Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a film of oppositions and dualisms. Mirrors and reflected images (re)appear in numerous frames; we are introduced to twins, of a literal and metaphorical nature; and all of the characters are involved in bipolar relations each to the other, framed by Kubrick as interdependent husband and wife, mother and child, hunter and hunted, hero and monster.
The film’s double nature was famously recast by Bill Blakemore, in his 1987 article The Family of Man, as an allegory that re-stages and subtly denounces the extermination of the Native Americans by Western colonial powers. Blakemore’s study suggests that most of the relations in this film (familial, spatial, spiritual) can be re-projected as a relation between these two historical agents. The Overlook Hotel becomes a metaphor for the society built by an imperial West over virgin territory, and the blood that floods its corridors symbolizes the murders and atrocities that rest below its foundations, buried but never effectively repressed.
Blakemore’s article is probably the most original and influential reading of Kubrick’s effort in the horror genre to date; the allegory of genocide has certainly become a standard referent for critical studies of the film (even when they don’t completely agree with it). Even so, I would argue that the ‘genocide’ interpretation, while valid and highly suggestive in its own right, fails to account for some symbolic layers of The Shining, which are potentially just as fertile.
Perhaps the most notable absence in Blakemore’s nuanced analysis are the occasional ‘whispers of immortality’ (to borrow TS Eliot’s expression) that are voiced by the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel. When the spirits of the twin little sisters (whose murder at the hands of their father provides the back-plot for the events taking place in the film), appear to the little boy Danny (Danny Lloyd), the words they tell him are: ‘Come play with us, Danny. Forever and ever and ever.’ Lines like these are not immediately traceable to the genocide interpretation – they may refer to a cyclical reading of history, in which the massacres repeat themselves ad infinitum, but that certainly extends the thematic scope of the film beyond the colonization of North America.
Even more incongruent are the words pronounced by Grady, the ghost of the murderer who appears to Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). As he confronts Jack in the bathroom, he states: ‘You are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.’ If Jack represents the imperialistic invader, then it’s plainly contradictory that he (or Grady) should always have been there. Blakemore’s original reading only holds in this instance if we assume that Grady is lying; Jack would then commit murder under his own delusions of legitimate conquest, believing that he is entitled to a possession that in reality does not belong to him.
What I propose is a reading in which Grady is not lying, and in which his enigmatic words can be seen as a key towards the film’s more subterranean layers of meaning (rather than as an elaborate delusion). The ‘forever and ever and ever’ of the twins points to death as the timeless condition on and from which the ghosts operate, of course; but it also refers to a dimension on which the film itself is working – the domain of myth, mythology and mythopoesis — which transcends the specific historical contingency of the Native American massacre and which accurately links The Shining to the thematic preoccupations drawn by Kubrick in his other films.
In fact, there’s an extent to which a concern with myth may be seen as a constant of Kubrick’s more mature filmography. One manner of connecting his post-Strangelove films thematically is by viewing them as a theogony or as a pantheon: inasmuch as each of them can be said to explore the influence and competition of primal mythic forces that have been a constant in mankind’s development both individually and historically, it’s possible to link them directly to the way in which the ancients anthropomorphized the same mythical drive in the form of gods. For example, there is an open thematic overlap between 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and traditional representations of Apollo, the god of the sun, of perfect forms, and of sophisticated art, whose name was appropriated by NASA for its space missions and whom Nietzsche identified with civilization and progress.
Similarly, it’s possible to see the unbridled, violent youths of A Clockwork Orange (1971) as agents of Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication who is now represented as the counterpart of Apollo, standing in for profanity, wild revelry and chaos. Films like Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) also allow for their own self-evident connections to Ares and Aphrodite (god of war and goddess of love, respectively), but the possible link with the remaining two films, namely Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining, appears to be more opaque. While Barry LYndon has its own subtler dimensions, deserving of a more accurate exploration in a separate article, it’s my claim that The Shining is traversed by a mythical undercurrent that is neither less powerful nor less definite and precise than those of the above films. It too can be linked to a historical force, which the ancients personified in the form of a divinity, and in this sense it asserts itself as a member – a fully legitimate member – in Kubrick’s glittering pantheon.
