Chapter 2: Mazy Movies

Opening Scene

Forty-five pages into Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining, Jack Torrance’s wife Wendy is contemplating divorce.  Jack has lost his job teaching English at the boarding school and his alcoholism is out of control. He is mercurial and has even injured their boy Danny in a drunken rage. Pondering why they had not been able to broach the topic and confront the obvious in their relationship, Wendy thinks of Jack: “He was like a man who had leaned around a corner and had seen an unexpected monster lying in wait, crouching among the dried bones of its old kills.”

            The Athenian youths taken hostage by King Minos and imprisoned in the labyrinth might have encountered the Minotaur in just such fashion. Stephen King plants this image long before readers/viewers ever see the crazed Jack Torrance running through the Overlook Hotel’s hedge maze (in the movie) with an ax. (The hedge maze is not in the book, but topiary of sinister hedge animals is.) By that point in the story, the labyrinthine associations with death, horror, terror, and bloody violence are permanent residents of the hotel. The more subtle imagery of the early chapters is more effective, for my money, and is like lighting a match of terror. When the cook Dick Hallorann (played in the movie by Scatman Crothers)—the character who perceives that Danny “shines” or has second sight—shows the Torrance family the Overlook’s cavernous kitchen, Wendy says, “I think I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in.”

            “He came running to her with a large gray thing in his hands, and for one comic-horrible moment Wendy thought it was a brain.” This is how King describes the little boy Danny carrying a wasp’s nest toward his mother. It’s an effective analogue, and King explores it further for maximum impact, as Jack Torrance’s mind becomes an increasingly irrational wasp’s nest of aggression, drunken sarcasm, resentment, and violence. Brains and wasp’s nests are two structures, interiors, which are maze-like. As are entrails. As are houses. One of King’s epigraphs is from Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which the struggling writer Jack Torrance often finds himself involuntarily quoting—“The Red Death held sway over all!” The Shining’s ballroom mantelpiece clock also builds off the Poe story (with the addition of the pornographic mechanical figurines), and Torrance’s thinking of Poe as “the Great American Hack” is a good joke that underscores the writer-turned-hotel-custodian’s own failure to complete his play. The other Poe inspiration for The Shining is Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a template for a large architectural structure that becomes personified with evil intentions toward its occupants. So it follows that King fashions the Overlook as a maze: when the manager gives the prospective young family of winter caretakers the grand tour, he leads them “through corridors that twisted and turned like a maze,” and Danny, fleeing from his crazed father, will soon run “through twisting, mazelike corridors, his bare feet whispering over a deep-pile jungle of blue and black.” The passage indirectly invokes the Minotaur as well: Danny runs “fearing that each turn would bring him face to face with the human tiger in these halls.”

            I’d go back and watch the movie for more labyrinth imagery and symbolism, but the movie is too scary to watch again (especially for a writer recently finishing teaching English at a boarding school). So I watch a documentary about The Shining called Room 237, which, in a somewhat conspiratorial, hyperventilating tone, explores the multileveled symbolism of Stanley Kubrick’s film.

            The movie, according to the doc’s interview subjects, is about the massacre of Native Americans by white men with axes; it’s about the Holocaust; it’s about Kubrick’s own guilt over having participated in filming the Apollo mission so NASA would have believable footage; it’s about the past impinging on the present; it’s about, well, everything. And, yes, it’s about labyrinths. A ski poster with the word “Monarch” is really a Minotaur image. Jack Nicholson-as-Jack Torrance is the Minotaur. Nicholson’s iconic glower, with his arched eyebrows, evokes a bull (compare Trump’s arrest mugshot). The Minotaur’s name, Asterius, means Star, starry, and the film imagery suggests that at one point. And then, of course, there’s the Overlook Hotel’s hedge maze, which little boy Danny (Danny Lloyd in the movie) navigates by walking backwards in the footsteps in the snow, which provide an Ariadne’s thread. There’s also a model of the maze in the hotel lobby that Jack Torrance peers over menacingly.

            But the doc’s assertion that these references are all Kubrick, no King, and that there is no maze in the book, is belied by the sentence on p. 45 quoted above and other passages. King’s artful bit of foreshadowing brings forth the maze, the Minotaur, and all its associations with one powerful sentence. Add Kubrick’s vision, and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance as an anti-hero, an unsuccessful Theseus battling the Minotaur of mental illness, and the result is mythic and unforgettable.

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