Halfway through The Shining, Jack Nicholson accepts a glass of whiskey from a ghost. It’s by no means the most memorable scene in the movie (or the second most, or the twentieth most). But like everything else that happens in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, it brings up questions that have no easy answers. Unsettling ambiguities accrete around this spectral glass of whiskey like the snow that is building up around the walls of the Overlook Hotel throughout the film. For one, how is it that Kubrick, infamous for his painstaking attention to detail, allows Jack Torrance to order a glass of bourbon, only for the ghost bartender to pour from a bottle that is clearly Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey? More importantly, is that glass of whiskey even there? Is it an illusion, a product of deep-seated psychosis, a mass of ectoplasm? Or has it materialized there? Is Jack’s need for a drink stronger than the laws of physics themselves?
To continue, we must back up. Stephen King, who wrote the book The Shining is based on, famously disowned the film for making Jack Torrance into a monster, for going too far astray from his original character. King’s version was a more conflicted figure, whose psychosis is traced to a history of abuse, and explained away by a ghostly presence whom King takes great pains to make us understand and conceptualize. At the end of the book, Jack has a last minute redemption, sacrificing himself to save his wife and son and destroy the evil once and for all. Although I don’t think King sought to absolve Jack, I find this ending deeply upsetting. That Jack has abused his family and attempted repeatedly to murder them seems a temporary lapse for a heroic soul, the dot of mayonnaise on Superman’s lip. The 1997 miniseries version of The Shining, which King wrote, only underscores this theme: In the last scene, Danny graduates from college, and looks out to see a spectral Jack Torrance looking on. He doesn’t wink and toss Danny a ghost-football, but he might as well.
Kubrick, on the other hand, doesn’t pat us on the back, doesn’t hold our hand, doesn’t dump Gatorade over our heads and carry us out of the stadium on his shoulders. He lets us wallow there in the blood and muck, lets every ambiguity play out beyond the point of confusion, beyond the point of frustration. There is no point, in watching Kubrick’s Shining, when you can tell yourself, “I get it,” or “It’s all going to be okay,” or “It’s all over.” His version of a happy ending is a small child and his emotionally distraught mother riding in an open-air vehicle into the heart of a blizzard while his father freezes to death. This movie tells us the more painful truth. There are choices we can’t take back. There are places that, once we have visited them, we can’t come back from. We can’t always continue to be the people we have been.
Call it a question of worldview. In King’s world, there are monsters, there are ghosts. Monsters make it easy to displace blame. It wasn’t Jack’s fault. The ghosts made him do it. For Kubrick though, the only monsters that matter are the ones we make ourselves, the ones living inside of us, the ones that are impossible to kill. Did the ghost open that door, or did you? Does it matter who offered you the drink, if you took it? Did you do what you did because of what you drank, or because of what you are? Are you sick, or are you, yourself, the sickness? King’s world may be more comforting, but Kubrick’s is the one we live in. That’s what makes it so terrifying.
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I spent Thanksgiving 2008 visiting a city far colder than the one I lived in, staying with friends with my girlfriend at the time. It was the first Thanksgiving of our adult lives, in many ways. I had been in my twenties just long enough to start wondering if my life had meaning, if there were any significant milestones left, or if the rest of life was just a slow counting upward, nines and fives adding up forever and somehow always reaching zero. I was working my first real job—I didn’t like it. Most of my friends had moved away or drifted in other directions. Apartments full of music and beer and loud, passionate conversations about music and beer had been replaced by quiet evenings at home, making soup and watching sitcoms. This Thanksgiving was our first time reuniting with some of our favorite friends, our favorite drinking friends. The kind of people about whom you would say, “They’re alcoholics!” when you were young and stupid enough to think that was a compliment. The plan was simple. Drink as much as possible. Eat a shit load of food. Have a great time.
One of these friends, let’s call him Richard, had become increasingly upset with each of the dozen or so PBRs that he drank. Apparently Richard had fallen out with his sister after a huge fight with her husband, and after talking with her on the phone that night, he started to spiral. Richard had always been the one to take things too far, the one to move the evening from irresponsible fun to shouting, to walking out in a huff, to spraying beer on your clothes, to jumping off of a balcony and puncturing his spleen. I’d once said to a friend that he reminded me of Beat generation muse Neal Cassady, without the poetry. He was a few years older than us, and had been living with our friend, let’s call her Gillian, for years.
After dinner, late at night, after all the food was gone and most of the booze was, I told Richard to “stop being an asshole.” He took me by the shoulder, looked straight into my eyes, and with a violent intent that I’d never before seen on a person’s face, told me to get out before he kicked my ass. I, of course, did the thing that any self-respecting man would do in this situation: I locked myself in the spare bedroom and refused to open the door while he pounded on it and paced up and down the halls, screaming.
I had planned to simply stay in the guest room and wait it out, hoping that maybe Gillian would intervene, or maybe that Richard would wear himself out and fall asleep like an over-stimulated dog. Hours later, we unlocked the door when we heard screams, and rushed out into the living room to see that Gillian had tried to jump out the window. Two other friends had managed to pull her back in. I didn’t know what to do. I stood there. There was some stupid slasher movie on the TV. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. My girlfriend asked if we should call 911. One of our friends simply shook his head. “No,” he said. “This has happened before. This is normal, now.” To this day, I’m not sure what was more frightening, the fact that my friend had been reduced to this, or that it had gotten so bad that it was now considered normal.
* * *
There is a certain camp of people who will tell you that Shelley Duvall’s performance in The Shining is terrible. Stanley Kubrick, judging from interviews he gave over the years, is probably a member of this camp. Kubrick, for lack of a better word, tortured Duvall throughout the filming. He forced her to endure multiple takes of the simplest scenes, berated her for minor mistakes. She endured terrible stress throughout the production. In one famous clip captured in a behind the scenes documentary shot by Kubrick’s daughter, the director reacts with bemused indifference when Duvall shows him that her hair has begun to fall out. You can accuse me of sentimentality, but I can’t help but take Shelley Duvall’s side. This woman, this character, trapped on all sides, in fiction and nonfiction, by vengeful men.
After a day spent hiding out with other friends, comforting ourselves with Seinfeld reruns and sandwiches from the grocery store, staying in for the night and going to bed early, we met up with Gillian downtown. Two days after Thanksgiving, and there was already a Christmas festival set up in the shopping district. We walked through aisles of quaint pavilions selling hot cocoa and candy canes while Gillian told us that everything was going to change. Richard was going to be better. He was going to stop. Every one of us knew, without even having to wait and see, that he wouldn’t. “I’m going to be there for you,” I told her. I was lying, but I didn’t know what else to say. Our friendships, the fun we’d once had together, these were things we couldn’t have back. Something was broken that we didn’t know how to fix.
Far worse things have happened to a lot of people in this world than what happened to me on that Thanksgiving night. Even Gillian, the victim of an emotionally abusive relationship, could have ended up so much worse. Richard is out of the picture now, probably for good. This isn’t about feeling sorry for me, or for her, or for any of us. What it’s about is the look that I saw in Richard’s eyes that night. That look that said, “I am going to hurt you. I want to.” That look that ended years of friendship in an instant. That look that seemed to come out of nowhere. That look that Stephen King would have you believe is something less than who you are. But we are the things we do. We are the choices we make. We are the people we hurt. We are that look in our eyes. We don’t get to change that because we’re sorry. Stanley Kubrick knew that. Jack Torrance knew that. We can’t escape from it. It’s always been here.