The Shining As Space, Not Story

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel, Satan in Goray (published in English in 1955), tells the true story of a 17th century Jewish mystic, Sabbatai Zevi, who sweeps into a Polish village and convinces the people living there that the end is nigh. He tells them to stop honoring their rituals and traditions, based as they are on the assumption that life will go on, and instead to indulge whatever dark urges they’ve repressed. Both frightened and exhilarated, the villagers comply, quickly reducing Goray to ruin. When the apocalypse doesn’t come, Zevi sneaks away, leaving the villagers to sort through the wreckage, having learned, as Singer puts it, that “you can’t force the end.”

Four hundred years later, human feelings about the end remain both hopeful and fearful: every generation wants to believe it’s the last, and yet doesn’t really want to believe this. So we toy with the possibility in books and movies and video games, indulging in its romance without facing the consequences.

The Overlook Hotel, as conjured by Stephen King in his 1977 novel The Shining and brought to the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1980, is a microcosm for a world that’s always ending. The same people are reincarnated, only to kill each other again and again. They exist in a perennial state of crisis that, following the warped logic of a nightmare, becomes perfectly sustainable.

The plot of The Shining is simple: a struggling writer named Jack Torrance brings his family to the abandoned Overlook Hotel in Colorado, planning to spend the winter there, working as a caretaker while finishing (or perhaps starting) his overdue novel. As soon as the property gets snowed in and the roads become impassable, he begins a descent into madness that ends in his attempting to murder his wife and son. But plot has little to do with The Shining’s lasting power. Like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Overlook transcends the events that occur in it to become something larger: a space that haunts an entire culture. It lingers in our popular imagination, now more than ever, because its predicament mirrors our own.

The Hauntological Hotel

A hotel isn’t anyone’s home; it’s a cold public space that sells strangers a simulation of home for a night or two. Hotel rooms thus perfectly model how Freud describes the uncanny, as a home that’s not a home, a place where the resident ought to feel comfortable but can’t help feeling alienated instead.

In The Shining, the Overlook is even more alienating in that it’s an off-season hotel, devoid of guests. Despite this fact, after settling into the premises for what initially seems to be the first time, Jack Torrance tells his wife that he’s “never been this happy or comfortable anywhere.” As the late theorist and music critic Mark Fisher puts it in his essay collection Ghosts of My Life (2014), “Even before he enters the Overlook, Jack is fleeing his ghosts. And the horror, the absolute horror, is that he—haunter and haunted—flees to the place where they are waiting. Such is The Shining’s pitiless fatality… ”

Hauntology, a term coined by Derrida and expanded in provocative and poignant ways by Fisher, is the haunting presence of a future that was expected but never arrived, the “tantalizing ache of a future just out of reach.” In the Overlook, the future and the past are indistinguishable. The cycle of madness and murder, repression and realization, is ongoing, so the benign “homecoming” that Jack says he longs for (the peace and quiet to finish his novel, the cozy and luxurious winter with his family), never comes. Instead, the true homecoming—that of his reversion to murderous insanity—does.

If one accepts that going insane and attempting to murder his wife and son was Jack’s calling all along, then his claim of having never felt more comfortable anywhere makes perfect sense. Jack and the Overlook are versions of one another. He’s Mr. Overlook, inhabiting the hotel while also being part of it. In exactly this same way, humans inhabit the earth while also being of the earth, both complicit in its destruction and subject to its wrath. The fact that we can’t recognize this—that we’ve come to see the earth as an inert environment, ripe for exploitation, rather than a vital part of our being—is surely a key component of the death sentence we’ve signed for ourselves, the end that we, like the villagers in Goray, are awaiting with an anxious mixture of fear and glee.

Hauntology is the disappointing failure of a longed-for future to arrive, but it’s also the more deeply horrifying arrival of the future that was inevitable all along. Seen with a year of hindsight, Trump’s victory last fall is hauntological in this second sense. The superficial horror is that something unexpected occurred (in The Shining, that Jack became a maniac, in America, that a maniac became president), but the deep horror is how much sense these turns of events make, such that last November was not an aberration of American identity, but a stark expression of it.

