Games

The Labyrinths of 'P.T.' and 'The Shining'

P.T. and The Shining engender obsession not by chance, not by contrivance, but by carefully and expertly placing the building blocks for our own self-constructed labyrinth, our playful search for meaning in art.

I love the scene in The Shining when Jack Torrance at his absolute craziest is outside the door where his wife and son are hiding. Right before he slams his axe into the door and before the iconic line “Here’s Johnny” is spoken, he plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf: “Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin? Well then I'll huff and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in.” He is about to murder his family in a terrible fashion, and his big terrifying taunt is a line from a classic children’s story. It’s a freakish manifestation of fatherly behavior, calling upon a classic bedtime story to chill you to the bone in a film drenched in father-son psychosis.

The Shining begs for this level of minute theorycrafting and analysis. It is packed to the brim with weird inconsistencies, impossible machinations, and bizarre references. At one point during the film, Jack reads a magazine in a hotel lobby, and if you look closely, it’s an issue of Playgirl, a pornographic magazine. Exploring the minutiae of the film and its various themes is like exploring the labyrinth of hedges just outside the Overlook Hotel. The search for meaning in art is itself engaging and inherently playful.

I was reminded of this truth in a comment that a recent EXP Podcast listener made about Scott Juster and I's discussion of P.T., the playable teaser for Silent Hills. The theories and explanations that arose around P.T. were fascinating. Players uncovered its secrets together, as Scott Juster on PopMatters explained in his piece on the game, relying on a sort of crowd-sourced understanding of the game. The commentator rightly points out the similarity between the theorycrafting in the P.T. community with the theorycrafting in the documentary Room 237. While those attempting to decipher P.T. reach deeper and deeper into the history of Kojima and the Silent Hill franchise, the discussions in Room 237 delve into Stanley Kubrick’s life and the hidden messages in The Shining.

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of comparisons. As the commenter points out, “I guess ‘P.T.’ and ‘The Shining’ are in some ways comparable: Long hallways, the horror of an ordinary environment, etc…”. This is true, but there’s also so much more. The core narrative you can discern from the various radio messages of P.T. describe a spree of murders committed by a father against his wife and children (“a man used a rifle and meat cleaver to murder his entire family. In each case, the perpetrators were fathers.“). In The Shining, Jack Torrance is carrying out the axe murders of the previous hotel tenant. In both stories, the violent force is repeating a crime again and again, like looping endlessly through a hallway or a hedge maze.

There are also notes of repetition in both experiences. The radio describes a man “repeating a sequence of numbers in a loud voice. They said it was like he was chanting some strange spell.” P.T.’s sequence is 204863, while The Shining’s repetition is “All work and no play makes jack a dull boy.”

Jack's murderous mantra.

My personal favorite overlap is the use of bathrooms. In P.T., there is only one bathroom, but you encounter it again and again and again. The first few times it’s locked, then the ghostly apparition of a woman occupies the bathroom, then a weeping telepathic fetus. It appears in the infinite hallway scene as you peek through a hole in the wall into the bathroom. If P.T. has a center point, a locus of importance, it is in the bathroom. As one radio broadcast describes, “His six-year-old daughter had the good sense to hide in the bathroom, but reports suggest he lured her out by telling her it was just a game.”

The Shining mirrors this in a way. Danny, Jack’s son, experiences his first psychic “shining” moment in the bathroom, giving him a glimpse into the violence that befalls his family. Later in the movie, Jack has his pivotal conversation with Delby in an Overlook bathroom. The man who murdered his wife and daughters in the past finally pushes Jack over the edge and puts him on the path to killing his own family. The closest Jack comes to actually committing the act? In the bathroom, where his family tries to hide. He also experiences a deeply sexual moment with a ghostly tenant in the hotel bathroom.

Now maybe Kojima is a huge fan of The Shining, maybe not. What is important is that each experience leaves itself open to the playful search for meaning. They are both littered with opportunities to delve deeper into their stories. They don’t just invite collaborative or creative exploration of their themes, they demand it. Be it careful placement of cockroaches or baking soda cans, both experiences are crafted with an intentional eye towards hidden (or at least deeper) meaning. P.T. and The Shining engender obsession not by chance, not by contrivance, not by stumbling upon our human need for patterns, but by carefully and expertly placing the building blocks for our own self-constructed labyrinth, our playful search for meaning in art.

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