Or, How Jack Showed Me The Worst Version of Myself, and Why I Hated It.
I’m not a contrarian, not usually. But there was definitely some contrarian pride at the base of my long running hatred of Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. I should say: now I love it. I watched it, I get it, I got it, and it’s amazing. I get the hype. It’s a fresh love, though. I was planning on writing a different piece, before I re-watched it and finally saw the good. It was going to be about meanness – how Kubrick’s personal on-set cruelty, especially towards Shelly Duval, translated into the film. It wasn’t going to be a hit piece, just something other than the usual breathless praise, I thought. But then I watched it again, and all I really have is breathless praise. I’ll get there, eventually – but for now, with a new perspective, I want to try and understand why I hated it so much. Because, in hindsight, I think the film just got under my skin.
Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) great failing in The Shining isn’t his inability to be a good father, or his inability to control his anger. At least, not really. It’s his inability to see the big picture, to get out of his own head. He gets fixated on an idea – specifically that Wendy’s (Shelly Duval) influence on his son is a bad one – and resolves that the only way he can rectify the situation is through violence. He can’t see any other option; his mind is closed off to every other possibility.
When I was growing up, I got yelled at quite a bit. That makes my parents sound cruel, which they weren’t, I was just a lot to handle. Not in any bad way either, I was just exhausting. “Derek, be quiet”, “Derek, calm down”, “Shut up, please”, “Derek—I’m busy. Later. Ok?” I would ping pong between fixations, always wanting to share, always wanting to tell, always wanting to show whoever was nearby what was right in front of me. The whole time running, always running, running, running, like a train of fascinations and commentary that never really stopped. This is still a part of me, but I’ll get to that later.
Once adolescence hit, my personality swerved from hyperactivity into docility and shyness. This was, in part, just due to the inherent awkwardness of puberty and hormones. Also, though, it was because of my friends, who I am incredibly grateful for. My main group consisted predominately of girls who were active on Tumblr and into social science, and so through the osmosis of conversations I, by degrees, became horrified by how shitty men could be to women. So, I swerved into being reserved, my worst fear was being “one of those guys” in a story some poor woman would someday share with her confidants over a cup of coffee.
Sometime during my adolescence, before that fear morphed into tactfulness, I re-watched The Shining. This time I was angry. Angered, and disgusted by Jack’s passive aggression, his falseness, his inability to talk genuinely with his wife. I also hated Wendy’s hesitance—she just needs to yell at him, I remember thinking. Shake his head and snap him back to reality. Wendy and Jack’s relationship seemed to be everything I had grown to find intolerable-a cruel man dominating a poor, submissive woman. It made Wendy look bad, and put too much emphasis on Jack’s cruelty. It was a nightmare marriage that neither of them could escape, with Wendy too afraid of destroying the fragile peace that exists, and Jack is simply unable to see past his own misery. Their relationship seemed to be a relic of the past, a certain brand of toxicity that I found to be antiquated and useless.
As I’ve moved from adolescence into early adulthood, the fixations that characterized my childhood have returned to some degree. Usually, they’re goal oriented – and very much do or die. I often think “Once this project is done, I can be satisfied”, “Once I see this movie, I’ll be content”, or whatever – I often ascribe my current unease to some forward goal or object, and then life simply becomes about waiting for that to be done.
Usually this is actually a good thing; it keeps me motivated, keeps me working. If I don’t work, I get deliriously sad, so it’s good to keep going. But sometimes it happens with relationships. I think “If I ask that person out, I’ll be happy”, “If I befriend this person, I’ll be happy”. But there are more insidious examples. They usually involve blaming my current unhappiness on some relationship in my life, with the solution being to end the relationship. Usually I identify what this is – panic, a deeper emotion that I need to identify and resolve – and the result is either the urge to radically change dissipates, or it facilitates a healthy conversation. It’s always reasonably resolved. Except for one recent example.
Jack watches over his kingdom, ironically seeing, in full view, the very thing that will lead to his downfall.