I must stress that I am referring specifically to the Greek divinities only as a matter of convenience. My claim is not that Kubrick followed a deliberate strategy to trace the Hellenic gods in his filmography, any more than I would argue that Superman was a conscious attempt by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster at reformatting the mythical substance that is expressed in Hercules. Rather, what I am saying is that Kubrick’s artistic concern denotes a pattern of themes, symbols and ideas that takes a place in the continuity of Western representation as an expression of the same forces that the ancients – in our case, the Greeks – elaborated in their stories in the form of gods.
So, what are we to make of The Shining, this Stephen King narrative of exile and madness played out almost exclusively across one trinitarian family, supposedly turned by Kubrick into a dark history of the American continent? King’s original story does not share all of the film’s symbolic elements, but Kubrick’s version can very easily be accosted to one of the major Greek deities. I am referring to Artemis (also known by her Latin name, Diana), goddess of the hunt, of the wilderness and of wild animals, as well as the protector of little girls and the guardian of mothers during childbirth.
Artemis, in modern culture, is best known for her associations to the practice of hunting. There’s certainly an element of that in The Shining, as the story concerns a father tracking and hunting down his wife and child in the corridors of a hotel (and later, in a labyrinth). Even the film’s opening shot seems to follow a sort of eagle’s eye perspective, rushing through and above forests as it scans for and eventually catches up to an unidentified car (belonging, as we soon find out, to the family). The electronic musical score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind reinforces this theme for us in a foreboding sequence of notes, repeated in the monotonous cadence of footsteps. It’s an overture that throws us back to other horror and suspense films – Jaws (1975), with the POV underwater shots and its famous John Williams score, comes to mind – but it also has another, subtler dimension.
Artemis is not only the goddess of the hunt; she is, above all else, a goddess of double nature. She first appears to Danny in the form of two twins, as Artemis herself was the twin of Apollo, the two of them born simultaneously of Zeus and Leto. She stands in a yin and yang relation to her brother – the same relation that Nietzsche later formulated by assigning Dionysus as the counterpart to Apollo. But while the Apollo / Dionysus dialectic is an invention of the moderns, the dualism between Apollo and Artemis is far more ancient, and the symbolic dichotomy which it opens up is much more specific and precise.
As the genius loci of the wilderness, of forests and uncultivated land, Artemis represents barbarism and pagan culture against the values of civilisation and urban lifestyle that are embodied by Apollo. Her own arkhe (place of origin) is distinctly pagan and disunified: she was already worshipped by the Etruscans as Artume long before the two figures were blended with that of Diana, while her Greek iteration can be traced to a pre-Olympian tradition in the tribal religions that preceded the city-states of the Peloponnese. In this sense my study intersects with that of Blakemore – Artemis, as the goddess of pagan culture(s), can easily be associated to Native Americans and it’s therefore entirely legitimate to say that their presence haunts the film. Only I would go further, and say that other pagan traditions emerge in The Shining as well, most notably that of the Celtic / Germanic tribes and their druidic worship of the forests.
It’s this double aspect of the goddess that is most significantly reflected in the film’s opening shots, as the forests that we see through a flying eagle’s eye are mirrored in a vast lake below them (the first of many mirror images that we will come across). It’s true that much of the film is about the characters withdrawing away from civilization and into the domain of Artemis, which is represented by the forests. It’s also true, however, that the quality of these ‘forests’ is itself dubious, as their image is reproduced and shown to us in reverse inside the lake. The question of which one of these images is the ‘real’ forest and which one is illusory will resonate over the duration of the film, and it cannot be taken for granted. The ambivalence at the heart of The Shining echoes the paradox that is embodied by Artemis herself, a goddess worshipped by and within civilized cultures even as she stands for the wilderness and the pagan ‘outside.’
At the heart of The Shining there is the family triangle, and interpreting its dynamics is tantamount to interpreting the film. It seems logical to arrange it in a ‘two versus one’ scenario: Jack is the murderer, while Danny and his mother Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) are the victims (or, Jack is the white American while Danny and Wendy are the Native Americans). Unfortunately, this structure does not always hold. What The Shining does is immerse each of its characters in the same mythical narrative (the same forest, if you will).
