What happened at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? Until the last minute, the plot seems to be wrapping up in a conventional way.
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Until the last minute of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining the plot
seems to be wrapping up in a conventional way. Crazed Overlook Hotel
caretaker Jack has met his end and his wife Wendy and son Danny have managed to
escape. But then comes the twist. The camera zeroes in on a photograph dated
1921 in which a man who looks just like Jack appears inside the hotel ballroom.
The film is set around 1980, so what could Jack’s presence in this
photo really mean. Even though this final shot may seem to come out of nowhere
Kubrick hints at its significance throughout the film, and connects it to
the story’s broader themes of history and cycles of occurring violence. So
let’s take a look at how to make sense of this ending.
[You do feel at the end
though that he’s not annihilated; he’s frozen. Somehow he could be thought out
and he’ll be back just like he was back already he’s in the photographs from the
20s. Whatever it is that makes the spirit of that character it will return, it will
always come back, and it will always need a blood sacrifice in order to do the
bidding of the ghosts of this hotel.]
Kubrick has said that the photograph
indicates that Jack is a reincarnated character and clues throughout the film
suggest that Jack has been at the Overlook before.
[I came up here for my
interview. It was as though I’d been here before I
mean we all have moments of deja vu but this was ridiculous.]
He’s totally at ease
with the ghostly bartender Lloyd.
[I like you Lloyd. I always liked you.]
comfortable stepping between the hotel’s different eras of existence. And Jack is
not the only reincarnated character we meet. The film suggests that Charles
Grady who killed his family at the hotel in 1970 was a reincarnation of Delbert
Grady, the Jeeves liked character that Jack meets.
[I have a wife and two
Grady all but confirms Jack’s reincarnation when he
acknowledges his own.
[You’ve always been the caretaker.
I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.]
Brady even helps Jack to reenact his own
violence by unbolting the door of the pantry where Wendy has locked him.
[You give your word on that do you Mr. Torrance?]
[I give you my word.]
Scenes that meld past and present show us that the hotel’s history can’t be
shaken off Kubrick creates anachronistic visuals
that situate people from the past in modern settings. The aesthetic
disjointedness of these scenes emphasizes that the Overlook is not free
of its violent past, but is stuck in a cycle of reincarnated spirits and
eternally recurring violence. Visually the photo represents that Jack is
trapped. His image will stay in the Overlook just as he is psychologically
stuck there. He’s now part of the hotel’s history. While many believe that Jack or
his look-alike was in the photo from the beginning, and he’s a spirit come back in
the past, the opposite could also be true. Roger Ebert has said that the photo
might signify that Jack has been absorbed from the present into the
hotel’s past. So this would mean that Jack’s not reincarnated, but instead that
he is a normal person who’s been sucked into the hotel’s darkly violent spirit.
The message in that scenario might be that we can’t escape such powerful
histories and forces of evil. References to legacies of violence appear
throughout the film reminding us that the trends of human aggression repeat
themselves throughout history. During the drive up to the Overlook Wendy mentions
the Donner Party.
[Hey, wasn’t it around here that the Donner Party got snowbound?]
Mentioning this story of pioneer cannibalism situates the characters in a
long history of environmental isolation leading to brutality. Once they arrive
Ullman explains the Overlook’s place in another history of violence.
[The site is
supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground and I believe they
actually had to repeal a few Indian attacks as they were building it.]
Built on stolen native land, The Overlook is founded on cruelty. The Native American
motifs decorating the hotel remind us of the fundamentally evil act at the
[Are all these Indian designs authentic?]
[Yeah I believe based mainly on Navajo
and Apache motifs.]
This is most clear when Jack throws a ball at a wall showing
a Native American image emphasizing continued cultural disrespect. There’s
also the logo of a Native American man in a headdress on the Calumet cans in
the pantry. And Danny’s vision of the blood pouring out of the elevator could
represent the massacre of Native Americans or the misuse of their burial
ground. Uses of red white and blue like in Wendy’s clothes and Ullman’s clothes as he
sits next to a flag, subtly implicate the USA in the story, and make us think about
the role of violence in American history.
