‘The Shining’ and the ‘Room 237′ Code
With the theatrical release of the movie Room 237 probing the many
real and fantastical interpretations of The Shining, I couldnʼt resist
doing some concept modeling on The Shining itself for two reasons:
(1) The Shining is a good example of what concept is. (2) The
Shining is a good example of what concept is not. And that
contradiction is the key to the difference between concept structure
and story structure, and a great way of putting some shine on the
For the record, concept modeling is about defining the underlying concepts and concept structures that glue a film together. It is different than story structure. Filmmakers take an idea, what I call the clay, and mold it or shape it with story, plot, character and the like.
I work on the clay itself. It is a related yet separate discipline. When you see a box office dud, the problem is not necessarily with the writing or directing; itʼs often defective clay . . . the soul of the film.
Hidden in that explanation is the solution to the paradox I alluded to above.
I remember reading an article on The Shining years ago. It stated that the movie was really about the U.S. massacre of Indians. Apparently, Kubrick had hidden that message within the film. For example, the name of the hotel is called the Overlook, suggesting that we have overlooked this in our history. As the Overlookʼs manager gives Jack the official tour, he explains that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground and that Indian attacks had to be repelled during its construction.
Additionally, when the cook, played by Scatman Crothers, uses his shining skills to connect with young Danny for the first time, a box of Calumet baking soda, featuring the Indian headdress logo, can be seen just off his shoulder.
Was something tragic from our countryʼs past buried in this horror movie by Kubrick? Perhaps, perhaps not.
If you watch the film again, youʼll find that those elements are indeed there but that something is still missing. I wanted so much to see the film transformed into a masked allegory, but it didnʼt happen. Putting a soda box in the background didnʼt change the filmʼs core.
A good analogy is a movie pitch, when you hear something like “this is really a story about hope.” Just saying the film is about “hope” and actually modeling it tightly into the fiber of the film are two different things. One or two lines of dialogue wonʼt do the trick.
Although intriguing, the Indian massacre idea is not a good example of modeling concepts into a film. It wasnʼt deeply embedded, or transformational.
But then again . . . it is a good example, but for a very different reason. It is not part of the clay. Rather, its existence was inspired by something else in the clay.
These statements carry no contradiction and here is why:
One secret to The Shining can be found in a technique used by Kubrick in his masterpiece, 2001: think of the black monolith. By design, it was left unexplained and thus left open to interpretation, a Rorschach test. Who didnʼt talk about its meaning after seeing the movie?
In The Shining he uses both the possibility of interpretation and the psychological nature of horror as part of his clay. It is like a doublebarreled shotgun of psychological weaponry. Off one barrel is shining itself as a sixth sense to see past, present and future evils. As a backwash of terror it keeps the tension constant. Off the other barrel is the way Kubrick uses our own psychological makeup to generate greater fear. Nothing is more frightening than the fear created by our own imagination.
The blue-dressed twins donʼt do anything physically, but their presence creates terror. Who or what they are and what they might do is left to our imagination and thus exponentially increases the fear factor.
The movie Room 237 is about the sometime obsessive interpretations that people have read into The Shining. It explores theories on what the movie is really about. Amazingly, each theory or path looks more plausible with every turn inside the maze.
But that is how the movie was concepted. So, you may ask: isnʼt what I am writing just another interpretation? The proof is in its self-evident nature: Once you see it, concept becomes obvious.
Think about the traditional elements found in classic horror films:
* Dead bodies and burial grounds
* Devils peering in the shadows
* Blood baths
* Past lies or evils
* Creepy noises
Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist all have elements in common with The Shining. So how did the Indian massacre reference get into the film if not intentionally? The answer? It doesnʼt matter; it fits in with classic horror genre elements.
Is there a self-evident concept in The Shining? Revisit the giant maze behind the hotel as an abstract concept. Not only is it a scaled-up mousetrap for humans but it represents the psychological maze of terror on which the film was built. To make it work, Kubrick left elements open to interpretation by our fears. If I start down a path that is driven my own imagination, my fear will increase.
In Room 237 the final interviewee admits to feeling trapped inside a psychological maze.
The opening drive scene, Dannyʼs hallway racing and the hotel tours all reinforce the maze concept. Lest we forget, the maze idea came from Kubrick himself, not the book.
The Indian massacre theory is just one potential path. With a physical maze, you have to construct it. With a psychological maze, the minds of the audience will do that for you. As we fade out, the maze that is The Shining works like an inkblot . . . only this one shines in bloodred.
Questions about concept modeling the underlying maze in your film? Email me: Winston@conceptmodeling.com