DOES Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining have a hidden meaning? And if so, what could it be? Rodney Ascher’s new documentary Room 237 explores five possible theories.
A fussy perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick made movies that were the equivalent of Michelin meals: inventive, multi-flavoured, and designed to be chewed over long after the actual event. Yet of all the movies in his back catalogue, there is one that is more urgently dissected, debated and theorised over than any other. Surprisingly, it’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, or Dr Strangelove. Unsurprisingly, it’s not Barry Lyndon.
When Stanley Kubrick directed The Shining back in 1980, Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance was the chief talking point. Nicholson plays a novelist who takes a caretaker job at the isolated Overlook hotel, hoping it will help with his writing. Instead, he gradually loses his mind.
The mythmaking started almost as soon as filming stopped. Nicholson’s co-star Shelley Duvall was so stressed by Kubrick’s demands – including 127 takes for one scene – that her hair started to fall out. The script changed so often that Nicholson took to learning his lines minutes before the camera rolled. And Stephen King made no bones about hating this adaptation of his book. Thirty years on, however, The Shining has taken on a different life, as fans try out their wildest theories about what it might mean.
A new documentary, Room 237, – named afterthe hotel room which acts as the locus of unexplainable phenomena in the film – gives five Shining devotees the chance to explain their theories in detail. Directed by Rodney Ascher and produced by Tim Kirk, it showcases some intriguing hypotheses, some wild, some surprisingly plausible. There’s speculation that the film contains coded messages about the Holocaust, that it is an apology for faking the Apollo moon landing, or a meditation on the genocide of Native Americans. All these theories are treated without snark or sniggering, even when one of the interviewees suggests that Kubrick airbrushed his own image into the clouds at the beginning of the film.
“I think all of the ideas are interesting,” says Ascher, who teaches a class in editing at New York Film Academy. “Everyone involved is very passionate about their theories. They are very important to them and they deserve a fair hearing.”
Famously meticulous, right down to production design and shot choices during his lifetime, Kubrick famously resisted offering explanations of any of his films. “He said that the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be as intriguing if there was a note underneath the painting saying, ‘She’s smiling because she’s thinking about a lover,’” says Ascher.
Unlike other cult horror movies, there are no Shining conventions where fans can gather to examine Nicholson’s scenes with the axe in minute detail, or perhaps relax with a maze solving competition. Discussions are hosted largely on the internet, which is where the germ of Room 237 sprang up.
“Tim posted an analysis of the film on my Facebook page, and it made me curious about what else was out there,” says Ascher. “It turned out that we had only scratched the surface. There was a whole world out there.”
One of the first theorists he contacted was journalist Bill Blakemore, who viewed the film as an allegory about the treatment of Native Americans. Overlook Hotel is said to have been built on indigenous burial grounds, and Blakemore argues the case based on a subtle recurrence of Native American imagery, from the Calumet baking powder cans in the stockrooms that bear the image of an Indian chief, to a scene where Nicholson bounces a tennis ball repeatedly off a Native American wall hanging.
Also fascinating is playwright and author Juli Kearns, who blueprints the Overlook hotel layout and concludes that it is an impossible place, with windows in a room that should be in the middle of a building and an Escher corridor where Nicholson’s son manages to peddle magically to the second floor of the hotel. “The aim is to disorientate,” agrees Ascher, who declines to pick out a favourite theory, but clearly enjoys this one.
Arguably one giant leap in credulity is Jay Weidner’s proposition that 237 is the number of the soundstage where Kubrick helped US officials fake footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and that he decided to plant clues about his hoax throughout The Shining. Apparently making 2001: A Space Odyssey was just a cover to create convincing footage. “He and his family would be killed if he told anyone, so he’s telling us through The Shining,” according to Weidner.
In space, no-one can hear you snort, but Ascher won’t be drawn into calling it far-fetched. For Ascher it isn’t a question of theories being right or wrong – and sure, it is strange that Danny is wearing an Apollo 11 jumper.
None of the interviewees appears in the film. Ascher thinks it would be distracting, so instead they expound unseen while Ascher illustrates their points by zipping back and forth through a Blu-Ray copy of The Shining. “I hope it counts as fair use,” he laughs, when asked to consider copyright. He hasn’t heard anything from the Kubrick estate about his illustrated trawl, “but I hope to. I would love to.”
Some of Room 237’s observations seem based on arbitrary events: a chair that appears and disappears during one scene could be just a continuity error. Ditto a Dopey dwarf sticker. To a Shining theorist, however, it is a planted metaphor about absence, or a message about stupidity. The Holocaust numerology tries to link the appearance of the number 42 to 1942, and so on.
Maybe The Shining was made with some awareness that it would be sifted for meaning. It could even be Kubrick’s equivalent of the Beatles’ Glass Onion, a tease of a song named for the fans’ habit of peeling away at a work for layers of meaning, when a glass onion is essentially transparent and layerless. Ascher has heard this before: “Whatever Kubrick really meant to say, how the audience sees is just as valid.”
It sounds like some people just enjoy the maze. “You’d think that the amount of writing about a 30 year-old movie would hit a peak, and then drop back over the years, but if anything people writing about The Shining in forums is increasing. Room 237 is not supposed to be a definitive guide,” says Ascher. “It’s just the beginning – there’s a lot more out there.”
• Room 237 is on selected release from tomorrow