The Shining

Buses came along rarely in the mountains

Buses came along rarely in the mountains


"Your money's no good here. Orders from the house"

You may be too distracted by s***ting yourself to notice that the major 'demon' in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film is its central character's alcoholism. The Stephen King book on which the film is based (which, admittedly, I haven't read) was apparently more explicit in its handling of Jack Torrance's alcoholism, but nonetheless, it's a theme that runs its dark undercurrent all the way through the film.

The Story

Writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance accepts a job as a winter caretaker at a remote hotel in Colorado, The Overlook, in the belief that the solitude will spur his novel into action. When he goes for his interview, he is told a grim tale by its manager; that one winter ten years previously, another winter caretaker got cabin fever and killed his wife and two daughters with an axe before shooting himself. Undeterred by its ghoulish history, Jack accepts the job and takes his wife, Wendy, and young son, Danny, to the Overlook, where they will remain alone and isolated by winter storms for the next few months. What Jack and Wendy don't know is that Danny actually possesses a sixth sense- the 'shining' of the title- and can 'see' the hotel's horrific past. As Jack faces crippling writer's block, he begins to mentally unravel and starts frequenting the hotel bar, now mysteriously stocked full and staffed by a bartender named Lloyd. One night, Jack shows up there to find a 1920s party in full swing, and it's here that he meets the 'demon caretaker' himself, posing as a creepy waiter named Delbert Grady who informs Jack of Danny's psychic abilities and suggests that if he wants to stay at the Overlook, he must get rid of his wife and son- and he doesn't mean by sticking them on public transport. Taking Grady's advice, Jack attempts to kill them both, eventually freezing to death when he chases Danny outside but is outwitted by him in the giant maze in the hotel grounds.

Addiction in The Shining

A rogue gene. A spiritual malady. A psychological weakness. Let's face it; no one really knows what addiction is, but merely how to recognise its symptoms. That's why the most compelling stories that deal with the theme are the ones that don't attempt to answer any questions but just have fun exploring its more mysterious aspects. The Shining is a brilliant story of a malevolent, uncontrollable force that wants to destroy anything good in its path.  Which certainly sums up the nature of addiction.

Delbert Grady, really, is Jack's dark side. And the Overlook itself represents the mysterious forces behind Jack's alcoholism. He is happy there right from the start, even when his wife and son are having doubts. He tells Danny that he wants to stay there "for ever, and ever, and ever", in a chilling echo of one of Danny's visions, where he has seen the two dead daughters and been told the same thing by them. When he arrives at the bar for the party, Jack tells the bartender that "it's good to be back"- in other words, back in the fold of his alcoholism, surrounded by the more glamorous, convivial aspects of booze whose allure have long been the downfall of many people on the wagon.

And in true alcoholic fashion, Jack refuses to see that it's the place he's in (both literally and metaphorically) that's causing his troubles, instead choosing to blame everything on his wife, an innocent scapegoat who is far easier to hold responsible for his troubles than to confront them head-on.

The final scenes of the film, with Jack tracking Danny's snowy footprints through the maze, say much about the supernatural aspect of addiction. Both Jack and Danny, after all, are in league with forces that are beyond human understanding. But Jack follows the call of the dark force of addiction whilst Danny's more childlike sixth sense allows him to do things like save his mum (you won't forget the rasping child's voice repeating the phrase 'red rum' over and over in a hurry once you've seen this film). And whilst Danny is smart enough in the maze to retrace his steps so as not to leave any more tracks, Jack is too deliriously possessed by his murderous desires to stop and wonder what's happened; he merely stumbles on blindly to get lost in the maze (an obvious metaphor for the human psyche) and ultimately to freeze to death. 

In its own chilling way, The Shining is an exploration of what happens when an addict is stripped of everything in their life that gives them the veneer of civilisation and left instead with that most terrifying of things; solitude. 

Watch the trailer here: