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.’
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.
Andrea Tallarita was born in Rome in 1985. He currently resides in Birmingham and is the editor of the poetry webzine Dr Fulminare's Irregular Features, for which he also writes under the pseudonym of the Judge.