Have you ever sat down to watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and wondered about its links to the Holocaust? Or what if I told you that the film is a commentary on Kubrick’s involvement in the 1968 moon landing (which the director faked the footage of)? Or that Kubrick’s face can be spotted in the clouds during the opening credits?
Welcome to the world of Room 237. With the tagline “Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts,” Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary takes a wild plunge into some of the more out-there theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of delusion and social isolation.
Presented in a pseudo-lecture style, the opinions delivered by Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner (overlaid with footage from the film) range from the implausible but interesting to the far-fetched and slightly unnerving. The documentary opens with the more believable theory that Kubrick’s film was a commentary on the genocide of the Native Americans. It ends, contrastingly, with Ryan telling us in great detail about the parallels that emerge when the film is played forwards and backwards at the same time.
It’s very easy to assume that the people Ascher has gathered together all occupy a similar part of the internet to Alex Jones and other wacky conspiracy theorists. And sure, Weidner certainly does belong to that niche, his website describing him as a “‘modern-day Indiana Jones’ for his ongoing worldwide quests to find clues to mankind’s spiritual destiny via ancient societies and artifacts,” and whose theories on the film lie at the moon landing end of the spectrum.
But then Ascher also includes people like Blakemore, a veteran ABC news reporter who has covered major events such as the Iraq wars, 9/11, and the reign of Pope John Paul II, and Cocks, a historian specializing in the medicine and psychotherapy of Germany. Blakemore argues for the Native American theory, pointing to repeated sightings of Calumet baking powder tins that depict a native chief’s headdress, while Cocks delivers the argument of the film being about the Holocaust, highlighting the final transition of the film in which a Hitler moustache is briefly visible on Jack Nicholson’s face.
By featuring this eclectic mix of commentators, it feels like Ascher is making the point that it isn’t just a select few online forum-dwelling enthusiasts that are driven crazy by Kubrick’s film. Blakemore and Cocks are evidence that people from all sorts of backgrounds and professions can curate their own wild theories about Kubrick’s work, proving that the influence of The Shining stretches far and wide.
Viewed from this angle, Room 237 becomes a far more interesting watch. Rather than just presenting us with an opportunity to laugh at some oddball ideas, it begins to question why it is that the famously elusive director’s filmography attracts quite so many wide-reaching theories about all kinds of hidden meanings and subliminal messages.
It is important to note that analysis of Kubrick’s work centers around the latter half of his filmography, with The Shining attracting the brunt of the analysis. This is because there was a clear turning point in Kubrick’s filmmaking style, starting with the release of 2001 in 1968, where he began to make, in the words of critic Bill Krohn, “films that are like no films that had ever been seen, including his own.”
More specifically, Kubrick placed an increasing emphasis on atmosphere and mood over conventional structure and narrative, focussing more on the idea of cinema as an experience. The critic John Russell Taylor has a great anecdote about meeting Kubrick; since Taylor had been critical of the director’s previous films, Kubrick was very reluctant to meet him. But upon reading that Taylor had described 2001’s ending as being “designed to set the audience tripping,” Kubrick was suddenly eager to arrange a meeting to further discuss the psychedelic effects of the finale and told Taylor that Hitchcock once had a plan to wire up cinema seats so that audiences could be controlled by electrical impulse.
Watching the long sequences of Danny riding around the Overlook Hotel on his tricycle or Jack’s encounter with the mysterious woman in the bathroom, you do get a very clear sense that Kubrick was now pursuing a more open-ended, immersive style of filmmaking. As a result, his films increasingly skewered conventional storytelling, instead aiming to draw the viewer into the mystery. For diehard Kubrick fans, this was seen as an enticing invitation to try and solve the puzzle of his later films, to find the hidden meaning within Kubrick’s new style of filmmaking.
For example, in Cock’s dissection of The Shining’s historical commentary, he spends a lot of time puzzling over the film’s strangely ambiguous ending. He looks at it through a historical lense, arguing that it is Kubrick’s way of showing us “how you escape from the nightmare of the past.” By literally retracing his steps and subsequently fleeing from his father, Danny shows us how we should acknowledge and learn from the past in order to escape its horrors. Cocks then goes on to offer several rather questionable theories about the final shot of the 1921 Overlook photo, showing how Kubrick’s increasingly mysterious endings would attract more and more attention and analysis.
Shelley Duval (who played the role of Wendy in The Shining) once compared the experience of shooting with Kubrick to Groundhog Day. His obsession with perfection, shooting the same scene over and over again until it was just right and doing years of research and planning for each film is another part of what makes Kubrick’s films so layered and open to exploration. Every shot, every detail in The Shining is precisely engineered to disorientate and unsettle.
