In 1980 Stanley Kubrick released his masterpiece of modern horror, The Shining. Over 30 years later we’re still struggling to understand its hidden meanings. Rodney Ascher’s wry and provocative documentary Room 237 fuses fact and fiction through interviews with both fanatics and scholars, creating a kaleidoscopic deconstruction of Kubrick’s still-controversial classic.
Room 237 8.25
eyelights: the construction of the picture. the whacked out theories presented.
eyesores: the credibility of some of the participants. the weakness of the arguments.
“Remember what Mr. Hallorann said. It’s just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn’t real.”
‘Room 237’ is a documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece, ‘The Shining’. Its central focus is on the various theories claiming that Kubrick had imbedded hidden subtext or messages in his picture – that it wasn’t merely a horror film. Through voice-overs, film footage, visual aids and judicious editing, it explores a handful of different possibilities.
I knew going in that this would likely be a tin foil hat convention, but being a huge fan of Kubrick’s picture, I just had to see this; even if all of the theories are absurd, it’s fascinating to see people deconstruct and find hidden significance in works of art. So I gathered a few friends to watch a double feature of ‘Room 237’ followed by ‘The Shining’.
Right from the start, I started to chuckle out loud with derision. I just couldn’t help myself: some of the notions being brought forth were astonishingly ridiculous. Or utterly mundane. While the points being raised had greater meaning to the people involved, to me they were absolutely pointless. And it only got worse as we went along.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
One of the first people to discuss ‘The Shining’ was some guy who sounded baked, not fried. He brought up all sorts of bizarre, unrelated things he had noticed in the picture, and it wasn’t entirely clear where he was going with them. The first is the notion that Kubrick hid an erection in the meeting between the hotel manager and Jack as a joke.
Naturally, this lent him a lot of credibility for the rest of the picture, especially when he drops his mic halfway through to go take care of his screaming kid. In all fairness, though, his ideas were the most entertaining ones, partly because they were so… far out.
The sad thing is that he is so obsessed with ‘The Shining’ that he feels his life is going in the same direction as Jack’s: he was currently unemployed, at home with his young kid, and thinking of moving to a secluded area. Given how often he’s seen the bloody picture, he should know better: it really doesn’t end well for Jack.
Another guy proposed that the movie was about the genocide of the Native American. He pointed at all the Native-related artifacts and art in the hotel as signs, the positioning of Calumet brand baking powder in the store room, and Jack saying “white man’s burden” to the bartender when he was about to drink.
The problem is that the Overlook is a hotel from the turn of the century, and it would be normal for an old secluded hotel to retain its old decorations – which would likely have Native American motifs in some of it (but not all of it, it must be noted). And in a hotel that size, it would amount to more than one or two instances. Naturally, he didn’t find meaning in all the other things in the place.
Similarly, he focused on the Calumet baking powder but not on the Tang drink crystal or various Heinz products. It was just a coincidence – and a tenuous link. And don’t get me started about Jack’s line to the bartender. But… dang it… it made me wonder what the Tang meant. Is there a Chinese connection in there somewhere…?
The lone woman in the programme said that in ‘The Shining’ she found recurring references to the Minotaur, beginning with a poster of a skier that she says looks like a minotaur, followed by the large maze (which isn’t in Stephen King’s book). She surmises that Jack is the minotaur in this story. Problem is, the poster of the skier doesn’t look like a minotaur. In fact, I always thought that it looked like a surfer. I think that this may merely be a Rorschach moment.
She did bring up a very interesting thing: the hotel’s floor plan doesn’t make any sense (to help us, the filmmakers included a 3D map to better situate us. For instance, the hotel manager’s office has a window where there shouldn’t be one. And there are elevators where there shouldn’t be any. And when Danny rides around on his big wheel, the floor plan is different on the top floor, versus the ground floor. I don’t know what it means, but it’s curious stuff. Hmmm…
Another theorist is convinced that the film is about the Holocaust. He’s a historian, and he’s convinced that everything points at this: like the fact that the number 42 keeps popping up – apparently the year that the Final Solution was put into action. He even pointed out that the numbers in room 237, if multiplied, add up to 42.
The weird thing is that it’s room 217 in the book, and that Kubrick had stated that he changed it because the original hotel they based the film on didn’t want any stigma attached to that room. So he changed it to accommodate them – except that this hotel doesn’t have a room 217. So it was BS, and we don’t actually know why Kubrick changed it.
