Beyond Genocide: Stanley Kubrick’s Revisitation of Pagan Myth in ‘The Shining’
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.’
The ShiningDirector: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
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.