Originally published in Farrago Edition Three (2022)
Nestled between the Colorado mountains, the Overlook watches on.
The iconic scene of a deteriorating Jack Torrance swinging a bat at a terrified Wendy Torrance is one that is a staple in the world of horror cinema. Perhaps it is odd to describe a family driving their bug through the winding roads of the Colorado mountain hotel as a "watcher" of sorts, but truth be told, there is no other word more suitable. One can state without a fathom of a doubt that Stanley Kubrick' The Shining captured the twisted depths of Stephen King's morbidly unnerving imagination and, indeed, did it well. I'd go as far to say that Kubrick elevated the grandeur of Jack Torrance's uncanny descent into madness from mildly concerning to downright nauseous. He stays true to the novel in portraying the few integral puzzle pieces that makes up the eerie mind of its leading character, Jack Torrance: rage, alcoholism, a medley of assorted ghouls, ghosts and phantoms, and "what the old-
For isn't this sense of inevitability, this exact same tragedy, this timers used to call cabin fever".
It is ironic and rather a crime that the ghouls and ghosts stick to the sidelines in tugging the strings of Jack's conscience propelling him further and further into an abyss that he will never succeed in climbing out of. Yet, most people fail to realise that Jack was already teetering upon that precarious edge between sanity and insanity long before he stepped foot into the Overlook. The Overlook's illustrious history of sex-scandals, mafia shoot-outs and underground brothel operations fits right in with Jack's particular strain of madness.
Snapshot: a son's arm snapped in two by a father's loving hand.
Snapshot: a pupil beaten to a bloody pulp over a prank.
Snapshot: the stench of rancid alcohol as a slurring voice mutters, "l'd give my god-damned soul for just a glass of beer."
The bargain is made. The deal is done. Faustus weeps.
Had The Shining been a different type of movie, I would have watched in admiration at the ghouls' tricks in persuading Jack to participate in an axe killer's murderous rampage. In another context, his inane cry of, "Here's Johnny!" would be farcical if not downright hilarious. Yet, we are not just witnessing a serial killer in the making.
This is the story of a transformation into madness, yes, but it's also the story of how a loving husband and father, one who strived and strived again to break away from a cycle of abuse, alcoholism and self-destruction, fails in his efforts and becomes what he has always feared he would become. It is the story of how love, ambition, family and talent weren't enough for the allure of liquor and the snares of undiagnosed rage issues to completely fade away. It's the story of how one boy, barely six years old, is forced to look his father in the eve and admit that he cannot recognise him anymore. That is the tragedy of Jack Torrance.
The very first scene in The Shining is of the happy Torrance Colorado mountains; a sheer drop on their left and the towering mountains on their right, like giants frozen in time from a forgotten tale. They do not know that in less than six months they will lose everything they have ever known, though Wendy certainly has her suspicions. She is the one person who suffered through Jack's alcoholism after all. Yet, the sheer singularity of the bug driving happily up to the gaping maw of the Overlook, straight into the belly of the beast if you will, is the very picture of the inevitability of their fate; one that fills the spectator with an awful sense of dread.
For isn't this sense of inevitability, this exact same tragedy, this exact Faustian bargain, played out over and over and over in countless lives, in every continent, every day? How many people each year gape into a maw stenched with cheap booze and suddenly find themselves trapped in the sticky quicksand of its sludge? Aren't countless others constantly strung along by the invisible puppet master of past trauma, resentment and anger until their own loved ones cannot even recognise them anymore?
Perhaps madness is more than a lack of necessary hormones, generational mental illness or innate psychopathic traits. Rather, I suppose, madness is something people inflict on people, creating the evolution of harmful actions into full-blown sociopathic brimstone and sulphur.
Jack's predisposition to madness is the banquet upon which the Overlook Hotel feeds on. His son's, Danny's, eerie telepathic abilities may have triggered the entities out of their stupor, but Jack and Jack alone serves as the prime chess piece in their games. After all, aren't rage, alcoholism, and isolation considered other forms of madness? If, in theory, madness serves to alter a human being from sane and functional, to insane, impulsive and destructive, does not rage and alcoholism, which transforms a mild man into a violent and foul-mouthed fiend, deserve the title of "madness" as well?
In the aftermath of The Shining, Mike Flannagan's sequel Doctor Sleep, the jaded Danny Torrance is on the precipice of going down the dark and narrow whisky-scented path his
father once did. A revisit to the Overlook shows him his father as the eternal bartender, forever festering in his own rage, resentment and alcoholism. He offers his son a drink, just as the Overlook once offered Jack a drink and thus sealed his fate. The difference this time is that Danny staunchly refuses He has no anger towards a father he could never have known, no resentment to a mother who put her life on the line to save him, and no obsession with alcohol, for he has long overcome that obstacle.
As expected, the only murderous rampage Danny partakes in is against the ghouls and ghosts of the Overlook, who, let's be honest, entirely deserved it.
The horror of The Shining lies in the supernatural's relative apathy, and the paramount role people play in instilling "madness" in those they interact with. Flipping through the pages of the novel, Stephen king quips, "This inhuman place makes human monsters". Towards the end of the tragedy, however, the quip has changed along with the characters, a final death blow that was the one aspect Kubrick failed to include in the film:
"Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters."