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‘I Know What The Shining Is Really About’: Inside the Crowded Cult at the Overlook Hotel

Tuesday

It is the nature of obsession, the compulsion that causes the otherwise rational mind to charge into the labyrinth, to wrestle the obfuscating Minotaur within, and extract from the bull-man whatever morsel of meaning can be salvaged in this ­dumbed, flat world of ours. This was the quest, I felt, once again reviewing my fraught, evolving relationship with Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, in which an incipiently insane Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), his purposely oblivious wife (Shelley Duvall), and their oddly talented son, Danny, spend a particularly snowy winter at the supremely creepy Overlook Hotel.

The movie came out in 1980, but my interconnect with the Kubrickian Kube long preceded that, back to the spring of 1964. That was when, as a high-school sophomore, I first saw Dr. Strangelove, the master’s glass-darkly comedy about what was then called “mutually assured destruction.” Finally, after a Cold War childhood spent diving under desks and being told not to look out the window when the Russians dropped the big one, here was something that made sense. No fighting in the War Room, Sterling Hayden drinking grain alcohol and rainwater, Peter Sellers shouting, “Mein Führer, I can walk!” was next-level Mad magazine, an advanced course in smart-ass, anti-authoritarian subversive moral feed for the budding sensibility. 

The fact that Kubrick was from New York, was born in the Depression cusp year of 1928, was raised in the South Bronx, hilariously blew off Taft High School with a 67 percent average (graduating 414th in a class of 509), was a staff photographer for Look magazine at age 17, made documentaries for virtually no money, and wound up bossing around big stars on Hollywood sets by age 30, held out the notion that any outer-borough Jew could do the same, or at least try.

After Strangelove, the canon was filled in. There was The Killing, from 1956, in which Kubrick reconfigured time to stage a racetrack heist and had Vince Edwards tell Marie Windsor, “Don’t bug me, I got to live my life a certain way.” There was Tony Curtis, talking like Sidney Falco/Bernie Schwartz as he washes Laurence Olivier’s back in Spartacus. And, of course, there was James Mason’s Humbert Humbert shooting Clare Quilty in the boxing glove and telling Dolores Haze of the “great feeling of tenderness” he has for her. But how could anyone have predicted the transformative experience of 2001? Four straight nights, we lay on the carpet between the first row and the screen, staring up into the Light. When it was over, the usher peeled us from the floor.

Which brings us up to The Shining, which, like so many Kubrick fans of my vintage, I lined up to see the night it opened at the now-torn-down Criterion Theatre in old, scuzzy Times Square.* Barry Lyndon had been an oil painting. But The Shining augured so much more. Pre-Internet rumors had been circling for months: Kubrick, holed up in his English mansion, had ordered forklifts of books delivered to his file-filled study. He read the first few pages of each book, groaned, and threw it against the wall with a thump. A huge pile of discarded material grew, a dozen feet high or more. Then the thumping stopped. The master had found his new vehicle: a Stephen King horror story set in a haunted hotel. Brian De Palma had a hit with Carrie; King was hot. Bemoaning that for all his success he had yet to make a film that had “done blockbuster business,” Kubrick pounced. Aesthetically, it made sense—a Kubrick horror picture, a return to the reliable genre chassis, one more opportunity to merge the high and the low in that seamless wiseguy way. 

Except it sucked. For the Kubrick fan, The Shining was like watching Roger Corman on Robitussin, a 16-rpm Fall of the House of Usher, some classroom chunk of faux-Pirandello absurdism. Among my ilk, the verdict was that the great Stanley, egghead avatar of Cold War cool, had gone terminally corny midway through A Clockwork Orange, halfway through the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene. The Shining seemed the final nail in the suddenly square-shape coffin. It was a rough year for the heroes of youth, with Bob Dylan born again, Muhammad Ali finished, and now Kubrick.

I mean, “Here’s Johnny!” This was supposed to be funny? 