He also points to the fact that Jack uses a brand of German typewriter that wasn’t in the book and that the typewriter was indicative of Nazi Germany’s methodical classification of everything at the time. Hmmm… maybe. But he never proved how the plot of ‘The Shining’ relates to all of this. Personally, I think that 42 is a reference to Jackie Robinson: Kubrick was a big fan. Actually, I just made that up.
The most outlandish theory of the all, partly because it’s theoretically possible but so bloody improbable that it reeks of tinfoil, is the notion that the whole film is Kubrick’s attempt to tell the world that he faked the footage of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The guy who brings this forward says that he believes that the landing took place, but that the Government had to fake the footage to prevent any screw ups – and that Kubrick was brought to make it happen.
He shows us small clues that show fakery, and insists that the making of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ was a way for them to test the techniques there were going to use in advance. Except that he keeps his best arguments for himself, with the plan of publishing them in an explosive exposé one day. Oh, and then he adds that he knows that the government is watching him. Yeesh. Slight credibility deficiency.
Although he could be right, and he could be telling the truth, he weakens his argument with such statements, and by using Danny’s Apollo 11 shirt as proof. Let’s face it: the film takes place ten years after the landing – pop culture being what it is, it’s a given that the kid would have an Apollo 11 shirt. I think that Kubrick should have just had the kid wear a Woodstock t-shirt instead, and throw a wrench in this guy’s theory.
Because, really, ‘The Shining’ should have been given the tagline “3 Days of Peace and Music“. It’s so obvious!
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Now, in all fairness to the filmmakers, they never sought out to unearth conclusive evidence of a hidden agenda in ‘The Shining’. They only intended to put together a bunch of theories because it’s fascinating stuff. But it really is tenuous at best, and Leon Vitali, a former assistant to Kubrick, has gone on record to say that these theories are unfounded.
However, it does raise a few very good questions. Kubrick was a text book genius, with an I.Q. purportedly at 200, and he was well known for being a perfectionist and being extremely detailed-oriented. He was also very demanding of the people around him so, between all those things, it meant that everything he did was calculated, deliberate.
So why did he make the changes that he did to the original story? Why did he insert inexplicable elements in his film? Why did he analyze the original hotel in its most miniscule detail and then rebuild it all wrong in the picture? Why were background elements disappearing and reappearing from one shot to the next? Surely there must have been some intention there.
But… what was it?
The first proof of intentionality in Kubrick’s picture is the fact that the Torrances go to the Overlook hotel in a red VW Beetle in the book, but a yellow one in the film.
This alone has no meaning until we get to a later scene when the cook drives up to the hotel and passes a turned over 16-wheeler crushing a red VW Beetle. Given that Kubrick could have picked any car for this scene, it’s quite clear that he was sending Stephen King a message – the most likely of which being a big F.U. (i.e. “This movie is my vehicle, not yours”).
So it goes without saying that he must have put other such things in his picture. But what? What do the aforementioned oddities mean? What does it mean that they’re watching a television without a power cord on it? Why are there blatant continuity errors when we all know that Kubrick would have caught them? Why did he lie about the reason he changed the room number?
Even weirder than anything mentioned thus far. Why does the movie actually line up in key areas when two copies are played simultaneously overtop each other – one forwards and the other backwards? Did Kubrick actually pre-plan the movie to have some sort of cryptic meaning that only can be deciphered by the tin foil crowd who watch his movies incessantly over and over again?
Well, while my friends and I watched ‘The Shining’ afterwards, newly-enlightened with all these questions and “hidden secrets”, I started to put together my own theory about its actual subtext, one that has not yet been proposed but that I believe may be the correct one. It was so obvious, and no one even considered it – although some of the aforementioned “evidence” pointed to it.
TCE’s theory about ‘The Shining’
‘The Shining’ is actually about a homosexual man who feels trapped in a heterosexual lifestyle and who makes his first attempts at escaping it – but can’t, and it’s tearing him apart, driving him over the edge. In this scenario, most of the Overlook hotel represents his homosexual identity, whereas room 237 represents what little part of himself that is his heterosexual side.
Hear me out on this one.
The thing that made me clue into to this is the fact that, when the Torrances drive up to sign in for their five-month stay, Jack is waiting in the lobby reading a Playgirl. There’s no mistaking it: ‘Room 237’ even makes a point of showing it clearly. The fact that the hotel lobby would even have the magazine, that Jack would read it in front of everyone and that the manager doesn’t bat an eye is interesting.
