Bill Blakemore reads The Shining as a protest against the genocide of Native Americans. Frederic Jameson reads it as a lament for the clear political demarcation of the Cold War, whilst Geoffrey Wright argues it is a metaphorical study of the Holocaust. Over the years, the film has run the gamut of critical interpretation, producing all sorts of disparate and wide-ranging readings; from a self-reflexive examination of the filmic medium to a deconstruction of the horror genre, from an analysis of the breakdown of the family unit to a deeply pessimistic portrait of contemporary American society, from the Cold War to the Holocaust to the genocide of Native Americans. As Jonathan Romney points out, "the copious critical literature on The Shining reads it variously as a commentary on the breakdown of the family, the crisis of masculinity, the state of modern America and its ideologies, sexism, racism and the dominance of big business."
So, with that said, what exactly is the film about? Are some of these critics correct, are none of them correct, or are all of them correct? As with so many of Kubrick's films, these are questions which will almost certainly never be definitely answered; the safest interpretation of them all seems to be that the ultimate meaning of the film is protean, different for each viewer, different for each critic, and no one interpretation takes precedence over any other. To say the film is about Native Americans is not to say it can't be about the Holocaust, to say it is about the horror genre is not to say it can't be about the dysfunctionality of contemporary American society. In the end, some see the film as a simple horror story with no wider implications whatsoever, whilst others see it as a deeply meaningful film in which the horror story serves only to act as a vehicle to transport a more profound meaning. Neither interpretation is entirely correct, but neither is entirely wrong. The film invites disparate critical readings, it is reluctant to fully reveal itself, and for that reason, it will surely remain a veritable carte blanche, inviting critics to inscribe onto it whatever meaning they may choose.
The following represents an extremely small cross section of critical writing on the film, but it does serve to illustrate the vast scope of critical interpretations which have been generated:
Jack Kroll (film/theatre critic), in his review at the time of the film's release, argued that it was essentially about domesticity, a study of a family unit gone terribly awry: "For all its brilliant effects, the strongest and scariest element in The Shining is the face of Jack Nicholson undergoing a metamorphosis from affectionate father to murderous demon [...] The real horror of the film is expressed in Torrance's frustration. No blood vision or demon lover or putrefying corpse is as frightening as the moment when Wendy looks at the writing that Jack has supposedly been working on and finds that it consists of reams of paper with the single sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," repeated in endless typographical variations. This scene is more frightening than, for example, the brilliant special effect in which one of the hotel's beautiful art-deco hallways literally begins to bleed through its wall in what becomes a torrent of blood. The sight of Torrance's endlessly repeated sentence chills you with its revelation of a man so clogged and aching with frustrated creativity that his desire to kill doesn't need to be explained by his seizure by sinister and suppurating creatures from a time warp of pure evil. When Torrance turns on his son in a mad rage, The Shining becomes a kind of perverse reversal of Kramer vs. Kramer, where father and son found mutual flowering in each other" ("Stanley Kubrick's Horror Show", Newsweek Magazine (June 2, 1980); available here).
Pauline Kael (film historian/critic), in her scathing review of the film, argued that it was about violence, and Mankind's predilection for violence through the ages: "The Shining seems to be about the quest for immortality -- the immortality of evil. Men are psychic murderers: they want to be free and creative, and can only take out their frustrations on their terrified wives and children [...] It's what Kubrick said in 2001: Mankind began with the weapon and just went on from there. Redrum ("murder" backward). Kubrick is the man who thought it necessary to introduce a godlike force (the black slab) to account for evolution. It was the slab that told the apelike man to pick up the bone and use it as a weapon. This was a new version of Original Sin: man the killer acts on God's command. Somehow, Kubrick ducked out on the implications of his own foolishness when he gave 2001 its utopian, technological ending -- man, reborn out of science, as angelic, interplanetary fetus. Now he seems to have gone back to his view at the beginning of 2001: man is a murderer, throughout eternity. The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack's axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape" ("The Shining Review", New York Review, (October 9, 1980); available here).
