At what point does a movie turn from entertainment to iconography? Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a film that beckons to be seen again and again. Not only because the characters are intriguing and the story irresistibly disturbing, but also because the experience of watching Jack Nicholas as “Jack Torrance” descend into madness, terrorizing his wife “Wendy” (Shelley Duval) and son “Danny” (Danny Lloyd), is utterly mesmerizing.
Due to Kubrick’s stature as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, it is not surprising that The Shining has accumulated volumes of film analysis, in addition to being critically acclaimed around the world. As a contribution to the storied tradition of horror, in which psycho-dramas and psycho-thrillers are sub-genres, The Shining, like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961), stands alone. Such films stand alone precisely because they make you forget that they are part of any genre or historical tradition.
In the case of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (2012), we are shown what happens when interest in a film turns from admiration to obsession. As we listen to a variety of Kubrick fans, from a professor of history to a playwright, the interpretations of Stephen King’s adapted story slowly progress from the plausible to the outlandish. Of particular interest to me was the thesis stating that The Shining’s subtext was the genocidal push of American westward expansion, which included the decimation of countless tribal communities. When I saw the film as a seventeen-year-old kid I remember being struck by the number Indian images exhibited throughout the Overlook Hotel. However, I’m sure that it ever occurred to me to try and find meaning in the way that the Calumet baking powder tins were arranged in certain scenes, as did one of the film’s interpreters. Nevertheless, Indian history as background—the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground—is something that resonated with me.
The point at which Room 237 ventures into the arcane and peculiar is when interpreters move from talking about the larger themes brought up in the narrative to focusing on the items that are regarded as symbolic. Perhaps the better word is enigmatic. Patterns in the carpet, the placement of a paper tray, the route taken by a big wheel are all subjected to not just analysis but over-analysis, going from Freudian to occult to conspiracy. Phalluses and the Apollo moon mission take turns as the film’s hidden topics. Interestingly, in spite of the meticulous analysis that some went through to substantiate their theories—in one case, the floor plan of the hotel was deduced from a variety of scenes—not all of the major subjects were covered. Most noticeable was the absence of any discussion of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism or his abusive behavior. You do, however, get some commentary of why the main character is driving a yellow VW Bug in the movie when in King’s novel he is driving a red VW Bug.
In the end, I am not sure if I enjoyed Room 237 or not. Some of the more fringe comments were more strained than interesting. At the same time, I did occasionally get caught up in the enthusiasm for the movie, not to mention how seriously the interpreters took their own bizarre notions. Occasionally, it was like listening to someone totally convinced that they were abducted by aliens. For some people, obviously, The Shining is more than just a movie. It is a life-altering experience, in which mysteries abound all over that lonely hotel in the mountains.