"All Work and No Play Make Jack a Dull Boy", Bob's Burgers, Christine, Cujo, Domestic Abuse, Family Guy, fathers, Film, film review, Here's Johnney!, horror, It, Jack Nicholson, Novel, Pet Cemetary, REDRUM, REDUM = MURDER, Scatman Crothers, Shelley Duvall, South Park, Stanley Kubrick, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, The Pagemaster, The Shining, The Shining Pop Culture References, The Simpsons, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Writers, Writing
It’s pathetic really, but I honestly didn’t get that REDRUM was MURDER spelled backwards until Danny wrote it on the door. My only defense, the only one I can offer, is that my mind has never been strong when it comes to anagrams. Some people, though only in films or books conveniently enough, are blessed to immediately unscramble words and find the hidden meaning and so such a realization wouldn’t shock them, but when I was reading The Shining I kept watching that word appear wondering what it could possibly mean and what horrible reality it would reveal in the Overlook Hotel. When the switch finally came, I admit freely that it legitimately scared me. In fact, I might have gasped, clutched my hand to my heart, and made sure the blinds were closed.
There was a time in my life when I devoured the writings of Stephen King. After my Sophomore English teacher gave me her copy of The Green Mile and I read through that water damaged paperback in about a week. When I finished I had, emphasis on that word, had to read more of the man’s work. I hopped into Cujo after that. The Half Price Book Store in Dallas had an entire Stephen King section, and old Signet paperbacks with their pastel spines were lined up like gems Scheherazade might have described to Shahryār as her hero looked upon discovered treasures of some long lost kingdom. I bought Cujo and read it quickly, moving then to The Shining. As I remember I tried starting The Stand but it didn’t move quickly enough for me. I also bought It, Pet Cemetery, and Christine, but as of this writing I’ve only read to completion the middle book which remains the book after The Shining which scared the evr-living piss out of me.
If Cujo terrified me, I did live in a house with three dogs at the time, The Shining was something else entirely. Though I knew and had experienced the “haunted house” story before, most of these were old and English and none of the characters in those books and films talked the way Jack Torrance did. The first line alone, which I’m not too big on to be honest, hooked me straight away:
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. (3).
I suspect part of the reason King appealed to me from such a young age was partly because of his profanity. The books we read in school rarely possessed any profanity. There would be the odd “nigger” in To Kill a Mockingbird, but that wasn’t a word I would feel comfortable repeating. Whereas prick, fuck, bastard, and shit were all lovely words to use when talking to my friends and so King’s appeal was partly for the fact that he wrote the way I and many people I knew talked. I ate up his book and began looking for films based upon his work.
About the same time, I discovered King, I also found the films of Quentin Tarantino, who became god to me, Martin Scorsese, and finally Stanley Kubrick. This last film maker left his own impact on me largely because of his eclectic style of selecting stories to tell, but also because his films were so different than anything else that I watched. It’s not being unfair or hip to suggest that Stanley Kubrick’s movies are unique for their presentation, cinematography, and acting period. Kubrick’s characters are often caught between acting like archetypes and real living people, and so when approaching Kubrick’s The Shining and Jack Torrance’s character, I really didn’t mind the fact that he was different from King’s Jack Torrance. The fact that he was also Jack Nicholson didn’t hurt either because I had grown up watching that man play as Joker on repeat almost non-stop. Wanting to start celebration of Halloween early this year, my sister and I sat down and watched The Shining again, and after watching the film I knew I had to sit down and write about it because I’ve reached the point in my life where I can, mostly, avoid kissing the ass of those who influenced me during my formative years.
The Shining centers on the characters of Jack, Wendy, and their son Danny Torrance. Jack has recently lost his job teaching at a prep school after assaulting a student who slashed his tires, and he is also recovering from a bout of alcoholism that contributed to him dislocating his son’s shoulder in a fit of rage. He is hired to manage The Overlook, an isolated resort hotel in the mountains of Colorado, and operate the boiler during the winter months when the hotel is isolated from the outside world. The family moves into the hotel and while Jack tries to work on a play the family is slowly falling prey to the natural forces of cabin fever and, though it’s never suggested till near the end of the film, it’s clear that supernatural elements living in the hotel are trying to corrupt them. Specifically, they want Danny’s soul because he possesses the ability of “shining” which is a slang word for telepathy. The film ends as Jack loses his mind and tries to kill Wendy and Danny, manages to kill Halloran the Head cook of the hotel who returns to save the family, and eventually gets lost in the hedge maze outside the hotel before freezing to death and having his soul forever trapped by the hotel.
