October 20th, 2011
Zom and I have talked many times in many articles about the fact that our mother used to work as a TV producer and how the company she worked for was, like so many production companies in the late seventies, situated in Soho. It was an old, thin building with an editing suite in the basement and her office at the top – a scary environment, full of weird adults. — —— used to hang out, drug addled, in the second floor editing suite where my brother and I were once offered cocaine by his pal and the in-house director/company director’s personal rent boy – needless to say, the offices of –TV was no place for children.
It was also haunted.
We were told how, in the old days, the building used to be a brothel, as if our child brains knew what to do with that information. This was a world even more adult than the one currently occupying the tiny, narrow spot in a cranny of central London where the production company had its base. All we knew was it must have been the site of enormous, incomprehensible grown up suffering. Our mother sensed a woman who would not leave, deranged, dressed in red. The presence was particularly strong on the third floor, but above it, in Mum’s office, the atmosphere would clear again. She never made herself felt up there. Just a few feet away and you were safe. When we had to stay late and the building emptied, my brother and I would shut the door between Mum’s office and the stairwell that led down to where the woman waited and sift through the video cassettes, any stray thoughts of ghostly, bloodied women washed away on the tide of Carry on England’s canned laughter or by the boisterous playground jostle of Rhubarb and Custard’s theme music.
Speaking to my Mum about it now, she doesn’t remember the red woman, and I have to admit it could have all got a bit confused in my pre-teen head. The point is, though, my Mum was always going on about ghosts. There was her first flat where her disbelieving housemates got a terrible, poltergeist style awakening one evening when the lights began flashing on and off of their own accord, doors opened with no one behind them and one girl accidentally sat on whatever it was, its arms furling around her, all of which saw the lot of them barricaded in one of the bedrooms when, one day, Mum, vindicated, returned from work. Then there was her boss’s house, the aforementioned director, where plates skidded across tables, books were found strewn over the floor of supposedly tidy rooms and where my mother’s bedside received frequent nocturnal visitations from disturbed, hostile entities silently demanding she leave and never return. Finally there was our family home in ——- and the old lady who would come to Mum in times of extreme sadness or stress in order to comfort her. My Mum’s always been haunted it seems. It’s like the Sixth Sense or something.
And we all know how that turned out.
The elephant in the corner of all these spooky fireside tales is somewhat less thrilling I’m afraid. Astute readers will already realise there’s a common element to all of this, the thing quite possibly causing it all, my mother herself. To say my mum had a happy time of it in 80s would be pushing it. She had a good job doing creative, rewarding work, but she was overworked, often stuck in that fucking edit suite for nights on end with no break, only to see her producer credit given to the rent boy. She was in a relationship with the same man who gave him the credit too. A highly abusive relationship. When she finally returned to our East Sussex home, often around midnight or later, sleep deprived, frazzled and terrified for her two boys because her boss/lover had decided, on a whim, to fire her that day, or some such everyday evil shit like that, she was a nightmare. Like her mother before her, my Mum was frequently a volatile mess, and, as much as i love her, and i do, i have to admit I spent a good part of my childhood genuinely frightened of her. It’s easy now to see that the ghosts in question were probably just her own pain, or, in the case of the old woman, its antidote, displaced into the places she inhabited.
At the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of Stephen King’s The Shining lies the godawful possibility of a demented parent attempting to murder his family. It’s every child’s worst nightmare, that a parent should actively seek to harm them, and probably one of the main reasons why the film has such enduring anti-appeal. Unsurprisingly I can relate, just a little bit, to those fears and to a parent whose own barely contained instability travelled out of her skin and into the walls of her home.
Throughout The Shining there’s an interplay between the increasingly murderous father and his environment, both of them mirroring and feeding off each other. To begin with the Overlook Hotel, filled with holidayers and staff, seems safe enough, sanitised, healthily everyday, nothing evil could lurk there without the maids finding it or the guests complaining, but slowly, masterfully, Kubrick clears the space of everything. Society, the super-ego, is sloughed, civilisation, morality, law and sanity vanishing in a few short, nail-biting hours, until all we’re left with is a worryingly personal, internalised world. Just Jack and his wife and child, the basic filtering system for his desires. Family as self-structure – ego.