In 2017, the techno-utopian future that sci-fi writers in the early 20th century imagined both has and hasn’t arrived. There are no flying cars, but we’ve mapped the genome, networked the world to the point of instantaneous communication with almost everyone alive, extended our lifespans by decades, and created more entertainment options than any mind can absorb. And yet human nature has remained unchanged. Rather than adapting to new technologies, many people have only harnessed them to magnify their innate fear and greed, whether through automatic guns, nuclear weapons, factory farming, fracking, or mass media, which broadcasts the age-old message of “hate thy neighbor” on an unfathomably vast scale.

The realization that this is where technology has landed us is akin to Jack’s “all work and no play” realization at the Overlook: on the surface, we hoped technology would liberate us from the worst of being human, just as Jack hoped that taking the caretaker job would allow him to finish his novel, but, deeper down, we knew it wouldn’t. In the depths of our collective consciousness, if there is such a thing, we, as a species, know we’re never going to finish our novel. That’s not what we came to the Overlook to do.

 The Overlook in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
The Overlook in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining


The Haunted Earth

It would be a gross understatement to say that the end of the world, or at least its suitability for human inhabitation, is a significant topic in today’s discourse. As William Gibson put it in an interview last August about the recent preponderance of dystopian sci-fi, “Seriously, what I find far more ominous is how seldom, today, we see the phrase ‘the 22nd century.’ Almost never. Compare this with the frequency with which the 21st century was evoked in popular culture during, say, the 1920s.”

But, beyond the fact that the future looks bleak, there’s no consensus as to how the end will arrive, nor when. To take climate change as one of several apocalyptic forces in discussion, human opinion currently runs the gamut from despairing certainty to outright denial. Even the most rational and data-driven science can’t be certain what will actually happen, nor when, much less how to deal with it, short of dismantling capitalism and ceasing reproduction. In response to this uncertainty, our collective dystopian imagination tends to create grim but ultimately hopeful future visions in which life is bad (Mad Max, The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, etc.) but still goes on. These are near-future stories of the resilience of the brave few, celebrating their ingenuity and integrity while acknowledging the terminal fate of the weaker masses.

But what about the far future, when humanity has simply ceased to be? This is obviously harder to imagine, but the past decade has seen a number of compelling attempts. These include Alan Weisman’s 2007 thought-experiment The World Without Us, which posits that radio waves drifting through outer space will be the last remnants of human existence and rhapsodizes about the edenic beauty the earth would soon return to if humans just left it alone, Eugene Thacker’s 2011 “Horror of Philosophy” book In The Dust of This Planet, which draws useful distinctions between the “earth” (the geological and biological realm humans inhabit), the “world” (the network of human affairs), and the “planet” (the orb itself, as it exists independently of its inhabitants), and Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World (2017), which offers in-depth analysis of past extinctions in an effort to predict how humanity’s will play out. There’s also horror master Thomas Ligotti’s 2010 philosophical treatise The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which argues that being alive is an abnegation of free will, not an expression of it, and considers the possibility that, if there is a God, perhaps He/She/It created the human race in a desperate attempt to commit suicide.

In the haunted space of the Overlook Hotel, the brutal murders that occurred on the previous caretaker’s watch insinuate themselves into the visions suffered by Jack’s clairvoyant son, Danny. People with the shining can, as Danny learns from Dick Halloran, the hotel’s benevolent head chef, see the deep past as well as the deep future. They understand that the present is always informed (or infected) by both. Thus, Kubrick’s famous image of blood rushing from the elevator is both a memory of what has occurred in the hotel, and a premonition of what’s about to occur again. The image has the cold, inexplicable power of Kubrick’s most inspired work, which reaches the level of Bosch’s paintings in its ability to reflect on the entire human condition from a great distance, filled with pathos but devoid of compassion.

In his effort to reach this distance, Kubrick insisted on a level of control that he must have known was impossible outside the confines of his film sets. Indeed, the fact that the Overlook set feels abandoned and inhuman while also being the product of famously obsessive human labor is a contradiction that defines Kubrick’s artistic approach. It is no exaggeration to say that his directorial calling was that of a human being trying to leave his humanity behind, a brilliant mind fighting to overcome the limits of its body (and those of his traumatized cast and crew).

His films are consequently haunted by a spectral presence, which fills every frame so densely with meaning that no single viewer can parse it all. Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237, about Shining fans’ obsessive theories regarding Kubrick’s layers of hidden messages, may present no more than a gallery of crackpots, but they show how Kubrick instills in his viewers a fanatical need to analyze his films like fragments of Scripture. Whether or not one believes these crackpots’ specific interpretations, the force driving them to such desperate scrutiny is undeniable.