The film, like so many of Kubrick’s other films, has become iconic and almost cartoonish for the fact that everyone between The Simpsons, to Rocko’s Modern Life, to Bob’s Burgers, to Family Guy, to The Pagemaster, to South Park, and even Toy Story 3 have all referenced some element of the film. For the record my favorite remains Bob’s Burgers for it’s almost loving recreation of the Lloyd bar-tender sequence, and of course the other being Stewie shooting a rocket at the Grady daughter’s at Cherrywood. These references however only prove the lasting impression of the film upon cinema history for whether it’s Jack hacking the bathroom door to bits before uttering the famous lines:
Jack Torrance: Here’s Johnny!
Or whether it’s Wendy looking at Jack’s manuscript and reading:
Jack Torrance: [typed] All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Or whether it’s the Grady twins standing at the end of the hallway blocking Danny’s path:
These scenes have been repeatedly re-imagined because Kubrick’s movie is a masterpiece of cinematography and horror. An added benefit to the film is that even despite the endless pop-culture references The Shining, unlike other horror films before and after it, remains legitimately horrifying to this day. I might argue that the only other exception might be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that’s because the content of that film remains disturbing regardless of how old it gets.
Watching The Shining again my mom was walking through the house tending to the numerous little jobs and tasks she handles and catching one moment of the film she made a fascinating observation. The scene in question is Jack typing in the open hall by the fireplace. The camera holds the great emptiness of the room centering Jack in the middle of it and the viewer is left sitting and feeling that great emptiness and symmetry until Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall, interrupts from the right side of the screen calling Jack. Kubrick usually employs this destruction of symmetry for effect, and when Wendy walks up to Jack the music breaks as Jack rips the paper out of the typewriter to look up at her. Wendy offers to make him some sandwiches and then read his manuscript when he’s finished and Jack responds:
Jack Torrance: Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was. You understand?
Wendy Torrance: Yeah.
Jack Torrance: Now, we’re going to make a new rule. When you come in here and you hear me typing
Jack Torrance: or whether you *don’t* hear me typing, or whatever the *fuck* you hear me doing; when I’m in here, it means that I am working, *that* means don’t come in. Now, do you think you can handle that?
Wendy Torrance: Yeah.
Jack Torrance: Good. Now why don’t you start right now and get the fuck out of here? Hm?
As Wendy walks away my mother “Hmmed” and said, “So the film’s about spousal abuse, why didn’t anybody tell me?”
The first time I watched The Shining I never really noticed this because I was still a teenage boy. I was only interested in the violence and the idea of supernatural influence, and to reveal myself completely, at that age I found anti-heroes admirable. Jack Torrance was a figure who seemed to embody the same kind of nightmare darkness that I occupied at that age, or at least he seemed to, and as my local comic-shop owner said so beautifully to me “perception really is reality.” Watching it again however, and paying-heed to my mother’s observation, The Shining took on a new dimension because it became less a chance to perform a morbid hero-worship and instead became an exploration of domestic violence.
The great horror in the plotline of The Shining, both the novel as well as the film, is the question of whether or not Jack Torrence is behind the atrocious actions or whether it’s the Overlook Hotel influencing him and corrupting his will. If it was just a story about the Overlook corrupting Jack then the story most likely wouldn’t remain so terrifying to viewers and readers to this day. If his behavior is just because of the influence of the supernatural, if it’s just a haunted house, then there’s nothing scary because haunted houses aren’t real and the appeal stops there. If it is Jack however, then no matter how many years go by this will remain horrific because there isn’t anything so terrifying as when someone who’s supposed to love his family turns on them with violence.
I suspect the reason domestic violence is so disturbing is because husbands and fathers are supposed to be the emotional protectors against the outside world. Even if men aren’t supposed to be terribly emotional creatures, there’s still an understanding in families that fathers are supposed to love their children and husbands are supposed to love their wives. Watching the film after my mother made her great comment I was watching a later scene as I had never watched it before. Wendy walks into the main lobby, finds Jack missing, and discovers his manuscript which is composed of nothing but the phrase “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.” Realizing that her husband has lost his mind, and steadily has been losing his mind, she begins to weep when Jack appears and the following dialogue exchange occurs:
Jack Torrance: What are you doing down here?
