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 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.