The film’s self-contained setting in the hotel, which sets The Shining apart from the spatial Odysseys we follow in A Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut, belies the linear trajectory undergone by the characters. Each of them enters the hotel, meets once with (a manifestation of) Artemis, and provides an individual response to the goddess according to his / her own mythic role. As all of them are equally caught up in Artemidian myth, they continuously swap such bipolar roles as, say, ‘hunter’ and ‘hunted’. Even Danny, who appears to be the most vulnerable character by virtue of being a child, takes upon himself some streaks of the hunter. His first scene on his own sees him wandering off into the hotels’ game room (pun on ‘game’), where we find him playing with darts – a childish version of the bow and arrows with which Artemis is always represented. And when the chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers asks him what his favorite type of meat is (emphasis on the fact that he is asking about meat, not food), Danny says ‘Fries and ketchup.’
The response is comical, because on a purely literal plane it seems like he is misunderstanding Hallorann’s question. In reality, he is simply operating on a different plane of communication. Danny is answering the question, by metaphorically saying that his favorite meat is ‘small fry and blood’, but his refusal to conform to (and respond in) Hallorann’s literal linguistic terms underscores his disinterest in the chef’s frozen food. The linguistic mode of the older man is flat and literal, and thus as sterile as his frozen meat, while the child’s metaphor (a linguistic ‘game’) seems more fertile, dynamic and lively. Hallorann may boast about the ‘fifteen rib-roasts, thirty ten-pounds bags of hamburger, […] twelve turkeys, about forty chickens, fifty sirloin steaks, two dozens of pork-rolls, and twenty legs of lamb’, but Danny wants game, not dead animals. His disregard for the freezer reflects the same metaphorical horror that haunts his father: Jack’s failure to drink new blood is made explicit, at the end of the film, when he freezes to death (at this point the father has less in common with the ‘hunter’ figure than with the food stored in the hotel).
The mother, Wendy, seems initially more willing to set herself up as prey. In the above scene, she comments, ‘This whole place is like an enormous maze, I feel like I will have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in.’ This associates her to at least two mythical figures – the sacrificial Athenian virgin sent into the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur, and Little Thumbling, the child in the fable who is in danger of being eaten by the ogre. Still, the statement is not as straightforward as it seems. Keeping in mind the duplicitous nature of Artemis, and Wendy’s own transformations over the course of the film (more on this later), we could just as easily read her ‘breadcrumbs’ as bait.
Though it’s possible to provide an interpretation of The Shining in terms of how it deconstructs the family triangle, the film is no less powerful if it is read in terms of a mythical triangle. The three characters represent three separate stories, and the film then becomes a compact, self-contained micro-mythology collecting folk narratives, fairy tales, and fantasy parables bound together under the register of Artemidian myth. Under this premise, I would argue that Danny represents the mythical figure of the hero, Jack that of the king, and Wendy the mystical virgin. Rather than considering the dynamics of the family as a whole, I believe the best approach is to deal with the characters individually and with the arch which each of them draws over the course of the movie, starting from their arrival at the hotel, their encounter with Artemis, and the way they modify their behaviour in response to the goddess.
The Goddess and the Child
Artemis is, as we mentioned, above all else a double goddess. No representation or understanding of this deity that does not account for this quality can ever be complete. Much of the film appears to link Artemis to death, even if indirectly, as the final outcome of the hunt. But death of the kind entailed by Artemis is a condition circumscribed within the limits of her presence and authority – it does not necessarily signify physical death.
Consider this example: Artemis is the goddess of little girls, and the film shows us (through Danny’s vision) a frame of their brutal murder. But in this instance, their death may simply be a metaphor to say that they have grown up. Kubrick constructs a subtle succession around Danny’s first vision to imply the ambiguity of the children’s fate, so that the scene immediately following that of the two child twins walking out of the door is one of two blonde, adult women who pass by Jack, Wendy and their employer, holding suitcases. As they walk out, they say, ‘Goodbye Mr. Ullman!’ signaling their exodus from Artemidian authority upon reaching adulthood.
Danny, whose keen understanding of metaphor allows him to be the first to open up communication with the goddess, is certainly the character who most openly represents Artemis’ double nature. No less do the lakes and the mirrors in this film give us literal examples of reflected images than Danny provides us with a metaphorical reflection to the goddess herself. If Artemis is the dark side of the mirror to civilization, then Danny is the bright side. He is most clearly set up as her double after his second meeting with the twins, when he is linked (and possibly identified) with her brother as we see him in a sweater that has the words ‘Apollo 11 USA’ written on it.
