The Shining came into our lives in 1980 and everything from the characters to the plot to the carpet patterns have been discussed and analyzed to great lengths. Kubrick’s portrayal of Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) often gains an unsympathetic interpretation as the character presents as perpetually irritated with his wife and child and over the span of the movie we watch him go from annoyed to murderous A wise man once asked, “What else can you possibly say about The Shining now?...
...It’s been talked about for 40 years?”, which are fair questions, but then Mike Flanagan came along and brought us Doctor Sleep. All-grown up Danny Torrence (Danny Lloyd) now suffers from a lot of the same issues his father lived with in the first movie. Alcoholism mixed with fits of rage and violence play a prominent role in Dan’s life. So, why does Ewen McGregor’s depiction of Dan garner a more sympathetic view of the same behavior depicted by Jack Nicholson 40 years prior? Witnessing the difference between Danny at age 5 to 40-year-old Dan, not only do we get to see the pain of alcoholism span two generations, we also get a more adult understanding of the ‘shine’, both of which allows us to view The Shining in a different light.
DISCLAIMER: There are SPOILERS for both The Shining and Doctor Sleep ahead. The mad theories and analysis found in the following paragraphs all come from the film version of the stories. So, don’t come at me with “the book said this” and “the book said that.” The books exist in a different realm, and today we will focus on the cinematic universe of the Overlook Hotel.
First, let’s look at the relationship between the ‘shine’ and drinking/alcoholism. From Kubrick’s telling of Jack, we see an easily exasperated man who quickly gives into the temptations of alcohol (and ghosts). But what if Danny was the reason for Jack’s drinking? I’m not saying it’s the only reason, but more of a tipping point. Jack’s alcoholism predates the events in The Shining by at least a few years, but we know he had one late night of drinking which resulted in dislocating his son’s arm. (In the opening of the 80s film, the character Wendy (Shelly Duvall) talks about how Jack made a promise to never drink again, and for the five months leading up to their relocation to the Overlook, he stays true to his word. In The Shining, at five years old Danny is aware he possess an ability, but as he explains to Dick he is “not supposed to” talk about it. Perhaps, unaware of his powers, Danny unintentionally disturbed or even injured his father, so he had to eventually learn not to use his abilities. In Doctor Sleep, Abra (Kyliegh Curran) uses the ‘shine’ on her father to prove to him they are in danger and he immediately sits down to pour himself a couple full glasses of whiskey. Obviously, the severity of the situation unsettles him, but a similar self-soothing technique might have been used by Jack back when Danny was a kid.
Quick interjection: One aspect of Stephen King’s horror stories which typically differs from most films is the inclusion of mental or emotional disability/illness. A lot of horror movies will directly associate any kind of mental incapacity with the supernatural and once the ghost or demon becomes removed, the person magically becomes cured. Stephen King instead combines the two. Jack was an alcoholic and had issues with his emotions before The Overlook, but the spirits trapped in the hotel helped intensify his addiction and anger. If Jack had somehow survived the ghosts and escaped with his family, he still would have been an angry alcoholic. Just not a possessed angry alcoholic.
If Danny displayed a power at a young age, Jack might have developed a fear for his son similar to “It’s a Good Life” and thinks his child will send him to the cornfield. The two very rarely interact in The Shining without the mother serving as a buffer, which adds to the theme of domestic violence, but perhaps, just perhaps the alcoholism became exacerbated due to Danny unintentionally frightening his father. Dan dampens his ability with the use of alcohol, so ‘like father, like son’ he turns to booze to escape the ‘shine’. Does this allow for a more sympathetic interpretation of Jack? Most likely not because the character still resorted to violence, but it at least presents a different understanding of Jack’s relationship with his son.
