Killing your family is one thing (one very bad thing), but killing them with an axe and chopping them into little bits is a whole different level of brutality.
As Stuart Ullman tells Jack in the opening scene of this movie, this is exactly what one of the Overlook Hotel's former caretakers did to his family after living in the Overlook in isolation for several months. Or as Ullman puts it,
"He ran amok and eh... killed his family with an axe."
The concept of the axe murderer has had a special place in horror stories for as long as there have been axes, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that an axe shows the murderer's brutality more than something like a gun or knife. Axes are designed to hack things up. The idea of applying that same force to a human body is just… awful.
The significance of the axe as a symbol of murder isn't lost on Jack Torrance either. When he first runs into the ghost of Delbert Grady, the axe is one of the first details he remembers about the Grady murders. As he tells the ghost,
"You chopped your wife and daughters up into little bits."
Little does Jack know that he's going to try to do the same thing in the very, very near future. As we watch Jack's spiraling mental state, all we can think about is how brutal it would be to be killed with an axe. Oh yeah, and we get to witness how awful it would be when we see Jack kill poor old Mr. Hallorann with one.
Lumbersexuals never sounded less sexual.
Now where would poor Danny Torrance be without the Overlook's famous hedge maze? He'd be in Deadsville, Population: Danny.
As Mr. "Information Tool" Ullman says at the beginning of the movie,
"This is our famous hedge maze. It's quite an attraction around here. The walls are thirteen feet high and the hedges are about as old as the hotel itself."
Now mazes are something you'll find in famous art all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. But in this case, the maze is an especially good symbol for Jack Torrance's descent into madness. His is a winding, twisting path towards absolutely insanity… that eventually leads him to his death in the middle of the hedge maze. Fitting, eh?
As Mr. Ullman tells us, it's not easy to find your way out of the Overlook's hedge maze once you've gotten into it:
"It's a lot of fun, but I wouldn't go in there unless I had an hour to spare to find my way out."
Yet while Jack Torrance spends the movie trying to write, Danny familiarizes himself with the maze, and it's this knowledge that will eventually save his life. (Then again, you wonder why the ghosts of the Overlook couldn't help Jack get out, since they were powerful enough to let him out of a locked room. Maybe they were too busy at their perpetual Great Gatsby-themed party to learn how the hedge maze worked?)
A lot of the drama and horror of this movie centers on Room 237 at the Overlook Hotel. Danny knows that there's something wrong with the room within an hour after arriving at the hotel, and he asks Mr. Hallorann about it when he says,
"You're scared of Room 237, ain't you?"
Danny has a special power to feel evil presences in certain places, and since he knows that Hallorann has the same power, he figures that it's fair to ask the guy about it. Of course, Hallorann wants nothing to do with the most evil room this side of Room 1408:
"Nothing. There ain't nothing in Room 237, but you ain't got no business going in there anyway, so stay out! You understand, stay out!"
Hallorann's fear is understandable, since we're led to believe that room 237 has something to do with Delbert Grady's murder of his entire family… and Hallorann already knows this.
On top of that, Hallorann believes that when something evil happens, it leaves a trace of itself on the place where it happened—which certainly seems to be the case with the entire Overlook Hotel. According to this movie, evil never really disappears from a place. It leaves a sort of spiritual stain that people like Danny and Hallorann can see clearly.
But come on, Hallorann. Don't you know that telling a little kid in a horror movie "don't go in there," is a the most proof-positive way to insure that they do go in there? Use your noggin, Hal.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Everything seems pretty sweet for Jack Torrance and his family at the start of this movie. Sure, a former caretaker of the Overlook Hotel killed his family with an axe, but Jack is confident that this sort of thing will never happen with his family.
In fact, he's pumped about the thought of having five months of peace and quiet to work on his new writing project. His wife Wendy seems excited about the adventure too, although their son Danny and his imaginary friend Tony aren't so sure.
So Jack gets the job as winter caretaker at the Overlook, and he sets off with his family to go live in the place. But we can already see him getting testy whenever his wife Wendy asks him questions that he doesn't want to answer. When they arrive at the hotel, Danny runs off to play in the games room while Jack looks around the hotel with Mr. Ullman. It still looks as if everything is going to be cool for Jack and his fam.
Of the entire Torrance family, there is one member who definitely doesn't want to go to the Overlook, and that's Danny's imaginary friend Tony. When Danny asks Tony why he doesn't want to go, Tony shows him horrifying images of blood pouring out of an elevator and Danny has some sort of seizure-like episode. The doctor says he's just fine, but we can tell that there's something not quite right about the Overlook Hotel.