The primal symbol of Apollo is the vertical straight line (the sun-ray, cast as an arrow); the ancients reproduced it in one of the simplest religious constructions, the obelisk, which Kubrick would go on to emulate with the black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey (his own interpretation of the myth of Apollo). In The Shining, the symbolic equivalent of the obelisk is simply the rocket on Danny’s sweater; the letters of ‘Apollo’ are inscribed vertically, and they stand alongside the two straight lines of the number ‘11’ indicating Danny’s potential for growth.
It’s this potential that endows Danny with his identity as the hero, championed by Apollo (a deity he communicates with by speaking to his own index finger, which he extends in a vertical straight line – a private little obelisk). An archetypal hero is identified by his potential more than he is by his achievements; once the hero’s achievements are accomplished, they usually lead to a narrative transformation that turns the hero into the king. But in The Shining, the role of the king is patently reserved for Jack: the conflict between these two characters can then be read as a conflict over Danny’s mythical potential, with his father attempting to steal it and drink the blood of life for himself.
Artemis approaches this young, prefigured mythical hero, later to be reprojected as Theseus in the labyrinth, in the guise of a sister, even representing for him the concept of sisterhood in her manifestation. She invites him to ‘play’ with her: ‘Come play with us Danny. For ever and ever and ever.’ But her game is the eternal game of the hunt, involving the uncivilized savagery that is revealed to Danny in his vision: the little girls’ gore spilled over the walls, for ever and ever and ever. What Artemis calls ‘play,’ and which underwrites the ‘civilization’ of the ordered, pristine corridor, is lethal – either literally or metaphorically.
This, in addition, is exactly the type of play that Jack refers to when he manically types, over and over again, the sentence ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ The ‘play’ of abandoning ordered civilization and losing oneself in carnal slaughter finds its most gruesome expression in one of the film’s most celebrated sequences, when the doors of an elevator open and a whole corridor is flooded in blood. Consciousness, civilization, indeed everything is drowned under a total, absolute redness.
This utter redness may actually stand for Artemis herself, as a ‘total sign’ that represents the failure of all other signs outside the walls (and support) of civilization – something that goes beyond the powers even of Danny’s metaphoric language. (It might be a good moment to note that the shamanic Hallorann’s painting of a Negro nymph, hanging over his bed, is also in red background).
In a later scene, Danny inscribes the letters ‘redrum’ onto his door. ‘Redrum,’ as we all know by the end, is ‘murder’ in reverse. But this is something that only Wendy will come to realize. At the point when Danny is writing it, ‘redrum’ stands for ‘red room’, meaning the haunted ‘Room 237’ – the tabernacle of Artemis, where Jack experiences his own meeting with the pagan deity (this takes place when he meets a naked young girl in the bath). The room, marked by these three prime numbers held together in a magical trinity, stands for the locus of retirement into prime / primal nature. Where else could the goddess (and therefore the redness) dwell if not in a red room? At the same time, ‘redrum’ also means ‘red rum’, signifying blood as the liquor of life, that inebriating power which is the object of Jack’s hunt, and for which he loses himself in a murderous drunkenness.
The scene in which Danny writes ‘redrum’ is worth considering at length. It’s the last true meeting between the little boy and Artemis. Before notching his letters, Danny goes to his mother and finds her sleeping, with an elliptical painting of the wilderness hanging above her, as though a ‘bubble’ to indicate what she is dreaming (this dream-painting is a recurring trope which we shall discuss again with respects to Jack). Wendy’s parallel evolution as a character sees her becoming more and more at one with the goddess as the film progresses; in this particular scene, she is acting as a divine avatar by offering up the knife to the child.
The knife, at this point, is Wendy’s weapon of choice in her own (spiritual) hunt through the hotel, so that the knife she offers is metonymic for the hunt itself. Danny picks the weapon up and contemplates it, as though weighing up the question of whether to relinquish the identity of the Apollonian hero and assume that of the Artemidian hunter, instead. Then he writes ‘redrum’ on the door and withdraws into himself. He has recognized the red room, but he does not go into it, nor does he embrace the eternal role of the hunter.