Out there in No Man’s Land Jack’s personhood begins a doomed battle royale with his inner beast. See them, the tiny, huddled family unit, isolated amidst all that space, caught in the crosshairs of Kubrick’s huge frames, vulnerable against all that white, those clean and polished floors – the last, struggling vestiges of Jack’s humanity and all the empty rooms! Their locked doors, to which Jack, depressingly, carries a key, represent the denied, unspoken aspects of his anti-self, beyond the frontier of day to day morality – *out there* – and that now have him surrounded, circling the campfire of the caretaker’s quarters. The monsters preparing to break through into the last safe space, his home. With the Shining, Kubrick reverses the conventional horror movie equation, because in his film there is too much light. The ghosts haunting the Overlook Hotel are not doused in a sheath of prophylactic gloom, but fully, brilliantly exposed, illuminated in the centre of the frame. The lights are going on all over this diseased space, the ghouls walking by day, stepping into the waking world out of Jack’s nightmares.
A sense of containment is central to The Shining’s effectiveness. When, midway through the film, Jack pays a visit to room 237 to investigate his son’s reports of a ‘deranged woman’ living there and is subsequently seduced and set upon by the ghost of the previous caretaker’s wife, it somehow makes sense to us when he flees to the hallway outside, locking the door behind him, that she cannot follow him. We know that, for the time being at least, the horrors within the hotel’s walls are confined to highly specific, tertiary haunts, the demons not yet having gained enough strength to inhabit transitional space, or at least the very worst ones haven’t. We’ve already met the woman’s butchered children by this point, the first of the hotel’s spirits to demonstrate movement, to move through the hotel’s veins, the corridors, with the ability to come upon us, as opposed to us, to Jack, coming upon them. There is still distance at this point in the film, the monsters still shunted into the background, unquiet disturbances far away, shut up, hemmed in. But we know things can’t stay this way. The walls, the doors and locks, are softening with every passing day, just as Jack’s sense of personhood, the distinction between himself and the eternal, mythic world of familicide, indeed genocide, lodged in the Overlook’s walls, begins to erode.
This sense of partitioned evil is echoed in the montage sequences detailing Danny, Jack’s son’s, visions, where images of the Overlook’s phantom denizens are intercut – bouyed – across a locked shot of a tide of blood bleeding out of the walls and into the hotel foyer, eventually drowning our vision. Here the rapid exchange of images subconsciously reminds the viewer of the awful, ever present but boxed in future awaiting Jack and his family at film’s end. Of how, for now, these things are frozen (the images are often static), locked away within their individual frames, their secret rooms, their secret pain, awaiting a continuity, life – to flood the neural pathways of Jack’s mind. There is a further partitioning in the mise-en-scene itself, earthing the dread within physical objects. One of the film’s most famous scenes sees Jack, awash on tide of phantasms or madness, in conversation with the aforementioned caretaker responsible for the deaths of his wife and twin girls. The caretaker, Grady, discusses the need for Jack to ‘correct’ his ‘willful’ family, his clipped and measured language, his butler’s composure, a fragile, breakable surface beneath which, we know, a barely restrained bloodthirstiness seethes. The public toilet where this exchange takes place represents a visual extension of the the caretaker’s, and Jack’s, precarious emotional state. Red panelling runs across the clean, white walls and beneath the sinks – blood bolt-holed to the hotel’s foundation, but organised, restrained, tramelled, iced over and frozen across the decades since the slaughter of american indians, of loved ones, locked up during the summer months, but ready to flow again come winter and the right arrangement of circumstance, the right mind. And behind it all there’s just the bare facticity of toilets themselves. Cocks out. Pissing. Demarcated territory. Brute, animal violence embedded in the space’s fundamental themes.
