Stanley Kubrick created The Shining to exorcise his guilt for helping fake the 1969 Apollo moon landing, to represent the genocide of Native Americans or to retell the Greek myth Theseus and the Minotaur.
These are some of the theories introduced in the documentary film Room 237, which examines the classic horror flick, its enigmatic director and the devotees who have been trying to decode it since its release 33 years ago this month. The title Room 237 — referring to the room in the Overlook Hotel where, in the interest of not spoiling it for youngsters or hermits, let’s just say a lot of malevolent shit went down — is itself at the center of hot debate (e.g. 2x3x7 = 42, a reoccurring number in Kubrick films). Critics have deemed it a masterpiece and it has topped many a list of the best horror movies for its sweeping and innovative cinematography, as well as its chilling psychological twists (“all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”). But some Shining scholars claim that these moments just scrape the surface, and Kubrick’s true intent is more insidiously planted.
Room 237 deftly employs archival footage and interviews with a range of “experts,” from Holocaust historians to cinema buffs who have watched the film dozens or even hundreds of times, forwards, backwards and shot by shot. Some theories seem nonsensical, like when one of the interviewees claims that the scene where Jack Nicholson’s character meets the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Kubrick placed a file folder in the background to appear as if the manager had an erection. There is no further explanation of Kubrick’s motivation, leaving the viewer to ask “OK … and?”
However, there are certain “clues” in the film that would pique the interest of even the greatest skeptic. One history professor points out undeniable references to the Holocaust: the repetition of the number 42 (the year the “Final Solution” was set in motion), eagle imagery (a Nazi symbol) and piles of suitcases (like those of the victims of concentration camps). Another source points out allusions to the massacre of Native Americans, whether it’s the placement of the iconic Calumet Baking Powder can or the hotel manager’s acknowledgement that the Overlook Hotel was built on an “Indian burial ground.” Remember those elevators spewing a waterfall of blood? To some, the blood flows from the burial grounds below.
Whether these theories have cracked a code or are farfetched baloney, viewers should not confuse their validity with that of Room 237; the doc is really about a collective psychology. It’s a Rorschach test. What matters is not the “truth,” or even Kubrick’s intent, but that man will never cease to search for meaning in chaos.
Room 237: Directed, cinematography by Rodney Ascher. Editor, Rodney Ascher. Music, Jonathan Snipes, William Hutson and The Caretaker. Featuring interviews with Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Julie Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner. IFC Films, 2012. NR. 102 minutes. Four and a half stars.