His decision is at once comforting and unnerving. Comforting, because he does not betray his integrity; there can still be heroes, unsullied and spiritually straight. Unnerving, because he only withdrew before the advance of the tide of blood – he did not fight it or turn it, much less cleanse it. The walls and the foundations of the bright world of heroes – be they Greek, Celtic or American – are covered in blood, and they will stay red ‘forever and ever and ever.’
Danny’s heroic potential does not go unperceived by his father. Jack Torrance plays his part in this film as the murderer, driven mad by the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel – in particular the ghost of the previous murderer, an individual named Grady whom we meet, dressed up as a waiter, at an old-fashioned gala evening. When Grady spills some of his drinks onto Jack, the two head together for the bathroom as the waiter submissively offers to clean up the mess. There, the exchange quickly becomes about Danny. Grady tells Jack that his son ‘is attempting to use [his] very talent against your will.’ Jack looks at Grady and responds, speaking slowly: ‘He is a very willful boy.’
Jack’s statement is a recognition of Danny’s ability to fulfil; his role as the mythic hero and, in the long run, overrule the will of the king. The fact that it should trigger and fuel a murder rampage is consistent with Jack’s obsession with authority – a mania that he manifests incessantly throughout the film. The phrase that he spends all day typing in his novel, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ sees the last two words folding over into ‘doll boy’, as the sentence reflects his terror of losing control and being determined. His power fantasy in the Gold Room, which he sees full of barmen and waiters scuttling around to serve him, involves ‘orders from the house’ that command the barman Lloyd to serve all of Jack’s drinks for free. He is, in Grady’s words, the ‘care-taker’, that is to say, the man in charge. Indeed, he has ‘always been the care-taker.’
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, tropes of eternity such as Grady’s are difficult to conciliate with the genocide readings, and can only be taken at face value once we enter the symbolic territory of myth. Jack’s archetype then becomes that of the pagan king, with the Overlook Hotel as his King’s Hall, where he spends most of his days sitting in a chair (the throne), next to the fireplace, busy inscribing a narrative that records his reign. A triple ring of wooden candelabra, overt symbolic crowns, hang above him where he sits.
The candelabra are one of the most suggestive tropes in The Shining. They recur whenever Kubrick is stressing Jack’s solitude and his act of regression into his own myth. Depending on their number and size, and whether they are lit or not, they indicate how deeply his psyche has sunk into his archetypal role (which he usually defines in terms of his ‘contract’ and his ‘responsibilities’ – see the scene in which he is raving hysterically to his wife, next to the staircase). The first time that he enters the Gold Room, for example, he is never framed with more than three ‘crowns’ on his head at a time. The second (and last) time, however, the frame is held still to keep all five crowns on him together, as though the myth of the king were more potent and more profoundly curled up on its circularity by now, while a slight fog now blurs the other objects and a path of balloons and decorations seems to welcome Jack into his power fantasy.
Jack’s regressive progress (a delightful oxymoron, typical of Kubrick) is even more suggestively executed when he awakens from his nightmare in the hall. We see him lying on the floor next to his writing desk; his wife wakes him up and he looks scared, worried, disturbed. Wendy initially attempts to comfort him, but upon discovering marks on their child’s neck, she turns and accuses him of having tried to strangle Danny, whom she takes away in a hurry. As she walks out of the scene, she is framed for the first time with a lit candelabrum over her head, indicating a new, gleaming authority of her own upon having rejected that of her husband.
Jack only sits there, paralyzed, clearly confused. For a moment, the character totters between an understanding of his own violence (a sane response, defined by a sense of empathy towards his family members), or that of his wife’s transgression (a mythical response, dominated by his concerns over kingly authority). Jack, of course, resolves on the latter, as his mind slips away from sanity and into a self-involved, paranoid delusion. Kubrick signals Jack’s decision in this moment by ending the scene with a close-up on his uncertain face; the shot then fades into that of an illuminated corridor, and we see the crown of a glowing candelabrum emerging from the new scene and setting itself onto Jack’s fading head. His real-life (and mentally sane) identity is gradually vanishing, replaced by the symbolic crown into which his mind surrenders.
