The Shining: Stephen King’s classic horror explained

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

A possessed hotel hankers for a little boy with the shining – an ability to see dead people … everywhere.

What is The Shining about?

Five-year-old Danny Torrance has the shining. He can sense what others are thinking and can even see the future.

So far his gift has shown him nice things. But when his father takes a job minding the Overlook hotel, Danny’s visions turn menacing.

Then snow strands the family in the deserted hotel and his dreams spill over into reality – placing them all in terrible danger.

What is the shining, and who has it?

Danny can sense other people’s thoughts. He knows when his parents are thinking about divorce or, frighteningly, when dad Jack contemplates suicide.

He even has premonitions during trace-like visions. Danny can’t always understand what these mean – after all, he’s only five.

Parents Jack and Wendy have an inkling Danny is special. But they’re not sure what to make of his lucky hunches or invisible playmate Tony.

When Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s head chef, he discovers there are others like him. Hallorann has the same clairvoyance (if not as strong as Danny’s), which he calls ‘shining’.

“You shine on, boy. Harder than anyone I ever met I my life.”

Halloran

Danny is one of the novel’s key characters – yet he’s not its sole protagonist. The book is at least as much about dad Jack.

Similarly, while Danny has second sight, it’s Hallorann who has the shining and clues us in to what it means. He’s the film’s knowledge source (see also Se7en).

Hallorann explains that lots of folk have the shining to different degrees – especially mothers. We see this play out throughout the novel.

Several hotel guests check out early after strange incidents. Maid Delores Vickery sees something frightening in room 217 but is fired for talking about it.

Later, when Hallorann returns to the Overlook to save Danny, he meets others who also shine a little. They appear briefly in the novel, like guardian angels as Hallorann races towards the evil hotel.

As the possessed hotel grows stronger through Danny’s shining, the rest of the family experience hallucinations, too. Jack and Wendy hear voices and music, and see and feel strange things.

So lots of characters in the book have a touch of clairvoyance. But Jack has an especially strong connection to the shining.

How the novel compares to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film

Are Danny and Jack Torrance the same character?

It’s no surprise Jack and Danny have their similarities. After all, they’re father and son.

But arguably, they’re the same character seen from different perspectives or times.

In the same way that Tony is a more grown-up version of Danny, Jack is the man he’s most likely to grow into.

Wendy realises this when she sees Jack’s habits mirrored in their son. Danny uses the same language as his dad, even talking of the fuel pump being “shot to shit”.

And when Jack’s old drinking habits return, they appear in Danny, too:

“[Wendy] had seen an odd amalgam of the ways she and Jack expressed anxiety. The wiping of the lips.”

Their paths also mirror each other in various ways:

  • Both have invisible friends. For Danny it’s Tony. Jack has bartender Lloyd and former caretaker Grady.
  • They each have creepy experiences with the hedge animals. Hallorann does, too – this ties in with Hallorann being an alternate father figure.
  • Jack and Danny (and Hallorann) interact with the hotel’s dead guests to a much greater extent – even physical contact. Each has a notable encounter in room 217.
  • Both are stung by wasps. There’s more about why below.
  • Both have abusive fathers and (supposedly) passive mothers … and yet love their dads dearly.

Jack and Danny have a strong psychic connection with the Overlook. Arguably Danny’s is a natural connection, while Jack’s is influenced by the hotel.

But while Danny interrogates his ability to understand the truth, Jack wallows in it.

The Overlook hones in on Jack’s most shameful thoughts and memories. This is why he readily hides his experiences with the hedge animals and in room 217 (he puts on a metaphorical mask to hide his true face long before the costumed ghosts arrive).

And similarly to his role as a father, Jack has experiences his son will have later. From child abuse to the haunting, Jack experiences them first.

It’s fitting that Danny and Jack have this intertwined path. It reflects the book’s dominant theme about parental influence.

The characters turn into their parents

The Shining’s strongest theme is parental influence and inheritance. How much do we mimic and mirror our parents? When do we break away from our role models?

Childhood has many stages of separation, yet in the Overlook each member of the Torrance family faces a stark choice between self and parent.

