“You’ve Always Been The Caretaker:” A Quarantined Look at The Shining

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November 2020

Halloween season during COVID-19 means staying inside. Luckily, one of my favorite Halloween activities is quite quarantine-compatible: rewatching my favorite horror movies. I wanted to know how one of my alltime favorites, The Shining, would stand up in the current context of quarantine and the coronavirus pandemic.

For those unacquainted with the film, The Shining is based off Stephen King’s novel of the same name. It follows Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, a writer who scores a gig as Winter Caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel. Due to prolonged isolation and the sentient nature of the Overlook, Jack goes insane, ultimately attempting to kill his family. King notoriously hated the adaptation, claiming that Nicholson’s portrayal of Torrance was too linear – from the moment he first appeared onscreen, you knew Torrance would go insane.

Upon rewatching, I think the criticism has merit. There’s something about Nicholson’s expressions that makes you just know that the character he’s playing is malicious. But, having also read King’s novel, I’m tempted to view Kubrick’s adaptation as a separate piece of art, focusing not on madness, but on memory.

One of my favorite things about Kubrick’s The Shining is the Overlook itself. It’s a timeless, haunted place, and the spirits who inhabit it are frighteningly tangible. They mill around a lushly decorated ballroom, drinking and dancing to “Midnight, the Stars and You.” They live inside the hotel rooms, and ask to play with you in the hallway. They come from different time periods, yet they’re all connected by the fact that they’ve always been part of the Overlook. And that’s what Nicholson’s Jack Torrance does so well – he’s insane because he’s part of the hotel itself. He’s always been the Caretaker, and the entire plot of the film is him gradually remembering that. He’s not losing his mind, he’s reconciling with his destiny.

The beginning of quarantine felt sudden and surreal, but now that we’ve spent eight months in the incredibly liminal space that is isolation, it feels normal, like it’s always been this way. Strangely enough, that’s the part of The Shining that resonated with me the most upon the rewatch: the existential permanence of it all,
rather than the isolation.

So, if you’re looking for a nice slasher film to get you in the spooky spirit this Halloween, I probably wouldn’t tell you to watch The Shining (instead, I might recommend the splendidly gory and hilarious Cabin in the Woods). However, if you’re okay with losing your mind a bit and submitting to the unfathomable horror of a space beyond the constraints of linear time, it 7umight be fun to check out (or revisit) this classic.