At this point, the narrative of Jack’s descent into insanity simultaneously clarifies and is clarified by the typology of his myth. Jack is the forest king who is decaying, framed in opposition to Artemis as the transient manifestation of history against its eternal dimension. The object of the goddess when appearing to Danny is to present him with his mirror-opposite: if Apollo represents progress and civilization, then his sister reflects the slaughters, the enslavements, the crushed minorities behind Apollo’s imperial development – the savage redness that underwrites his idealistic growth.
When appearing to Jack, however, the role of Artemis is that of stripping the king of his illusions. It provides him with a vision in the most profound sense of the word, and in the most classical form: Artemis comes to Jack in the form of a beautiful, young blonde woman, emerging out of the waters, upon a white altar (a bathtub), from behind a veil (a shower-curtain). The scene is so mystical that Jack is temporarily divested of all his social roles and responsibilities, standing before her – for once – with no crowns whatsoever, gently regressing into the primal aura of room 237.
The goddess approaches Jack, and they embrace. But his initial delusion of possessing the goddess, as she approaches and he kisses her, is quickly turned on its head as she transforms into the cadaver of a decrepit old woman, foul and rotting, laughing at him and attempting to seize him. Jack’s bride turns out to be decrepitude and death: Artemis has revealed to him the true face of mortality, and his contingent authority suddenly pales before her transcendental one.
The meeting between Jack and Artemis, no less than that between Danny and the goddess, is the opposition of two images in a mirror. It is by meeting the immortal goddess that Jack gains an awareness of his own passing temporality. His pompous, civilized pantomime turns out to be hollow, from the elegant party in the Gold Room to his attempts to inscribe his (hi)story in a repetitious, nonsensical phrase.
Sucking Off the Social Order
Exasperated and frustrated by the futility of his gestures, he regresses away from his fantasy loci and into the realm of Artemis – that is to say, into the hunt. His thirst is now for the ‘red rum’ of life, the immortal redness of the goddess that alone might reverse his decrepitude and give substance to his story; his attentions turn to Danny, the one who holds the hero’s promise, and the candidate to become the next king. Desperate to regain that which he has passed away to his scion, Jack surrenders his identity to Artemis and gradually transforms into the wolf-man, a hunting animal. His facial hair grows longer, he starts lolling his tongue, until he reaches the end of his metamorphosis into the wolf of lore as he breaks down the door with an axe, gleefully shouting, ‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair on your chinny-chin-chin. Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.’
The wolf-man is itself a double to Jack’s other figure, that of the civilized king: Jack’s inner paradox echoes that of Artemis (the goddess of the godless territories), and his double nature is rendered via the film’s constant use of mirrors. The first time that a mirror reflects Jack’s image serves precisely to foreground his animal ‘other’ side: we see Wendy coming into his bedroom to serve him breakfast (this early in the narrative, she is clearly still unemancipated from his monarchic authority). As Jack dozes in his kingly bed, we see an elliptical picture of the wilderness hanging above his disturbed features, like a bubble indicating his dreams. It is the same picture that will later hang above Wendy as she ‘offers the knife’ to Danny, and just like his wife, Jack is first coming in touch with Artemis via his unconscious, by dreaming of the wild.
When he wakes, the first thing he does is to look into the mirror and hang his tongue out like a dog. The wolf is beginning to make way in him. Eventually, his dream will become so powerful that he will almost strangle his son, and it will culminate in his murderous rampage, as he shouts, ‘Little pigs, little pigs…’.
At last, when Jack dives into the labyrinth after Danny, their relationship turns into the finalé between the monster and the mythical hero. Outwitted by the little Theseus / Odysseus, Jack takes upon himself the traits of bestial creatures like the Minotaur and Polyphemus. His failure in the hunt reiterates his decadence as a king: we see him reeling and stumbling, singing and screaming, like a drunk, delirious old monarch in his falling gestures. The camera returns to him in the morning, his horror actualised as all of his hair is covered in a new crown – a ring of symbolic white snow. We last see him with his eyes gaping upward, frozen in revulsion the white hair that sentences his elderliness, comically akin to the packed meat in the hotel’s freezer, far away from life, from the hunt, and from the ‘red rum’ that as a spent mortal he is no longer able to drink.
