Study Guide

The Shining Setting

By Stephen King


The Overlook Hotel in Colorado, September 30 - December 3, 1975

The Overlook Hotel is one of the most famous and most scary fictional buildings ever, right up there with the Bates Motel. The Overlook was inspired by the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. Stephen King actually began writing The Shining in its Room 217. If you go to Estes Park, be sure and indulge in one of the Stanley's popular "historical ghost tours," which includes stops in Room 217, as well as complimentary hallucinated martinis and creepy cocktail nuts.

Part of the Overlook's fame is due to the immense popularity of Stanley Kubrick's visually stunning film version of the novel. Some of the external settings of the adaptation were filmed in Montana and the internal settings at Elstree Studios in London. The 1997 adaptation of the novel, directed by Mick Garris and written by King himself, adheres much more closely to the novel, and was filmed at the Stanley. This film hasn't yet reached the iconic status of Kubrick's, but at least King gets a chance to set the record straight.

Kubrick's film claims the Overlook is built on an "Indian burial ground," though this is only mentioned in passing. King's Pet Sematary (1983) does feature such a burial ground, but this novel does not. We are given few hints to the root of the hotel's evil, if there is a root. King has suggested that the Overlook is a kind of extension of hell, or a pathway to it. By hell, we mean the idea of hell, whatever that means to you. It's definitely intimately involved with the hell of the mind and the idea of hell on earth. How precisely the Overlook came to be such a place, or how the problems might be connected to the land, are up for interpretation.

The Overlook has a long history of violence and questionable deaths, beginning during the time the hotel was being built (1907-1909). It was built by Robert Townley Watson who had two sons. One of them died in a riding accident on the hotel property. Then his wife died of the flu. Watson and his remaining son sold the Overlook, but were later hired as caretakers. Watson died in the hotel. As Halloran tells the Torrances, "He plugged his finger into a light socket by mistake and that was the end of him" (10.80). As usual, it isn't clear how these initial incidences are connected with the Overlook's state when the Torrances move in for the winter.

Now we can talk about the temporal setting of the novel. The present action is set in the fall and winter of 1975, a truly defining year in US and world history. 1975 marks the end of the Vietnam War, the birth of Microsoft, and as cultural analyst Jean Baudrillard, states in Simulations "the linkup in space of the two American and Soviet super-satellites." 1975 is the eve of a global technological and communication explosion you see before you today. We are on the brink of some extreme changes. Additionally, there is extreme post-war anxiety, mingled with the relief of the end of the unpopular fifteen-year war.

To complicate this already complex time, King juxtaposes 1945 with 1975. 1945 is another intense year for the US and the world. It marks the end of another war, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. 1945 is a period of intense post-war energy, intense joy over the end of the war, and intense sadness over the Holocaust. In 1945 the horrific effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not yet been fully revealed and examined. We don't quite realize the implications. (For an extensive look at these implications, we recommend Yale Law School's online resource, a part of the Avalon Project.) Also check out "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for a bit more on how this is rather subtly worked into the novel.

We say subtly because the novel barely touches up these wars. The focus is on the 1945 masquerade ball held to celebrate the Overlook's impending grand reopening. Interestingly, nothing murderous seems to have happened at the ball. We don't know if any of the masqueraders Jack sees are even dead. Harry Derwent, for example, seems to be quite alive. Whatever the case, the ball seems to be a crucial event in the Overlook's history, one which somehow cements the evil of the place.

The temporal play doesn't stop with 1945 and 1975. The Overlook operates on a time all its own, culminating in a merging of all its times together as one. Jack Torrance spells it out for us:

All the hotel's eras are together now, all but the current one, the Torrance Era. And this would be together with the rest very soon now. That was good. That was very good. (43.5)

The Torrance Era obviously includes the nightmarish aspects of Jack's not-so-distant past – his abusive alcoholic father and Jack's own alcoholism and destructive behavior.

King strongly alludes to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" in the lengthy epigraph and throughout the novel, but doesn't it also remind you of the House of Usher in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"? The Usher family (live and/or dead) are inextricably entwined with the Usher house, in an unwholesome fashion. This mind twisting ambiguity is similar to what's going on in The Shining. The people who die at the Overlook (and even some who don't) seem to become a part of it, and it part of them. Like the Overlook, the House of Usher and the Ushers themselves perish at the end of the tale.

Now, if you dare, join us on a tour of some of the Overlook's most intense sites.

Room 217

This might be the scariest room in the house; its resident ghost can physically attack live people. Danny, Jack, Halloran, and the chambermaid Delores Vickery have all been in the room, and all have similar experiences, though only Danny sticks around long enough to be attacked. What is the room's strange pull? Well, there's just something fascinating about a naked dead lady in a bathtub (See Mrs. Massey's "Character Analysis" for more on said dead lady.) As far as we know, the Overlook's most recent death occurred in Room 217.

The Presidential Suite

The Presidential Suite is another site of intensity in the novel. As we learn from the scrapbook, it too is the site of relatively recent "redrum," the "gangland-style execution" (18.86) of two men with alleged organized crime connections. Their known associate, a "reputed crime overlord" (18.84) was murdered elsewhere in the hotel the same day. When Danny is in the Presidential Suite, he sees the men's blood and brain matter on the wallpaper. He also sees the two bodies outside the door later on. The novel seems to be connecting supernatural evil with the idea of dirty money and crime in the world of "real things" (4.8).

