“We may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.” -PT Anderson
History is inescapable and never-ending. In spite of protestations from some historians, like the famous one by Francis Fukayama in 1992 that the end of the Cold War essentially meant history was “over”, we have yet to come anywhere near something that could be considered a conclusion. History, on many levels, is a trap from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Its long arm reaches through time and pushes us in directions we never believed we be capable of going. This, more than anything else, seems to be the central message of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic “The Shining”.
While it would be easy to dismiss the film as an exquisitely told, elaborately filmed ghost story, there is a deeper meaning at the heart of the film. The story begins with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family undertaking the westward voyage that so many Americans have. Our history as Americans are filled with just this type of journey West in the hopes of finding fortune and freedom in a new place.
They arrive at the Overlook hotel; a resort in Colorado that shares is decorated in a Native American theme. This is not a surprise, because we learn early on that the hotel is built on a Native American burial ground. While this idea itself has become a horror cliché, it is important to note that, within the context of this film, it indicates the connection with a brutal past. One could argue that much of Western America was a burial ground for indigenous Americans who were steamrolled during the United States’ drive from seas to shining sea.
The ghosts of the past are not simply ghosts in The Shining. They are reflections of a troubling history of violence. Dick Halloran (played brilliantly by Scatman Crothers) offers us a metaphor early on that perfectly describes this. He tells Danny, Jack Torrance’s boy, that the ghosts in the film are like the smell of “burnt toast”. They may no longer be with us, but their presence is still strongly felt. Where Dick is terribly wrong is in his claim that the past cannot hurt us because it is like pictures in a book. The movie seems to argue that these “pictures” are very much alive and deeply at the root of the conflict that was raging through America in the 1960s and 70s.
In order to understand the film, it is critical to note the three separate reactions of the main characters in the film to the horrors of The Overlook. Jack gains from them a sense of belonging. He longs to be a part of the horrific history of The Overlook. He loves the violence at the core of its polished veneer. Jack is a metaphor for one view of those with power in the 60s and 70s. Disinterested in the suffering that takes place below their feet, they revel in excess while Rome burns. They are the governmental father figures that were supposed to protect the average American and instead gave us an overwhelming glut of consumer goods coupled nightmares like the Vietnam War.
Wendy (Shelly Duvall) is meant to be the symbol of most Americans. She cares deeply about her family but is blind to the actual circumstances of her life. She explains away much of the horror she’s experienced at the hands of Jack. Wendy doesn’t see the hotel for what it is until her family is shattered apart. Her awakening is meant to mimic what so many Americans feel when they look underneath the façade of the American Dream and see the massacred corpses it was built upon. Much of the interplay between the hotel, Jack and Danny go past Wendy, who is only focused on the immediate events at hand and misses the greater context of what is taking place. Her recognition of the violence around her is very much the climax of the film.
Danny (Danny Lloyd) is the next generation. He is equipped with the power to see and recognize what was there before him. He shines, or can telepathically see the images of The Overlook’s horrific past. The expression shining was actually taken from the John Lennon song “We All Shine On” by the book’s author Stephen King. The idea is that this new generation, the hippies, the yippies, the Panthers and the other groups of Americans in the late 60s and early 70s have become unwilling to play the game of forgetting the past and going about their lives. They were able to see how the past has impacted their world and they felt a desperate need to make the world see what they were witness to. Danny serves as a reminder of the violence that permeates the center of our collective fantasy. We must not be reminded of it or we might be willing to destroy it in order to save ourselves from it. Both The Overlook and Jack recognize the danger present in Danny’s vision and realize he must be controlled or even murdered.
Is this vision of America an accurate one? On some levels it is. Keep in mind this book and movie were created in the shadow of the chaos, both political and social, that were taking place in America in the 60s and 70s. The Presidency had been debased, the myth of America’s military superiority had been unmasked and the entire concept of the American Dream had been called into question. America could be seen as a madhouse on par with The Overlook. While this might be true, it is a massive oversimplification to argue that the “new” generation could be easily characterized by a visionary innocent while the leaders of the past simply lumped into the category of tyrannical, blood-thirsty madmen. There were so many shades of grey; the protest movement was far from beyond reproach and the government was not solely filled with violent, greedy sycophants. When discussing mass movements, simple narratives are rarely completely accurate
The deeper question at the heart of this film is of the role of the past in modern life. It’s simply not accurate to argue that the past is totally behind us. The world and its resources were divided up a long time ago and to accept these divisions as “the way things oughta be” does a profound disservice to those who today still suffer from decisions made lifetimes ago. Think of how the territorial distinctions made at the Berlin Conference in the 1880s have come to shape today’s Africa and you can get a glimpse of the power of the past. While much of the past is inescapable, I believe it is also something that can be understood in a way that makes some sense of the world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who are still among us to try to rationally understand the world we live in and how it got to be the way it is. This means living free of as many illusions about our history as possible. This may mean giving up some of the sense of identity that myth of a pristine past gives us. But, there is a redemptive power to truth and, while it may not save us, it can help us shine enough to at least see what is actually around us.