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The Shining | Context


Literary Influences

The Shining draws heavily from the tradition of Gothic novels, a genre that traces its origins to English novels of the late 1700s. The earliest example of Gothic fiction is Horace Walpole's 1765 novel The Castle of Otranto, which details political intrigue entwined with supernatural events. While the Gothic novel in its pure form waned in popularity by 1840, Gothic elements are visible in many novels of the 1800s, including works by English novelist Charles Dickens, English novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, and Irish writer Oscar Wilde, and in horror classics such as Irish writer Bram Stoker's Dracula and English writer Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the United States Gothic literature's influence is most prominently visible in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Gothic stories incorporate specific elements, most notably a mysterious, isolated setting. In early Gothic works, this setting is usually a castle or mansion, often in a state of decay or disrepair and located far from civilization. In The Shining the Overlook Hotel is an American version of a castle, and its disrepair is the reason Jack Torrance is hired as the hotel's winter caretaker; it is also the cause of his death. The hotel's structure includes other classic Gothic elements such as winding corridors and creepy underground structures. The hotel's remote setting and the ominous blizzard highlight the dangers of isolation.

Gothic novels often incorporate a clash between the modern and the archaic. In The Shining Jack comes to terms with the hotel's history and interacts with its previous residents, even as he attempts to get on with life in the 1970s. Emotional solitude and imbalance of power between characters are other Gothic motifs played out in the family dynamics of the dysfunctional Torrances. Jack's passion and instability combine to make him a classic Gothic villain. Danny and Dick Hallorann have hidden powers, fitting the tradition of the Gothic hero.

Supernatural elements, or at least the possibility of supernatural elements, define the Gothic tradition. Supernatural forces fill the characters—and readers—with frightening doubts about the fabric of existence. In King's novel it slowly becomes clear supernatural forces—in the form of the Overlook Hotel and its previous residents—are responsible for the horrifying events befalling the Torrance family. Disaster looms large, and bad omens abound in the form of Danny's visions. True to the Gothic tradition, The Shining plays on basic human fears of isolation and of the unknown; its characters come to question the very nature of reality and doubt those closest to them.

Controversial Language

The Shining contains language typical of King's style. For example, King frequently uses brand names to describe objects in his novels. Critics have scolded him for this practice, but King defends it, claiming such detailed realism helps define his characters' worlds and make them relatable to readers. In real life people are surrounded by brand names, so King's characters are as well. Jack Torrance doesn't take generic aspirin; he takes Excedrin, a brand with added caffeine. The family drives a Volkswagen bug—the slang term for the 1960s Beetle. Danny eats Oreos.

Brand names may bother some, but The Shining's racial language bothers many more. As the Overlook Hotel gains power and comes to life, it and its allies use racial epithets to describe Dick Hallorann, the African American cook. As Dick makes his way to the Overlook through a blizzard, the hotel invades Dick's mind with a tirade of slurs aimed at his race and cleanliness as well as threats of lynching. Under the Overlook's influence Jack uses similar language. These word choices underscore the Overlook's evil. Many of King's villains display racism for this purpose. The language also points to the elitist culture surrounding and stemming from the hotel. Segregation and racial inequality were the law of the land for most of the Overlook's long history. The Overlook's attitude toward black people reflects American culture, particularly wealthy, white American culture in the early 20th century.

In a similar vein Jack Torrance and Watson, the hotel's maintenance chief, both use the term "faggot" to describe Stuart Ullman. Historically used as a slur for homosexuals, this word also attacks a man's masculinity. When Jack and Watson use the word—during Jack's job interview and during the hotel's Closing Day—neither man yet shows signs of the Overlook's influence, though it's possible the hotel is already exerting some subtle influence, making them coarse and hostile. But Stuart Ullman's unctuous personality seems to invite hostility anyway. And Jack and Watson clearly perceive themselves as more masculine than the office-bound Ullman. They don't like taking orders from him, so they use language that minimizes Ullman's masculinity and makes them feel manlier.