White Men With Their Axes

In the ensuing years, more than most movies, The Shining has deeply, inexorably embedded itself into the pop-culture mindscape. No one thinks much about naming a mid-range cop show Redrum, after the film’s backward “murder” riff. The identically dressed murdered little girls who roam the ghostways of the Overlook Hotel have far exceeded the recognizability of the Diane Arbus photo they are based on. Still, I remained in the dark. I had no notion that a DVD-based cult had risen up around The Shining, that the movie was studied by cine-psychonauts with a fine-tooth intensity usually reserved for the Zapruder film. I had no knowledge of the plethora of Internet sites like theoverlookhotel.com, which refers to itself as a clearinghouse for “ephemera related to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of modern horror, The Shining.

This would change, however, when I happened upon a screening of Room 237, an epic of Shining fixation that critic Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter described as “nutty, arcane, and jaw-dropping … a head-first plunge down the rabbit hole of Kubrickiana from which, for some, there is evidently no return.”

Named for the forbidden Overlook room where the hapless, sexually frustrated Jack Torrance embraces a beautiful naked woman only to have her body decay at his tainted touch, Room 237 presents a compendium of Shining fans and scholars offering various readings on what the film is really “about.” These include: a metaphor for the extermination of the Native Americans; a retelling of the aforementioned Minotaur story channeled through an M. C. Escher–like maze of “impossible” architecture; a meditation on the nature of the Holocaust; as well as an encoded apologia by the director for his alleged role in faking the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It is to the everlasting credit of Room 237 and its director, Rodney Ascher, that this apparent claptrap soon uncoils in the gray matter like a tapeworm.   

Immediately upon returning home from seeing Room 237, I streamed The Shining. Over the next 36 hours, I streamed the film three more times. Three decades past that desultory Times Square evening, fourteen years after Kubrick’s death in 1999, scales clanked from mine eyes like rain. In 1980, at age 32, The Shining seemed a trifle, made by a fading talent. In 2013, on the verge of Medicare, I saw a completely different movie, a Faustian saga of errant humanity, a sick, sick, sick, black-humored Kafka take on horror-movie conventions, marital relations, and the way synthetic realities tend to drive you crazy.

In other words, The Shining became emblematic of everything I had ever loved in Stanley Kubrick movies, a rewrapped gift from across time and tide from a once wrongly shunned, now thankfully resurrected idol.

It was certainly not unusual for people who disliked The Shining at first to change their mind about the film, said Bill Blakemore as we ate dinner at Cafe Fiorello on Broadway, not far from the offices of ABC News, where Blakemore started working more than four decades ago, covering the Vatican and numerous Middle Eastern wars. In Room 237, Blakemore is the one who believes the thematic subtext of The Shining is the murder of Native Americans by “the genocidal armies, the white men with their ax,” who came to build the Overlook Hotel in 1907.

Blakemore said he was clued to the larger message of the film by the presence of cans of Calumet baking powder on the shelves of the Overlook pantry. “He gives you a little key to the film’s larger meaning. This was how Kubrick worked,” Blakemore said. “He places something that catches your eye” that guides you through the confluence of false leads, misremembered memories, elliptical dialogue.

Asked why the significance of the baking-­powder cans was clear to him but not everyone else, Blakemore said, “I grew up in Chicago, just north of the Calumet Harbor. I knew the word meant peace pipe, the symbol of an honest treaty, but so little of what happens in The Shining is on the level. Still, for me, the cans point a direction. With Kubrick, however long the journey takes, by whatever route you get there, you eventually come face-to-face with the truth.”

The mystery resided in the film’s central image, the repeated sequence of blood cascading from behind the hotel’s elevator doors, Blakemore continued over a plate of Fiorello’s hearty antipasto. “When the Overlook manager, Stuart Ullman, tells Nicholson and Shelley Duvall that the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground, that’s a dead giveaway, because the line isn’t in the Stephen King novel. That elevator shaft drives a stake into the body and soul of a murdered people.”

