I wish we could stay here forever and ever...
I - "They Actually Had to Repel a Few Indian Attacks as They Were Building It"
In 1987, Bill Blakemore published an important essay in the history of Kubrick Studies, called "The Family of Man" in The San Francisco Chronicle. Blakemore proposes that The Shining contains a previously uncounted number of visual and verbal references to Native American genocide and American colonialism, which constitute an unplumbed allegory within the film. The article lays valuable groundwork for further discussion of this critical approach to The Shining, but it's highly problematic. Blakemore is good at spotting visual motifs in key moments, less-good at spotting them as they become more obscure or oblique, and awful at rooting out the signified behind the sign. Blakemore's thesis, "The Shining is not really about the murders at the Overlook Hotel. It is about the murder of a race -- the race of Native Americans -- and the consequences of that murder," buries his useful insights for most readers. Granting primacy to a minor metaphor may make Blakemore's article more desirable to publishers (telling viewers they have not seen the movie they thought they saw), but renders it hogwash to most readers - his observations lost in the buzz of 1000 bullshit detectors simultaneously sounding.
Some of "Family of Man"'s supporting examples are nonsense, or confused, or inconsistently read. It's going to be up to every reader if they want to accept "we never meet an actual Indian," as an argument. We never really meet a Chinese-American, a Passenger pigeon, or a Yeti in The Shining: negative evidence is not evidence.
So in what capacity is The Shining metaphor for Native American genocide? How does this function in concert with the film's other metaphors, signals, secrets and symbols to create the larger themes that The Shining is truly "about?" The film is a critique of power relationships, and the brutality of the eternal nature of man - that it what it is "about." But there are ghosts in these walls, and they are here to confuse you.
II - "I Wouldn't Want To Go In There Unless I Had an Hour to Spare to Find My Way Out!"
How is Kubrick's film built? The Shining uses a number of organizational metaphors and motifs to illustrate its conclusions and ask its questions. In a way, the film contains a number of loosely allegorical nested or overlaid narratives of varying correlative thoroughness and depth: secret stories, if you will. One is reminded of James Joyce's schemata for Ulysses. That Bloom's wanderings through Dublin are roughly parallel with Odysseus' travels is both to be understood, and does not displace our investment in the core narrative of Ulysses. These are not the harvests of mythological readings of Ulysses, but intentional puzzle games, links and paths built into the novel. That the threads bear individual attention does not mean they are not weaving a larger Indian blanket.
A map will be useful to us, but only if we have a destination in mind (we shall get there). Critical analysis is still the job of critics and analysts, but there is literary gamesmanship and endeavor to be admired before we get to that. A casual Shining topography begins with the ghost story itself.
Make no mistake, The Shining is a ghost story, with literal ghosts infesting a haunted hotel. In that story, Jack Torrance's own weaknesses are exploited by a supernatural time-trap hotel, and he ultimately hunts his own family through the halls with an axe. That much is literally true. One level down, is an implied story we are invited to explore, a scenario in which no literal supernatural forces exist, and we watch a man lapse back into alcoholism and child abuse under creative frustration and cabin fever.
A lot of public ink has been wasted discussing If There Are Ghosts. For some (Kubrick in interview) the turning point is Jack being freed from the dry storage room by spirits. Nay-sayer, point-misser you may argue that we are not privy to seeing how Jack is released (Kubrick in the editing suite), and perhaps "he did it to himself." The moment all doubt should would be eradicated for me, is Wendy witnessing a barrage of phantasmagoria as she runs screaming through the halls in the finale. "Confirmed ghost story and horror movie addict" though she may be, Wendy still hasn't had call to think the hotel is haunted; it's an unlikely leap that she's hallucinating. She certainly hasn't been privy to the same highly personal demons as Jack and Danny, yet she's given overlapping visions with them both: she sees Danny's torrential lobbyful of gore, and Jack's 1924 party reveler. These are fun points for endless fan debate, but the underlying idea that the supernatural otherworld of the Overlook is a metaphor for a man's inner demons- or perhaps his very basic nature - tearing away his mask of refinement, is common to either version.