The Overlook's evil influence and Jack's need to assert his masculinity combine to explain his language toward his wife as their relationship deteriorates. Jack shows his irritation with Wendy early on, but he does not say or even think words such as bitch or other demeaning and sexist terms. But as the Overlook's influence over Jack grows, these become the only words he uses to describe Wendy. They give him delusions of power even as she resists his intentions and thwarts his plans.

Psychic Abilities

As The Shining's title hints, much of the novel's action is driven by Danny Torrance's ability to "shine." This term originated with Dick Hallorann's grandmother and is a catchall for a range of psychic abilities often categorized as extrasensory perception (ESP). Danny's shine is particularly strong, which is why the Overlook Hotel wants to absorb his power. Danny and Dick Hallorann engage in telepathic communication, which means they can transfer clear thoughts to one another without speaking. Danny is also clairvoyant, which means he perceives scenes and events not visible to those around him; for example, he sees bloodstains on the wall of the Overlook's Presidential Suite. Through Danny's trance states and dreams about Tony—his imaginary friend who seems to be a future version of Danny—he demonstrates a facility for precognition, or the ability to see events before they occur. Danny foresees his father's attempts to kill him long before the family moves to the Overlook.

The Stanley Hotel

As the Overlook Hotel's maintenance chief points out, "Any big hotels have got scandals. Just like every big hotel has got a ghost." Such ghost stories spur public interest and often boost hotel revenues. The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which Stephen King has named in numerous accounts as the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel, has capitalized on its notoriety as a haunted location, hosting ghost tours, horror-film festivals, and a "theatrical séance." The Stanley was built in 1909 by Freelan O. Stanley. Its haunted legacy is documented in numerous guest and staff stories, although the power of suggestion may influence some of these accounts. Room 217, the same room Stephen and Tabitha King occupied during an overnight stay in 1974, is said to be haunted by a housekeeper named Elizabeth Wilson, who died there in 1911 during a gas explosion. Some accounts of the incident are incomplete or inconsistent. However, in 2014 the Stanley Hotel's engineer found pieces of drywall and carpet in the hotel's basement that match pre-explosion photographs of Room 217. They seem to offer proof an explosion took place there.

Proof of the ghost in 217, or anywhere else in the hotel, has proved more elusive. However, a cell-phone video of a ghost on the Stanley's main staircase went viral in 2016. Which of the hotel's alleged ghosts does the video show? Does it even show a ghost? This remains a matter of debate.

Historical References

The history of The Shining's Overlook Hotel closely follows the trajectory of 20th-century American history. The Overlook was built in 1909, toward the end of the Gilded Age, a period of growing industrialization when wealth was concentrated among a small number of individuals and families. Developers built opulent resort hotels in scenic locations all over the United States to cater to extremely wealthy families like the American business magnates the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. The Vanderbilt family fortune stemmed largely from railroad interests but diversified over several generations to include interests in shipping and manufacturing. The Rockefeller fortune was based primarily in oil, but the family diversified into banking and real estate. In The Shining King blends fact and fiction by mentioning an unnamed Vanderbilt and Nelson D. Rockefeller, an heir to the vast Rockefeller fortune and former U.S. vice president, as guests at the Overlook. The stock-market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression brought hard times to resorts catering to the wealthy, and many were demolished. Surviving resorts passed through different eras of ownership and adapted to cater to a varying clientele, a phenomenon reflected in the Overlook's patchy and varied ownership history.

In the novel the Overlook adapted to change by hosting the Hollywood elite of the 1930s to 60s. King names American film legends such as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe as prominent guests at the Overlook. Lombard and Monroe don't come to haunt the Overlook, but real-life rumors say they haunt the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. In the 1960s mobsters from Las Vegas run the Overlook and use it as their personal playground; this coincides with the mafia's historical prominence in the American West. Although the mobsters who run the Overlook are fictionalized, the assassination of their leader, Vittorio Gienelli, evokes real-life scenes of brutal and public mob slayings.