Paul Mayersberg (writer, director, film critic), in an article for Sight and Sound, argued that the film was primarily about two issues: the breakdown of the family unit on the one hand and a commentary on the filmic medium on the other: "The central horror of The Shining is family life. For a child there can be few characters more frightening than his angry father. Danny, despite his stoicism, is terrorized by his father. Wendy is terrorized by her violent husband. Jack is frustrated to the point of rejection and violent aggression towards his family. It is a nice picture of American home life. The Shining is an accidental but none the less effective reworking of Kramer vs. Kramer. Both treat the collapsing single child family [...] Shining denotes the ability to communicate telepathically, to see backwards into the past and forwards into the future. The Shining is nothing more nor less than a metaphor for the cinema itself. Film has the shining. Danny is probably the director of the movie. He is certainly identified with the camera. The Steadicam tracking shots through the hotel corridors and then in the maze evoke the exhilaration of a small boy racing about on his tricycle. He imagines himself to be a machine. Kubrick plays with the Steadicam like a toy. It is essentially childlike. He wants to find out all the things he can do with his latest acquisition. Danny's visions are represented in cuts, in montage, so the boy is not only the camera he is also the moviola" ("The Overlook Hotel", Sight and Sound (Winter, 1980); available here).
P.L. Titterington (film critic), in a Sight and Sound article written a few months after the film's release, argued that it was a metaphorical study of contemporary American society, in particular the break down of the so-called American Dream, and a pessimistic contrast between the promise America offered when it was first discovered and what it has today become, a place of isolated individuals where human communication is no longer possible: "One of the major themes of The Shining is America. As Altman used a single city as a microcosm in Nashville, and Coppola the behavior of America in Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, so Kubrick presents his view of America through the image of the haunted luxury hotel [...] The Shining works primarily through elements that evoke America's past history and the present state of its society. The huge opening helicopter shots suggest an openness of space before the claustrophobia of the story sets in. But they also evoke the vast spaces the pioneers had to cross in the founding of America. The helicopter shots suggest the exhilaration of a new found continent and a new life, the energy and hope and promise of the pioneering experience; but as we focus on Torrance's car far below in the forests and by the side of lakes, there is also the sense of the dwarfing of the pioneer, the danger of isolation and of being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the landscape. The dark side of the American experience is paramount in the film. The early exhilaration is soon lost and the contrast starkly made between the open spaces and the hotel surrounded by the freezing cold, the two faces of America, the early hopeful past marred by inhumanity and the luxurious present that has inherited that legacy [...] In intimate relationship with these evocations and deeply buried associations with the American past, Kubrick presents a whole series of images drawn from the American present, and in particular those images most associated with it in the popular imagination: the family car outing, the game of ball, the nude pin-ups, the TV news, the job interview, the Independence Day celebrations. Insignia of different kinds are used on jerseys and T shirts: the American Eagle, 'Apollo USA', Mickey Mouse. The Shining incorporates all these images and references, but perhaps the most important are those connected with marriage and the family: the loss of contact between individuals, the suppressed frustration, hostility and violence, in the early stages glimpsed in Torrance's irritability, sometimes flaring up into anger and abuse, in the latter stages turning to murderous aggression. By attempting to write a novel, Torrance seems to be desperately trying to give meaning to his life, after a past of routine jobs and heavy drinking. The whole relationship becomes a gruesome parody of a marriage, including its details of black humor (Torrance's "Honey, I'm home" as the axe smashes through the door), the burlesque of the language of romantic love - "light of my life" - and the parody of the bedtime story as Torrance tries to force the door behind which his wife and son are hiding, with Torrance himself as the "big bad wolf"" ("Kubrick and The Shining", Sight and Sound (Spring, 1981); available here)
Frederic Jameson (literary scholar/political theorist) argues that the film is about a drive for community, a lament for a notion of Cold War-esque politics when political demarcations and social hierarchies were clearer than they are in the 1980s, and finding a "knowable community" was easier: "The drive towards community, the longing for collectivity, the envy of other, achieved collectivities, emerges with all force of a return of the repressed: and this is finally, I think, what The Shining is all about. Where to search for this "knowable community," to which, even excluded, the fantasy of collective relations might attach itself? It is surely not to be found in the managerial bureaucracy of the hotel itself, as multinational and standardized as a bedroom community or a motel chain; nor can it any longer take seriously the departing vacationers of the current holiday season, on their way home to their own privatized dwelling places. It only has