Might the same be true of the earth, as it tends back toward the inhuman state it existed in before us, a state that perhaps some people can remember on the level of déjà vu (which Jack claims he felt when he “first” saw the Overlook)? This is the psychic challenge that interests me here: to understand how Thacker’s “planet” already exists, hidden just beneath the human realms of the “world” and the “earth.” Imagining the planet in this way is analogous to imagining the afterlife: both are alien realms that may or may not exist, separated from the living by imaginative leaps no one can fully make, and yet both are also ubiquitous, clouding all present-tense experience with hauntedness and premonition. In terms of The Shining, the “earth” and the “world” are the story—the human drama—whereas the “planet” is the space, the Overlook itself, where no human visitor can intrude without becoming ghostly.

 Screenshot from Bioshock
Screenshot from Bioshock


Someplace We’re Not Meant to Be: Video Games as Post-Human Spaces

No contemporary medium makes us as ghostly as video games. Aside from sports and puzzle games, it’s hard to name any recent title that doesn’t offer its players the sick thrill of going someplace they’re not meant to be. The best, and most troubling, video games gratify the human desire to imagine being either inhuman or post-human, liberated from the defining fact of existence by the ability to die and return from the dead over and over again. Even uncannier are the games that not only allow their players to die and return from the dead, but those that invite them into realms where no one else has survived.

One of the uncanniest of such games is Fallout 4, where a poignant early sequence finds the player wandering through his old Boston neighborhood hundreds of years after it’s been destroyed by a nuclear detonation, seeing the street where he used to live with his family as a natural landscape, the houses and cars no more human now than the rocks and trees. Here, as with the cold winding hallways and famous hedge maze at the Overlook, human structures have become natural ones and people have become ghosts, haunting the spaces they used to inhabit. Another notable recent game is NieR: Automata, where the player, who herself turns out to be an android, wanders a vast ruined machine-scape on the moon in the year 11,945, fighting robots that were built by a now-extinct human race. Key ancestors of such games include 2010’s Limbo, which finds a nameless boy dying horribly, over and over again, as he wanders a liminal nightmare realm in search of his sister, 2007’s Bioshock, which takes place in an Atlantis-like city where the player battles the last residents of an insane visionary’s Randian design project, and 1993’s Myst, where the disembodied player explores a deserted island, haunted by an atmosphere of non-specific but all-encompassing dread.

At their most visionary, these games succeed in imagining life after the end, allowing the player to indulge in long, meditative journeys through sinister laboratories, sunken cities, abandoned hospitals, and defunct asylums and factories, all remnants of human settlement that have returned to nature. Despite their violence, a strange sense of peace sets in while playing such games, a feeling of a world liberated from its human burden.

And yet, of course, the key human presence of the player remains. The Overlook predates Jack and is more powerful than he is, but it can do nothing without his body to possess and act through, just as Kubrick’s vision couldn’t have existed without the actors he forced to embody it. In this same way, video games cannot play themselves. Thus, while such scenarios may appear to be instructive in preparing humanity for extinction, in reality they are a means of denying it by pretending that when the human race no longer exists, the player, as an individual, somehow still will.

Most simply put, all such games are hauntological, since the expected human future of dying and staying dead never comes. Instead, the player, after dying and being reincarnated, sees the world made uncanny by simple virtue of their unwelcome presence within it.

This is precisely the feeling that life on earth in 2017 has taken on. Humanity has worn out its welcome, and yet its presence persists, somehow both fearful of the end and eager to hasten its arrival, with each feeling magnifying the power of its opposite. This may be one reason why Steve Bannon managed to coax hordes of disaffected basement gamers out to the polls for Trump: beyond the bitterness and misogyny that reared its head in 2014’s Gamergate harassment campaign, there’s also the belief that nothing is final, that even the planetary destruction a Trump presidency daily threatens is just another phase in an ongoing narrative where the living and the dead commingle in an eerie but harmless digital space, somewhere between ghosts and monsters.