While Jack and Wendy check out the Overlook Hotel, Danny sits alone eating ice cream with old Mr. Hallorann, the hotel's head cook. Hallorann quickly recognizes that Danny has a special ability to communicate without opening his mouth, and this turns out to be a power that Hallorann has, too.
Hallorann tells Danny that he's very special and that he can use his powers whenever he needs to. But when Danny asks him about a particular room in the hotel (Room 237), Hallorann freaks out and tells Danny to stay away from this room. As we find out later, this is some good advice from Danny's newfound mentor.
Jack spins his wheels while trying to get started with his writing, while Wendy and Danny head outdoors to explore the hotel's hedge maze. Eventually, Jack gets so frustrated that he starts talking violently to Wendy.
Meanwhile, Danny drives his big wheel bike around the hotel and sees horrifying visions of two twin girls who have been murdered with an axe. Oh yeah, and there's that blood that keeps coming out of the elevator.
Jack seems to gain a new friend when he meets Lloyd the ghost bartender in the hotel's Golden Ballroom. The weird thing is that Jack and Lloyd seem to have a relationship that goes way back, even though we can't imagine how Jack would have a pre-existing relationship with a ghost.
Meanwhile, Danny wanders into Room 237 and shows up later on with bruises on his neck. It's clear now that the ghosts in the hotel might be friends with Jack, but they're definitely not friends with Danny and Wendy.
If there's an inmost cave in this movie, it's the part of Jack's mind that's slowly but surely slipping into homicidal madness. And the approach to this cave is the physical approach that Wendy makes to Jack's typewriter when she thinks Jack isn't around.
When she arrives at the machine, she finds that Jack has just written, "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy" thousands upon thousands of times. At this moment, we all realize that Jack has totally snapped.
Jack finds Wendy looking over his manuscripts and approaches her with enough menace to tell us that he plans on hurting her. He goes ahead and confirms this suspicion when he tells Wendy that he plans on bashing her brains in.
Despite her efforts to fight him off with a baseball bat, he keeps coming after her and threatening her. Wendy manages to knock him out with the bat and lock him in the storage closet. But the ghost of Delbert Grady lets Jack loose with a fire axe in his hands. Jack comes after Wendy and Danny and even kills Mr. Hallorann who has come to help the Torrances.
After he's killed Hallorann, Jack goes after his son Danny. But Danny leads him into the hotel's hedge maze and escapes by covering his tracks. Jack gets lost in the maze while Danny sneaks back out and runs into his mother's arms.
Wendy and Danny run to the snowcat machine that Mr. Hallorann has brought to the hotel and they take off in it. (After all, it's not like Hallorann will be needing it anymore.) As they head back to the rest of civilization, they leave Jack howling like a wild animal in the middle of the hotel's hedge maze.
There's no resurrection for Jack Torrance—we find him frozen to death in the hedge maze where his son Danny left him. But there's a resurrection for Wendy and Danny insofar as they escape the brutal death that Jack clearly had planned for them.
In the final shot of the movie, we see the camera pan in on a photograph that's hanging on one of the walls of the Overlook Hotel. The photo portrays a large party happening in the hotel's Golden Ballroom back in 1921.
And who should we see in this photo but Jack Torrance, grinning with a drink in hand? So this photo totally changes our reading of the entire movie and forces us to asks whether Jack's been a ghost all along or if he's some weird reincarnation of a dude who used to work in the hotel.
From the start of this movie, we can be pretty sure that there's something not quite right about the Overlook Hotel that serves as the setting for this movie. Maybe it's the isolation. Maybe it's the general barrenness of the landscape. Or maybe it's the crazy ominous music that plays as we see the establishing shots of the building…
We learn that the hotel has some terrifying history when Stuart Ullman says,
"The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it."
If you've seen a lot of horror movies, you already know that building something on a Native American burial ground—or really any burial ground—is always a recipe for trouble.
But just in case we weren't spooked by the bloody, skeleton-filled history of the place, we learn that, according to Mr. Hallorann,
"[W]hen something happens it can leave a trace of itself behind... say like if someone burns toast."
If that's the case, the Overlook is like a totally charred piece of toast. We get constant glimpses of all the awful stuff that's happened in the hotel over the years, which definitely extends beyond Delbert Grady's murder of his family.
And it looks like this same gruesome history is what possesses Jack to repeat the violence of the past. After all, we can tell this by the way he fits in so smoothly with the ghosts that use the hotel to party.