Jack’s father is a mean drunk who beats his wife and kids. Jack worries this is a precedent or pattern for his own life (see also The Game).

Later his fears prove predictive when the hotel forces Jack to hunt Wendy and Danny with the same words and weapons.

Wendy recognises her mother’s jealousies and suspicions and battles to not be like her throughout the novel. She does this more successfully than Jack.

The odds are more strongly stacked against Jack, though. He’s also reliving the curse of Delbert Grady, the former caretaker who murdered his wife and kids during the hotel’s winter season.

Jack tells us this right at the beginning of Chapter 1 when he explains Grady’s story and reveals the book’s ending:

“Nothing to do but bitch at his wife and nag at the kids and drink […] and there’s nothing to do but think and cheat at solitaire and get edgier and edgier. Finally … boom, boom, boom.”

The repeated words “boom, boom, boom” aren’t lifted from Grady’s story. Grady kills with a shot gun and an axe. Jack uses a mallet.

Build a better family

Jack voices this eternal struggle – despite not seeing the significance for his own life – when he says on different occasions: “Like mother like daughter” and later, “like father, like son”.

For Danny caught in the middle, this is a desperately unhappy dilemma. When the hotel possesses his father, Danny has to fight every childlike instinct to run to him.

In a gross perversion of parenthood, Jack agrees to kill his innocent son. It’s almost a warped re-telling of the biblical story of Abraham, with Jack sacrificing Danny to prove himself worthy to the hotel’s vengeful god.

Hero Dick Hallorann then steps up to be the father Danny needs. Hallorann battles to be there for the boy, even accepting he may die as a result.

Hallorann’s sacrifice is like Wendy’s. She too would “pour a can of gasoline over herself and strike a match before harming Danny.”

Having proved themselves worthy of this boy’s love and life, Wendy and Hallorann escape the Overlook and into a new life.

So despite the tragic ending the book ends with a family unit (more about why this is the case in this article).

Those who survive the Overlook refuse to keep reliving its past. The question is, why is that on the cards at all?

Redrum isn’t murder backwards. It’s murder reflected twice. The reflection of the reflection is what spells out redrum. More about murder and mirrors in Candyman.

Is the Overlook hotel a time machine?

Wendy is struck by Jack’s regression at the Overlook. Except for the booze, all his old drinking habits come flooding back: the Excedrin, the excessive mouth wiping, the writer’s block and the short temper.

“Wendy had a moment of that sickening time-is-running-backward feeling again.”

What she can’t yet see is that time IS running backwards. The Overlook’s past events and people somehow all exist in the same physical space, like double exposed films.

This is why Danny, Hallorann and Delores Vickery see such disturbing things. The shining pulls back the curtain on the building’s memories, bringing them into present-day reality.

As the hotel’s power grows stronger, the memories become more vivid. That’s why it wants Danny so badly. His shining is a battery that can keep the memories alive, for ever.

Are they all mad?

Without proof, all hauntings are symptoms of madness.

That is, people who say they’ve experienced inexplicable things are most likely to be written off as mentally unsound.

This fear runs through the book. Even at 5, Danny worries about being carted away by men in white coats if he cries too much.

The text is also liberally dotted with references and metaphors about madness and asylums.

After the women in 217 attacks Danny, he’s described making “mad sounds that escaped his straining throat in bolt after crazy, echoing bolt.”

When the hotel possesses Jack, he becomes a textbook deranged psychopath. And there’s a disturbing sense that madness is linked to not being quite human.

“This inhuman place makes human monsters”

Later, Wendy describes the noises of the haunted hotel as “the screams that sometimes rose in the geriatrics ward of the hospital […]. She was hearing the lunatic, raving voices of the Overlook itself.”

The family’s haunting, while terrifying, also has parallels to what we might think of as a mass hallucination.

This is how ghost stories work, even the ones we tell to scare ourselves. The fear comes from not knowing if we can trust ourselves.

Dr Edmonds has an interesting take on this when he examines Danny. He says children often claim to see things we’d call disturbing in adults, i.e., invisible friends and monsters under the bed.