Although the myth is complete, the film does not close on this shot. It goes back into the hotel, pans slowly through the throne room, and shows us an inexplicable photo from 1921, revealing that Jack had indeed ‘always been there.’ Jack’s story is in fact inscribed, just as he would have wanted. It repeated itself after 1921, and it is destined to repeat itself again when the next hero turns into the next king, its narrative beating tracks of fresh blood, with Artemis ferociously and ineffably signaling the transition from one falling kingdom to a new rising life, and to her brother Apollo’s new, young hero.
The Female Mystagogue
There remains the last member of the Artemidian trinity to consider. Wendy, the wife, is the least immediately appealing of the three characters. She has none of Danny’s metaphorical / supernatural powers, and certainly none of Jack’s hurly-burly pathos. And yet her own summons to Artemis may be the most conclusive and suggestive of them all. They are certainly the most puzzling.
Wendy’s role, over the course of the film, seems perpetually aleatory. She is cast either as Danny’s mother or as Jack’s wife. She initially seems to have a meager role of her own, being so caught up in the social order that her husband is so obsessed with: the civilization on the other side of the mirror to the divine redness. And yet her own story leads her – slowly, tentatively – to step through the mirror, shifting from an initial condition of passive ignorance to one in which she is closely identified with Artemis herself (ambiguously, both of those positions frame her as a possible ‘virgin’, in the first instance because she is untouched by the divine spirit and therefore an epistemological, spiritual virgin, in the second because she abstracts herself from the world of earthly concerns and becomes a mythical, transcendental virgin).
For most of the film, Wendy is simply the goddess’ attendant, prevalently unaware of her own role until it is forced upon her in her vision (the ‘bear’ vignette, which we shall discuss later). Other times she may be substitutive for the goddess herself, as in the scene where she offers Danny a knife, in a troubled sleep, her consciousness trapped in the bubble of the wild.
If Danny’s trajectory sees him assuming and asserting his identity as a mythical hero (and, indirectly, revealing the hero’s limits), and that of Jack involves the decline and fall of the pagan king, Wendy goes from projected mother / wife to self-less ancillary of the goddess. Her transformation occurs at the same pace as the vacuity of her husband’s reign is revealed to her, and here the theme of the candelabra overlaps with those of Jack. It is after Jack’s first break-down, when she accuses him of having tried to strangle Danny, that she runs out of the room under a brightly-lit crown, a sign of her ‘walking out’ on her husband’s authority and taking her own power. Jack’s response to the affront, as we discussed, is to withdraw further into his myth as a form of denial.
Later in the film, that set-up takes place again. Wendy discovers how meaningless the king’s narrative is when she finds his novel – surely the final rupture – and at that point Jack comes in, threatening to kill her. As she steps back up the stairs, swinging her wooden club, Jack creeping after her, they are both crowned. But Jack’s crown has no lights. Wendy is standing above him (higher authority) and her crown happens to be lit up, as though it bore greater energy, majesty and power.
Once her disenchantment (a mirror to Jack’s denial) has been established, Wendy no longer has any ties to the civilised world and she moves irremediably away from it, stepping through the mirror into the reign of Artemis. Dressed like some kind of folk woodcutter, she surrenders the initial club for a knife, turning more effectively into a meat-hunter. Her hair is now loose and wild. We see her surrendering to sleep and, at the same instant, surrendering to Artemis as she ‘dreams the wilderness.’ When she wakes up, she has attained an almost perfect harmony with the goddess. In her most memorable scene we see her running, knife in hand, almost in a trance, in a deep lunar atmosphere: everything around her is tinged in light blue hues. Her own vest – a ceremonial robe, in context – appears dark blue.
The lunar illumination is of enormous symbolic significance. In Greek mythology, the moon is one of the primary symbols of Artemis, who is often identified with the ancient moon-goddess, Selene. It’s associated to Artemis because it’s a symbol of the Other, the mirror to the clear values of the sun and daylight, in the same way that the goddess herself stands for the other (and darker) side of civilisation. As a primal signifier of dualism, the moon has frequently been related to femininity, which is why almost all of the mythical figures attached to it – Selene, Rhea, Ariadne, Artemis, Pasiphaë – are women. The only exception is Dionysus, who also had a relation to the moon, though some studies (Walter F. Otto) have already underlined how this particular deity was a wild, double and in many ways feminine god.