So locked into the maze of The Shining are also an extended version of the Minotaur and Labyrinth myth. An allegory about the breakdown of the nuclear family. A carefully wrought McLuhanesque tour through the history of communications technologies, their failure, and final 2001-style leap to the next frightening evolution via telekinesis. A black comedy about the creative process and the glass we break in case of writer's block. There are several fairy tales invoked, and the story follows a classical fairy tale model illustrating the dire consequences of doing business with magical folk. In brainstorming, I can imagine a Discordian reading as the chaotic spirits of the Overlook roll a golden apple at each of the Torrances, tempting them with their pettiest qualities, and tear the group apart. I can imagine a Gnostic reading, as the destructible corporeal bodies and the failing free-form intellect are finally united in the Shine itself.
Any and all of these are worth further exploration, and I've barely exhausted the possibilities. None of these secret paths proceed parallel to, or isolated from the ghost story. "Things that haven't happened yet," as Dick Hallorann says, converge with "things that happened a long time ago." Like Jack's Volkswagen gliding down the Colorado road, like Danny's Matchbox cars on the carpet patterns, from Hallorann's guided verbal tour through the aisles of the food storage rooms, to Danny's Big Wheel trek through the hotel corridors, to the hours of parents and children chasing through the hedge maze: to describe the route of one is to map a chart down its brother.
The Overlook is a centrifuge of chronology, whirling so hard in the same spot that it sucks the divided, pure awful truth from whoever - or whatever- steps into its spin-cycle. The film is not only about the failure of time, but the horrors revealed when history slips. Prior to Blakemore, and well worth the reader's time is Frederic Jameson's 1981 Historicism in The Shining, which aims at the larger heart of the film's horrific relationship with the historical. Jameson's agenda and misgivings about the film aside, he understands the grotesque lure of nostalgia, and the whitewashing of the historical record which is being critiqued. Nearly every character is guilty in some large or small way. The Overlook manager Ullman reluctantly reveals the hotel's previous homicides while bragging about the scenic beauty, and admits a mountain of corpses beneath the foundation even while admiring the artistry of interior decoration "based mainly Navajo and Apache motifs." Both Torrance parents try to diminish the import of Jack's past abuses and addictions, Wendy making apologies to a skeptical doctor and Jack making excuses to himself. The ghostly Delbert Grady tells Jack he never murdered his family, to boast only minutes later that he "corr-ec-ted" their naughtiness in the harshest possible manner. Danny locks away from himself the nature of his psychic gift in the metaphor of Tony, "the little boy that lives in my mouth," and will not reveal unhappy family secrets to his doctor. Even benevolent chef Hallorann lies to the child about the latent danger behind the veil of his visions. "I ain't scared of nothing here," he tells Danny, and we're looking at a man scared of everything here.
The Donner Party v.1980
Whenever the question of man's essential brutality is brought up, the answer is pat and reassuring. "You mean they ate each other up?" asks Danny about the Donner party. "They had to. In order to survive," answers Jack. But of course, Danny has already been inured to this notion: "He saw it on the television."
Bogging down nearly all readings of The Shining is a discomfort that a horror genre text so dense and multi-valenced has been created at all. Pauline Kael, for notorious example, actually gave a beautiful explanation of the de-evolution Jack undergoes in the climax, but is unable to reconcile the misanthropic message she located with her own worldview. In "On Reading The Shining" Kian Bergstrom posits Kubrick as a taunting auteur to reconcile his frustrations with the film, and latent guilt over enjoying horror films. It cannot be that Kubrick failed to craft a proper genre exercise, but that he has made an "anti-horror movie." Stephen King went so far as to complain that "The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre." ("American Film," 1986)
For the reader's reference, that is not this writer's experience with the film at all. I have always found The Shining a satisfying and viscerally and intellectually frightening horror film. I could never "talk you into" finding a movie scary. But do consider that Kubrick is not wagging a finger at the genre. That endeavor would be a ridiculous waste of time, money and energy. The Shining has a joy of metaphor; the film does not shame us for finding ghosts scary. Any interloper into the maze is going to have to be armed with this critical strategy.