[White man’s burden, Lloyd, my man. White man’s burden.
Jack, too, is wearing more
muted versions of red white and blue when he’s being violent. Meanwhile Danny
is frequently wearing the USA colors and even famously the Apollo 11 sweater
connecting the young boy with the next stage of the country’s history and it’s
hope for the future. The film reminds us that consequences of trauma reverberate
long after the event is over.
[Maybe things that happened leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice.
But things that people who shine can see. Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet.
Well, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago.]
The mirroring of characters and events
throughout the film — of Jack in the ballroom photo, of Danny and his
imaginary friend Tony, and of Grady’s and Jack’s
parallel violence against their families — emphasizes the themes of repetition and
reincarnation. The film asks us to consider whether it’s possible to escape
our violent legacies, or if evil will just come back in another form. Jack dies
before completing his mission but the final moment on the photo encourages us
to wonder if his spirit will just be reincarnated once again. Still, there is
some cause for optimism. Unlike Grady, Jack does not succeed in
killing his family. So The Overlook’s destructive cycle may
be broken. And it’s not merely that the family survives, but that Jack’s son does
not become violent himself. For much of the film we’re unsure whether Danny will
be overwhelmed by evil forces. But while Danny can foresee the havoc that the
hotel will unleash he does not perpetuate it.
The Overlook isn’t your
average hotel, and as the film progresses it becomes less of an inanimate building
and more of a malicious force. Its labyrinthine layout makes it feel
inescapable and endless. And the hedge maze outside brings to mind the Greek
myth of the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a terrifying creature — half bull and half
man that King Minos trapped in a labyrinth and offered human sacrifices to. When
Danny escapes from the maze at the end of the film this parallels Greek hero
Theseus slaying the Minotaur and escaping the labyrinth, thus breaking the
cycle of sacrificial deaths. On the visual level, mirrors, symmetry and
complex patterns add to our feeling that the characters are trapped in a
labyrinth. The Overlook is cavernous and silent, and it’s hulking size
represents its dominance. Jack even writes the same sentence over
and over, and the repetition gives us a vision of Hell in the form of solitude.
[Even what he writes — all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy — that’s sort of who
he is; that’s his life. And so he just lives up to that that thing. He’s just
all aggression; he’s just all stress and angst; and that’s all he offers that
family. There’s no other dimension to that character.]
The final shot of the
ballroom photo lets us in on something that the characters in the film still
don’t fully understand — that the mystical hotel possesses great supernatural power.
The hotel at large and the mysterious room 237 bring out the worst in people,
at least in Jack. When Mr. Ullman tells Jack about Grady killing his wife and
daughters with an axe, he implies that the solitude of the job can trigger
people’s most destructive impulses.
[For some people solitude and isolation can
of itself become a problem.]
[Not for me.]
The Overlook only reveals its dark magic
when people are alone there. By isolating its inhabitants, the hotel illustrates
how people behave very differently when they know there’s no
else around. A stunted writer who lacks a strong emotional bond with his wife and
son, Jack is primed to give in to The Overlook’s sinister influence. Kubrick
has said “Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its
murderous bidding.” He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and
frustration to become completely uncontrollable. The Overlook’s
supernatural powers trigger him, but the latent evil in Jack has been there all
[So Jack Nicholson — there’s no time wasted, he’s just a jerk
from the moment he’s introduced in the film. There’s not even a buildup. You know,
you’re just waiting, when he’s gonna snap? He’s all the negative impulses in one
In the act of turning on the family he’s supposed to be protecting
and providing for, Jack embodies the most purely evil corruption of a husband
and father, who uses his masculine strength and power to harm what is
vulnerable and depends on him.
