This evening, thanks to TCM and Lincoln Square Cinemas, I caught The Shining on the big screen for the first time. Though I’ve seen the picture dozens of times over the years, seeing it in a theater gave me a new appreciation for the impact of the steadicam, and just how frightening Jack Nicholson can be when his face is twenty feet tall.
I also thought about how I see this movie in the age of Trump. I won’t do a lengthy close reading. I’ll just lay out the film’s story as it seemed to me tonight, my head full of the themes and tropes of Election 2016.
A middle aged white guy with a wife and kid goes for a job interview at a hotel that caters to the 1%. He hopes very much to fit in and be a part of the hierarchy of the place, even though the job they offer him, winter caretaker, is pretty low. His alcoholism has led him to abuse his family in the past. He’s given up the bottle, but he resents the guilt that his wife and son make him feel for his past violence.
A month into this man’s job at the hotel, his wife ends up doing all his work to support him while he wrestles with his writer’s block. His son is seeing visions of terrible things in the hotel, but his supernatural guide assures him these things aren’t real. The man is also seeing visions, but lacking a guide to explain the situation to him, he takes them to be genuine, and he likes them because they appear to put him in positions of power. He loves the hotel, he tells his son, and wishes they could stay there “forever, and ever, and ever”.
Eventually, the man’s son succumbs to his curiosity about the forbidden room 237, and one of the visions attacks him. He escapes but is traumatized. The man’s wife accuses him of abusing their son again–a logical deduction. The man, enraged not only at being accused of something he didn’t do but at being reminded of his guilt for things he did do, heads to the hotel bar, where a phantom waiter invites him to drink. The man doesn’t question the phantom because he’s giving him what he wants, and under the influence of imaginary alcohol, he pours out his hatred of the mother of his child and lays claim to having to bear the “white man’s burden”. This vision is interrupted by the man’s wife, who comes to tell him that there’s a “crazy woman in one of the bedrooms”.
In the meantime, the son sends a black man the visions of his father entering Room 237. At first, the man’s vision is one of a Penthouse Letters-style male fantasy: he walks in on an attractive woman in a tub. She gets out of the tub, gives him a come-hither look, and they kiss. Only when the man looks in the mirror does the man see he’s kissing a rotting corpse.
The man flees the vision, but lies to his wife about it. When the wife suggests that they need to get their traumatized son away from the hotel, the man, sensing that his connection to the hotel and its power structure is threatened, berates her, storms from the room, and winds up in the ballroom at a lavish white-tie-and-tails party, a party where he appears to be a welcome guest.
A butler spills drinks on him, and in the bathroom, while cleaning him up, tells him that his son has been in touch with “a nigger” who threatens to disrupt the unfolding situation. The butler also explains that he’s “always” been the hotel’s caretakers, and that the butler has also “always” been here. This suggests the prize the hotel offers to the man, a paradise in which the past is permanent, white male supremacy is forever assured, and guilt over abuses to family members is erased under the euphemism of “correcting” them. The price of admission to this nostalgic paradise: the violent deaths of the man’s wife and son.
And so, the man decides to cut the hotel off from outside aid. When his wife comes to question him, he tries to kill her, but she hits him in the head and locks him up. The specters of the hotel taunt the man with the idea that his wife might be cleverer and more resourceful than he, which is sufficient to drive him to his final, murderous rampage. He finds an axe, uses it to chop through the locked doors to his family’s quarters, and pauses only because the African American cook’s snow cat pulls up to the front of the hotel. The man stalks the cook through the hotel, ambushes him, and kills him. The man’s son screams, starting a chase that leads out into the hotel’s hedge maze. The son outwits his father, escapes the maze, and joins his mother. The son and the mother escape as the man freezes in the maze, screaming “DON’T LEAVE ME HERE”. The man freezes to death, only to reappear, possibly in evidence of his rebirth, in a photograph of the hotel’s 1921 July 4th party, where he stands forever, in a jacket and tie, among “all the best people”.
I see the man of our story, Jack Torrance, as a Trump supporter. The spirit of the Overlook Hotel is Trump, a gilded fraud dangling booze, naked chicks, and phony promises of restoring a white male supremacist past to someone whose life circumstances make him a sucker for nostalgia. Jack hates the idea that anyone, much less a woman or a child, should make him feel guilty for his past abuses and longs to be in an environment free of that. The past, when men supposedly dominated and even “corrected” their families without need of explanation or apology, offers that environment. He’s a powerless man who wants to be connected to the power structure, to feel like he has a chance to move up in it by dint of his “work” and “moral or ethical principles”. This is the promise the rich have been dangling to the middle class and poor forever, without delivering. And Jack rages when the needs or actions of others (particularly women or people of color) threaten his shot at advancement. For Jack, the hotel is salvation. He believes in it fanatically, and if a blood sacrifice must be made to it to grant him his salvation, there’s nothing he looks forward to with greater pleasure.
Wendy, Danny, Dick Halloran are just struggling to either bring Jack to his senses or contain the damage he does to himself, mainly because they want to keep breathing, but also because the past the Overlook shows them, however attractive to Jack, holds no charms for them. Certainly none worth taking an axe in the chest for. Dick Halloran is unlucky, but Wendy and Danny survive and get what Jack will never have, and probably never wanted: a future.