Now for the trainspotting...
III - "I've Never Seen Anything Like This Before! Are All These Indian Designs Authentic?"
A Walking Tour of the Overlook
Sea to Shining Sea
After some amateur sleuth digging around for anthropological and historical data about the Native American genocide and European colonization, I've concluded the footwork is unnecessary. The Shining speaks in broad, iconic strokes about a native population destroyed, a historical whitewashing, and that obfuscation's ultimate consequences. One hesitates to articulate the slippery symbolism of The Shining, because definitive charts cannot be drawn: the overlapping grids would be so dense as to be useless.
In the loose-weave configuration of this allegory, the grounds and structures of the Overlook are the playing field of all that is America, past, present and future. The players who set foot in the quicksand hourglass of the Overlook are also quartz-crystal multifaceted:
History at either shoulder, Jack heads into uncharted territory.
Jack is colonizer, with all attendant violence and guiltiness, but also centuries of American hegemony, from war to suburbia to beyond. There's a nasty masterstroke in Kubrick's criticism of how we familialize our "Founding Fathers." As above, Jack will be flanked continuously by reminders that the foundations of his duty are sunk deep into a literal and virtual "Indian burial ground." So into Mr. Ullman's schoolroom we go.
Watch the axe, folks.
Stuart Ullman offers the Torrances a deal reminiscent of the Homestead Act, requiring them to survive the wild elements and test Jack's mettle in a stewardship of the land.
A map of the territories on his wall, and dressed in red, white and blue, Ullman also displays a small emblematic American flag on his desk next to a tiny model tomahawk in his pencil cup (it is barely visible in the above screenshot). Ullman's going to be our tour guide and history teacher, and his main rhetorical tack is to acknowledge historical atrocity, and minimize it in the face of progress.
"lt's still hard for me to believe it actually happened here," Ullman says of a prior axe-slaughtering in the Overlook. He adds blandly: "But it did."
Never turn your back on a One-Eyed Jack
Wendy Torrance, in the many configurations of The Shining's stories, becomes an eternal straw man victim, naive, guileless, powerless, deprived of agency. We do meet a "real Indian" after all: Wendy, braided hair, long, layered skirts and animal-skin shoes. (Further pictorial reference on Wendy's suggestive fashions are below.) These figures are slippery, because Wendy's not a simple stand-in for Native Americans in a coded reenactment, she's also every female victim of a raging patriarchy for example.
What's remarkable about "squaw" Wendy is her inability to confront and combat what's happening around her. She is in denial that doing the grunt work for Jack - tending the boilers, cooking food - isn't necessarily helping him better himself. She is baffled by Jack's explosions of indignant anger, confused at the very nature of man. She is ultimately unable to protect herself or her child from a force that has been giving her warning signals since the beginning. Does Kubrick fault Native Americans for not putting up a "proper fight" of some kind? We may be reminded of Harriet Tubman's lament that "if I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more." The Overlook is already seeped in the blood of enough literal natives, and we shall see she is largely a victim of Jack's equally venomous rhetoric. In her very first scene, a television shows a Western, a portent of Manifest Destiny to come; she turns her back on the screen. Wendy is a meta-victim.
[Take Up the Researcher's Burden!: Can anyone with sharper eyes than mine identify the film playing behind Wendy in the scene depicted above?]
The right to left screen direction of the above tracking shot walks us through a Colorado Lounge as the stage is being set for the mutant historical reenactment the Torrances are about to play out. The colonized lounge is being stripped of visitors, and returned, as Wendy says, to "the most gorgeous hotel I've ever seen." As Ullman is unable to discuss the unspoiled environment's Native American art in any detail, but vouches for the fact that in the "illustrious past" (read: future/ read: present) real live movie stars and U.S. presidents have stayed there.
"This is where we keep all our meat"...
Er, I mean, "The site's supposedly on an Indian burial ground."
Ullman, like all other characters, grudgingly admits the regrettable episodes of history, but denies their weight, and refuses to notice that he's setting up the same circumstances and asks nicely for causality to fail. The manager after all, essentially asks Jack politely if he can handle the job of not going insane and killing his family. Everyone in the Overlook lacks pattern recognition.
