The Shining at 40: Revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s cautionary tale of isolation, creative frustration in times of lockdown

The more you immerse yourself in Stanley Kubrick's world of The Shining, the more you see it as a dark reflection of lockdown life in 2020.

Prahlad Srihari May 25, 2020 17:05:45 IST
The Shining at 40: Revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s cautionary tale of isolation, creative frustration in times of lockdown

You've been stuck in quarantine for the past two months, but you convince yourself there's a silver lining. Virtually, the whole world has been collectively forced into conditions of deep, involuntary introspection. Bored, lonely and restless, we're all desperate for a creative outlet that will stop us from nosediving into an existential abyss. So, you decide to finally write that novel you've been putting off. You open your laptop, write a dozen different openings and delete them all. Hours later, you sit there in a daze, staring at an empty document while it stares back at you in disappointment. It eats away at your self-worth. The disappointment turns into resentment, and before long, you are projecting your anger onto those around you. It seems you're in the middle stages of Jack Torrance's cabin fever in The Shining

The Shining at 40 Revisiting Stanley Kubricks cautionary tale of isolation creative frustration in times of lockdown

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance

It has been 40 years since Stanley Kubrick locked us up in The Overlook — and its tale of creative frustration, domestic abuse, loneliness and madness takes on fresh resonance amid the ongoing global crisis. In Kubrick's adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Jack Torrance wants to be a writer too. He believes a few months of social distancing will offer him the necessary peace and quiet to fulfil his ambition. So, he takes up a job as an off-season caretaker of a secluded Colorado hotel. With only his wife Wendy and son Danny as company, he plunges confidently into his long months — of what he imagines would be — productive isolation. But weeks pass and Jack struggles to overcome his creative block amid ghostly delusions. Convinced his family is the obstacle impeding his literary output, he goes into a murderous rage, chasing them around the hotel with an axe. To watch Jack Nicholson in the final stages is to witness a performance of facial gymnastics. His arching eyebrows, bulging eyes and sinister smile make up a chilling expression of lucid madness.

From the beginning, Jack is fighting a losing battle for control over the conditions of his work environment. Turning the lounge of the hotel into his personal office, he even isolates himself from his family to work without disturbances. His desire for control is best represented in a scene where Wendy and Danny are walking through the hedge maze, while Jack stands over a model of the very same maze, monitoring it from above. The following shot transitions to the real maze again, giving the impression, or at least the illusion, that he's still in control.

The ghosts of Overlook embody Jack's own inner demons: the bartender Lloyd personifies his issues with alcoholism; the woman in Room 237 gives form to both his sexual and death instincts; the former caretaker Delbert Grady represents his desire to relinquish all familial responsibilities, the burden of marriage and fatherhood. 

The Shining at 40 Revisiting Stanley Kubricks cautionary tale of isolation creative frustration in times of lockdown

Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance

Furthermore, the camera itself acts as an invisible spirit following Danny in the tricycle in the corridors, and as an enabler of Jack's many delusions observing his slow and eventual mental breakdown. It makes the Overlook's insidious presence palpable, its invisible threats visible as Jack traverses the bridge between reality and hallucination in his madness. This is what makes The Shining an unforgettable horror experience as Kubrick forces the audience to not just watch the horror unfold, he wants them to feel it. The film taps into our primal fear instinct, embedding itself deep in our subconscious.

Besides Jack's madness, The Shining is also a tale of the domestic horrors of a wife and child, whose cries of distress are stifled by a snowstorm. It makes you aware of the dangers that can unfold during confinement, as documented by the spike in cases of domestic violence. With more and more people turning to "Quarantinis" and "virtual happy hours" to deal with their anxiety or mere boredom, we could also come out with an alcohol abuse crisis post-lockdown.

The more you immerse yourself in Kubrick's world of The Shining, the more you see it as a dark reflection of lockdown life in 2020. In the very beginning, Jack is warned by the hotel manager that the previous caretaker went "Big Bad Wolf" and killed his wife and two kids. But it doesn't deter him. He insists "the tremendous sense of isolation" is exactly what he needs. It is the same indifference, an unreformable lunacy also displayed by those who believe government-ordered lockdowns infringe their constitutionally protected rights to mobility and freedom. For them, personal liberty takes precedence over public well-being.

The Shining at 40 Revisiting Stanley Kubricks cautionary tale of isolation creative frustration in times of lockdown

Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance

The Shining has been interpreted and over-interpreted to such an extent that it has reframed the film's discourse to the supposed hidden meanings and absurd theories (Watch: ). But in times of lockdown, it is worth revisiting for the introspection it offers on the catastrophe we’re experiencing. Of course, it worth revisiting simply for the horror classic that it is, one stripped of all the usual clichés. Even if what we perceive to be scary changes with time, it is still a delight to watch Kubrick renew a beloved genre with an unequalled formal inventiveness. You never know The Shining may just be the surge of inspiration required to put words to that judgemental blank document. For, unlike Jack, there is a way out of the maze of creative block for us all.

Stuck in a lockdown, there is more pressure than usual to put the long stretches of alone time to productive use. But it is important to love boredom, even when it borders on alienation, rather than stress on every hour lost. Procrastination is your only enemy. Even here, Kubrick offers a useful word of advice. Instead of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", the German-language version of The Shining uses the alternative phrase: "Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen (Never put off until tomorrow what can be done today)."

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