And yet, while we don’t call children crazy for this, we do still dismiss them as unbelievable or ridiculous. We accept this temporary ‘madness’ in children as a necessary developmental stage – one they grow out.

Why does the Overlook have so many wasps?

The Shining is stuffed with wasps. Like madness, wasps feature in recollections and passing metaphors.

Several characters also share very similar run-ins with wasps:

  • Wasps sting Jack when he’s on the roof
  • Jack brings the dead nest down for Danny but the wasps regenerate and attack the boy
  • Jack remembers his dad burning a wasp nest when he was a boy
  • Hallorann remembers a burning a wasp nest as a boy and then running away “as if demons had been at their heels.”

This last one is key. Wasps represent something hellish, something that attacks indeterminately, over and over again.

The image lodges in Danny’s head after he’s stung, and follows him around the hotel. The way he imagines the fire hose to be hiding more wasps, for instance.

The idea returns when the Overlook explodes, with metaphors of hornets and wasps and the hive-like intelligence of the possessed hotel.

As a literary device wasps are more tangible than ghosts, and realistically repulsive when crawling over the faces of dead folk.

But more than this, the wasps’ nest is a metaphor for the darkness buried just out of sight.

For Jack, it’s a way to believe he’s the passive victim of an unfair existence.

“He felt that he had unwittingly stuck his hand into The Great Wasps’ Nest of Life.”

Later, when he succumbs to the hotel’s siren song, he thinks: “This is what it’s like to stick your whole hand in the nest.”

The nest, in other words, is Jack’s self-destructive streak. And it’s a gateway to disaster.

What’s in Room 217?

There isn’t a single answer to what lies in room 217 – and that in itself is intriguing.

For Danny and Hallorann, 217 houses Mrs Massey’s malevolent spirit.

Yet while Jack almost senses Massey, he sees George Hatfield in the bathtub. Why the difference?

It’s interesting that Stephen King puts the hotel’s biggest jump scare in a bedroom. Sure it’s not surprising given the Overlook has 300 of them, but there’s no shortage of locations.

Doing so makes a neat literary connection with the Room 101 concept (Nineteen Eighty-Four). Like George Orwell’s fictional room of torture, room 217 adapts to each person’s worst terror.

Danny’s is having his visions become real and able to hurt him. Perhaps there’s also a sly dig here at suffocating mothers. Jack’s is his abuse of Hatfield, a child he should have been protecting (like Danny).

Room 217 also represents the terror of the Blue Beard fairytale – which in turn is the core of The Shining’s plot.

The fairytale’s heroine is given a set of keys but is warned not to enter one particular room. She can’t resist and sees terrible things in there as a result. Curiosity kills the cat.

Is The Shining an allegory for writing?

The Shining is about writing and storytelling in several ways ways (in the same way that several of King’s novels are – somewhat autobiographically – about writers).

Firstly, the novel’s plot is a modern retelling of the Blue Beard fairytale. It also borrows from Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death.

Running alongside this is Danny’s desperate attempt to learn to read, so that he can understand the signs in his tortured dreams.

On the flip side Jack’s attempts to write are a further metaphor for self destruction and madness. Kubrick’s film makes this more explicit in its iconic typewriter scene.

In the book, Jack’s changing attitudes to his work signal his changing mental states. At first he sees himself as golden child Gary Benson who is unfairly victimised.

As Jack descends into madness he starts to identify more with the sadistic headmaster. And there are alarming parallels between Benson – whom Jack now wants to kill off – and Danny.

Then the Overlook intervenes. It gives Jack an inspiration so alluring (a book about the hotel) that he’s willing to sacrifice everything he cares about to own it.

Writers are often told to edit their work ruthlessly, cutting the concepts and phrases they’re most attached to. The advice is summed up with brutal brevity: murder your darlings. Heaven knows, Jack tries.


The Shining, by Stephen King (1977)

Quoted edition published by Hachette UK (2007)

Other books similar to The Shining:
  • Pet Sematery, Carrie, IT (same author, horror)
  • Misery, Dolores Claiborne (same author, thriller)
  • The Running Man (written as Richard Bachman, sci-fi, thriller)

Picture credit: Curology