I’ve been dating my girlfriend for almost two years, we’re very happy together, and a few weeks ago we almost broke up. We’re long distance, and it increasingly seems like our lives are going in vastly different directions. It’s just the way it is. We’re unsure of when we’re going to see each other next because of the pandemic. The day we almost broke up was a pretty normal day—I woke up, had breakfast, played with the dog, moped around, then did some yard work. We were texting throughout. I was outside shovelling when the fixation took hold. I thought about how much more time of long distance we have in front of us. Then it hit me that it’s probably not if we break up, but when. That just sent me into an absolute panic – I started crying while shovelling and had to sit down in the dirt. The dog came over and started licking my face. Then I got it in my head that, if it was inevitable, I should do it now. Just get it done. Just get it over with. That thought was like a computer virus, taking full control away, putting me on autopilot with that one goal. I was completely unable to resist, any form of self doubt was impossible. I had found what needed to be done, and was doing it.
This bullheadedness, this tendency towards single-minded fixation, has always been a part of me. Usually I can manage it properly, but not that day. That day my hands were wrenched off the controls and I was on autopilot for a good long while. I had to try it, it was the only way, it was my responsibility to be the mature one and end it now. I had to.
So I brought it up. I was going to do it. Luckily, before the end, the conviction released its hold, and we talked it through, gave it some time, and decided to stay together.
Back when I was nineteen and still hated The Shining, I thought that Jack’s inability to see beyond his own anger was a flaw in the writing. At least, that’s what I said. I argued that there wasn’t really any deliberation, or revelation, or moralistic pondering. He started out a miserable jerk, and just got worse – that’s not fun to watch, that’s not compelling. Even now, I recognize there’s an agony to watching Jack and Wendy, in seeing Jack slowly indulge his worst impulses. It’s not enjoyable to watch. But of course, miserable viewings can also be cinematically captivating. Nicholson’s Torrance is a riveting portrait of a man made up of his worst moments: a dark reflection of so many types of people. Sometimes you just get worse. Sometimes you get nastier, more brutal, and self destructive. Jack doesn’t need detailed backstory or nuance. He is an angry man. That is all. We’ve all met him.
So, I hated him. Jack Torrance made me roll my eyes and sigh in frustration – this is the iconic performance? This is the guy everyone talks about? Just an angry man? Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, I can admit there was something more to my hatred than just narrative critique. I didn’t want to recognize that a descent into madness and rage doesn’t need to be complex or nuanced or agonizing. I wanted to believe that, for myself. But of course, it doesn’t. Sometimes people become evil, and they do it with barely a complaint.
When I was younger still, maybe thirteen years old, I found The Shining pretty boring. Or, that’s what I said. But what I meant was that it wasn’t a fun horror film. I didn’t enjoy it – it made me sweat. I can’t help but wonder if little, hyperactive me saw how Jack fixated on hurting Wendy, and wondered if I could ever do something like that.
The afternoon I almost broke up with my girlfriend was a Jack Torrance moment. I became completely fixated on an idea that would definitely ruin my relationship and I couldn’t see any other option. Luckily, it didn’t end up with me deliriously running through a freezing maze wielding an axe. I didn’t even really understand what happened all too well until I watched The Shining again after deciding to write something to cover its anniversary. It spoke to me on a level that I hadn’t expected it to; I saw myself in the film’s many mirrors.
I know there are a million and one ways to read Kubrick’s film, but watching it then, it seemed as clear as if it was written in plain old English: it’s a mirror. Jack is anybody in their worst moments, when they can’t see beyond their own misery, when they’re too self obsessed to recognize the big picture and talk through their feelings. We’ve all been there, I think. I’ve always had moments like that, of getting ourselves worked up. Maybe that’s why it took my so long to finally come around on the film, because I saw parts of myself in Jack. Film is a mirror pointed at the soul, and I hated what it showed me.
Now – that’s the end of part one. It’s also the end of the personal stuff. In the next part I will be diving into praise of the film’s many grey areas, and the motif of twos. I’ll also ask: just what exactly is ‘the shining’?