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Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of The Shining: The terror of family disfunction

Updated: Jul 11

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in the famous "here's Johnny" scene.
"Here's Johnny!"

This week the US version of the iconic Stanley Kubric film The Shining has been re-released in the UK. As the recent Telegraph review by Tim Robey explains, this version is like a “reverse director’s cut”. After lacklustre reviews following the original opening in 1980 in the US, the meticulous Kubrick cut a further 25 minutes from the film for its UK release. It is this longer version that is currently being screened. As it’s a second edit, in a sense, we can only intuit that Kubrick felt that concision was more important than exposition for the UK release.

Psychological or Supernatural?

From what I can gather, the scenes that Kubrick decided to remove were the very ones that support The Shining as a psychological drama rather than a supernatural one. That is, the inclusion of a family history of Jack Torrence’s alcoholism which led to a borderline instance of child abuse (borderline because it’s difficult to nail down how ‘accidental’ the event actually was that dislocated Danny’s shoulder) and Danny’s psychological method of dealing with this situation – the creation of his “imaginary friend” (Danny’s mother Wendy’s words) of Tony “the little boy who lives in my mouth”. His encounter with the paediatrician/child psychotherapist is absent from the more concise British version. Its absence leads the viewer to seek more supernatural reasons for the goings on at the Overlook Hotel.

Modern iterations of psychoanalysis tell us what children may do in the face of a trauma like child abuse. They “split,” dissociating aspects of themselves to protect them from further harm (the most intense cases being that of DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder]). In this case, Tony seems a sensible psychological creation to guide Danny through difficult and rational fears of his much bigger and potentially dangerous father. From the psychological perspective, his psychic visions are simply the “psychic reality” of the horror he feels at being left alone with his obviously weak and slightly hysterical mother and a father who harbours a potentially abusive beast within. From a psychological perspective of a small child, there is no need for the supernatural – a father off the rails is scary enough.

The recent film Room 237 offers a number of theories about the hidden meaning of this film that range from intriguing (it’s about the genocide of the Native Americans by the European Settlers) to the ridiculous (it’s Stanley Kubrick’s autobiographical admission to faking the Apollo moon landings for NASA). However wild and perceptive the theories turn out to be, a great deal is noticed about this enigmatic film that is worthy of further investigation.

Of these observations are a series of events that many may discount as simple continuity errors, were it not for Kubrick’s reputation of being absolutely fastidious about such things.   One of these is the decal of one of the seven dwarves, Dopey, that decorates the wall in Danny’s room before he has his first vision of the coming events of the Overlook Hotel communicated to him by Tony. Notice him clearly displayed at the edge of Danny’s door (images from Collective Learning).

Image of Danny's door with Dopey.

After Danny’s vision, however, when Wendy and the paediatrician leave Danny’s room, Dopey is no longer there.

Image of Danny's door without Dopey.

It seems unlikely that this is a continuity error as the decal would have had to have been purposely removed. It is more likely that this is an intentional manipulating of the set. Perhaps it is a sign to the viewer that Danny is no longer Dopey. He has wised up to what’s going on. He’s been initiated into a disturbing adult awareness of the depths of depravity to which his father might go.

Wising Up

“Wising up” is a theme in this film; it is something that both Danny and Wendy have to do to respond to the rapidly escalating situation of Jack’s descent into murderous madness. This is where the local yet horrific “family drama” meets the larger subtext of the Native American Genocide. The Native Americans had to wise up to the growing dominion and megalomania of the European settlers and Danny and Wendy have to wise up to Jack’s psychosis fuelled quest to dominate his family.

The differences between the UK and US versions become crucial here. Without this background of Jack’s alcoholism and previous abuse, we are left to conclude that the haunted hotel is fully responsible for the events to come – events that are partially explained by the fact that the Overlook Hotel was built on an Indian burial ground and is surely haunted. This is another theory promulgated by one of The Shining anoraks featured in Room 237. The motifs that populate the film no doubt support this hypothesis – it is a film replete with Native American imagery, from purposeful placing of the Calumet baking soda (calumet means ‘peace pipe’) (image via Who2).