Ghosts & Monsters

Weird fiction writer China Miéville makes a productive distinction between ghosts and monsters in his 2011 essay, “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire.” Making his own use of hauntology to describe ghostly presences in horror fiction, Miéville writes that ghosts partake of a “radicalized uncanny—something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it—rather than a hallucinatory/nihilist novum,” which describes monsters. In other words, ghosts derive their power from the recent past—family secrets, murders and suicides, stolen fortunes, treachery and betrayal—while monsters derive their power from total otherness. They issue either from the pre-human past, the depths of the ocean, or other dimensions entirely, and are physically tangible (Miéville claims that the tentacle is the prototypical monstrous form), while obeying no human logic. Unlike ghosts, they aren’t trying to communicate with us.

Using these definitions, Jack Torrance is both ghost and monster: he is summoned to the hotel and emerges from its unresolved past, but he is also a flesh-and-blood man, in body if not in spirit. He haunts the premises, by why? What was the original trauma for which he’s seeking revenge? Like the player in a videogame, he is caught in a dreamlike cycle whose only mandate is to perpetuate itself.

The Gothic fiction of the 1800s took the haunted to its apex—perhaps this was the last century of linear history, upon which the concept of haunting relies—whereas Weird fiction, a product of the harrowing absurdity of the 20th century, reached its watershed moment in the 1920s, with the tales of Lovecraft. Over the past several decades, the two traditions have been bleeding together, as the ghosts of a history that seems to have reached its end conjoin with the monsters that have never acknowledged anything but an eternal present.

This bleeding-together is part of why the Overlook, a haunted house with a monster, not a ghost (or not only a ghost) at its center, has remained such a resonant space forty years after King introduced it. At the very least, history has now reached a point where, as Gibson claims, it is nearly impossible to imagine a desirable future. The human race is still physically instantiated (thus monstrous), and yet the looming specter of checkout time is turning us ghostly. People are uploading themselves to the cloud and the digital non-space of the gaming world at ever-increasing rates, willingly turning into ghosts in an effort to outrun their monstrous disregard for the conditions that have made life on earth possible. This surely issues from some hope that, as ghosts, life will go on. Perhaps someday gamers will look back from inside their screens to regard their own corpses, decomposing in armchairs on what will then be the far side of the line dividing the living from the dead.

 Anselm Kiefer,  Walhalla, 2016. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube (Charles Duprat)
Anselm Kiefer,  Walhalla, 2016. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube (Charles Duprat)


Frozen Ghosts

Absurd as this hope surely is, I wonder if there might be a grain of truth in it. Since we, too, are creatures of the earth, made of earthly materials (as are our digital devices), perhaps there is something in our nature that can reach beyond our limited time as humans, and partake in the larger cycle of dust returning to dust. Perhaps some part of the consciousness of the earth itself exists within us, and will go on existing.

To believe this is to believe in an afterlife of time, rather than space: to believe that human consciousness, once it has become disembodied, will not travel upward or downward to heaven or hell, nor into space as radio waves, but rather that it will linger here on earth, as earth, even when that earth is transformed into a planet that, if we were to perceive it while still human, would have to be called alien. This is the dream of the entire species being present at its own funeral.

Many climate scientists warn that bacteria and viruses frozen in the permafrost may thaw and rise back up once it reaches a certain temperature. Thinking along these lines, I wonder if dormant myths and thought patterns are already rising back up, re-haunting the human world in what might be its last days. Perhaps this is what Eugene Thacker means when he calls the present a “Post-Secular Age.” Beyond the rabid Fundamentalism pouring from the fissures in a great number of economically and socially tenuous societies, might there be a deeper and more beautiful process by which frozen ghosts are thawing, offering a premonition of how the planet will be haunted by humanity’s absence? Might it, even now, be possible to glimpse the Arcadia that Alan Weisman believes will spring up once humans are gone?

At the very least, if such a glimpse is possible, I hope some of us summon enough shining to appreciate it. Rather than imagining ourselves fleeing this world for another, or being rebooted to play again, we ought to take after the superfans in Room 237 and look more deeply into the world we already inhabit, just as they believe that only devotional scrutiny of The Shining, not the constant search for new frontiers, can answer their deepest questions. To invoke another of Kubrick’s sublimely hopeless visions of human folly, this may be the only means left of learning to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Purchase a copy of the current issue of The Believer here, and subscribe today to receive the next six issues for $48. 

More Reads

Two Poems by Ariana Reines

In SAFEWAY I heard a whiningSong.  Dill filled the air with longing


Sonic Border: on the Twin Tones and the Creation of Neo-Surf

Aurelio Meza

Artist Books / Artist’s Novels (Vol. 7): Jill Magid

Stephanie LaCava