The Shining’s 40th anniversary: Cabin fever in a COVID-19 context.
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By Ed Streatfield
Never has a horror film been so eerily pertinent as “The Shining” on its 40th anniversary. In the age of COVID-19, isolationism and cabin fever are lived daily experiences for many of us. This makes the multifaceted message of the film, about the potential evil within us all and the cycle of inherited trauma within the nuclear family, a remorseless reflection for the viewer.
Stanley Kubrick’s genius as a director comes with parallels between the collapse of a nuclear family and the foundation of the US as a nation itself. The Overlook Hotel in which Jack Torrance moves in with his family as a winter caretaker was built on a Native American burial site. As Jack attempts to write his novel as the months pass, he slowly turns on his wife Wendy as she shows concern for their son Danny’s mental health.
Jack escapes into a 1920s ball within the hotel and as the former alcoholic descends into madness, stating he would “sell his soul for a glass of beer”. From here, the spirits of the hotel encourage him to “correct” his family with an axe. Whether these spirits are possessing the hotel themselves or simply the family’s delusions are left for the audience to decide.
What is crucial is how manipulation of patriarchal angst and alienation can lead to violence. After all, the Torrance family are an all-American nuclear family to almost comical levels. Throughout the film, Jack begins to suffer from serious writer’s block, leading him to resent Wendy, who plays archetypal passive wife. As he begins to lose his sanity, Jack becomes increasingly violent towards his family. The Torrance’s self-isolation from the outside world mirrors one of the biggest crises that was ignored at the height of the COVID pandemic, specifically that domestic violence helpline calls doubled during the quarantine period.
The true horror of the film is that the power structure of violence towards women is still common today. Jack is nostalgic for the 1920s when men had complete control over their wives legally and socially. Nostalgia for the fifties is similar to our time, even though it was a era with racial segregation and suppression of rights for minorities. Kubrick is making a statement about the victims of US imperialism and comparing the US itself to the Overlook Hotel; built on Native American graves.
While this is my interpretation, theories on The Shining’s meaning are endless, with some even claiming the film represents Kubrick secretly telling the world he shot the ‘fake’ moon landing. This is ridiculous, but any theory can keep you second guessing because Kubrick was so meticulous. H
e shot the record number of takes for one scene, with 127 separate takes, and his directorial decisions infamously led to Shelly Devall (Wendy) experiencing frequent panic attacks. Paired with Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance, the acting in “The Shining” is full of anguish, the lead’s faces contorting like tragic Greek theatre masks.
Utilising clinically symmetrical cinematography and Freudian nightmares, “The Shining” creates one of the most transcendentally unnerving experiences in all of film. It exposes not only its own beauty, but also that of horror as a genre itself. It helps viewers confront their most complex fears and that is something we should face up to now, more than ever.