Wendy Torrance: [sobbing] I just wanted to talk to you.
Jack Torrance: Okay, let’s talk. What do you wanna talk about?
Wendy Torrance: I can’t really remember.
Jack Torrance: You can’t remember… Maybe it was about… Danny? Maybe it was about him. I think we should discuss Danny. I think we should discuss what should be done with him. What should be done with him?
Wendy Torrance: I don’t know.
Jack Torrance: I don’t think that’s true. I think you have some very definite ideas about what should be done with Danny and I’d like to know what they are.
Wendy Torrance: Well, I think… maybe… he should be taken to a doctor.
Jack Torrance: You think “maybe” he should be taken to a doctor?
Wendy Torrance: Yes.
Jack Torrance: When do you think “maybe” he should be taken to a doctor?
Wendy Torrance: As soon as possible…?
Jack Torrance: [mocking/imitating her] As soon as possible…?
Wendy Torrance: Jack! What are… you…
Jack Torrance: You think his health might be at stake.
Wendy Torrance: Y-Yes!
Jack Torrance: You are concerned about him.
Wendy Torrance: Yes!
Jack Torrance: And are you concerned about me?
Wendy Torrance: Of course I am!
Jack Torrance: Of course you are! Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?
Wendy Torrance: Oh Jack, what are you talking about?
Jack Torrance: Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first. Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and “trust” in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a “contract,” in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a “moral and ethical principal” is? Do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?
Wendy Torrance: [swings the bat] Stay away from me!
This would be hard enough but for the scene that follows:
Wendy Torrance: [crying] Stay away from me.
Jack Torrance: Why?
Wendy Torrance: I just wanna go back to my room!
Jack Torrance: Why?
Wendy Torrance: Well, I’m very confused, and I just need time to think things over!
Jack Torrance: You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over, what good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?
Wendy Torrance: Please! Don’t hurt me!
Jack Torrance: I’m not gonna hurt you.
Wendy Torrance: Stay away from me!
Jack Torrance: Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in!
Jack Torrance: [laughs] Gonna bash ’em right the fuck in!
Wendy Torrance: Stay away from me! Don’t hurt me!
Jack Torrance: [sarcastically] I’m not gonna hurt ya…
Wendy Torrance: Stay away! Stop it!
Jack Torrance: Stop swingin’ the bat. Put the bat down, Wendy. Wendy? Give me the bat…
It’s fascinating watching this scene because several years ago while riding on my Stanley Kubrick kick I watched an interview with Steven Spielberg and another with Stephen King, and the sentiment from both of these men is that, while the film is brilliant, they didn’t like Jack Nicholson’s character because they felt he was cold or, in Spielberg’s own words, that it was too much like Kabuki theatre. I agreed with this sentiment the first time I watched The Shining, but with each subsequent viewing I began to disagree with this because, while his behavior was dramatic, Kubrick’s film was about madness and a person imploding while also becoming more and more susceptible to outside supernatural influence. There’s no doubt by the end of the film that the hotel is possessed by malevolent spirits who want Danny so that his ability can be used to attract more and more souls to the hotel, but the consistency of the horror to me is really the idea that Wendy and Danny are trapped in a physical space with a man who is imploding.
Before Wendy’s discovery of the manuscript she finds Jack suffering from a nightmare and he wakes up to tell her about his dream:
Jack Torrance: The most terrible nightmare I ever had. It’s the most horrible dream I ever had.
Wendy Torrance: It’s okay, it’s okay now. Really.
Jack Torrance: I dreamed that I, that I killed you and Danny. But I didn’t just kill ya. I cut you up in little pieces. Oh my God. I must be losing my mind.
It’s not enough that Jack suffers this atrocious nightmare, for by itself this wouldn’t contribute much to the film. As always with Stanley Kubrick this detail is horrifying to the viewer because of its sense of foreboding, or, really, it’s familiarity at this point. In just the opening moments of the film Jack is interviewed for the job and is told about the previous caretaker:
Stuart Ullman: I don’t suppose they told you anything in Denver about the tragedy we had in the Winter of 1970.
Jack Torrance: I don’t believe they did.
Stuart Ullman: My predecessor in this job left a man named Charles Grady as the Winter caretaker. And he came up here with his wife and two little girls, I think were eight and ten. And he had a good employment record, good references, and from what I’ve been told he seemed like a completely normal individual. But at some point during the winter, he must have suffered some kind of a complete mental breakdown. He ran amuck and killed his family with an axe. Stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the West wing and then he, he put both barrels of a shot gun in his mouth.
