The title of the new documentary Room 237 — which opens in New York this weekend, and expands nationwide through April — refers to the menacing, mysterious hotel room at the center of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a film that has inspired perhaps more deep analysis, explication, and theorizing than pretty much any other major feature film of the last 40 years. In the doc, director Rodney Ascher and producer Tim Kirk interview five people who have dedicated a rather alarming amount of their lives to attempting to understand the multiple meanings packed inside Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King best-seller. Overtop a hypnotic collage of imagery, these five people — veteran journalist Bill Blakemore, history professor Geoffrey Cocks, playwright Juli Kearns, musician John Fell Ryan, and filmmaker Jay Weidner — unspool their always fascinating theories, ranging from keen observations about Kubrick’s disorientating filmmaking to, say, how the film is really Kubrick confessing his involvement in faking the footage of the Apollo moon landing.
That last theory was what first inspired Ascher and Kirk to collaborate on a film assembling as many different theories about The Shining as they could find. “It seemed like the most interesting exercise,” says Ascher, “would be to explore all of the symbolic analyses and let them collide in a demolition derby of ideas and pictures.”
Well, not all of them. “We were going to do a comprehensive overview of every theory of The Shining,” says Kirk, “and that’s just impossible. Room 237 is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”
So I asked them what theories didn’t make the film — and here are the five most intriguing ones.
1. The twin girls are not Grady’s daughters.
In the film, we’re told that the previous caretaker of The Overlook hotel, named Grady, killed his two young daughters. So naturally, when we see two creepy girls staring at young Danny — and then a quick, horrifying shot of their bloody bodies in that same hallway — we assume they’re the Grady girls. Not so, says The Shining obsessive Rob Ager! A hotel exec tells Danny’s father Jack (Jack Nicholson) that the girls were “about eight and ten” — ergo, not twins.
So who are the girls? Are they mirrored projections of Danny’s subconscious? Are they Danny and his imaginary “friend” Tony? Or are they perhaps Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) as a young girl? Obsess away!
2. There is something in the river of blood.
Another theory of Ager’s involves the infamous river of blood gushing from one of the Overlook’s elevators. If you squint, you can sort of make out a figure who seems to fall out of the elevator doors. Or maybe not. Watch Ager’s super-creepy video above and decide for yourself.
3. Kubrick is exploring (and condemning) America abandoning the gold standard.
One of Ager’s more…adventurous theories suggests that Kubrick used the enormous “Gold Room” in the Overlook as a launching point to tweak America’s abandonment of the gold standard, by which U.S. currency was backed up by corresponding reserves of gold. The theory hangs a lot of weight on the observation that the black-and-white photo of Jack from 1921 that ends the film includes a man who looks a fair amount like President Woodrow Wilson — the man who signed the Federal Reserve Act into law, launching the U.S. dollar on its path to leaving the gold standard behind. (Another theory concerning that photo, by the way, is below.)
If you have 40 minutes or so to kill, you can watch Ager’s explain his entire theory here.
4. The whole film is a metaphor for the CIA’s mind-control program.
Room 237 spends a fair amount of time exploring a seemingly out of place ski poster that appears in one of the shots of those creepy twin girls. (Gah! Not them again!) Ascher’s film focuses on playwright Juli Kearns’ fervent belief that the skiing figure in that poster is actually a minotaur. But there’s another theory about that poster. The word “Monarch” appears underneath it, which is another purported code name for a CIA behavioral engineering program known as MKUltra.
“If you’re the kind of guy who gets into Cold War lore and likes to read about the CIA doing LSD experiments on people, then MKUltra is a biggie,” says Ascher. So is the idea that Jack Torrence was the victim of government mind control? “It wouldn’t be on any literal plot level,” says Ascher. “It would be that that this is a way [to show] how systems break down. MKUltra is one way a powerful bureaucracy would break down an individual. The Overlook Hotel is functioning in that way on Jack — which is me doing a complete disservice to whoever came with up with this [theory], but it would be more on that level.”
5. Jack’s position in the final photo is the same as the Tarot card position for Baphomet (i.e. the Devil).
Looks pretty convincing to me. Not quite sure that guy in the mustache behind Nicholson is supposed to be Woodrow Wilson, though.
OK, why are there so many kooky theories about this movie?
Good question! “I think in a way because it’s just a mystery,” says Kirk. “[The movie] doesn’t solve things even on a plot level. What happened in room 237? We don’t really know. Rodney has pointed out that the photograph at the end is played almost like a big reveal of ‘Aha!’ But it’s not really. If anything, it just deepens the mystery.”
Kubrick’s own reputation for perfectionism also has fueled the theorizing fires. “I think the understanding of Kubrick as this meticulous, obsessively detail oriented director does make you think that if you see something in a frame, then he put it there and there’s a reason,” says Kirk. “That is a jumping off point for a lot of people.”
But isn’t there a real possibility here that Kubrick was just messing with the audience, and nothing more? “Well, messing with the audience is a big deal,” says Ascher. “The Shining is a confusing haunted house movie, where things don’t quite add up. It’s like music with these weird, off notes that you don’t quite get.”
“The rest of his movies are all so good and so close to perfection,” he adds, “that if you don’t get something … there’s a trust that it’s not that it’s a mistake, it’s that you didn’t figure it out.”