In fact, the hotel manager could easily be seen as gay: his wrists are always dangling limply and he’s a bit flamboyant. So when he says that Jack is perfect for the job and that Jack tells him that the place is homey (and later tells Wendy that he’s never been happier anywhere else) it’s indicative that Jack is living out his sexuality, that he is at home there and that he feels accepted. Finally.
Adding to the gay theme is the fact that the hotel manager’s partner is clearly the butch in that relationship: he’s the decision-maker, he’s sober, maybe even terse – which may actually be because he feels threatened by the developing relationship between the manager and Jack. The so-called “erection” pointing at Jack when he shakes hands with the manager supports this idea.
In the Overlook hotel, in his comfortable homosexual identity, room 237 is where his heterosexuality is rooted, and remains, and where his nightmares take place. One theorist noted the fact that the carpet there has a pattern that looks quite a bit like a penis inside a vagina – whereas the rest of the carpeting in the hallway has hexagonal patterns instead.
Further to that, when Jack goes to room 237 to investigate it, after Danny claims that something’s wrong there, he finds a beautiful naked woman. He is immediately tempted and they embrace, but he finds that he can’t carry on because he finds himself repulsed by the woman’s flesh, which suddenly becomes all decrepit. He is horrified and runs away.
Even though a part of him wants to be heterosexual, he can’t fight his own nature. The fact that the decrepit woman laughs at him, mocks his feeble attempt, supports this further. That she follows him up to the doorway but doesn’t go any further tells us that she only exists in that room; his heterosexuality only exists there, in that small space.
The argument that really seals the deal is when Wendy is running about the hotel looking for Danny and she passes by an open hotel room where she sees a man in a big teddy bear/dog costume giving fellatio to another man. This is the moment when Wendy is forced to confront the authentic nature of Jack’s sexuality, and that is why she is so shocked.
In fact, I always wondered what was up with that scene, because it makes no sense whatsoever contextually. It was so bizarre that she would find a man in a bear suit blowing another man that it made me feel uncomfortable each time – even though I wouldn’t even be bothered to see the real thing. But it’s all context: the scene only makes sense in the one that I propose.
The fact is that Jack is happy at the Overlook until he brings his family with him. He resents Wendy for constantly reminding him of the life he feels trapped in, the one he wants to leave behind. As for Danny, he loves him dearly but he can do without him. He makes a point of saying that he would never hurt the boy – just in case anyone would mistake homosexuality with pedophilia.
In the end, the only way that Jack can enjoy his life at the Overlook Hotel (i.e. his homosexuality) is by eradicating Wendy and Danny from his life. When he no longer can bear it, when the ghosts of his former life push him to the edge, he chooses to “kill” both of them. In essence, he is only killing them in his soul, he’s strictly extinguishing his old life in a figurative sense.
Because, in the end, I believe that my theory would suggest that nothing in ‘The Shining’ actually happens for “real”: it’s all allegorical. This is why there are so many discrepancies throughout the film: Kubrick is indicating that it is not reality and shouldn’t be treated as such. What he has put on screen is an internal struggle represented in cinematic form; it is not meant in a literal fashion.
Snicker, snicker… to think that I came up with this during the course of watching the movie. And it sort of makes sense when you think about it. Well, it’s as valid if not more so than the other theories proposed in ‘Room 237’. And yet some of these people have devoted huge chunks of their lives trying to unveil the secrets of ‘The Shining’. It’s kind of sad, when you think about it.
Maybe if I watched it a few more times, I could make sense of everything in the picture and support my theory even more. But I won’t: I have other things to do. I will leave it to others to validate or invalidate that theory. Who knows… maybe I’m on to something. Or maybe I’m just taking out of it what I brought to it. I do tend to see things from a feminist, gender role and sexual identity prism.
Great art does that, though: it inspires, it intrigues, it tickles the brain. ‘The Shining’ is great, if not brilliant, art. And that’s why ‘Room 237’ brought forth so many divergent theories. Heck, any or all of them may be valid. It’s quite possible even that Kubrick, in his mad genius, was able to infuse the picture with many layers of meaning. I think someone should look at that angle.
And… snicker, snicker… watch ‘The Shining’ another few gazillion times to see if it holds true.
All told, ‘Room 237’ is a must-see documentary: it truly demonstrates the power of interpretation. It’s such a superbly-crafted film, too, what with all the judiciously chosen film footage, music and graphics supporting its journey. It highly deserves the awards it won for editing. Say what you will about its content, but it’s a solid piece of work. I would really recommend taking a look into ‘Room 237’.
There’s more to it than you’d ever imagine.
Date of viewing: October 4, 2014