“A momentary loss of muscular coordination” (The Shining and abuse)
Originally posted to Patreon on August 22 2020. The original text has been preserved with minimal corrections and changes added for clarity. A spooky All Hallow’s Eve to all.
Content warnings apply.
Stephen King’s The Shining is vexingly sympathetic to axe-murdering alcoholic Jack Torrance. King’s Jack is a guilt-wracked, weakened man who is ultimately broken and consumed by his alcoholism, violent pugnacity, and the Overlook Hotel. The novel frames Jack’s story as the tragedy of a weak man who loses a battle with his fatal vices. Have a read of this passage where Jack lashes out at Wendy for asking about his well-being:
“Jack, are you alright? You look pale—” He snapped his head away from her fingers. “I am fine!” She recoiled from his hot eyes and tried on a smile that was a size too small. “Well… if you are… I’ll just go and wait in the park with Danny…” She was starting away now, her smile dissolving into a bewildered expression of hurt.
He called to her: “Wendy?” She looked back from the foot of the stairs. “What, Jack?” He got up and went over to her. “I’m sorry, babe. I guess I’m really not all right. That machine… the lens is distorted. I’ve got a really bad headache…”
It’s a logical step from Jack belittling and berating his wife to swinging a croquet mallet at her. King writes Jack as feeling guilty for his failings, as if this somehow redeems him or makes him sympathetic (King has that ever-popular style of writing two-dimensional characters downpat — give them a fatal flaw and a virtue and voila, your book has Dramatic Nuance!). This gets into troubling territory, as King attempts to render Jack a sympathetic villain through his own guilt. And, sure, real abusers can sometimes show remorse. It does not inherently endear them to onlookers nor does it reduce the grossness of a spectacle that consists of “woe is me, a poor abuser struggling with my abusiveness!” It’s hard not to read King’s desperation to treat Jack sympathetically as a craven alibi for toxic masculinity, which pays lip service to the harm caused by abusive men but still manages it to center around their pain.
This gets especially messy when King writes Jack as a misanthrope with a loathing for every person he meets. The opening passage of the book explicitly states that he’s a wholly unpleasant bastard:
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you.
So much for reading Jack sympathetically. Equally troubling are the lengths to which King has gone emphasizing that Jack is a thinly-veiled cipher for his own alcoholism, as if “but he’s sad that he dislocated his kid’s shoulder!” is self-flattery (worse still is how King appears to sympathize more with his book’s axe-murdering, abusive Jack than Shelley Duvall’s pervasively heroic, abuse-surviving Wendy, who he accuses of existing to “scream and be stupid”). And look, there’s nothing wrong with writing evil characters who have remorse and even virtue. Much great literature is made of that. But this isn’t three-dimensional characterization. It’s shoddy and half-hearted. People aren’t made of A Strength and A Weakness — every person contains a contradicting miasma of characteristics and instincts that play off each other in fractally complex and strange ways. Jack Torrance being an abusive piece of shit as well as self-loathing doesn’t say anything about abuse. Abuse survivors know that abusers tend to be self-pitying cretins. It doesn’t make them More Complex or Endearing, it’s simply a factor and motivator of their abusive behavior. The result makes King’s The Shining a wholly inadequate treatment of domestic violence, at best failing to communicate anything meaningful about the topic, and at worst painting abusers as the true victims of their violent behavior.
Conversely, Jack in Kubrick’s film is irredeemable. Like the film’s other characters, Jack’s nature is revealed through gestures, subtle yet repeated behaviors, and understated character beats, delineated by Kubrick’s screenplay and direction but fully evinced and magnified by Jack Nicholson’s performance (Nicholson is clearly having the time of his life playing a maniacal, simpering and murderous piece of shit, if not for the last time in his career by several 49-and-a-half-foot-pole-long shots). From the film’s outset, Jack is leering, unhinged, narcissistic, self-pitying, capricious, and contemptuous towards person he meets, blaming everyone except himself for his catastrophic failures. In short, he’s an archetypical narcissistic abuser of the most pathetic type, constantly failing and raging at Wendy and Danny when things don’t go his way or when his family has the audacity to need him to treat them like people.
Nothing about this is simple. People can be wholly repugnant in complex ways, and Film!Jack owns this category of cinematic viciousness. Jack’s malevolence can be subtly patronizing (such as when he responds to Wendy’s initial trepidation about the Overlook by asserting “I liked it from the beginning,) outright silly and cruel (shouting down Wendy for walking into his study while he’s writing a manuscript that’s later revealed to be a single sentence typed out across dozens of pages), gaslighting (telling Wendy that Danny injured himself after snogging the naked geriatric corpse bitch who beat his 5-year-old son), to reversing blame in various situations and downplaying the needs of his family (such as when Jack furiously berates Wendy for “fuck[ing] up [his] life” and telling her “it is so fucking typical of you to create a problem like this when I finally have the chance to accomplish something” in response to her suggesting that getting their severely mentally unwell son medical attention might be a good idea). He’s coy and crassly blunt at once, viciously projecting his failures on Wendy and Danny, and downplaying his own fuckups. For my money, the funniest moment in the movie is when Jack drunkenly recounts the time he dislocated Danny’s arm to Lloyd the bartender. Ever the narcissistic storyteller (an abysmal trait for a writer to have), Jack downplays the idea that injuring his son was a severe or purposeful act, dismissing it as “a momentary loss of muscular coordination.” If ever there was a scene in a movie that conveyed the mindset of abusive narcissists, it’s set in the Overlook Hotel’s ballroom.