Jack will eventually meet Grady during the “Party” in the gold room and after Grady spills an avocado desert on his jacket and they adjoin to the men’s room he once again summons the imagery of familial destruction:
Delbert Grady: Did you know, Mr. Torrance, that your son is attempting to bring an outside party into this situation? Did you know that?
Jack Torrance: No.
Delbert Grady: He is, Mr. Torrance.
Jack Torrance: Who?
Delbert Grady: A nigger.
Jack Torrance: A nigger?
Delbert Grady: A nigger cook.
Jack Torrance: How?
Delbert Grady: Your son has a very great talent. I don’t think you are aware how great it is. That he is attempting to use that very talent against your will.
Jack Torrance: He is a very willful boy.
Delbert Grady: Indeed he is, Mr. Torrance. A very willful boy. A rather naughty boy, if I may be so bold, sir.
Jack Torrance: It’s his mother. She, uh, interferes.
Delbert Grady: Perhaps they need a good talking to, if you don’t mind my saying so. Perhaps a bit more. My girls, sir, they didn’t care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a pack of matches, and tried to burn it down. But I “corrected” them sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I “corrected” her.
All of these quotes only demonstrate that, while The Shining is most certainly a ghost story that relies on the Supernatural for its final climax, at work in the narrative and cinematic direction, there is a terrifying sense of claustrophobia that leads to spousal and familial abuse. Jack Torrence is supposed to be a good man who’s trying to do right by his family after failing them and actually physically hurting them, and by the end of the movie his mind is so warped he tries to kill his son and wife in the exact same manner his predecessor’s did. Stephen King is right in his assessment that The Shining is a “cold” movie, but if I may correct one of my literary heroes, that doesn’t make it any less horrifying than the novel.
While it is somewhat clichéd at times, the family is the core of most of human society because it’s the space where we learn about love, morality, trust, virtue, and proper behavior. It’s also supposed to be the space where we can retreat from the harshness and often unfeeling cruelty of real life. Stanley Kubrick’s film is a great testament to the horror genre because horror is supposed to explore territory that many find questionable or uncomfortable. The idea that the family could become so corrupted that the father would murder his own children unnerves us, because it’s a violation of the family unit, that unit which is supposed to be safe.
There are other avenues to explore in the film, but looking back on my mother’s passing sentiment my impression of the film changed dramatically, and that in itself is worth exploring in writing. The Shining is no longer just a superficial film about paranoia, claustrophobia, and ghosts, it’s about what happens when the men in families fail to do right by their loved ones.
On a final note, it may be unfair to call Jack a complete fuck-up, but then again the man does squander his chance to make his life something new. And perhaps it’s just out of habit, but by the end of the movie the man has become yet another person claiming to be a writer and producing little to nothing. This would make Jack Torrance only slightly more of a monster than those people who write screenplays at Starbucks.
Then again, I’m told possession by evil spirits may allow some forgiveness for writer’s block.
Because I love The Shining so much, while I was working on this essay I looked up just about every video on YouTube that I could and found a few gems:
The first is the interview with Spielberg where he discusses Kubrick as a man and filmmaker period:
The second is an episode of Charlie Rose shortly after Kubrick’s death where he interviews Kubrick’s widow and Matin Scorsese:
This is just a brief video showing the complicated relationship between Kubrick and Shelly Duvall:
The Making of The Shining:
A Collection of behind the scenes footage:
And finally, here’s a video of Stephen King’s impression and opinions of The Shining movie, and, forwarning, he’s not a huge fan of it.
Long before I decided to write this essay I watched a video on YouTube which explored the famous shot of the elevators exploding into the river of blood. Rob Ager is a film critic with his own channel who has argued some controversial claims about Stanley Kubrick’s films in the past, but his observation permanently changed the way I watch The Shining because he notes that at the start of the elevator doors opening there’s some solid object which lands at the bottom of the river of blood on the left (facing) side. It’s a quick shot, a quick moment, and easy to miss, but Kubrick was too meticulous a film maker to leave something like that to chance. I definitely encourage you to watch the video, because when I watched the film again I noticed the shape in the blood, wondering if it couldn’t possibly be a human being, but then, we find in vagueness what we wish to find:
All passages from the novel The Shining were taken from the Doubleday First edition hardback. All quotes from the film were provided care of IMDb.