Ullman's leg of the tour begins in the untamed frontier wilds, breezes through several decades (Indian burial ground -> four presidents -> movie stars -> motor vehicles) and ends in the contemporary living quarters. "Perfect for a child," assesses Jack.
In a top contender for the chilling film's most chilling moment, Ullman promises Jack the reward of Manifest Destiny for the duties of homesteading, and pains of taking up the White Man's Burden:
"And if you feel like spreading out, you have the rest of the hotel to move around in."
"Why don't you want to talk about it?"
Dick Hallorann gives Wendy and Danny a tour of the inexhaustible wealth of resources and riches in the food storage facilities. And yes, among the dry goods are the notorious Calumet Baking Powder canisters. Hidden somewhere inside of all New World bounty is the face of the original Americans. (Note the Tang canisters. The powdered orange drink was carried aboard all Gemini and Apollo space flights from 1965-1975.)
We are presented with several characters' approaches to shrugging off history, outlined above. What Hallorann tells Danny during their sit-down is the most difficult, because he shares the boy's wild talent, and his arguments have the ring of sound thought. Hallorann essentially argues that while Danny can gain painful insight into the past, and should heed that knowledge as a warning, but not to confront it. Danny may see visions of Room 237, but "you ain't got no business going in there anyway." He tells Danny that his visions are "like pictures in a book, it isn't real," and in effect, that the past can't hurt you.
IV - "Like Pictures in a Book": Visions on The Trail of Tears
"The loser has to keep America clean!"
Wendy and Danny run laughing and playing to the maze, and Wendy, most likely referencing a 1971 television PSA taunts her son with "Loser has to keep America clean!" The PSA, in which a Native American moves through a polluted modern landscape, finally shedding a single tear as the narrator intones "People start pollution. People can stop it," was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful.
Danny Torrance is our representative of the universal child, but also stand-in for future generations of Americans and man in general. How he ultimately saves and empowers himself is one of the most encouraging stories in Stanley Kubrick's work.
Danny dressed in a Lil' Settler outfit and Wendy in another of her suburban squaw ensembles, walk hand in hand, laughing through the hedge maze. It is the information Wendy casually passes on to him in this play session that Danny will inventively apply to save his own life at the story's climax. While Jack works unproductively, Danny plays and learns. This is the shape of what Danny does through the film.
For most of The Shining, the boy will be obedient and complicit in covering up his own traumas (he won't talk about his abuse, won't talk about Tony). He will be lied to or fed bad advice by every insecure adult he meets. Danny will obey his parents, and retrace American history until the resultant injuries are so appalling that he snaps (coming up!). But because Danny's gift is to cut through The Shining and see the truth at the heart of the impossible, infinite layers and corridors, he has been gathering all the data he needs, without anyone realizing it.
Forwards, backwards, sideways: multiple wardrobe views
By way of example how various of The Shining's "secret stories" intersect, here Wendy once again unwisely turns her back on a warning of Western expansion (a map of the state), while a communications theorist is likely looking at the radio which will only transmit banalities and fails at all critical moments. Considering both tracks at once, the associative game potential increases: Wendy is sending up smoke signals.
The Axe's Progress II
Following the recurring images in The Shining is worthwhile, because as they crop up in different contexts, they undergo subtle shifts of meaning. Part of the logic behind the film's constant motif of "imperfect doubles" is to demonstrate a principal that can be stated as "do you see that these are essentially the same?" As Danny is shown the slaughtered Grady girls, the axe first seen in a cup on Ullman's desk becomes a fire axe misused as a weapon.
Open the 237 door, HAL!
Danny's sweater makes his job as representative of future generations extend into man's excursions into space. Should you think I'm "stretching" here: it is not, of course, that The Shining has specific criticisms of space exploration, but that we should consider the power dynamics in all abstract forms of colonization.