The accusation that Jack’s characterization is one-dimensional is a fatuous and I daresay intellectually dishonest one. Nicholson and Kubrick imbue Jack with unpleasant nuances, pushing different flavors of his awfulness at varying junctures. Jack’s character develops, in the sense that he’s in a different state at the end of the movie than he is at the beginning, but he’s capable of his atrocities in the Overlook Hotel as soon as he arrives there. The Overlook Hotel’s hauntological effects of amplification do not transform him so much as bring his misanthropic abusiveness into sharp relief. He’s a small-minded, petty man, and a pathetic figure, as abusers can be. In the end, Jack is defeated because running after his son with an axe is too exhausting for him and he freezes to death. Which, as the kids say, mood, but “abusers have struggles too!” is not really the important takeaway here.
There’s also the matter of Jack and Danny’s only scene alone together (a setup which, incidentally, provides another iteration of Wendy being an exceedingly careful and smart woman who vigilantly endeavors to keeps her son safe from her abusive husband. Eat my ass, Stephen King). For my money, this is the scariest scene in cinematic history. I literally can’t watch it without crying. The actual dialogue is limited but generous in its implications. Danny is clearly unused to interacting with Jack — his father is a terrifying and ubiquitous stranger. No kid wants to go to their parents’ bedroom and see that their dad is Jack Nicholson staring off into space. Jack uses the language of fatherhood to talk to Danny, which is the scariest thing of all. The movie makes fathers terrifying. When Danny sits down in his dad’s lap, it’s not for nurture or comfort — it’s mandatory. The scene is barely a sentence away from quoting Montgomery Burns by having Jack say “don’t forget, you’re here forever” (and he comes close enough with “I wish we could stay here for ever and ever and ever”).
Jack can’t even avoid subtly pitting Danny against Wendy in the patronizing way fathers do. When Danny asks Jack if he’d ever hurt his family (an exhortation to call CPS if ever there was one), Jack incredulously asks him “did your mother ever say that to you, that I would hurt you?” I would never hurt you, son. That’s just your silly cunt of a mother putting ideas in your head. All I’d ever put in your head is a clenched fist or an axe. Then Jack delivers the clincher: “I love you, Danny. I love you more than anything in the world, and I’d never do anything to hurt you, ever. You know that, don’t you?” This rote delivery of paternalistic axioms follows years of abuse, neglect, and having already severely hurt (nearly killed) Danny. It’s cold, bloodless, and the worst kind of “I love you”: a threatening “I love you.”
This resonated painfully with me. Growing up with a father who’d make equivalent simpering speeches about his love for me in between disparaging my ideas, my creative work, and throwing verbal abuse at me had made me accustomed to the kind of interaction Jack and Danny have in that horribly powerful scene. And that inurement was precisely was made that scene so frightening for me. Throughout my teens, I watched The Shining as an alluring palimpsest of meanings and suggestions. By my late teens, I was capable of emotional introspection that was alien to me half a decade before. I couldn’t watch this simply as a movie — it was a mirror into my own life experience, even if my birth mother was, oddly, more prone to exhibiting Jack-like behaviors than her ex-husband. The Shining started to look like a nightmarish reflection of my life — the screamed, repetitive rants my ex-mother subjected me to on a daily basis felt like echoes of Jack lecturing Wendy about his “responsibilities.” The Shining is a vital text for me, perhaps moreso than any other movie (although that doesn’t make it my favorite by any means — I have an easier time watching, say, A Fish Called Wanda, Lady Bird, or even Titus because The Shining hits so close to home for me). Like Alien, it taught me what subtext and exegesis were, but it also gave me a new lens to look at my own life experiences. So when Stephen King goes on one of his solipsistic rants about how Kubrick’s The Shining is a cinematic failure for its failure to be a slavish reworking of his novel, I hear the bitterness of a dreary boomer whose own misery matters more to him than the experiences of abuse victims.