Four United States presidents are also named as Overlook guests, spanning the 20th century up to the 1970s, when the novel takes place: Woodrow Wilson (in office from 1913 to 1921); Warren G. Harding (1921–1923); Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945); and Richard Nixon (1969–1974). Each is notable for different reasons. Wilson led the United States through World War I, and Roosevelt led the country through World War II. Harding's brief presidency was marred by the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which Harding's interior secretary accepted a bribe to give Sinclair Oil Company oil drilling rights on public land in Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Nixon resigned office following a cover-up of a botched burglary and attempts to spy on the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington's Watergate Hotel. The Watergate scandal changed American perceptions of the presidency and led subsequent scandals—both political and nonpolitical—to be appended with the -gate suffix.

Horace Derwent, the Overlook's owner from 1946 to 1952—and perhaps longer through controlling interest in other companies—provides a connecting thread for many of the Overlook's famous guests. Derwent makes his fortune as an inventor and businessman. He is a prominent film producer with extensive real estate and corporate interests in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, including some of the mob-run casinos. He allegedly owns United Airlines and is credited with inventing the strapless brassiere. In all these respects Derwent closely resembles the real-life 20th-century millionaire Howard Hughes. Hughes made his fortune in manufacturing and went on to make technological advances in aviation and filmmaking, two of his primary business interests. He established Hughes Aircraft Company near Los Angeles in 1932 and then bought controlling interest in Trans-World Airlines (TWA) in 1939. As a movie producer he was rumored to have designed a special support bra for actress Jane Russell. In the 1960s he purchased the Desert Inn resort and casino in Las Vegas, which led to additional acquisitions and developments in Las Vegas.

Cultural Impact

The Shining has inspired two film adaptations. The first is American film director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 version starring American actors Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. King wrote a screenplay for Kubrick, but Kubrick used a different adaptation written by American novelist Diane Johnson. Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining has come to equal, if not surpass, King's novel as an iconic work of horror. Kubrick's film creates a tone of suspense and fear by highlighting the Overlook Hotel's wintry isolation and by presenting lurid scenes from the hotel's history.

Kubrick's adaptation departs from the novel most substantially in the film's ending. In the novel Dick Hallorann arrives to save Danny and Wendy, and all three escape the Overlook as the hotel's boiler explodes. Before dying, Jack declares his love for Danny and urges him to escape. In the film Jack has no such moment of moral reckoning. He kills Dick Hallorann; Danny evades his father in a hedge maze; and Jack freezes to death. The final shot shows Jack in a photograph taken at an Overlook party in 1921. Kubrick intended the photograph to leave viewers with a final image that is intentionally unexplained and inexplicable; this contributes to the film's terrifying effect. Jack's appearance in the photo may imply his spirit has joined the others inhabiting the Overlook, although the scene can also be interpreted as evidence of Jack's reincarnation from an earlier era in the hotel.

At first King kept quiet about The Shining's film adaptation, but he later called it "a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it." King's objection to the adaptation rested largely on the decision to cast Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. Nicholson's insane rage in the film is memorably frightening, but in a 2016 interview King said, "When we first see Jack Nicholson ... you know, then, he's crazy ... . All he does is get crazier." In the novel Jack Torrance goes through a nuanced transformation; the film's Jack Torrance lacks the same clear developmental arc, and King believes this robs the film of its emotional impact. Likewise King has objected to Kubrick's direction of Shelley Duvall as Wendy, which turns her into "a scream machine," calling the portrayal degrading to women.

The second adaptation is a 1997 television miniseries based on King's original screenplay, directed by American filmmaker Mick Garris and starring American actors Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay. The miniseries was well received, but the Kubrick version has achieved an iconic status rivaling its source material and influencing horror directors for decades after its release. Kubrick's adaptation gave rise to a 2012 documentary called Room 237, which explores and analyzes the full extent of The Shining's influence in popular culture.

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