The worship of a moon goddess is, of course, much older than the Greeks and their religion; Hungarian philologist Károli Kerényi identified a likely ancestor to the Hellenic Selene – and therefore Artemis – in the Minoan Rhea (see Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton University Press, 1996). It’s possible to speculate that the conflation of Artemis and Selene may be accounted for by the fact that their primordial forms (Rhea, and the Etruscan Artume) are one and the same. Both may be expressions of what poet and scholar Robert Graves famously (and controversially) described in his homonymous book, The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), as the Mother Goddess or the White Goddess, though the Greek cult of Artemis certainly developed into something less primal and more precise.
By turning Wendy into a mystagogue of the moon, Kubrick is linking her to a chain of symbolic connections that go straight to the heart of the Artemidian myth. Her ascent on the pathway of the moon is simultaneously a descent into the original mythic tissue, and it goes to such vertiginous depths that in Wendy’s ultimate vision Artemis does not even appear to her in person.
As an aside, at this point I cannot resist quoting the lyrics from the closing titles. They come across precisely as a lyric poem about a meeting with a moon-goddess, in a manner so straightforward that it is hard to believe they could have been chosen coincidentally:
Midnight, with the stars and you.
Midnight, and a rendezvous.
Your eyes hear a message tender, saying I surrender all my love to you.
Midnight brought a sweet romance, I know all my whole life’s through,
I’ll be remembered whatever else I do, midnight with the stars and you.
Wendy’s moment of revelation is no doubt one of the most difficult scenes to interpret in The Shining, if not in Kubrick’s entire filmography. She reaches the top of the staircase, looks into a room, and sees a person, dressed up as a bear, performing oral sex on a particularly elegant man. One is tempted to just dismiss this as a deliberately absurd diorama, some sort of prefiguration of the folly that awaits the characters in the hotel. In truth, it works just as well even on this level; but there is also another interpretative key, one that allows us to link this scene with the rest of the film’s mythical architecture.
The most conspicuous question, surely, is this: why doesn’t Kubrick want an actual bear, or something that looks like it? Why specifically a man in a costume, and such a rudimentary costume at that? What does the idea of the ‘bear costume’ represent? Why not a beastly predator – a manciple of Artemis – in the flesh? The answer is that the vision does not represent Artemis herself in an anthropomorphous form. Wendy has attained such a union with the goddess that Artemis is manifest in the mother, not to her, and the predator is Artemis’s subject, not her priest (the goddess’ proper representative is actually the deer, a highly-valued prey).
What we are really seeing is the husband, Jack as he is revealed to Wendy, and not Artemis revealing herself. The divinity’s gift to Wendy is a full, blazing and violent revelation of her husband’s condition – a man dehumanized into playing the part of an animal. Trying to act as the predator, Jack only succeeds in being the servant of his own subjects, sucking off the social order – represented by the elegant man – that he thought was there to serve him. In his obedience to the voices and hallucinations of the hotel, he becomes lost (as in a labyrinth) to follow the same forces that he believed were buying him drinks and obsequiously cleaning up his coat.
This is the last stage in Wendy’s progression towards an understanding of her husband’s patriarchal monarchy as a delusion. The fact that it is also the last of Artemis’ three apparitions marks it out as especially significant and, in a certain way, relieving. Though Jack dominates the film with his predatorial antics, the last word is not given to him but to the mother, and the role of the feminine here seems almost salvational. By seeing her masculine Other collapsing into delusions of kingship that will ultimately reduce him to the state of an animal, she is giving voice to the possibility of an alternative – another side of the mirror, as it were, one in which humanity really is distinguished from the animals.
One could label this the ‘divine spark’ latent in humanity, but the duplicity of the Artemidian deity undermines the possibility of any such conclusive, unambiguous slogan. After all, it is precisely Jack’s insistence on being civilized that ultimately makes him no different from the animals.
Apparently it is Wendy that wins over the favours of Artemis in the end. For all of Danny’s heroic flair, and Jack’s rambunctious predation, she remains our closest link to the divine, and the most appealing side of the mirror, in all her manifest forms: wife, mother, high priestess, and, in the darkest of her many sides, hunter in the moonlight.