Hallorann has assured Danny that history is either benevolent (he used it to chat with his grandmother) or no worse than the smell of burned toast, and the child obeys the advice for awhile, covering his eyes, and riding his Big Wheel away. The first important change Danny undergoes is the decision to confront the horror he has been told to ignore. Our instincts to curiosity and exploration may drive his trek into Room 237, and traumatize him at first, but the hope lies in what Danny does with what he has learned at the center of his own labyrinth.
Victims of the colonies: past and future
In one of the film's most startling moments of impossible-to-fully-unpack mise en scène, under an American flag canopy, the Indian asks astronaut: "what happened?!"
Everyone knows, lady: same thing that happened to you.
White Man's Bourbon
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Jack, in his moment of truth at the Gold Room bar, surrenders to his weaknesses, and not with some small pleasure. As he picks up his drink, he grins, and deems it "White Man's Burden, Lloyd! White Man's Burden!" Jack, an ex-schoolteacher, ironically invokes Kipling's ode to imperialism in conscious, joking reference to his alcoholism, and domestic troubles. In amusing counterpoint, the metaphor is working in reverse: Jack understands that he has bound up his cruel sense of duty and his domestic relationships, and cracks a literary joke; he does not understand that he is an unwitting player in a historical drama, in which the reference is literally applicable.
Progress of the Ax III: Careful with that Bat, Eugene!
Wendy's choice of weapon when she thinks she's in danger evokes the American pass-time. Having her use the oppressor's weapon against him by damaging his head may or may not be meant to remind us that Native Americans were introduced to scalping by pioneers. I find it more important that Wendy is not holding the bat in any useful defensive manner, and when eventually attacked is barely effectual.
"I think... he did it to himself." That's what really hurts.
After investigating Room 237, Jack (in pioneer shirt and logging jacket) blames his half devil, and half child for his own injuries. Literally Jack is saying he thinks Danny strangled himself. Beneath that is the implication that cuts through all versions of the story: certain breeds of weak victim get what they deserve, need, require for evolution, human progress, civilization. It is the implicit call-to-tough-love of "White Man's Burden." See also under: Alex de Large, Private Pyle, and any ape killed by a bone. Jack has told Danny they are trailblazing and doing this hard, sleepless work to make a home for the family: "I want you to like it here." Trapped in smothering bear hug, the boy vacantly asks the haunting question that encompasses both future remorse, and present fear: "Dad? ... Do you feel bad?"
All treaties off.
The Calumet cans pop up again as Jack wakes up in the land of plenty. When he finds himself trapped, the only option of escape Jack sees throughout the film is to take the hand of a dark and deeply wrong past. It is with bemused resignation that he climbs off the wagon at the bar, malevolent glee that he gives up writing to type one sentence. "There is nothing I look forward to with greater pleasure," he says, finally promising aloud to do his time-honored fate-bound duty, and murder everyone weaker than he.
I learned it by watching YOU.
There is an eerie moment when Danny approaches a sleeping Wendy with a knife, and it seems that he may have been sucked into the same destiny cycle as his father. In the immediately prior scene, Jack "gives his word." And against the bedroom door Danny warns Wendy with that "word": REDRUM. Kubrick has restructured this plot point from Stephen King's novel, in which the mysterious word troubles Danny for days. It strengthens the moment for the film, but looses a fun opportunity: when the tyke asks his father what it could mean, he's told "I don't know, Doc. Sounds like something an Indian might drink. Red Rum."
Back to where you once belonged...
And Jack Torrance is sent forth, the best of his breed. You know what I think? I think... he did it to himself.
Flood: Keep THIS Clean, Loser
Dick Hallorann tells Danny "You know, Doc, when something happens... it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say, like... if someone burns toast. Maybe things that happen leave other kind of traces behind." In searching for a simile the child can understand, Hallorann also minimizes the implications of critical reading of history.
Danny's ability to creatively apply information he has learned is tied to his Shine when he finally recognizes that though his visions are like history book illustrations, there is a terrible truth in them. Namely that he could be dropped into the picture himself, unless he takes preventative measures.
Perplexing Shining fans for decades is why Kubrick chose to include a remnant of King's backstory for the Overlook, in which a man in an animal suit performs debasing sex acts for the bourgeoisie partygoers. The subplot is otherwise excised, but Wendy sees a brief glimpse of the man in the bear suit (it is a dog costume in the book) about to perform oral sex on a man in a tuxedo.