This was how Blakemore saw it. “For years I’ve covered these terrible events. War after war. Dispossession after dispossession. Murder after murder. Where do you think all that blood comes from?”

Neurophenomenological

What a marvelous semiological scavenger hunt Room 237 was! To accept that Kubrick was a genius, an unerring god of a filmmaker, a man so meticulous and precise that nothing could possibly appear in his frames through unpremeditated accident, opened the floodgates of potential meaning. Geoffrey Cocks, interviewed in the documentary, was positive that the presence of a German-made typewriter and the number 42 on Danny’s sweatshirt signified, among other uses of the number, that the film was a commentary on the Holocaust, “42” referencing 1942. (Danny also says redrum 42 times.) Juli Kearns, a devotee of the Cretan-labyrinth theory, knew instinctively that the window in Ullman’s office was somehow “wrong,” a deliberately placed, architecturally “impossible” portal of doom (suggesting the supernatural lair of the Minotaur), which she refers to as “powerful” and “sinister.” John Fell Ryan, with no specific theory except awe at Kubrick’s infinite, engulfing talent, delighted in running the film forward and backward at the same time to study the synchronicity of the superimpositions, such as when the image of the murdered little girls is overlaid by a headshot of Jack Nicholson, looking “like a clown” with “blood on his lips.” If Susan Sontag feared that “interpretation” had become a matter of dry-rot “hermeneutics” rather than passionate “erotics,” she would find no reason to fret here. 

It wasn’t that so much of what was being said about The Shining was so blindingly new. What mattered was the DIY methodology, the way the meme moved, the collectivity. When Bill Blakemore first saw Room 237, he thought, “Well, maybe two of us are sane, and the other three are nuts.” This “40 percent rationality” quotient was irksome, but Blakemore soon came to appreciate director Rodney Ascher’s method. Since there are no talking heads, only voices heard over images from the films of Kubrick and others, the opinions seem to blend together into what Blakemore called “a giant conversation.” The result is “you might always have three people who are crazy, and two people are sane, but who’s who keeps changing.”

This was the only reasonable way to approach a great work of popular art, Blakemore said. The Shining was an ongoing puzzle, with many potential, endlessly protean pieces. Nothing was fixed. For an Internet activity, it beat sitting there in your underwear adding one more Illuminati connection to Obama.

There were levels to this game, as I would learn from Kevin McLeod, writer and video-game designer, whose lengthy Shining essay is one of the reigning texts on the topic. McLeod, who declined to appear in Room 237 because he “didn’t want to be included with a bunch of cranks” (but wound up liking the film anyway), and I had much in common. A pair of Queens boys, we both saw The Shining the night it opened, the then-12-year-old McLeod in the company of his mother at the now vanished Sutton Theatre on East 57th Street. We hit a snag, however, when I referred to Kubrick as “one of the three or four” greatest filmmakers ever. After a long period of silence, McLeod said, “Stanley Kubrick is not one of the three or four greatest filmmakers! Stanley Kubrick is a philosopher the equal of Heraclitus, a visual artist on the level of a Da Vinci.” Kubrick combined “all the great talents of a Velázquez and a Caravaggio,” McLeod contended.

Despite this rocky start, McLeod and I soon entered into an adept-initiate relationship regarding the formalistic-phenomenological nature of The Shining. Pedagogically, the problem was the twenty-year gap between our ages, McLeod suggested. My brain was simply too set in its outmoded way of seeing. The garden-variety theories expressed in Room 237, the “Native American vs. Manifest Destiny, mirroring vs. doubling, linear vs. continuum, supernatural vs. natural, text vs. visual, text vs. spoken word, fable vs. myth, cartoon vs. realism,” were not incorrect, McLeod wrote in his essay. What they lacked was a “neurophenomenological” overview to make them comprehensible on the level Kubrick intended. The movie was no less than “a primitive gateway to an entirely different mode of cognition beyond the limitations of speech and the written alphabet,” McLeod told me. Kubrick’s singular genius required its own aesthetic theory to be understood; McLeod aimed to provide it.