one direction to go, into the past [...] Kubrick's film foregrounds and isolates a single period, multiplying increasingly unified signals: tuxedoes, roadsters, hipflasks, slicked-down hair parted in the middle [...] That generation is the twenties, and it is by the twenties that the hero is haunted and possessed. The twenties were the last moment in which a genuine American leisure class led an aggressive and ostentatious public existence, in which an American ruling class projected a class-conscious and unapologetic image of itself and enjoyed its privileges without guilt, openly and armed with its emblems of top-hat and champagne glass, on the social stage in full view of the other classes. The nostalgia of The Shining, the longing for collectivity, takes the peculiar form of an obsession with the last period in which class consciousness is out in the open [...] Arguably, the golden age of the fifties Science Fiction film, with its pod people and brain-eating monsters, testified to a genuine collective paranoia, that of the fantasies of the Cold War period, fantasies of influence and subversion which reinforce the very ideological climate they reproduce. Such films projected the figure of the "enemy" in the individually monstrous, the collective organization of the latter being at best conceivable as a biological or instinctive sub-human network like the dynamics of an anthill. But today, where information about the planet has become far more widely diffused through the media, and where with the great movement of decolonization of the 1960s, the most repressed collectivities have begun to speak in their own voice and to project the demands of properly revolutionary subjects, it is no longer possible to represent Otherness in this way. It is not clear, for instance, that the political unconscious of America today can still conceive of the Russians as evil, in the sense of the alien otherness and facelessness of these earlier fantasies: at best, clumsy and brutal, heavy-handed, as in current evaluations of the invasion of Afghanistan. As for the formerly faceless horde of the Chinese, they are now our loyal ally and have reintegrated the earlier wartime fantasy of the "friendship" between China and America, while our former Vietnamese enemy - no longer, in any case, a global ideological threat - enjoys the grudging prestige of the victor. The Third World, generally, immobilized in a post-revolutionary situation by military dictatorship, corruption, and sheer economic distress, no longer offers adequate materials for the fantasies of a beleaguered Fortress America, submerged by the rising tide of militant underclasses. This is the situation in which the new wave of occult films (they can be dated from 1973, the year of The Exorcist as well as of the global economic crisis which marked the end of the sixties as such) may rather be seen as expressing the nostalgia for a system in which Good and Evil are absolute black-and-white categories: they do not express a new Cold War psychology as much as they express the longing and the regret for a Cold War period in which things were still simple, not so much belief in Manichaean forces as the nagging suspicion that everything would be so much easier if we could believe in them. The Shining, then, though not an occult film, nonetheless envelops the new ideological genre of the occult of its larger critical perspective, allowing us to reinterpret this still "metaphysical" nostalgia for an absolute Evil in the far more materialistic terms of a yearning for the certainties and satisfactions of a traditional class system" ("Historicism in The Shining" (1981), from Signatures of the Visible (1992); available here).
Jonathan Romney (film critic), in an article written shortly after Kubrick's death in 1999, argues that the film is anything but "a failed genre piece," and instead it is a film of multiple meanings and hidden depth: "At first sight this is an extremely simple, even static film [...] At the time of the film's release many critics were unimpressed by this schema - Kubrick had put so much effort into his film, building vast sets at Elstree, making a 17-week shoot stretch to 46, and what was the result? A silly scare story - something that, it was remarked at the time, Roger Corman could have turned around in a fortnight. But look beyond the simplicity and the Overlook reveals itself as a palace of paradox [...] The film's subtexts resonate in the vastness as in a sound box. It's the space itself that allows so many thematic strands to emerge from an ostensibly simple narrative, whether or not they are explicitly delineated. The copious critical literature on The Shining reads it variously as a commentary on the breakdown of the family, the crisis of masculinity, the state of modern America and its ideologies, sexism, racism and the dominance of big business. But what gives the film its curiously resistant, opaque feel - which makes it possible for critics to conclude that The Shining is really about nothing at all, simply a botched genre job - is the fact that this is a film about the experience of watching The Shining. The subject is not only possession but film as possession; seeing the Torrances in their different ways bewitched by the Overlook, we can't help wondering what's happening to us as we watch them. Are we as skeptical of the hotel's legends as Jack seems to be when first told of the Grady killings? Or are we transfixed, eyes gaping like Danny? A recurring question in horror cinema is how our reactions are affected by seeing other people in the grip of terror: are we terrified out of empathy, or do we distance ourselves with cool skepticism?" ("Stanley Kubrick, 1928-1999: Resident Phantoms", Sight and Sound (September, 1999); available in archived form here).
