Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

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.


Lessons from the Farmyard: Are You a Pig?

Having grown up in a small town in the countryside, not on a farm myself but surrounded by them, I was fortunate enough to have a sense not only of where our food comes from, but of what it takes to go from barn to supermarket to dinner table.  I can spot the difference between soybeans, alfalfa, and corn beginning to emerge from the ground.  I know that some of the animals I might see standing about in the pasture today, will not be there in a few months’ time.  I can also discern the difference – at a distance – between the odors of cow, pig, and sheep manure fertilizer.

And because I know it when I smell it, I think it’s time for us to take a step back, and take a big whiff of what society is telling us about the Church: because quite frankly, it’s a load of…droppings.

Christianity is increasingly presented as an obstacle to personal fulfillment, however one chooses to define that term this week.  Many Catholics around the country seem to be agreeing with that assessment, if you saw the recent map showing the distribution of the major religions of the United States.  Although Catholics are now the largest religious group in this country, many of the states where Catholics are the majority have Mass attendance levels which barely keep the parishes open, causing one to wonder what exactly these Catholics actually believe.

What is the root cause of this blight?  The fault, we are often told, lies in the rigid history of the Church, the negative aspects of which are repeated over and over again by uneducated entertainers, bitter academics, and the chat show hosts who fawn over them both.  The alternative, or rather the only acceptable option now available to us, is a Christianity that conforms, rather than divides.  We are all to be pigs together, not sheep and goats.

Under this scenario, one can snarf up from the communal trough whatever one likes, provided that no one else is offended by it.  If only we agree to eat the same garbage that everyone else is eating, we are told, we would be much happier, and the world would be a better place.  We would have things like fatter wallets, bigger muscles, and newer gadgets, making us into prize specimens, little gods of the domestic barnyard.  And as we roll long our merry way, contentedly stuffing ourselves until we glisten in the summer sunshine, we forget what ultimately happens to farm animals.

If the line of reasoning presently being foisted upon us by the media and commentariat seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it’s been tried before – and worked.  For this is a shadow that has dogged our steps since the days of our first parents in Eden, despite those who try to dismiss their story as little more than a fairy tale.  “If only” you do this, we’re told, as they were, you’ll be gods.  The delivery may be different, since we don’t see many talking snakes these days, but if the formula works, why change it?  Call it individualism, or self-actualization, or what you will, but the idea that abandoning the cross in order to embrace material things will keep us from suffering and death is the real fairy tale.

In fact, the only difference between Eden and today, is that the Tempter’s message has gone mainstream.  Now it comes from people like self-help gurus, investment professionals, motivational speakers, and even supposed “Christian” evangelists.  They come onto our televisions and into our inboxes, telling us how we can avoid the fate of all human beings for only 3 easy payments of $19,95.  It comes from magazines and films that demand we pursue our own pleasure, whatever it might be, because it “feels” right, never having to consider why something as transient as a mere feeling is rarely going to serve us well.  And in the end, those who promise us that they can turn us into prize pigs end up losing everything themselves, sooner or later.

It isn’t easy to resist the urge to join in the feeding frenzy at the trough, particularly when you’re constantly being told that you need to accept the garbage you’re being fed in order for your life to be a success.  However, we will not cheat suffering, or keep death from the gate, by turning ourselves into creatures driven by our appetites.  Our eyes need to be fixed on our church steeples, not on the various screens filled with garbage that, like pig troughs, so often remain the intent focus of the human gaze.

Let’s make a point this summer, just as the crops themselves are growing in anticipation of the harvest this autumn, to try in grow in the courage and steadfastness which will remind us that we follow a Good Shepherd, not a Cool Swineherd.

Detail of "The Church at Mont-roig del Camp" by joan Miró (1919) Private Collection, Spain

Detail of “The Church at Mont-roig del Camp” by joan Miró (1919)
Private Collection, Spain


Elizabeth Scalia at the CIC: Idols All Around

Last evening I had the great pleasure of attending a reception at the Catholic Information Center here in DC featuring author Elizabeth Scalia, editor of the Catholic portal on Patheos.com.  Mrs. Scalia talked about her new book, “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life”, from how she came up with the concept, to how the lessons she learned from it continue to affect her.  For those unable to attend last evening’s event, she recently appeared on an episode of the Catholic Weekend show to discuss her book with us, which you can listen to online or download in iTunes.  It was terrific to finally meet her, and realize she is just as smart, funny, and perceptive in person.

