Once at a party in Los Angeles I found myself in a den chatting with a man who sincerely believed that the moon landings were faked. At first I found him amusing. He had to be joking, I thought, peppering him with questions any sane person would recognize as fatal to their “theory.” He was not joking. He was not sane. For another five minutes I marveled at the intensity of his belief. After that, I wanted out, but my having indicated interest prevented escape. I was going nowhere until I conceded defeat, and I could not concede defeat until he stopped talking. He did not stop talking.
Watching Room 237, a documentary narrated by a number of loons describing their pet theories on what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is really about, I felt exactly the way I did with moon-man. I was trapped with idiots. Maybe one of these dimwits would say something sensible? I held out hope and watched the whole movie.
Nothing sensible is said in Room 237 about The Shining. Room 237, it turns out, isn’t about The Shining. It’s about the human mind, and how it may turn inward on itself, trap itself, and how, despite seeing in abstract the problem, it may be unable or unwilling to find the escape hatch.
Which is much like the Overlook Hotel itself, come to think of it. Oh my god–I’ve got it! The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic meditation on the human mind, on insanity itself—because Kubrick was himself insane! Yes! Knowing he was losing his mind, he made this movie to bear witness to what he feared speaking aloud. It’s so obvious. You see, the Overlook’s impossible interior layout represents the brain’s unknowable depths, Jack Torrance represents the Id, Danny and Tony represent repressed memories, Hallorann represents the failure of Freudian psychology, and Wendy represents a crazy lady with a knife! Run away! That man is wearing a beaver mask! HELP!!!
The above theory, which in truth I’ve been developing since I first saw the movie on VHS as a twelve-year-old in 1983 (as its depth and complexity attests), makes at least as much sense as those related in Room 237. What are those theories? 1) It’s about the Holocaust, 2) it’s Kubrick’s admission to and apology for faking the moon landing footage, 3) it’s a meditation on the genocide of the American Indian, 4) it’s some kind of link to all of human history, 5) it’s about the Minotaur in his maze, and 6) it’s just full of some really weird stuff the theorizer hasn’t really put together yet, but oh man is going to blow minds when they do.
The “evidence” for all of these theories is totally absent outside the minds of the loons in question. At times they seem almost to realize how blind and foolish they sound, yet only almost. The Holocaust guy asks rhetorically why he’s the only one to have solved the “mystery” of the movie, and answers that it’s because he’s spent his life studying that very subject. Huh. Quite the stroke of luck there.
Another guy says he didn’t like the movie when he first saw it, yet found himself strangely drawn to it, such that after seeing it over and over AND OVER AGAIN SO MANY TIMES he finally began to realize that after all IT TOTALLY MAKES SENSE AND NOW HE KNOWS WHY AND EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY AGAIN. Whew.
The Minotaur lady’s evidence is, one, there’s a maze in the movie. Whoa, right? And two (there are only two), there’s a poster of a skier on a wall that looks like the Minotaur. Actually what it looks like is a skier, but she says it looks like the Minotaur, so there we are. The evidence is in.
Another guy points out the face of Stanley Kubrick himself hidden in the clouds of one shot in the opening credits. If you pause the frame—as Room 237 is generous enough to do—you can even see it. The clouds, I mean. Which don’t contain Kubrick’s face. However, the pause is held for a long time, so long that I’m pretty sure I saw half a moose lying on its side, so I guess we can chalk up one more point for my theory. Which now includes a moose.
Crazy people pushing their crazy theories isn’t a bad idea for a movie, but only if the theories are at least, given enough crazy evidence, possible to entertain, however briefly or tenuously. The theories in Room 237 aren’t plausible for five seconds. The theorists aren’t even amusingly delusional. They’re just tiresome.
Take Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, a movie-length dissection of Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch. In it Greenaway convincingly argues that the painting is Rembrandt’s indentification and indictment of a murderer. Greenaway might be crazy too, but damn does he ever marshall an avalanche of evidence. He buries you in it. You can’t watch that movie and not think he’s right.
In Room 237 the only thing you’re going to be convinced of is the fragility of the human mind.
One telling similarity among the theorists—aside from their weak, ill-conceived, poorly argued theories derived purely from personal obsessions—is their lack of film knowledge. They know literally nothing about movies or how they are made, leading to their insisting on the significance of typewriter brands and baking powder can orientation. Their minds would be blown if you described what a production designer is responsible for. They have no concept of art, and how it drives a film director’s choices.
I know, I said at the top this isn’t a movie about The Shining. It’s about people scared of the unknown. People scared by a movie meant to evoke a deep, nameless, unfocused terror at something their conscious minds are unable to describe. It’s about the power of movies and how we watch them. At least this is the interesting take-away from it. This may well have been the filmmaker’s intent all along. Unfortunately, because the movie consists only of the subjects relating their theories, it’s pretty dull viewing. I like that it’s up to the audience to realize that rather than dwelling on the silliness of the theories they should be dwelling on how they themselves interpret film and why. I only wish the experience of watching Room 237 wasn’t so tedious. What seems to be its real purpose is left unexplored. It’s the kind of movie that’s fun to think about, but a drag to sit through.
The most interesting part comes when one theorist describes an experiment he ran in a theater where he projected The Shining on top of itself, but with one version running backward. The theorist never says what this is supposed to mean in terms of secret revelations–I don’t recall him actually suggesting Kubrick intentionally made the movie as two reflecting halves–but it’s strange to watch which images end up playing on top of each other. More than any other sequence in Room 237, this one speaks to how the mind, no matter the images presented it, will make up meaningful connections.
What does my mind make of The Shining? I think it’s a fascinating movie made with exacting care by a director obsessed with—movies. In this case, he made a horror movie. And he understands that a huge part of horror comes from the unknown. From the unknowable. Whose hallucinations are we watching? What’s real? What isn’t? What does any of it mean? The more one watches The Shining, the less sense it makes. The less sense it makes, the more clear it becomes: The Shining is meant to reach deep down inside your head, find the nameless, ancient terrors hiding within it, and scare the fuck out of you.
Room 237 shows us how a few people deal with unknowable horror. They seek answers in the safe and familiar, and insist that they’ve found them. How very boring of them.