I believed everything Kevin McLeod said, just as I believed Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, and John Ryan Fell, too. Their truths were personal truths worked out between The Shining and themselves, and therefore unassailable. This was the greatness of The Shining, I decided. It enabled you to sit across the chessboard from the master, who spent a good deal of his late adolescence hustling games in Washington Square Park. This artistic generosity extended even to the outlier thesis of Jay Weidner, who in Room 237 asserts that The Shining is actually a vast confession for Kubrick’s role in faking footage of the 1969 moon landing—a plot the filmmaker allegedly entered into during the making of 2001 at the behest of individuals like Richard Nixon. This can be seen in the Apollo 11 sweater Danny wears, Weidner says, adding that the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth. The idea that Kubrick sought to expiate his guilt by leaving a trail of bread-crumb clues in The Shining visible only to Mr. Weidner struck me as a movingly cracked bit of ­auto-romanticism. 

The Bronx

As any Shining scholar knows, Stephen King was not thrilled with Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel. Indeed, according to many cultists, while Kubrick and his co-writer, novelist Diane Johnson, relied on King for plot detail, the ethos of the film comes from Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on “The Uncanny,” a quality described as belonging “to the province of … all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” The feeling could be described as a twisted mirror of the German heimlich, which meant all that was “familiar,” “native,” and “belonging to the home.” It was the unheimlich, Freud said.

The deeper in you went, the more unheimlich it got, I thought, as I drove along the Grand Concourse, where Babe Ruth once reputedly ate himself sick on pop and hot dogs, former home to Stanley Kubrick. I was looking for a theory, a way to explain The Shining to myself.

In the minds of the many, Kubrick could now be thought of as occupying some disembodied super-brain status, hovering above the firmament like Keir Dullea’s Star Child at the end of 2001. The man had become an abstraction, a near parody of himself: the neurotic with the pilot’s license who was afraid to fly, the recluse who felt the need to build massive, insanely researched sets depicting eighteenth-century Europe, wartime Vietnam, and the Overlook itself in his Brit Lord backyard rather than venture out into the Real.

This was not my Stanley Kubrick. What was needed was a process of re-racination, a return of Kubrick to the man I thought I knew: the fast-mouth kid in the earmuffs on the subway, traveling on the D train down to the Marshall Chess Club, stalking the back-date-magazine stands on Sixth Avenue, someone not so very much unlike myself. Kubrick’s family wasn’t religious, but he did become a man when he was 13. That was when he commandeered a Graflex camera, which turned him into Stanley Kubrick, this little pisher turned inspiration who would for a fleeting period of time be the single greatest moviemaker in the world. But who was he before the Graflex? That was the drama of The Shining, I decided.

This is what I had: The Shining was nothing if not a story of childhood fears, an attempt to come to terms with being born into a fallen, increasingly terrifying world. Far from Kubrick’s supposed hermetically sealed standoffishness, the film was a desperately interior work, the closest the director ever got to autobiography. It was his memoir film, a preteen action-adventure story with Danny, the boy who could “shine”—see what others could not—serving as a stand-in for the boyhood Kubrick.

I turned up a clue, what Bill Blakemore would call “a confirmer,” at the Majestic Court apartments at 2715 Grand Concourse, where Kubrick lived in his teenage years. None of the Dominican and Chinese people in the building’s once stately, now tatty, dimly lit lobby had heard of Kubrick, but the great director’s presence was palpable. Opposite the elevator was a series of sectioned windows. Each of the center panels bore a gilt-edged likeness to Louis XIV–era figures. The Barry Lyndon connective could not be ignored. There seemed no way the young Kubrick could have missed the paintings while heading to see yet another dream-life double bill at the nearby, resplendent Loew’s Paradise, now home to the World Changers Church, Creflo and Taffi Dollar, Pastors.