Pairing with the fear Danny inflicted on Jack, Doctor Sleep also brings to light some possible information about Tony, the man who lives in Danny’s mouth. In the newest installment of the Torrence’s tale, Dan displays the ability to project himself into another person’s body and actually control them. After being kidnapped by Crow Daddy, Abra “becomes” Dan. Her speech patterns and mannerisms become Dan’s and her eyes even physically change colors. Crow admits he has never seen this ability before even though he has encountered several people who ‘shine.’ This exchange between Crow and Abra/Dan stresses the idea that the ability to become another person is a rare skill, so how is Dan able to do it? When Danny started nursery school he started talking to Tony, probably around the same time his powers started to manifest. If Dan can become Abra, then was Tony a real person who could inhabit the body of Danny? At one point in The Shining, Wendy tries speaking with her son, but the boy who appears to be her child speaks in a different voice and claims “Danny’s not here.” So, who was Tony? As an adult, Dan tries contacting Tony, but finds he cannot reach him. Most likely because Tony passed on at some point and is no longer able to communicate with this world.
If Tony taught Danny how to project, chances are he taught him a few other things, such as information about the Overlook and certain ways to control his powers. One new ‘shine’ ability Doctor Sleep introduces is the creation of a mind sanctuary in which the person possessing the powers can build a place of retreat or serve as a location to store memories (or ghosts). Now, this idea is a bit tenuous, so bear with me. Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) uses a cathedral, Abra uses her room, and Dan uses the hedge maze from the Overlook. We learn from Doctor Sleep that after leaving the hotel Danny remains haunted by the ghosts who tormented him and his family, but under the guidance of Dick, the young boy finds a way to trap the spirits within his mind. When he traps his first ghost (the lady in the bathtub) we enter Danny’s mind where we see him use a giant box to catch the spirit and keep her locked inside the hedge maze. So, even at the age of five, Danny uses the hedge maze as the interior of his mind. If Danny is using the maze shortly after leaving the Overlook, does that mean he used the maze as his mind sanctuary while at the hotel? Tony projected images of the hotel into Danny’s mind before the child ever set foot in Colorado, so perhaps Danny already had a working knowledge of the maze. If so, did the final chase scene between Danny and his dad actually happen outside? Or in Danny’s mind? Dan lures Rose into the hedge maze, but in fact she is still standing inside the hotel. So if he tried a similar trick with his father, Jack would not have been able to distinguish between reality and what Danny wanted him to see. Therefore, Jack did not die in the maze, but remains trapped inside Dan’s mind.
The film holds strong themes of recovery, not just about Dan’s journey from alcoholic to sober, but also how as an adult he finally comes to terms with what happened to him as a child. Dan never trapped Jack in a box, but he knows right where to go to find his father: the bar. The conversation between the son and father proves a curious exchange as the interaction between the two does not serve as a means to protect himself against Rose (the more imminent danger), but rather as a means to release another personal demon. When Dan sits at the bar, is he really talking to the spirit of his father or is he imaging the conversation he never got to have with his dad? Much like his need for alcohol and the ghosts trapped in his mind, the grief and suffering Dan experienced as a child never completely went away. The feelings just became repressed and he tries finally addressing his traumas by speaking with his dad. As the father and son talk, Jack pressures Dan into taking a drink and they commiserate with their shared addiction. Dan refuses the whiskey, passing the drink back to Jack and he easily accepts the booze. However, as Jack brings the glass to his mouth, Dan makes the swallowing motion, as if he was playing the role of both parts of the conversation. Part of finally being at peace with his demons meant Dan had to release them, so he releases the ghosts from their boxes and finally speaks to his father about addiction.
Doctor Sleep definitely can exist as a stand-alone movie, but the film also allows us to view and enjoy The Shining on a whole new level. The continuation of the characters presents a richer and more thorough understanding of their psyche and motivations. Plus, presenting the viewer with an adult perspective on the ‘shining’ we gain a more reliable narrator, and thus learn more about the capabilities of the people who possess the skill. Mike Flanagan presents a beautiful and nuanced film and with further viewings I expect these theories (and more) to only continue to grow and evolve.
By Amylou Ahava