Not just an iconic horror film, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is full of cryptic visual clues, riddles and mysteries. We talk to Rodney Ascher, who has collated some of the most fascinating theories for his documentary Room 237.
More than thirty years on from its release, The Shining continues to captivate and terrify audiences. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that the film is cryptic to the extreme, full of mysterious symbols, and opens itself up to numerous and often wildly opposed theories.
An allegory of the brutal persecution of Native Americans? The Overlook is built on a graveyard, and the film is littered with Native American imagery (see the tin of baking powder below for example). Or, pehaps, Kubrick's coded confessional of his part in the (supposed) faking of the moon-landing footage? Among other 'evidence' (suprisingly, there's a lot!) is the fact that as Danny enters Room 237 (we are 237,000 miles away from the moon), he is wearing an Apollo 11 jumper. Or maybe a dark exploraiton of the genocidal insanity of Hitler and his party? At one point in a series of crossfades, during the revelation of the 1920's ballroom photograph, one man's receeding hairline matches with Nicholson's mouth perfectly, so that - for a split second - he is depicted with Hitler's infamous moustache. The fact that The Shining can be seen through a multiplicity of critical lenses and read in different, sometimes contrasting, ways is testiment to Kubrick's enduring legacy. After all, as one commentator says in the film, author intent is only part of the story.
Room 237 collates these fascinating theories and presents them in an eccentric and thoroughly entertaining documentary. Equal parts insightful academic essay, conspiracy theory, an endearingly obsessive piece of fandom, and a love-letter to Kubrick and The Shining, the film was a surprise break-out at this year’s Sundance Festival. We catch up with Room 237’s director Rodney Ascher ahead of the film's UK release to talk all things Shining.
The film is compiled of a series of interviews with people, who each have done meticulous analyses of the film. How did you go about finding them?
I was surprised when we first started looking for people – it was a bottomless pit! Most of them had an active online presence, but a little bit of detective work had to be deployed in order to find John Ryan. I’d heard that, in Brooklyn, they were screening The Shining simultaneously backwards and forwards, superimposed over the other. I managed to track down the guy, John, who’d arranged it. But there were also people we never found. We never found out who this guy Johnny53 was. He's done some really in-depth stuff about the mysteries of The Shining decoded, but we never found out who he was!
You say there was a ‘bottomless pit’ of people talking about and analysing The Shining. How did you select those that you ended up featuring?
Well we didn’t want them to be too similar. And it would help if I understood it! (laughs) It was amazing how much people had to say. I was surprised about how personal their reactions were, how their experiences affected how they saw the film, and alternately how the film affected their lives too. By thinking about The Shining for so long, The Shining begins to think about you!
How did you manage to piece together so effectively the different, intricate and expansive interpretations? Was it challenging?
Yes it was, but that was also the fun of it. I would take a four-hour interview and the producer would loosely transcribe it, and then I would go through and make a brief note on every thought the interviewee had, so I could quickly find everything again. The interviews were mostly four hours long, and we’d cut them down into, say, five ten-minute pieces so we could handle them better. But we didn’t want sound bites, we wanted them to relive their discoveries and get excited about it all over again!
How did you first come up with the idea?
You know those slideshows with trivia questions you used to get at the cinema before the movie, to keep you entertained? Did you get them over here? They would have really dumb, idiotic questions like: ‘How many amigos are in The Three Amigos?’ (laughs). So I did a mean-spirited parody of that with questions about my own personal life which nobody would know the answer to, or ridiculously intellectual questions on critical theory and one question was about numerological interpretations of The Shining! I’d forgotten about it until a few years ago, when my friend emailed me a deep online analysis somebody had written about the movie. I was like “Okay, this needs to be a film”. I’d done another film a couple of years ago interviewing people who had a phobia of a certain corporate logo and thought Room 237 would be a logical step from there. They’re both about people who are profoundly affected by the things they’ve seen.
What’s your personal story with The Shining?
The first time I saw it I was ten. I snuck into the theatre, got frightened and ran back out! But I was a horror movie fan from a young age. I didn’t ride a motorcycle, excel at athletics or anything dangerous like that, so the way I got to think of myself as a ‘bad boy’ was to watch really gross horror films. So when it came out on video I had to conquer The Shining, which had conquered me as a kid. Now I appreciate it very much as a horror film, and as a Kubrick film, and I can see aspects of my life reflected back in it as well. If I didn’t love The Shining, I couldn’t have spent a few years inside it!