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The Shining | Symbols



When Watson, the Overlook's head of maintenance, introduces Jack to the boiler, he warns Jack, "She creeps," meaning the boiler—original to the hotel's 1910 construction—builds pressure slowly that must be released through valves a few times a day. The boiler and the pressure building inside it represent the emotional and psychic pressure building inside Jack and the Overlook. Like the physical pressure in the boiler, this symbolic pressure "creeps." Jack is only vaguely aware of the pressure building in him as his days at the Overlook progress. He lets off some of his personal tension in small ways, snapping at Wendy and cultivating his resentment toward her in his mind as he becomes exasperated with her questions and concern for his well-being. He throws away essential parts of the snowmobile that might allow the family to leave the hotel, an act of defiance that relieves some of the pressure his family responsibilities exert upon him. The Overlook also lets off metaphorical steam as its desire to absorb Danny's power builds over weeks and months. A dead wasp's nest comes to life and stings Danny in the night. The elevators move of their own accord. These efforts to frighten and intimidate the Torrances allow the hotel to exert power in advance of its final push for Jack to kill his family and join the hotel's mysterious supernatural forces.

In the final murderous frenzy that erupts in early December, when Jack and the Overlook become one entity, Jack forgets to relieve the pressure building in the boiler. The Overlook forgets too, which leads to Jack's death as the boiler explodes and engulfs the hotel in flames. Wendy observes Jack's tendency for self-destruction early in The Shining, and his neglect of the boiler is the ultimate manifestation of that tendency. The Overlook has exploited Jack's other weaknesses—his rage, his frustration, his ambition—but in failing to recognize and curb this weakness, it reveals a similar self-destructive bent. The boiler becomes a symbol for the ways such self-destructive tendencies can emerge and succeed in destroying those who ignore them.


Jack finds a scrapbook in the Overlook's basement, near the boiler, whose provenance is unknown. The mysterious origin of the book links it to the mysterious forces that power the Overlook. It is packed with clippings, photos, and other information about the hotel's past. Some of the items evoke glamorous events such as an invitation to a masked ball celebrating the Overlook's grand reopening as a "showplace of the world" in 1945. Other clippings detail the Overlook's changes of ownership through the decades. One article describes a mobster slaying in the Presidential Suite. With a cover engraved with an image of the Overlook's posh exterior, the scrapbook serves as a tangible symbol of the hotel's full history, from the mundane to the scandalous.

More than representing the hotel's history, the scrapbook becomes a symbol of Jack's addiction and his ambition. Unable and, at the time he finds the scrapbook, unwilling to indulge in alcohol, Jack spends hours in the basement poring over the scrapbook and the piles of newspapers and invoices surrounding it. He obsesses over the details, and his behavior becomes sufficiently erratic to make Wendy think he has somehow found alcohol in this remote place. Alcohol doesn't make him impatient and irritable specifically, his addiction does. More precisely, anything that prevents him from indulging his addiction makes him irritable. The book also feeds Jack's ambition. He dreams of writing a novel or a nonfiction history of the Overlook, something that will firmly establish him in literary circles. In Jack's mind, the scrapbook comes to represent the key to a better life, but by leading him more deeply into the Overlook's sway, the scrapbook actually represents the key to his own destruction.

Topiary Animals

The topiary animals on the Overlook's lawn provide a subtle representation of the wealth and power of the Overlook's management and clientele. Topiaries require near-constant maintenance, as Jack discovers with his weekly trimmings of the creatures during good weather. Large topiaries can only be maintained by those with the means and patience to provide that maintenance. They require either large amounts of leisure time or the ability to pay other people for maintenance. They only exist as a demonstration of wealth, serving no practical function.

At the same time topiary animals are meant to appear whimsical and cute. Modern theme parks, for example, often feature topiaries to create a sense of wonder and magic for their guests, especially the young ones. Kids like animals, so it stands to reason that the topiaries at the Overlook would appeal to young Danny. Instead, Danny finds the animals eerie and vaguely threatening even before they attempt to attack him on the playground. The topiary animals symbolize the corruption and distortion at the Overlook's core. They should be a symbol of childish innocence and whimsy, silly and nonthreatening representations of potentially dangerous creatures such as lions and large dogs. Instead, the Overlook corrupts these cutesy representations, turning them into instruments of malice, just as it will eventually corrupt the innocence of Danny's childhood. Innocence and good-natured whimsy have no place in the Overlook's world.


Masks and masquerading appear in several contexts in The Shining. Horace Derwent hosts a massive masquerade ball to reopen the Overlook in 1945, and this is a ball Jack visits as it replays in the hotel ballroom during his spiral into madness under the Overlook's influence. The ball promises an "unmasking" at midnight, when the revelers will take off their masks and see the identities of those with whom they have been cavorting. One of the partygoers, a former lover of Derwent's known as the "dog man" wears the mask of a dog at the party and appears to Danny in a corridor to torment the child. In the context of these parties, the masks provide cover for illicit, immoral, perhaps even violent, activities. With their identities concealed, the party guests feel free to indulge their wildest tendencies because they can do so with few consequences. The masks represent the relatively consequence-free privileges of the Overlook guests' way of life.

When Jack corners Danny in the attic, Danny tells Jack he is just a mask for the Overlook, "a false face." In this context, mask imagery in The Shining also symbolizes all the facades we use to conceal darker impulses. The evil that animates the Overlook hides behind the mask of beautiful architecture and opulent décor. The evils of rage and addiction hide behind Jack's mask of respectable family man, teacher, and caretaker. The Overlook does use Jack as a mask to conceal its malevolence toward Danny. To unmask isn't simply to have a good laugh—or an awkward moment—at the end of a party, it is to take ownership of these dark impulses and reckon with the damage they have caused. All parties must end sometime.

Roque Mallet

Jack's weapon of choice when he goes after Danny is a roque mallet, a piece of equipment from a sport popular in the early 20th century. Roque—which rhymes with woke—is similar to croquet, but it is played on a hard surface rather than on grass, and players use shorter mallets. Like croquet, roque was most often enjoyed by members of the leisure class, who had space, equipment, and time to pursue the game. Roque, like the Overlook Hotel, was born in another age, so the mallet Jack uses as a weapon represents the Overlook's history and its guests' privilege. By the time he picks up the mallet—a tool of the rich—Jack has himself become a tool of the Overlook, manipulated and exploited by its history of privilege and wealth.

Like the hotel's topiary animals, the roque mallet also represents the Overlook's capacity to distort what is otherwise innocent. Roque was devised as an enjoyable diversion for players and spectators. But at the hotel the roque mallet become a weapon, symbolizing the Overlook's corruptive power.

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