Brother Bear Vol.2
The bear in Native American mythology is generally a figure of benevolent and friendly power. In the film's device of mirrored images as warning beacons, Wendy has previously encountered a different vaguely sexualized bear, as Danny is examined by his doctor, pantsless atop a teddy-bear pillow. Is the spirit of the Bear stalking the Torrances through the years? Like the Calumet cans, and the omnipresent "Indian motifs," the Bear asserts its presence even in this degraded form, at this climactic moment when the cyclorama of national horrors spins before the Torrance's eyes.
Brother Bear, Vol. 1
V - Cadillac With No Motor
"...it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere," said Stephen King of Kubrick's film. King may have been criticizing the film's aptitude at speaking in coherent Horror Movie language, but he's stumbled on a fine metaphor for the United States depicted in The Shining, and the civilization of man in Kubrick's oeuvre.
What's the real "key" to unlocking The Shining? In "Family of Man," Blakemore finds it in the final image of the film, a framed photo on the lounge wall that depicts Jack at the center of a party, and inscribed "July 4th Ball, 1924." Independence Day is not the start date of westward expansion and doesn't strike me as a moment with more "shine" than Ullman explaining that the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground. Or Jack single-handedly taking up the White Man's Burden. Or a tidal wave of staining blood unleashed on the "most gorgeous" hotel. It seems to me there are illimitable entrance points to the same center of the maze.
1000 Year stare
Homo Sapiens say WHAT?
The lust for immortality at best turns Jack Torrance into a man locked in eternal cycle. Perhaps for Kubrick, they are the same thing. In the trail we are following, it is that Jack chooses a legacy founded in destruction, he takes up the mantle of the monster, because his nation's history seems to smile on that monster. Jack accepts his duty though his destiny is utterly manifest, forewarned in the first scene, written in the registry, framed on the wall: like pictures in a book.
The ol' Indian Removal Act
We're here to outline The Shining's despair over the genocide of Native Americans, an event Kubrick ties up in the inevitable self-destructiveness of masculine power and the failure of irresponsible intellects. There is a glimmer of hope for the species, when Danny Torrance outsmarts his father in the maze, using what we may take to be a Native American trick: retracing his footsteps backwards through the snow. In this act, Danny relearns from the historical native, he recalls his past mistakes in the maze with Wendy, he turns play into strategy, he turns a mirror into a creative tool. All work and no play has made Jack a dull boy, but in Danny's backward trek out of the maze, having absorbed the knowledge he can from his nemesis, we see a hint of what the observant son of man, the unified body and mind, the folkloric trickster and lateral thinker can achieve. Jack goes dull, Danny Shines. The paths of The Shining's infinitely multiplying corridors of story converge as Danny walks backwards out of the freezing colony that claimed the Donner party. But this is a horror film and a black satire.
Axe's Progress IV: evolution, works.
And for Jack, all paths chase back to the center of the maze, where time fails, history is illusory. To the center of the maze, where a man confronts himself, veneer of intellect stripped away, and the difference between civilization and evolution stripped away: a raging ego endlessly circling its own problems. Man is frozen forever in his natural state, where he will eternally hold every tool as a weapon. The Cadillac never moves, the jacket is rigid full-metal, and the Doomsday machine is an axe with which we chase our own children so they will take their medicine.
Jack cannot understand the paradox of a civilization that eats each other up in the name of survival. And you can't force civilization on a Man.
Dr. Strangelove: Progress.
 "It's not until Grady... slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural," Kubrick said in compliment of King's story structure, recorded inMichel Ciment's book Kubrick. The director does not address whether he thought this "particularly clever" device was one he changed outright or not.
Jameson's article is also the only writing I have found which explores why Jack's spectral encounters are with 1920s party revelers.
 For a fine primer on the Maze motif and possible redemption of species in the film, I suggest Tim Fulmer and Rod Munday's literate and spirited chat "The Shining and Transcendence"