Geoffrey Wright of the Alt.Movies.Kubrick FAQ argues that the film is a metaphor for a dysfunctional American society where the white male hegemony is buckling under its own weight: "What the American society does to its population is represented metaphorically through the characters. Hallorann represents minorities: When they get uppity, it kills them. Wendy represents women: Outwardly weak and superficial, watches soap operas, clings to a violent husband who despises her because of hopeless feelings of need and fear of independence. Characterized by submissiveness, martyrdom and fear. Danny represents children: Brutalized; personality and independence squashed, channeled into fantasy; split personality -- Tony represents the redirection of Danny's ability to gather information which is taboo; now Tony is the one responsible. Jack represents the inheritor, provider, and caretaker of society: The squashed child grown up; no creativity, no real feeling of self worth, extreme anger at recognition of these and redirection of this anger toward the family he sees as his possession over which he rightfully commands complete control; inability to love, desire to control to the point of killing anyone who would dare defy him. Menial work is beneath him. In fact the "caretaker" does no work, which is the job of his slavish wife. Anyone who thinks this society is kind to the white male dominators didn't understand what Kubrick was trying to say through Jack. He has had it the worst in many respects" (quoted here).
Kian Bergstrom (film critic), argues that the film is an interrogation of an audience who come to horror movies to see suffering and death: "Kubrick again and again asks us to look at why we came to The Shining and to feel ashamed. How small, how petty we are, to expect to be entertained by watching an abusive alcoholic terrorize his enabling and confused wife and disturbed son (whom we know he has a history of beating). How pathetic of us that we would imagine spooks and spirits to be scarier than a man who attacks his wife with an axe. There's very little gore, but there's enough to make very certain we're thinking about how little blood there is in the film [...] Kubrick knows that we have come expecting to be scared in part through the making visible of guts and organs, and he laughs at us. "Oh, really?" we might imagine his disembodied voice cackling; "this place is so scary, they eat the gore." After the film is over, with its final images being those of repetitions and broken closures, the cycle of the film feels more like its gearing up for another round than ending. As far as catharsis goes, as far even as explanation goes, we're left after the film without a sense that either took place for us, but should have, that somehow, we missed 'it,' or didn't get 'it.'" (""I am sorry to differ with you, sir": Thoughts On Reading Kubrick's The Shining" (2000); available here).
Geoffrey Cocks (film scholar), in his 2004 biographical study of Kubrick films, argues that it is an analysis of the fears produced by the Holocaust and the threat of Nuclear War during the 1940s: "In The Shining there slouches a deeply laid subtext that positions the Holocaust as the modern benchmark of evil. An analysis of many otherwise inexplicable visual and aural aspects of film demonstrates that this film was an artistic and a philosophical response to the horrors of the Second World War [...] The "Big Bad Wolf" in The Shining, is the product of many years of cultural evolution and reflects in particular the transformation wrought in the symbolic meaning of the wolf during the 1930s and 1940s. It is also an indication that European and world events surrounding the threat and reality of war against the West and against the Jews were of greater moment to the solidly and securely bourgeois precocious Kubrick than poverty, unemployment, and economic catastrophe [...] Any mention of the wolf in The Shining is a(n) (in)direct expression of a growing preoccupation in the 1970s on Kubrick's (and the culture's) part with the subject of Nazis, the Second World War, and the Holocaust. In this respect, it is significant that Jack, like the Big Bad Wolf, does not make it through the door to get at his wife, but remains on the other side. This is in line with Kubrick's use of camera, film, and narrative and symbolic indirection as a means of distance from and control over the subject of the Holocaust in particular. Instead of his wife and son, Jack Torrance's only victim (besides himself) will be Hallorann, the black cook whose arrival at the Overlook Hotel just as Jack has broken through the bathroom door saves the lives of Wendy and Danny Torrance. By having an African-American as the victim of Jack's and the hotel's murderous rage, Kubrick underlines a twinned theme in The Shining of an American and, underneath, a German past of racial persecution" (excerpts from The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust (2004); available here).