Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”
This weekend, between bouts of berating the smugly self-satisfied buyers on “Tiny House Hunters”, I re-watched “The Shining” (1980) because, as the saying goes, it was there. We all know that television passively feeds us, and all we have to do is sit back and allow ourselves to be fed. Me being me, even when that engagement starts out as passive, it eventually becomes rather active, not so much because I am anticipating certain lines or scenes – “Wendy…love of my life…” – but because the brain cannot stop being a brain simply because I want it to switch into idle mode.
I am not a Stephen King fan, and so cannot speak to “The Shining” the film’s relationship to “The Shining” the novel. The lone occasion when I casually picked up a collection of Stephen King short stories at the beach and read one at random is an event that I wish I could undo, or at least bleach what I read from my mind. Therefore if you are an expert in his work, please, refrain from commenting on how if I *only* read the book the film would make more sense, since that is never going to happen.
For a long time I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in the film version of “The Shining”, because I never quite understood why it is that he ends up the way that he does. From other horror films, we know that opening the door to the occult by playing with Ouija boards or tarot cards is never a good idea. Yet even this weekend, in discussion with someone who watched the film with me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that led to Jack’s downfall. After all, he had not drawn a pentagram on the floor or started worshiping goats. It was only when I had the long trip back to DC yesterday that I had the chance to think a bit more about the damnation of Jack Torrance.
Two thoughts occurred to me, in considering what it was that made Jack something other than a dull boy. The first is that, in a sense, Jack actually did invite the devil in – an old one that was already very familiar to him. For Jack, as we learn early on in the film, is a recovering alcoholic. Although alcohol has been removed from the hotel as part of their insurance coverage, he nevertheless turns to the idea of alcohol in his frustration, an idea which his mind (or the haunted hotel, take your pick) is all too happy to indulge.
Jack’s addiction is not an excuse for his harming others, but it is an explanation. Perhaps today, we are more conscious of the complicated roots and effects of addiction than we were when this film was made, and we can understand that there is some degree of mental illness or brain damage that has taken root in the serious substance abuser. However the choices that one makes as an adult are, like it or not, still choices made using our own free will and not staring down the barrel of a gun. As a result, these sorts of choices have consequences.
The second thought, which is perhaps tied to the first, is that Jack’s character is motivated primarily by self-interest. While it is easy to mock Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) because of her appearance and mannerisms, it is she who not only displays real backbone but, more importantly, a sense of self-sacrifice. After all, she follows her husband out into the wilderness, because she believes him when he says that this will be a good opportunity for them to start afresh. The fact that she references the Donner Party while doing so turns out to be rather an inauspicious coincidence, as we watch the family unit slowly devour itself.
Recall the moment when Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) shows up with unexplained bruising around his neck, and Wendy naturally runs to her husband for help. Given Jack’s reactions, she concludes that it is he who has inflicted physical abuse on their son, as indeed he had done previously. Wendy is trapped, both in an abusive marriage and in a location so isolated, forbidding, and dangerous that it may as well be outer space (something which Kubrick as a director understood very well.) Yet even toward the end of the film, when her own future seems bleakest, Wendy is more concerned with saving others than she is with saving herself.
Perhaps then, the demon that gets Jack in the end is the one that stalks all of us: selfishness. For much of the film, Jack complains to Wendy that he is doing what he has to do for his family, except that he really isn’t. His choices are largely based on what he wants, and what he (as it turns out, mistakenly) believes is the best way for him to make up for his failures, as he descends into madness. Even if the Overlook Hotel somehow amplifies that selfishness, because of evil things that have taken place there previously, the hotel itself is not responsible for the individual’s decision to sit down to tea with the Devil in the first place.
However one cannot help but recognize, as Jack flails about in the maze at the end of the film like a wounded animal, incapable of forming human speech, that to look upon this figure without sympathy is to somehow become an animal oneself. Yes, Jack receives his just desserts, but without downplaying the horrible things he has done, one cannot help but feel just a tinge of pity for someone who could not finish the good fight. If we were isolated and battling our own demons, would we really come out of the fight any better than Jack? I wonder…and yet personally, I do not care to find out, thanks all the same.