And why is this important? Because, looked at one way, The Shining is from a child’s point of view. Like the hotel that is slowly colonising his mind, Jack wears two faces. There is the public face of the father, a clearly defined role within the culture, and then there is the other Jack, the killer, the father’s opposite. And what is so skillful about the film is the way Kubrick articulates the tension between the two, the complex symbol system central to the film of containment and release. Danny can literally feel, we can feel, this deep sense of repression. Corridors and rooms and walls – an organised environment growing increasingly disorganised. The parent who should make sense passing through the looking glass mirrors dotting the walls of the Overlook and into gibbering non-sense. It seems to me significant that the moment the shit really hits the fan, that everything tips over into the utterly beserk, involves Jack being released from the store room where his terrified wife has trapped him by the long dead caretaker. This scene represents the film’s first conclusively supernatural event, the unlocking of a door by a disembodied spirit, and it is where the hotel, and the anti-dad, are finally unleashed. We realise now that there are no walls, no doors, no prison, that can contain this evil. It is finally on the move, jumbling reality, and potentially bodies, in its wake.
And so: this
While Jack marauds around killing everything in site, hunting his little boy, the Overlook erupts with malevolent weirdness. The doors to the rooms swing wide offering a glimpse of long dead partygoers in full fancy dress performing sex acts upon each other, there are skeletons in the ballroom and one undead reveller, apparently fatally wounded, offers a toast to this wonderful, neverending party of detonated id (as a side note, I’d like to add that – and I’ve thought about this a lot – this is why Nicholson’s hammy, cartoonish performance is perfect for the role, because there is something about giving in to pure, animal desire, the pleasure principle, that is fun, and because the misrule that by the end subsumes everything is, by its very nature, carnivalesque). All of this culminates, of course, in the tidal wave of blood above, and, tellingly, is witnessed by the one individual who has thus far remained unaware of the supernatural coda to her husband’s descent into madness, Wendy, Jack’s wife. This final intrusion really represents a kind of spilling over of this spooky material, a bursting forth of the films central concerns that have, up until this point, been restricted to the father and son. Like the unlocking of the door by Grady in the scene preceding it, Wendy’s glimpse of the hotel beneath the surface is key because it marks the point at which everything becomes real. I should point out here that when I say ‘real’ I’m not attempting to claim that The Shining possesses a genuinely supernatural solution. The psychological versus supernatural debate doesn’t interest me at all. What does interest me, however, is the middle ground between the two, the way the film resists any one reading. A psychological interpretation of events makes a great deal of sense….. until it doesn’t. And vice versa. And this is important because it is how these things feel, these events that are too big to fit in one’s head, or, because of course all of this could be a murderous fantasy (the narrative an excavation rather than a realisation of Id), the idea of these events. This is how it feels to be a child considering the terrible impossibility of a parent becoming their opposite, how huge it is, untrue even as it is true, even as it is untrue.
As we’ve noted, via the constant movement between release and containment and subjective and objective truth the film achieves an atmosphere of concrete-deep instability, perfectly capturing a Danny’s eye view of the world and the terrifying wobble at his father’s centre – a glimpse of a world without gravity, where all the rules of paternal love are broken. An oedipal reading suggests itself. This is the child’s first glimpse of the world as enemy, and his Father is the door, the first socialisation outwith the bounds of the Mother, a close encounter with the other. And, as, again, we’ve touched on above, this is an eternal narrative – that’s why the ghosts, why time breaks down and Jack appears at the photo at the end, front and centre at the party, where we all give in to the whirl of our darkest, wildest impulses – the streamer bedecked chaos at the end of the day.
And the Overlook Hotel is still there, waiting – a haunted house where there are no shadows, a halfway space where, it is inferred, in the end we are all guests, where our most dreadful imaginings occupy the rooms…. where it is always happening.
The last outpost on the borderland.
Do you recognise your face in the crowd?