At first, it seems that this movie could be told entirely from the third-person limited perspective of Jack Torrance. But the moment the movie cuts away from his interview with Mr. Ullman, we see that the movie is going to give equal attention to Jack's wife Wendy and their son Danny, often following them through scenes that Jack's not involved in.
At times, you might even wonder who the main character of this movie is. When we follow Danny driving his toy bike around the Overlook Hotel, it certainly seems like he's our main guy.
But we also feel a strong attachment to Jack since he's the first character we meet in the movie. This difficult of choosing a main character makes The Shining different from other horror movies that draw a clear line between the heroes and villains.
Yes, Jack is our villain. (The axe gives him away.) But it's awfully weird to have a villain who is also the sort-of protagonist. We'd like to believe Jack when he hears about the Delbert Grady murders and says,
"Well, you can rest assured Mr. Ullman, that's not going to happen with me."
In terms of foreshadowing, he might as well have said,
"I guarantee you that something like that will happen to me."
But we get to get out of Jack Torrance's rapidly deteriorating mind and into the POV of nicer characters like Wendy, Danny and Halloran. That's both good—we get a break from psychosis, phew—and bad—we get to see the horrific effects of Jack's psychosis on his innocent family members.
There are some movies that can be tough to categorize when it comes to genre. But fortunately for us, The Shining isn't one of those movies. You can call it psychological horror, gore horror, or whatever you want; but the fact remains that this is a good ol' horror flick.
Yes, it's totally innovative and it plays with all kinds of horror conventions. But the moment you see bloody ghosts show up and Jack tries to kill his family with an axe, you know you're watching a horror flick. That is, of course, if the elevators full of blood didn't tip you off before all that goes down.
One of the funny things about the filming of The Shining is that the producers never told child actor Danny Lloyd that he was acting in a horror movie. He actually thought he was acting in a family drama, and Kubrick added all the other horrifying stuff only after shooting Danny's scenes. It's the old Kubrick fake-out, which he liked to do with his actors just as much as his audiences.
The Shining takes its name from the special power that Danny has for seeing things that other people can't and for communicating without using his mouth. Mr. Hallorann is the actual person who puts a name to this power, as he tells Danny,
"I can remember when I was a little boy, my grandmother and I could hold conversations entirely without ever opening our mouths. She called it shining."
This power of Danny's turns out to be crucial to the movie, since it's what allows him to call Mr. Hallorann for help when his dad goes nuts. Now it's true that Hallorann can't save Danny, but he does bring the snowcat machine that allows Wendy and Danny to get away from the Overlook Hotel.
It's interesting that Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick decided to go with The Shining as their titles, since this secret power of Danny's isn't necessarily the most important detail of the whole movie. After all, there's a ton of supernatural stuff in the movie that has nothing to do with Danny's power—creepy twin girls, elevators full of blood, a decomposing woman in the bathtub. (All of those would make excellent movie titles, in our humble opinion.)
But naming the movie after this does help establish Danny as the true protagonist instead of Jack Torrance, and this is something that we might need to be reminded of as the movie spends more and more attention on Jack.
So Jack—who has decided to give up on work in order, presumably, to not be a dull boy—ends this movie by freezing to death in the middle of a hedge maze, and Wendy and Danny get away in the snowcat machine.
But as if this movie weren't yet enough of a mindbender, Kubrick decides to throw in one final shot of a camera panning in on a photo on the wall of the Overlook Hotel. The photo is from 1921 and it shows an adult Jack Torrance partying with a bunch of people.
So now we're forced to ask if Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of some other guy who used to work at the Overlook. Or maybe he's been a ghost all along? In whatever case, he clearly has some investment in making sure he and his family can stay in the Overlook Hotel forever, and the only way that can happen is if they all die.
It's not easy to explain the ending of this movie, and you'll find a whole lot of arguments about it online. But in the end, it all seems to have something to do with Jack getting stuck in a time warp. After all, how else would he recognize Lloyd the bartender and all the other party-going ghosts who are supposedly from the 1920's?
There's no way we would recommend showing this movie to little kids. There's a whole lot of blood (like elevators full of the stuff), and it's bound to give them nightmares for years… if not for the rest of their lives. After all, we've been afraid to enter to the state of Colorado ever since we first heard the ghost twins ask, "Won't you come play with us?"
Oh yeah, and on top of the gore there's also full front nudity and plenty of cursing. We don't think the censors had to think very long before slapping an R on this movie.