Just before Danny's confrontation with the Jack ,who's been taken over by the Overlook, Danny almost goes into the Presidential Suite. But, he's scared off by what opens the door and tells him to come in, "a decayed woman in a rotting silk gown […] [with] wasps crawl[ing] sluggishly over her face" (54.12). Is she someone who died in there? As with 217, we don't know the whole history of the room.

As always, King challenges us to explore the possibility of evil in the highest spheres of influence. As you can see in "Allusions" real presidents stayed at the Overlook, in the Presidential Suite. As in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," questions of morality, power, and class collide with the theme of isolation.

The Cellar and The Boiler Room

The cellar is a rather confusing domain. It's the most subterranean part of the Overlook, and it holds the Overlook's paper history, its files. It's also where Jack finds the scrapbook of the Overlook since 1945, the invitation to the 1945 masquerade ball, and the Overlook's history of involvement with organized crime. Since the boiler room holds the history, it's like a container for the Overlook's memories. It's not coincidental that Jack becomes haunted by his history with his abusive father while exploring the Overlook's haunted history. If the rest of the hotel is the Overlook's conscious life, the cellar, being under it, is the Overlook's subconscious, that seething pool of desires and fears. It's not coincidental the Jack's subconscious is activated by the Overlook's.

The boiler room holds the power over the Overlook's life or death, because it contains the boiler. The boiler is an agent of transformation. It brings enough heat to the Overlook to let it survive the winter, but when neglected it brings too much heat and destroys the den of evil.

It's also an agent of forgetting. When the boiler blows, it blows up the Overlook's history. The big irony of course is that the memory of the Overlook will live on, at least in the minds of the living people who have experienced it, especially Danny, Wendy, and Halloran.

The boiler room also reminds us of the cellar in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," another tale of domestic abuse. In that story, the alcoholic narrator murders his wife with an axe in the cellar. There is some speculation that the abused cat (or cats) in the story is a metaphor for an abused child. As here, the cellar is a place that activates the subconscious and induces "redrum."

Cellars are common in the world or horror – they make sense as places where evil occurs because they are hidden away from the rest of the world. They're good places to store victims, alive and dead. We're just glad Danny never goes down there! When Wendy does it makes us really nervous and we have flashbacks of Poe's ultracreepy short story.

The Topiary

The topiary, the collection of hedge animals, are the guardians of the entrance and exit to the Overlook. They can't go on the porch, so they can't actually go into the hotel and run amuck. These spine-tingling beasts also call attention to the novel's supernatural naturalism. The literary tradition of naturalism often features a human-against-nature theme. Here the conflict is between humans, nature, and supernature!

Like the wasps (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory") we can trace the topiary back to King's own childhood. On the first page of his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says:

[My childhood] is a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees…the kind that look as if they might like to grab you and eat you.

Yeah, Danny's too, thanks to you Mr. King. The topiary, we think, is also a little more proof that Jack shines (see "Characters" for more on that). As with Danny and Halloran, Jack is able to see the hedge animals move. He sees them move after slipping into a state not unlike the states Danny slips into before he has one of his episodes.

The Equipment Shed

This is one of the most evil parts of the hotel and one of the strongest. It makes sense that its powerful, because it guards the snowmobile, the Torrance's best means of escape. The scene where Jack wrestles with himself over whether to get the snowmobile working is psychologically intense. We aren't sure how much of Jack's desire to stay is based on his feelings that the Overlook is his final opportunity to get himself together, and how much is based on the Overlook's evil influence.

Halloran is almost overcome by desire to murder Danny when he's in the equipment shed, just before he, Wendy, and Danny flee the Overlook. This gives us a taste of the shed's true power. Halloran can barely resist it – adding some more sympathy to Jack's struggle. Of course, the shed might have gotten stronger since it's becomes the last chance for the Overlook to get Danny. The shed is also where Jack first tries out the roque mallet.

The Ballroom

We talk about the ball and the ballroom in "What's Up With the Epigraph?" and in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory."

The Quarters

Families, it seems, are especially vulnerable at the Overlook, at least caretaker's families. The quarters itself doesn't seem to be a powerfully haunted domain. After all, this is where Halloran lives during the season, and he hasn't seen anything funny. We don't know precisely where Delbert Grady, the winter 1970 caretaker, murders his family and kills himself, but it doesn't seem to have been in the quarters. Jack and Danny both have dreams and episodes, but nothing bad actually happens there. Well, there is Wendy slashing Jack with the razor blade, Danny's vision of redrum, and the coming alive of the dead wasps in the decorative wasps' nest gift from Jack to Danny. At the Overlook, however, these things are like a pleasant day at the beach. The destruction of the room by Jack is foreshadowed from the begging of the novel in Danny's visions. When it finally happens near the end of the story, we are given the signal that the reality of the Torrances as a family is officially over.

The Playground and The Concrete Rings

According to Halloran, kids never want to play on the Overlook's playground. Danny doesn't either, a point not missed by Wendy and Jack, though they reckon it's because he doesn't have any playmates. At a midpoint in the novel, he decides to snowshoe down there. While in the playground he decides, in typical horror story character fashion, to do one of the most dangerous things possible, play in a snow covered concrete tunnel. After escaping, he thinks he sees the story's only visible child ghost, which Danny thinks is a lonely boy looking for an eternal playmate.

At one point, we learn that a little girl suffered an epileptic seizure while playing in the tunnels, but this seems to be different from the "boy-thing" (55.78). This aspect of the setting points to the perversity of the Overlook – if children aren't even safe in its playground, how do you suppose they will fare inside? It also reflects Jack's (and to some degree Danny's) childhood, where things that are supposed to be fun and playful can quickly become nightmares.