[Who’s the one person who’s supposed to protect you the
most in life? It would be your father right? He should give his life to protect
his children. But no, The Shining is about how the father turns on his wife and son,
and he’s going to slaughter them. And he’s gonna do the bidding of the ghosts in
Yet the solitude doesn’t bring out only evil. Rather, it seems to bring
out what is truly within each person. On the other end of the spectrum, under this
duress, we see the moral goodness of Wendy and Danny shine through.
Wendy demonstrates resourcefulness and courage as she prioritizes Danny’s
safety. And Danny’s better angels went out as he runs away from the evil his
father represents. So The Shining shows us that the supernatural is not innately
bad. People use it and connect with it in ways that reflect their own morality or
immorality. The title comes from Hotel cook Dick Halloran’s description of the
telepathic powers he and Danny share.
[I remember when I was a little boy, my grandmother and I could hold conversations entirely without
ever opening our mouths.
She called it shining.]
Halloran says that The Overlook is
capable of shining as well, further likening it to a living thing.
[You know some places are like people. Some shine, and some don’t.
I guess you could say The Overlook Hotel here has something about it that’s like shining.]
While The Overlook’s powers are destructive, Halloran, a positive father figure to
Danny, uses his abilities for good.
[You set him up and I’ll knock him back Lloyd. One by one.]
Jack’s dark side shows up long before he
comes to the hotel. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and in a drunken rage he once
dislocated Danny’s shoulder.
[On this particular occasion, my husband just used too much
strength, and he injured Danny’s arm.]
In unleashing an evil that’s already present in Jack, The
Overlook resembles alcohol which might reveal a person’s truest self by
destroying their inhibitions and allowing them to follow their natural
[God, I’d give anything for a drink. I’d give my goddamned soul for just a glass of beer.]
But while there may be Veritas and vino that releases aspects of our
authentic selves, for an alcoholic like Jack, drink brings out the person’s worst
self. So this whole story can be interpreted as a man’s struggle with
alcoholism and what this does to his family. If we view it this way the almost
supernatural forest that preys on his weakness and takes control of him is
[Here’s to five miserable months on the wagon.
the irreparable harm that it’s caused me.]
In the Stephen King novel that the film
is based on Jack’s character is more sympathetic. And The Overlook’s powers are
greater. The hedge animals and other inanimate objects on the hotel grounds
seem to be possessed and even intimidate the characters. King was famously
disappointed by Kubrick’s adaptation, and he rejected the film’s portrayal of
Jack as innately bad.
[So I saw these all as warm characters. Characters that were
being threatened by forces from without. From ghosts, from real supernatural creatures.]
While in the film the hotel let’s Jack express his true evil self, in
the novel Jack resists the spirits that have possessed him, and doesn’t want to
hurt Danny. The alcoholism interpretation makes even more sense in the novel. Some
argue that King’s book is a temperance narrative, or a warning about the dangers
of alcohol. There’s a crucial difference in the story ending from book to film. In
Kubrick’s adaptation Jack dies in a snow-covered maze, but in the novel the
hotel boiler explodes burning down the hotel.
[The film is extremely cold. Stanley
Kubrick saw the haunting as coming from Jack Torrance, from the Jack Nicholson
character. Where as I always saw it from outside. So we had a fundamental
difference of opinion about it. I always thought that the real difference between
my take on it and Stanley Kubrick’s take on was this: In my novel the hotel
burns; in Kubrick’s movie the hotel freezes. It’s a difference between warmth and cold.]
The biggest takeaway of the final moments of the film is that Jack is now
part of The Overlook. And it’s possible that he always was. The Shining is so
powerful and endlessly debatable because the ending works on all of these many
levels — as a commentary on the legacies of violence in our history, an analogy
for alcoholism and domestic strife, a probe into the presence of the
supernatural in our lives, a look at the mystical power of places,
and a story about what lies hidden deep within the human soul.
[Wendy! Darling. Light of my life I’m not gonna hurt you. You didn’t let me finish
my sentence. I said I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just gonna bash your brains in.]
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video