At William Howard Taft High School, where Kubrick managed to fail English, I found a Room 237. In Shining lore, the numeral 237 itself is of special significance, being as Kubrick changed the room number from King’s 217 for reasons that for many have never been satisfactorily explained. Taft’s sunlit Room 237, however, emitted no nexus-of-terror vibe. One student encountered on the steps of the looming building thought he “might” have seen The Shining on DVD. When I reminded him of the malign nature of Room 237, he exclaimed, “Shit! I got a fucking class in that room!”

I focused on P.S. 3, where Kubrick attended grammar school when he was roughly Danny’s age. After spending first grade in class 1B, Kubrick was assigned to class 2A. The import of this may be lost today, but in Kubrick’s time it was crucial. New York City public schools were tracked, with the supposed “smart” kids in the C classes, middling types (like myself) in the B sections, with the A group universally known as “the dumb class.” You didn’t want to be in the dumb class. It wasn’t something that happened in Jewish families, and one can only imagine how it went down in the Kubrick household. Jacob and Gertrude Kubrick took their only son out of school sometime after the second grade, choosing to give him lessons at home, an ­unheard-of practice at the time.

Asked about his academic career in a 1999 interview, Kubrick, speaking with the nasal Bronx accent Peter Sellers appropriated for his Clare Quilty role in Lolita, said, “My father was a doctor. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, and I was supposed to go to medical school.” This didn’t happen, the director adds, because he was “such a misfit.”

How difficult was it to imagine the pre-genius Stanley’s mortification at being in the “dumb class,” his dread of bringing home yet another miserable report card? Was Kubrick channeling the traumatic humiliation of his early school experiences, and his apprehension about his doctor father’s reaction to these failures, to gain insight into Danny’s fears about going to the Overlook, where his own dad would inevitably turn into a raving maniac?  

My visit to P.S. 3 on Lafontaine Avenue proved unsatisfying. The school was built in 1995; no one knew of an earlier incarnation of P.S. 3. However, a simple Internet search led to a July 18, 2012, Daily News article detailing a six-alarm fire on Walton Avenue, not far from Yankee Stadium. With 28 firefighters injured, the paper reported, the fire recalled another blaze on October 12, 1977, during the second game of the World Series. With the Yanks trailing the Dodgers 2-0 in the first inning, Howard Cosell commented on a shot from the aerial camera. “There it is, ladies and gentlemen,” Cosell famously if mythically intoned, “the Bronx is burning.” The 1977 fire, the News wrote, “began in the vacant P.S. 3 at 158th Street and Melrose.” 

Funny how a seemingly stray factoid can forge the way to theoretical cornucopia. In the memorable early scene in The Shining, Danny eats a bowl of ice cream given him by Scatman Crothers’s character, Dick Hallorann, the kindly Overlook Hotel chef. Aware that Hallorann is also possessed with the gift of “shining,” Danny asks if there is “something bad” at the Overlook. Hallorann grimaces. He knows Danny’s “shining” ability far exceeds his own, so he cannot lie. Choosing his words carefully, Hallorann explains that many things have gone on at the hotel through the years, “and not all of them was good.” By way of explanation, Hallorann says, “When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind … say, like, if someone burns toast.”

From there, it was easy enough to put together. Like the Overlook, the South Bronx was a realm of ghosts. If you could “shine,” which Hallorann says is seeing “things that haven’t happened yet” and “things that happened a long time ago,” then you’d gain access to the entire, terrible tableau: the European immigrants in their apartments thinking finally they were safe from the knock on the door, then the faces on the streets changed color, the fear of the unknown set in, leading to the moving vans bound for Jersey, Long Island, and the rest. Then they’d come, the agents of the insurance-mad landlords, the hooded arsonists stepping from the darkness with the can of kerosene they splashed across the lobby floor. A lit match flew across space, the flames shot up, and sirens filled the air. Between 1970 and 1980, more than 300,000 souls disappeared from the census rolls, a whole city of phantoms.