Mrs. Scalia pointed out that one of the issues in contemporary life which can become an idol is what she calls instrumentality.  There are gadgets, devices, apps, etc., which can give us a sense of instant gratification, providing balm for our bruised souls in a way which causes us to look to them, rather than to God, for affirmation and consolation.  They can also become a substitute for real life engagement, whether it is playing online games into the wee hours, or not being able to stop tweeting, and so on.

From my own perspective as a man, the idea of instrumentality as being particularly attractive for meeting immediate desires is particularly apt with respect to considering how men and women can approach meeting such a need differently.  Men, for example, often prefer to be narrowly focused on solving a particular problem in the shortest amount of time possible, whereas women often like to have a wide variety of thoughts and options to consider before making a selection.  Admittedly this is an over-generalization, but there is something about that concentration on getting a single task completed as quickly as possible among men, whereas women often will be able to perform several tasks at once at a more measured pace.  And technology when idolized can allow us to lose ourselves in both.

As Mrs. Scalia pointed out during her talk, by placing barriers between ourselves and God, we make it difficult for Him to get to us by worshiping a false idol who consumes our time.  Most of us are not actually going to make a golden calf to recall the goddess Hathor and then flail around it like rejects from the Martha Graham Dance Company.  However we can often find ourselves making bright and shiny idols of other kinds, which reflect back to us what we want to see about ourselves, rather than what God sees about us, and therein is where the idolatry lies: in coming to believe that we need that externality we have created in order to be fulfilled.  As she observed, once you realize that these things exist, these idols in the form of behaviors and attitudes rather than little clay or metal figures, you begin to realize that many of us have little idols we have set up for ourselves everywhere in our lives.

It occurs to me that this kind of behavior is more akin to narcissism and selfishness than to what used to be considered worship in the primitive sense, i.e. obsequies paid to anything external like a moon god or a spirit living in a tree.  The effect of self-worship is deadly, far more so than mere paganism, as we have seen in case after case with fallen politicians. entertainers, and so on.  Yet one does not have to be famous to be a narcissist, for we all know people who are wrapped up in their own successes or failures, and who never left a finger to aid someone else.  That level of idolatrous worship not only kills the individual, it poisons the culture, and we have been seeing the long-term effects of this slow drip, drip of poison into our culture ever since it was decided that “I”, “me”, and “my” were the three most important pronouns.

As a final take-away point from her presentation, and an encouragement for you to purchase her book, I will leave you with a couple of ideas from Mrs. Scalia which I found particularly striking.  The figure of the dangerous “super idol” – and no, by this she does not me in one of my kryptonian suits – is an important part of her book which comes from the relentless pursuit of the Zeitgeist, the times in which one lives, and it is something which leads to all sorts of unpleasant behavior.  As she noted, one cannot go deep when constantly having to hit the shallows, particularly if your primary concern is to be considered cool and up-to-date.

The danger of going along to get along is that it creates an idol with the proverbial feet of clay.  Take a hammer to its feet and the whole thing collapses, and unfortunately it often does so on top of us.  It also leads to the threat of dehumanization, for example where online participants cannot see past their particular issue to the human being on the other side of the issue from them, or where policy decisions are made on the basis of political expediency rather than keeping in mind the fundamental dignity of the human person.  When one is incapable of stepping away from the relentless pursuit of being considered hip and popular, one has made a very worthless idol indeed, and one which is not only harmful to the self, but to others as well.

In other words, gentle reader, do purchase Elizabeth Scalia’s book, and take its messages to heart.  For if you are reading this, you are already part of an online world, and one that is very much given to the practice of idolatry.  The question for you to decide is whether you are able to see it for what it is, and have the courage to be able to step away from it when and as needed, or whether you are going to let it dominate your personal, intellectual, and spiritual life.


Attic-Greek terracotta foot (5th Century B.C.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York