The Shining and Toxic Masculinity

Stephen King’s 1977 best-selling novel, The Shining, and its subsequent 1980 film adaptation, directed by Stanley Kubrick, have been heralded as landmarks in horror literature and cinema. Both the novel and the film center on Jack Torrance, a writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a job as a winter caretaker for the Overlook hotel. His family–his wife Wendy and his young son, Danny–accompany him and stay in the hotel over the off-season, leaving them in isolation during the frigid weather. As time goes on, the hotel beckons to young Danny, who possesses psychic powers referred to as “shining,” and the family falls deeper into turmoil as the hotel engulfs them.

Upon initial release, The Shining was not regarded as masterpiece of horror cinema; rather, it was a slow-burner at the box office. Stephen King, himself, frequently discusses his distaste for the adaptation, deeming it a shallow, surface-level representation of the characters’ struggles. Kubrick’s method of horror is more aesthetic and appeals to archetypal representations of the Torrance family, instilling disturbing imagery and uncanny dialogue, whereas King’s novel is more thematic and character driven, focusing on story rather than plot. Written in third person omniscient,  the reader has access to the characters’ thoughts, especially their doubts.

The character of Jack Torrance is flawed; however, he’s not a cartoon villain whose sanity snaps on a whim. The core of his character centers on his narrow definition of masculinity. Toxic masculinity is contentious jargon, but I am using it here–not to say that masculinity is bad or that men are bad. Rather, to refer, in general terms, to how societal expectations of men to be aggressive, strong, and stoic limit the range of their acceptable behaviors and how these unrealistic expectations are harmful to their ability to express emotion or convey attitudes of weakness or submissiveness. In the case of Jack, those emotions, repressed by shame or otherwise, manifest in anger, violence, sexual frustration, and resentment towards his wife and son.

Framed as a career change in the film, in the novel Jack loses his job as an English teacher because he was violent towards a student. He breaks his own son’s arm in a drunken rage and is thrown into a pit of guilt and despair after a night of drinking because he thinks that he ran over a child riding on their bike. He keeps Wendy in the dark instead of confiding in her, pushing her away until she is filled with doubt, and ultimately fear, at the monster her husband turned out to be.

“The wanting, the needing to get drunk had never been so bad. He knocked things over. And he kept wanting to take it out on Wendy and Danny. His temper was like a vicious animal on a frayed leash. He had left the house in terror that he might strike them. He ended up outside a bar, and the only thing that had kept him from going in was the knowledge that if he did, Wendy would leave him at last, and take Danny with her. He would be dead from the day they left.”

King presents the reader with a character that is sympathetic–at least in beginning– Jack’s slow descent into a murderous monster takes almost five hundred pages, after all. At the start of the novel, he is striving to be a better person; he’s haunted by his addiction to alcohol and misdirects anger at the people that he cares about the most. In the conclusion of the novel, Jack sheds the afterthoughts of guilt and fear. He loses control of himself entirely, becoming the vicious animal, fueled by his own anger. His resentment towards his family molds itself into a false entitlement to which he needs to “correct them” into being obedient to him.

Jack Torrance is a reflection of society and his childhood more so than he is a man corrupted by the supernatural entities of the hotel.  The Shining is the subject of many conspiracy theories and interpretations, and although the book is most definitely supernatural, the visions that Jack sees, I believe, are the projections of his own mind. Even outside of the ghostly encounters he has, Jack is stuck in his own head, recalling in gruesome flashback how his father used to beat his mother (and he compares Wendy to his mother when he is attacking her). In his spare time at the Overlook, Jack is fascinated by the hotel’s bloody history and reads through various newspaper articles about the murders that occurred there. Later in the novel, Jack visualizes the golden ballroom filled with beautiful people and a never-ending supply of booze. He dreams of excess: the wealth he’ll never have, a night of drinking without the guilt or the hangover, and the glitz and glamour of sexual attraction and love without the hardships of marriage.

In an article entitled, What Stanley Kubrick Got Wrong About “The Shining”, Laura Miller wrote: “It’s a film in which domestic violence occurs, while King’s novel is about domestic violence as a choice certain men make when they refuse to abandon a delusional, defensive entitlement.” Kubrick’s characters lack depth and humanity, and in that way, the movie cannot critique Jack’s toxic masculinity as much as it can showcase it without context. The horror of Kubrick’s Jack plays on fears of isolation and uncanny, disturbing visuals. The horror of King’s Jack lies within the reader seeing parts of themselves within him.

Stephen King once said Wendy Torrance was  “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.” Indeed, the woman that he wrote about is not shrill, in fact, she’s terrified by her husband, but remarkably composed. Much like Jack, Wendy is affected by the isolation of the hotel. Her thoughts are constantly shifting between the idea of the man she married and the reality of his delusions and hostility. Her domesticity is a brave face she wears so that her family can heal, and the role she slipped into when Jack slipped up. She is a survivor of abuse. She doesn’t wave around a baseball bat; she buries a knife in Jack’s back when he breaks two of her ribs with a roque mallet. She doesn’t weep and hide, she barely escapes with her life, fighting desperately to stay conscious and protect her son.

Kubrick’s rendition is hailed as a masterpiece due to his unique vision and iconic cinematography; with that vision he grabs a hold of his audience, causing us emotional distress, and creating lasting images that haven’t faded since. The Shining is challenging and unnerving to watch. It’s slow and creeping, leading to electrifying and unforgettable conflict. His mastery of suspense is completely different from King’s–completely different from any horror put to the screen at that time or any horror movie since. But his movie fails as an adaptation. His movie fails as a criticism of the toxic masculine behaviors that shape the conclusion of the movie; his characters are cardboard cutouts played by overworked and overtired actors.

In the novel, the Overlook hotel’s boiler’s pressure gauge is a constant, impending presence. On his downward spiral, it slips Jack’s mind to check the gauge, and he burns his hands releasing the pressure. He fears that he weakened the boiler and he will need to keep an extra-watchful eye on it. When Jack loses control and leans full-throttle into his rage, he forgets to check the boiler, and the hotel explodes. I point this out, not because I want to sound smart for identifying foreshadowing or symbolism, but because I think it is important that the hotel, along with his anger, consume Jack. But, if I am going down this rabbit hole of symbolism, the hotel can itself symbolize anger and violence. Its inability to take a hold of young Danny, who is not yet performing the expected behaviors of his gender, is telling, especially in regards to Danny’s powers being psychic-based. In the place of Jack, who often hides his love for Danny behind stone-faced grimaces of stoicism, Dick Hallorann is more a guiding father figure to Danny. Having the shining himself, he encourages Danny to tap into his abilities–his inner self–because that is what truly makes him special.

Danny leads his father into a labyrinth in the ending scene of the film, and Jack never comes out of it. King’s Danny confronts his father: “You’re not my daddy. Go on and hit me. But you’ll never get what you want from me.” In their last moments together, Danny appeals to the precious little humanity that is left in his father. And Jack lets him live. Jack realizes what he has done, he beats himself with the roque mallet, and he dies in the explosion. However, in the film, he dies, frozen in the snow, merely a shell, giving only the appearance of Jack. An appropriate fate–Jack Torrance of the film is only a husk of the man, lacking the complexity of the character Stephen King put on the page.