The Fearful Symmetry of Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237

Room 237

There are two things I watched as a child – that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch as child – a special shout out to my mad cool parents, yo! – that I believe will stick with me forever…and ever…and ever. One is Twin Peaks. The other is The Shining. Oh yeah, and Fright Night. And that episode of Scooby Doo with the pumpkin-headed phantom. But seriously…about The Shining.

Like Twin Peaks it’s been an object of obsession for me. In Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s obsessive new documentary where half a dozen film nuts/Kubrick scholars obsess over every bit of minutiae in The Shining (check out all the stuff in the walk-in cooler at the Overlook…every brand name has a double meaning so sayeth them!), every cross dissolve (Kubrick dissolves scenes like Kapooya!), every continuity error (de-lib-er-ate they say!), there’s not a single theory presented that I haven’t heard before.

The Shining was actually about the Holocaust (the number 42 is quite telling…as is one cross dissolve of people into stacked luggage…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no, wait…make that the American genocide of the Indians (think of the setting, and the set designs, and the back story of the hotel…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no way…it was about how Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing (duh, Danny’s wearing that Apollo 11 sweater, like, what did you think that meant?)…or…AHA! – it was about all of those things!

I ask you…was Kubrick a guy who loved his symbolism and symmetry and subliminal imagery? Did he like to have fun with the audience and put in his own little visual in-jokes…or as is hilariously revealed in Room 237 in a reenactment of a most famous writer watching the film adaptation of his beloved book in some cabin in the woods, an obvious “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” f-you to Stephen King upon whose hack novel Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece was based?

I ask you…does a bear shit in the woods? Well, wait…what does the bear represent…and whose woods is he shitting in? And what color is that shit? Did you notice that squirrel in the background in the top north-west corner of the picture of the bear shitting in the woods? The placement of the squirrel and the angle of the nut in its mouth are quite telling!

One thing I was surprised not to find in Room 237 was the theory that Kubrick was about to reveal the truth about The Illuminati (you know, those bad guys secretly ruling the world), and that both The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut are filled with Illuminati symbolism, and that Kubrick was actually murdered because Eyes Wide Shut went too far in its revelations…yet somehow was still allowed to be released…and in an ultimate insult to the dead Kubrick, mostly panned by critics and audiences.

And while it perplexed me that the film didn’t have the balls to reveal that truth…I was absolutely transfixed by the segment detailing how The Shining allegedly should really be watched. Some dude had the idea to show the film forward and backward simultaneously with the images superimposed on top of each other. The five minutes of this they show in the documentary is enough to make your head spin. It’s almost too weird to be true (Kubrick really was some kind of mad genius with the visual symmetry…makes me wonder if you could do that with all of his films?)…but it scares the crap out of me to even imagine watching the entire movie that way. I might have to be institutionalized after that. It’s like watching a dancing midget talk backwards…wait…that was Twin Peaks.

Scooby Scooby Doo…where are you?

Being a fan of film…and a fan of Kubrick…and a fan of psychology…I couldn’t help but feel like a giddy college kid again watching Room 237. It brought to mind all those times sitting around the dorms or the library, just talking with friends about how, “Wow, man, isn’t it amazing how that one cool thing in that class connected to that other cool thing in that other class and how, like, wow, man, it’s like my whole view of the world is changing and like everything, man, EVERYTHING is connected.”

And that’s the eternal kicker about Kubrick. The very act of watching his films, changes his films. Whether he intended it or not…people SEE THESE THINGS in his films. And in The Shining…all I see are dead people…and one kick-ass kid who outsmarted his homicidal dad (a son outsmarting his dad, for some reason that theme always stuck with me). But in Room 237…all I see are crazy people. Like super cool, Scooby Doo sleuthing, crazy people. Like crazy people you want to talk to at a party after having a couple of drinks.

But I didn’t need these wackadoodles to tell me The Shining is worth watching again and again and again…forever…and ever…ever. I knew that from the first time I watched it. Kubrick had us all pegged from the start. He’s Danny Torrance…and we’re all Jack Torrance…losing our minds in his cold mazes and getting outsmarted by him every time.

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. Oh, I must see this, right now! I spent my childhood first obsessed with the novel (I happened upon a copy of The Shining at a family friend’s house the summer before 5th grade), then with the movie a couple of years later. Hands down one of my favorite movies ever, although I’m going to be a totally uncool parent and *not* let my daughter watch it anytime soon.

  2. In film criticism, there’s always the debate about what the director intended and did-not-intend, and if it’s even fair to analyze that which the director did-not-intend. And then it continues to the point where they (the critics. Yes, us too.) argue that even what the director did-not-intend is also a subconscious manifestation of the director’s mind, and hence “they” are right in pointing it out.

    I guess “they” are stretching this too far. A work of art is always subjective to POVs, perspective, bias and prejudice of the beholder. At the same time, I must admit, such analysis does make for interesting reading, writing, or watching (in this case) and I’m all game for it as long as it doesn’t get too personal and starts degrading its creator.

    Thanks for bringing this documentary to our attention. I wasn’t aware of it and will definitely watch it as The Shining was one of the first few films of Kubrick’s I watched.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I think that in film, like other art forms, what we see is individual to the way we were raised by our parents, the culture we grew up in, and our individual experiences.

    I enjoyed reading a separate film analysis of The Shining done by Juli Kearns, in which she argues, persuasively I felt, that most of the scenes we see in the film are simply Jack’s mental storyboard of the writing project he is outlining. Her analysis helps to explain why many critics found the dialogue to be wooden, why some argued Wendy’s reactions to certain things seemed unrealistic, and why the story seemed hard to follow for some. If Jack is trying to work out the sequence of his story, and is struggling with it, it makes sense that the story doesn’t fully hang together.

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