Yet to be fair to King, he is by no means the most egregious offender in this dialogue. We must now turn to the most troubling fact of the cinematic Shining, which is Stanley Kubrick’s abuse of Shelley Duvall. The word “abuse” tends not to be used about Kubrick’s behavior, but it has all the hallmarks of cruel manipulation. Kubrick had a position of authority over Duvall as director, overworked her to horrendous extremes (the infamous bat scene received an astounding 127 takes — Duvall’s tears in that scene are real), verbally abused her throughout the shoot, ordered his crew to neglect Shelley, and, remarkably, treated her as the one expendable player of the production. There’s no doubt that Kubrick deliberately and pervasively hurt Duvall while filming The Shining, and a viewing of The Shining includes active spectatorship of a traumatic moment in Duvall’s life. As I said, it’s the most troubling part of the movie, and nearly damns it entirely despite the film’s objective artistic merits. Internet film bros’ willingness to dismiss Duvall’s treatment as simply a stepping stone on the road to artistic genius merely reveals the sociopathic misogyny at the heart of their ethos: the idea that a woman’s well-being is less important than a man’s accomplishments. Clearly that’s the view Kubrick took, as subjecting Duvall to extensive abuse as she played an abuse survivor was, to him, simply an artistic technique.
For all that I’ve dragged Stephen King in this essay, nothing he says about the movie could ever be as damning and vile as what Kubrick did to Duvall. The lasting emotional trauma Duvall suffered is real, and The Shining is a document of it. No amount of critical exegesis will alter the indelible misogynistic abuse that was perpetrated in its creation. Even its brilliant treatment of abuse (perhaps both a projection, conscious or unconscious, and a mere echo of Kubrick’s behavior) doesn’t erase the realness of Duvall’s tears when she swings that bat at Nicholson. It is egregious, shameful, and the fact this fact hasn’t dominated critical discussions of the film smacks of misogyny and an indifference to abuse in critical communities.
I say this in part because it needs saying. Wendy’s character cannot be explored or understood without a discussion of her actress’s experience. This is just critical coherence. I also say it to preface my next claim, as to prevent myself from appearing to engage in a blasé dismissal of how badly Kubrick hurt Duvall. One cannot view Duvall’s trauma without acknowledging her tremendous performance. To do so would be nearly as harmful as dismissing her experience altogether. Despite her circumstances, Duvall gives one of the greatest performances in world cinema. Her onscreen tears aren’t merely an extension of what was happening to her in real life — she’s acting her ass off through the pain. It is extraordinary: Duvall captures Wendy’s quiet resilience throughout the movie. As I mentioned earlier, Wendy is the quiet heart of control in the movie, keeping herself and Danny safe from Jack and quietly working to only interact with her abuser when she can’t avoid that eventuality. Duvall plays these moments with a quiet yet bold dignity — Wendy is on edge but basically in control and keeping herself and her family secure. There’s an underlying fear to that, but an understated strength as well. Early in the movie, when Wendy explains Jack’s abuse to Danny’s doctor, something extraordinary happens. Duvall endows Wendy with a subtle but significant change in demeanor. Initially Wendy is reserved about sharing stories of her family life with the doctor, but the moment she begins recounting the night from hell, her speech accelerates ever so slightly. This is obviously a cathartic moment for her — she’s never spoken about that traumatic night to anyone. Opening up about it is exciting and a relief — a dangerous one (why the doctor doesn’t immediately call CPS is the most perplexing mystery of The Shining), and all the more liberating for it.
This in no way absolves Kubrick or the movie. But Duvall’s work is the heart of The Shining — she is its conscience, its heart, its ethics, and its true brain. King’s dismissal of her as a vacuous scream queen is simply projection on his part. Wendy is a goddamn hero and watching her as an abuse victim never fails to inspire me.. I cheer every time I watch The Shining and get to the bit where Wendy strikes Jack with the bat and sends him tumbling down the stairs. This is truly healing catharsis of the kind many victims never get. Most of us never get to confront the people who hurt us with a massive rebuke and a strike back. That Wendy does is a triumph — it’s like Kubrick rebukes himself by giving this scene over to Shelley Duvall. And let’s not forget Danny either (Danny Lloyd is maybe the single best child actor I’ve ever seen), who survives all of this shit at five years old. Wendy saves his life several times over (it’s pretty much explicit in the text that Danny would be dead before the movie started if it weren’t for Wendy), but Danny saves his own life multiple times, hiding himself effectively and seeking out help where he can. He even basically gets to kill off Jack by leading his abuser through the maze and covering his own tracks. The warm interactions between Wendy and Danny, two abuse survivors who’ve bonded over their trauma, are the heart of the movie. These characters and actors are inspirational, and as a survivor, I always feel like I’ve experienced a minor victory when I watch them.
Fuck it, let’s get more explicit. The late great theater director John Barton always said that Shakespeare directed his actors from within his plays. I’d like to interpolate that: while The Shining is obviously and inescapably a Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining has four true directors: Wendy and Danny Torrance, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd. They embody the unrealized optimism found in The Shining, an optimism unintended and unforeseen by either King or Kubrick but nonetheless instantiated by Wendy and Danny. No amount of abuse and trauma removes the reality of a person’s “shine” or the potential to lock one’s abuser in a walk-in freezer. Through avenues presided upon by King’s callowness and Kubrick’s bellicosity, the strength of abuse survivors is evinced and memorialized. May Wendy and Danny’s resilience flood the culture like elevator blood in a hotel lobby.
October 30, 2021 @ 4:40 pm
Essays on The Shining have yet another high water mark to reckon with. Well said.