There is almost no chance that Stanley Kubrick, then in the midst of preparing The Shining, did not know about what was happening in his old neighborhood. Even behind the stone walls of his Childwickbury Manor, he kept up with the New York media and events in his hometown. He couldn’t fail to notice stories about the Savage Skulls marching down Fox Street. How far-fetched is it to assume he was aware of the fire at P.S. 3, where he spent the most terrible of his pre-Graflex years? As a boy, he was a die-hard Yankees fan, sitting in the bleachers to be near his idol, Joe DiMaggio, whom he’d later photograph for Look. In 1999, the two sons of the Bronx would die within hours of each other. He was still a follower of the sport, so it made sense that Kubrick would have had no small interest in a ­Dodgers-Yankees World Series.

Kubrick was gone before the terror started, but still, this was his world, these were his streets. Now they were being burned to ashes, one more bit of the past being gouged away, just the way the world of his forefathers had vanished from Europe—the hideous cycle of history spinning, a circle closing shut, one more mordant har-de-har of the human condition. 

I could feel it now, my communion with the artist, the merge of our minds. Kubrick and I were shining on the same wavelength. The Shining was about the past, his and mine. It was a psychic battleground, a heavy-metal Young Adult confrontation saga with stakes as high as anything in The Hunger Games. On one side was Kubrick/Danny with his weapon, his ability to shine. On the other was the Overlook Hotel itself, the epicenter of the unheimlich, sending out its armies of ghosts led by its timeless henchman, the ax-wielding Nicholson, who, after all, has “always been the caretaker.”

The fact that Danny escapes the labyrinth while Jack is left to freeze is about as close as Kubrick ever gets to a happy ending. 

Saturday

A few days later, I was up in the South Bronx again, at 2160 Clinton Avenue, the six-story apartment house where the Kubrick family lived when Stanley was born. The trip was more of an homage than anything else, a tribute to a man who had enlarged my mind. But with Kubrick, the thought pattern is never static, potential synchronicity is always afoot. The building is only two blocks from the Bronx Zoo. This made sense, I thought, the relationship of free will and external restraint being a longtime Kubrickian theme most easily grasped in the juxtaposition of the final scenes of 2001 and The Shining’s claustrophobic Room 237. In 2001, mankind is allowed free rein to journey all the way to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” before encountering the controlling monolith that will conduct the species to its next evolutionary phase. In The Shining, Jack, always a dull boy, the never-evolving murderer, has only the delusion of freedom. I liked this idea, sent it over to Kevin McLeod. Happy with my progress, he e-mailed, “Your comparison of 2001/Shining is apt … Properties inherent in the brain and in culture and even in cosmology that relate through direct metaphors in action in both films. Excellent.”

I was feeling pretty good about this, so I thought I’d sit down and watch The Shining again, just for kicks. I was barely past the first blood torrent from the elevators when my 26-year-old daughter came in the room. Ever the cultural-studies major, she wanted to know why I kept scouring the movie for meaning when it was so pathetically obvious what it was “about.”

“Oh, yeah, what’s that?” I asked.

“Child abuse,” she said casually, without looking up from the book she was reading. “Room 237 symbolizes where the father molests the son.” All the rest of it, the ESP crap, the spooks Shelley Duvall sees, Nicholson’s lunatic typing, the ax through the door, even the snowy maze outside, was just subterfuge, misdirecting artifice to cover up the main crime.

“So in the end it’s just another episode of Law & Order: SVU,” I said.

“Kind of,” she replied, with the touch of sympathy one reserves for an afflicted loved one. 

I hate it when she does that.       

*This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

* This article has been updated to show that the author saw The Shining at the Criterion Theatre, not the Loew's State Theatre.