shining’ leads to a new path and new hypothesis, ‘The Shining’ is an unsolvable puzzle, a maze with no true centre. If the viewer is seemingly granted, like Jack, a view from above, it is only an illusion.

The role of the gaze is crucial here. As Ghezzi notes, the name of the hotel itself points to the importance of the gaze (2007: 129). “Overlook” means both to observe from a privileged point of view, but also, conversely, to ignore. Things would perhaps make more sense if one could “overlook” the maze of the film from a definitive privileged perspective, which is that of Kubrick himself.

In ‘The Shining’ the only character who seems to benefit from this advantage is Jack when he looks down on the model in the hotel, but eventually he succumbs to the duplicities of the maze too, and freezes to death at its centre. Control is just an illusion.

The “over-look” is not a simple view from above: to be a definitive gaze, it must resemble a God-like vision of the whole. This reminds us that in both novel and film there’s another, more powerful, type of gaze: the telepathic one, “the shining,” possessed by little Danny and Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the Overlook’s chef. Yet, this gaze is as much a curse as an advantage.

Danny, traumatised by what he witnesses, loses his innocence, while Hallorann is killed, a victim of the hubris that makes him think he could save the Torrances by himself.

Hubris also drives the interviewees in ‘Room 237’: each seems to believe to have solved the puzzle of ‘The Shining’ and reached the centre of its maze. After all, the film “does to its viewers what the hotel does to its visitors — it makes them shine on things glimpsed that were perhaps never there, or were there all along, hiding in plain sight” (Luckhurst 2013: 11).

Like Jack or Hallorann, the interviewees think they possess the “definitive gaze” that enables them to crack the film’s code and venture inside its maze. But in the end, just like Jack, they get lost inside, too busy finding the centre to remember the way back.

Far from being Theseus, ‘The Shining’s viewer resembles a mouse who must find food at the end of a trail. Relevant here is behaviourism, the American branch of psychology referenced in the “Ludovico Technique” in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Stanley Kubrick 1971), which also manifests itself in the way Kubrick manipulates his films’ viewers.

In fact, ‘Room 237’ presents Kubrick “as controlling the text as keenly as the hotel controls its unfortunate caretaker” (Hunter 2016: 46). The director presents the viewer with enough clues to make him believe that he can decode the movie. But what saves Danny from his father, the Minotaur, and the maze is not the “shining”, but his previous experience of the track.

Danny, unlike his father, “has traced out the escape routes over and over from the worm’ s-eye view, refusing to be seduced by the over-look” (Luckhurst 2013: 18). In the end, Jack “is left looping in a cycle of eternal return” (2013: 18), condemned to be forever the guardian of the hotel. The illusion of control is what frames both Jack and the contributors of ‘Room 237’: the “definitive gaze” is always, inevitably, that of the director.

Kubrick’s greatest trick consists of making a film that defies not only space, but also time. Inside the Overlook, spaces are impossible and liquid, as Kearns rightly notes, but time too is warped by an obscure logic. The ghostly inhabitants of the hotel are temporal traces that have become ectoplasms.

The film itself is segmented with deliberately disjointed and meaningless captions that gives times and dates, reminiscent of those used by Luis Buñuel in ‘L’ age d’ or’ (1930) and Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Psycho’ (1960).

Kubrick plays with time within the narrative, which gradually falls apart as it proceeds in an increasingly hectic pace, but also by including characters from different eras within the same scene. Particularly significant is the scene where Jack finds himself in the hotel’s Golden Room during the New Year’s party in 1921, and Grady (Philip Stone) spills drink on his clothes.

Grady, a former caretaker, who should be dead, is portrayed as a ghost in the guise of a waiter. In this scene, Kubrick melds together at least three different timelines and in such an easy way as to evoke a strong feeling of uneasiness.

As Luckhurst notes, the Overlook is like a “timeless world, in which there is no difference between life and death, or between present, past or future” (Luckhurst 2013: 67). But not only time is erased within the movie; ‘The Shining’ itself is an object out of time. Its structure and technical innovations, formal and aesthetic choices, and complex symbolism require a potentially infinite number of viewings in order for all its elements to be understood.

As Luckhurst says: “Like the undead revenants of the Overlook, the viewer needs always to come back, to poke around in the corners of the frame and savour the charms of the corridor vistas” (2013: 9). With ‘The Shining’, Kubrick takes the idea of exploration to an extreme.

Ghezzi points out that “‘The Shining’ is a movie to watch rewatch and extrawatch, bringing the ‘extrawatching’ over the intransitivity of the ‘extrawatch (for — someone or something —)’” (2007: 130, my translation). After all, one of the powers of the “shining” is the ability to see “things from both the past and the future” (Nelson 2000).

‘The Shining’ might very well be a movie designed for the future, as it reminds us how far the cinema has come and how much it has stayed the same. It shines bits of an enigmatic film future which in the last image turns out to be a still from the past. There is no immutable order of experience when the past becomes a picture of what might have been (Mayersberg 1997: 291).

Just like ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (Stanley Kubrick 1964), ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Stanley Kubrick 1968) and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Stanley Kubrick 1972), ‘The Shining’ can be considered a science fiction movie: not because it presents us with possible scenarios, but because it is itself like an object from the future, a black monolith that made its appearance in the intersection of two eras of movie-watching: theatrical and domestic.

Kubrick’s ability to anticipate future time is inscribed in the very structure of ‘The Shining’, a movie entirely based on the concept of foreshadowing. This capacity to foresee the future is not just a key element of the story, but it is expressed in the movie by means of visual clues to future events (for example, the shot in which we see a series of knives threateningly hanging above Danny’s head, or the entire opening sequence in which the car journey is accompanied by the ominous synthesiser rendering of Berlioz’s fifth movement of the Symphonie Fantastique).

It is not a coincidence that in the movie coexist elements spanning different epochs: the Overlook ghosts are traces of time that refused oblivion. Guiding the actions of the people in the present, in this case Jack, they not only see the future, but, like Gods, they shape it.

What is here now is important only as a means to control the future. As Giuliani points out: “Kubrick doesn’t follow neither trends or habits, and his movies are generally perceived as notably “dislocated” objects in regards to the continents of regular cinema. As if they took position towards a border, a limit, an external field. As if, to quote Roland Barthes, they were looking in the direction of an elsewhere.“ (Giuliani 1996: 10, my translation)

But what is this “elsewhere”? The future addressed by Kubrick is the present of the infinite possibilities of image consumption via domestic viewing.

‘The Shining’ seems a film addressed to a future viewer, the compulsive cinephile of the Internet age whose playground is yet another maze — the Internet and the World Wide Web.

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