The warped layout of the Overlook Hotel, for example, attracts a lot of attention in Room 237, with Kearns drawing out a detailed map of the hotel and obsessing over multiple corridors and windows that make no sense spatially. This ultimately leads to her realising (in a “jump up and down moment”) that the hotel is a labyrinth and Jack is the minotaur, the film thus serving as a modern take on Ancient Greek mythology.
Other commentators in the documentary pick up on a number of continuity errors in the film. These errors originally came from Kubrick stitching together multiple takes to make a complete scene, but become, in the eyes of some, proof of a deeper conspiracy. Cocks highlights a scene where a sticker on Danny’s door depicting Dopey the dwarf disappears mid-scene, using it as proof that he is now enlightened to the horrors of the world. “Now he knows, he is no longer a dope about things,” Cocks says.
Chuck Klosterman calls this type of analysis “immersion criticism,” which revolves around the belief that “symbolic, ancillary details inside a film are infinitely more important than the surface dialogue or the superficial narrative,” something that Kubrick’s maddening attention to detail definitely encourages. At another point in Room 237, Weidner says that upon seeing The Shining for the first time, he was disappointed in it and that his “reverence for Stanley Kubrick diminished.” But he still found himself returning to the film every few years, frustrated by the bizarre nature of the film but determined to figure out the meanings hidden within all of the strange little details.
Other commentators in Ascher’s documentary share a similar experience with The Shining: at first disliking it, then being constantly pulled back into watching it. This serves as a testament to the director’s deliberate attempts to confuse and provoke his audiences, ensuring that his films would stick in their minds long afterwards. In a film packed with so many bizarre unexplained choices and orchestrated by such an elusive director, why would that poster on the wall be placed there? Surely to convey some hidden message? And why all the strange number patterns that occur throughout the film? Surely they must hold some subliminal meaning? Thus, the desire to investigate these things further would pull them back to the film time and time again.
Kubrick himself once said, “I think the best thing is when an audience looks at the film and wonders whether something they see is an accident or whether the director or writer meant them to know it.” To the many enthusiasts of his work, this quote came as a clear endorsement of their continued attempts to unpack his films, and a possible hint that Kubrick was aware of the many hidden meanings within his work.
When Kubrick declined to offer an explanation on his film, it opened the door to all sorts of wide-ranging theories, and gave everyone the belief that they had the key to unlock The Shining’s true meaning. We can see this in Room 237 where Cocks, Blakemore, Kearns, Weidner and Ryan all speak with the same confidence in their respective theories, each of them believing that they have tapped into Kubrick’s true intentions.
As far as The Shining theories go, Room 237 is really just the tip of the iceberg though. One of the most well-known investigations into the film is a blog by user “Jonnys53” that, through a series of articles published back in 2007-8, combed through the film frame-by-frame in search of all sorts of hidden meanings and symbols. The blog is further proof of the way the film has confused and perplexed people, especially when you find the series of posts that highlight every single continuity error in the film (similar to Cocks’ analysis) and another rather long piece that explores the hidden meaning of numbers in the film. At one point, they even suggest that Kubrick hid the date of the 2012 Mayan apocalypse in the final shot.
It is of course deeply ironic that the adaptation of a novel that revolves around a man’s gradual surrender to obsession has captivated and frustrated so many people. But we can see this as part of Kubrick’s genius, crafting a surreal nightmare that is as impressive as it is beguiling, a film that pulls you back in again and again. Just as the Overlook Hotel worked its way into Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) psyche, Kubrick’s adaptation buries its way into your mind.
Watching Room 237 and all these countless YouTube videos on the “Mystery of the Twins” and “How a Red Book Could Explain Everything,” you sometimes feel the urge to reach out and slap these people, maybe tell them to get a bit more fresh air (a.k.a one hour of state-sanctioned exercise). But as you tumble further and further down the rabbit hole, you start to understand the intoxicating allure of Kubrick’s later work and the excitement of unearthing all these hidden meanings and puzzles hidden within.
By no means am I endorsing theories about Kubrick’s secret illuminati obsession or the parallels that emerge when you play The Shining forwards and backwards at the same time, but it is obvious why Kubrick’s work attracts such a unique amount of excitement. By sidelining linear narratives, packing in all kinds of unsettling little details, and inviting his audiences to try and figure out his films, Kubrick’s horror masterpiece will continue to captivate and confuse for many years to come.
Header image courtesy of Warner Bros.