Still of the storage room with a can of Calumet

To the Native American patterns that saturate the place from its stained glass windows to the hangings on the walls. To the way in which Shelley Duvall’s outfits range from the yellow Native American print jacket, to the veritably Pocahontas-like braid we see flopping against a blue plain smock-like top.

While Jack’s descent into darkness is apparent from the start it is in the following scene that his bullying becomes plain. While the nature of this scene has become iconic for Jack Nicholson’s acting style and Shelley Duvall’s homely peevishness, I think it does really encapsulate the horror of the bullying father/husband who dominates a household causing the mother and child to cower. Notice too, that this is also the scene in which Wendy looks, from behind, a bit like Pocahontas. Jack’s dominion over her reaches into deeper roots of white dominion over the Native Americans:

Through this scene we can see elements of the family crisis as they are transmitted through the collective. The archetypal father dominating the powerless family; man’s domination over women; father’s domination over son; and underneath it all, seeping through the generations of abuse and genocide, the white domination of the native in the expansion of the United States. This is Manifest Destiny.

If this seems a stretch too far, then how do you explain Jack’s dropping the phrase “white man’s burden” at the fully stocked bar in the Gold Room? It is a phrase which embodies, with all its colonial baggage, the perceived relationship between the imperial European powers and those who it sought to dominate.

The Psychology of The Shining: Alcoholism and domestic abuse via the eyes of child

It’s true. We do not need to dig deeply into the archetypes of the unconscious to find the truth of this film. The longer version of the movie gives us the explanation we need on the surface level, at least, which is nearly enough.

Jack is an abuser and an alcoholic, he is the raging father. He cannot suppress the violence that the alcohol releases. The Overlook hotel is merely the catalyst that allows the real horror to emerge; the supernatural is like the enabler for the alcoholic (in this case, quite literally). In this sense alone it is an important film as it shows the monstrosity of such abuse. A monstrosity that isn’t only possible, but regrettably happens when domestic abuse is allowed to continue. It is as if Danny always knew at the deepest level what his father was capable of. Jack’s “huffing and puffing” at the famous axe scene only goes to show that the game of “happy families” that Wendy desperately tries to continue to play, is blown over like a house of cards.

It's just uncannny

In this great blog on Kubrick and Freud’s “The Uncanny”, the author shows us that Kubrick’s use of Freudian concepts is not unintentional. Kubrick read his Freud and deployed psychoanalysis with purpose:

Kubrick seems to be making a larger metaphorical point. Namely, that the spectral images he shows us throughout the film are not supernatural or mysterious in origin, but rather, completely familiar. Man’s horrors aren’t something to be explained away with mysticism, ghosts or magic, but to be fought off with logic and intelligence. We interpret these horrors as “bizzare”, “horrific” and “odd” simply because we deny our own  and refuse to confront them.  

Freudians will be familiar with the notion of the “compulsion to repeat” and will understand that unconscious desire (both sexual and aggressive) cannot be simply put to bed. It either sublimates into something else that is culturally productive, or we encounter the return of the repressed, where this desire emerges, uncontrolled, from the unconscious.

What's interesting about the psychology of The Shining is how the film deftly pairs the familial return of the repressed with the larger social one. The compulsion to repeat the abuse is rekindled in Jack as is the karma like re-emergence of the Native American Fury and the European dominance. Freud notes that this re-emergence can indeed be transgenerational and not just individual, material that remains accessible to us all by virtue of simply being human*. With regard to the ‘uncanny’ and the repetition compulsion Freud states:

There is the constant recurrence of the same thing – the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations.

You see, Jack has ALWAYS been the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.

And there is so much more . . .

The Shining is a classic horror and it doesn’t surprise me at all that now, 32 years after its initial release, it’s re-release is still getting a great deal of attention. The thoughts I share above are just a start. This is a film that obsesses people, and with good reason. It is simply masterful and rich with meaning.

The scary girls from The Shining

I could watch it forever, and ever, and ever . . .




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