Dark Side of Human Nature in Kubrick’s The Shining

In Stanley Kubrick’s hit psychological horror film ‘The Shining’ based on the novel by Stephen King, we explore Jack Torrance, the tragic hero whose actions eventually lead to his default; having many psychopathic features with a history of alcoholism and little love for his family, yet quite capable of being charming. He is tasked with the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel – moving in with his wife, Wendy and son, Danny. The story itself revolves around Jack finally throwing off the shackles of sanity with ease portraying the dark side of human nature along with the assumed aid of a supernatural force.

The Shining‘s initial response was mixed due to drifting away from the conventional aspects of the horror genre, however it rose from the ashes of its own bad press to redefine the genre and is now seen as one of the most absorbing horrors created. Kubrick worked with many different genres containing stories about society, some dark and some not so much; Kubrick states in the 1983 Rolling Stone interview that there should be social constraints on behaviour. His main interest was to portray the dark side of human nature and institutions, because he was fascinated by it – he does not however offer solutions.  Kubrick was articulate with his subject matter and his depiction of violence, sex and dehumanization; this can be seen also in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These films accompany The Shining by exploiting the dark side of human psyche and violent nature of human beings in a variety of ways.

Violence in The Shining is particular compared to other films in the horror genre. In most traditional horror films there is tons of blood and gore, murder is a recurring element and usually the characters have to deal with new problems leading to their success. However The Shining pitted Jack and Wendy as two troubled human beings with problems even before the movie takes place.  Wendy is an emotionally unstable character throughout the film depending on cigarettes as well as seeking a conversation with others. Jack is clearly troubled from the start mentioning cannibalism to his young son and descends eventually even more into madness.

Throughout the entirety of the film there is actually only one on-screen murder which takes place, this is of Jack taking an axe and thrusting it into Dick Hallorann’s heart, the head chef of the Overlook Hotel. This murder is integral for the film’s plot as Hallorann was looking to save the family from Jack; his character shared an extremely fundamental bond with Danny through a telepathic ability, which he calls “shining”. This ability allowed Danny to see past and future events, for instance there are instances where he has flashes of two twin girls who are then see dead on the floor, revealed to be murdered by an ex-caretaker at the hotel.  The famous bathroom scene in which Jack has finally surrendered himself to chaos and axes the door down to achieve his psychotic goal of murdering wife and son shows just how far a human is willing to go. 

Alcoholism isn’t a majorly mentioned in the film version of The Shining yet is fundamental to Jacks character. In the film, he visits the ball room where he is completely alone uttering the words “I’d do anything for a drink, even my give my God damn soul.” He sits at the bar where ‘Lloyd’ the bartender appears out of nowhere – Jack begins to drink his bourbon whiskey and seems to be as tranquil as possible. He begins to divulge into his past telling Lloyd that he only laid hands on his son three years prior to the present “I love the little son of a bitch!” Jack begins to really listen to Lloyd receiving the “words of wisdom” that describe Jack’s entrapment, and that the world is no longer on his side “Women, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” His encounter with Lloyd the bartender is pivotal to his deterioration.

Dysfunctional families are usually linked to alcohol issues; this is that same case for the Torrance’s. Jack’s desire for it leaves him vulnerable to the hotel, which feeds on his weakness. This displays that when alcohol is abused it goes hand-in-hand with violence. The first drink he has at the hotel is a sort of metaphor for bestowing himself to the ‘ghosts’ and madness to come later. From here on out he begins cursing at his wife and suffering from writers block. It is until we meet Delbert Grady, another ‘ghost’ to appear to Jack in the ballroom recounting what he did to his wife and two daughters and how Jack should ‘correct’ his family. In the book Masters of Cinema, some speculated that Jack is in fact hallucinating due to his alcohol issues and that he is doing it from his own freewill.

Responsibility in the film is key to Jack’s downfall. He is given the Overlook hotel to look after over the winter season, he is the breadwinner of the family and eventually giving into the supposed supernatural of the Overlook he must fulfil their commands. This is evident when he is locked in the storeroom with Delbert Grady only willing to let him out if he succeeds in the murder of his wife and son. Before this however there is a scene devoted to Jack speaking of his responsibilities as he follows Wendy up the stairs whilst she holds a baseball bat to keep him away. It is clear from this that his liabilities have plagued his mind.

Authority issues come into play with his writers block as Wendy finds on his typewriter the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” This gives some sort of insight into him being the money-maker in the family, working all the time but getting distractions – being his family. When Jack is with Danny their relationship seems perplexing, it is noticed in the film that Danny has a stronger emotional bond with Wendy than with Jack, which fuels him the rather paranoid notion that the two are conspiring against him. His responsibilities to the ‘ghosts’ of the Overlook eventually lead to his demise, he allows growth in a negative way including suffering and harm contrasting the dark side of human nature.

Violence, alcoholism and responsibly all work together to descend Jack into madness. Human nature consists of characteristics, including thinking, acting and feeling which Jack would usually be in control of – however he is under the influence of many factors. Jack is introduced as this somewhat confused, easily-agitated character and moving to the Overlook destroyed his way of ever-living on the good side of human nature. For example, Delbert Grady was the previous caretaker who fulfilled his duty in slaughtering his family. He mentions to Jack “You have always been the caretaker,” This is telling us that the evil have always been there in Jack, The Overlook merely awakened it. Violence combines well with alcohol; it allows the abuser to justify his abusive behaviour on the alcohol, but the responsibilities mixed with these two themes exert the power over Jack’s wife and son.

In conclusion, the themes of violence, alcoholism and responsibility used in The Shining combine well to show the dark side of human nature within Jack Torrance, which was always there and may exist in all of us depending on the environment and influential behaviour. Violence was necessary in order to achieve what was vital for Jack; alcohol and his responsibilities are what drove him to the edge of sanity, it was the Overlook Hotel that pushed him.


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