Since its release more than 30 years ago, movie lovers have been obsessed with The Shining. Unlike many ‘80s horror flicks, it’s truly scary and features some great performances (and at least a few memorable lines). It has an A-list pedigree: directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson, and adapted from a book by Stephen King. It’s also thought-provoking: it's studied in universities and analyzed in books, it’s tough to name another horror movie with this level of academic scrutiny.
But for all its acclaim, The Shining doesn’t answer many of the questions raised in its story. What really happened in Room 237? Who’s real and who’s a figment of someone’s imagination? And what is up with the photo that ends the movie?
Perhaps because of Kubrick’s reputation for obsessive attention to detail, these questions don’t seem to have turned off viewers — they only seem more fascinated, leading to some very out-there theories about the movie’s true meaning.
In fact, there are so many theories about The Shining that they have a movie all on their own: Room 237, a full-length documentary exploring several of the most popular interpretations of Kubrick’s haunted-house classic.
Some of the theories have more evidence than others, and the only thing beyond dispute is that some people have way too much time on their hands. There’s also more Shining conspiracy theories than could fit in one movie, so we’ve taken the liberty of compiling the 15 most entertaining. They’re guaranteed to make you see the horror classic with fresh eyes.
15 The Shining Contains Illuminati Imagery
Room 237 spends a lot of time dissecting individual shots from The Shining. What it doesn’t point out is that many of them contain buildings or design elements that form triangles, a common Illuminati symbol. Look at the scene where Jack Torrance is touring the grounds of the hotel: its roof and the surrounding mountains form triangles, as do the piles of snow outside the Overlook Hotel later in the film. There are also triangles formed by chair and backs and stepladders, as well as the famous “one-eye” symbol.
These are usually the examples cited when pointing to a pop culture figure as an Illuminati member, but in Kubrick’s case they go further. Some conspiracy theorists claim Kubrick was killed by the Illuminati (who of course made it look like a heart attack) when he revealed a secret ritual in his final film: the creepy orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut.
14 Frozen And The Shining Are The Same Movie
This is more lighthearted than many Shining theories. Blogger Mary Katharine Ham points out that both Elsa and Jack present a danger to their families, and grow more volatile after being pent up in a cold, remote landscape. Olaf and Wendy each know the main character more than anyone, and will give anything to protect the younger characters. Both Anna and Danny are innocent kids, with supernatural gifts, who are left to play alone in hallways. Both of them were injured by the main characters before the movies take place. Also, both are rescued by a man who understands their supernatural abilities: Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, and Halloran and his Snowcat. Both of them make similar escapes (sliding down the snow) from Elsa and Jack. Of course, Frozen is a Disney movie, so there’s no one swinging an axe and no dead body at the end.
13 “Time Is A Flat Circle.”
Haunting is a key concept throughout The Shining, as is the past and present coming together. One of the heaviest theories about the movie is that it’s Kubrick’s contemplation on how the past can weigh us down. Dick Halloran tells Danny that the supernatural visions he’s been having are simply images from the past (like the creepy twin girls in the hallway). Jack Torrance appears to be possessed by the ghosts of hotel guests from its glory days, and the last shot in the movie is of a vintage photo of him at a party there in 1921.
The movie’s ending supports this theory. We often hear that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. When he and his mother are trapped in the Overlook maze, Danny backtracks over his footsteps in the snow in order to escape from his murderous father and find a path of his own.
12 The Movie Condemns Native American Genocide
Many theories in Room 237 are half-baked at best. But it also spends a lot of time on the oldest and best-developed theory about The Shining: it’s an indictment of Native American genocide.
As the Torrance family is being given a tour of the Overlook by its creepy manager, he casually throws out that it’s built on an Indian burial ground— something that always ends well. The movie is packed with visual references to Native Americans: Navajo wall hangings in the lobby, Halloran’s body landing on a rug with an Indian motif (a metaphor for Americans killing innocent Indians). Most notably, the pantry is stocked with baking soda cans from Calumet, which have a Native man in a headdress and are visible during several scenes. “Calumet” also means “ceremonial pipe,” which could be a reference to the various “peace treaties” broken in the movie.
11 It’s Really About Gold
This theory didn’t make it in Room 237, but comes from noted Shining obsessive Rob Ager: Kubrick was using the movie to criticize America for abandoning the gold standard (backing its dollars with gold).
Much of the action takes place in the Overlook bar The Gold Room, which isn’t in the book but was added specifically for the movie. This is also where Jack and ghostly bartender Lloyd talk about money (“Your money’s no good here.” - “How’s my credit?”)
A lot of this theory stems from the famous photograph that ends the movie: it’s dated 1921, which is the year Woodrow Wilson left office. He’s the President who ended the gold standard, and Ager points to several people in the photo who look like Wilson or members of his administration. It’s a heady theory, which could be why it’s not in the documentary.
10 It’s A Metaphor For The Holocaust
One of the most popular theories about The Shining is also one of the most disturbing. Obsessives point to the frequent use of the number ‘42’: 42 cars in the Overlook parking lot, '42' on one of Danny’s shirts, and a ‘42’ on the license plate of Halloran’s car. Wendy and Danny watch the film The Summer of ‘42 on TV. And if you multiply the numbers of Room 237, they equal— wait for it— 42. Supposedly this references 1942, the year the Nazis began the Holocaust.
The famous “all work and no play” is done on a German brand of typewriter , “Adler,” which is German for ‘eagle,’ the symbol of the Nazis. Supposedly Jack’s insane typing represents the Third Reich’s assembly line approach to killing. It’s a dark take, but one history professor is so certain of Kubrick’s message he wrote a book about it, The Wolf at the Door.
9 It Has Something In Common With Stranger Things
Room 237 spends a lot of time on a skiing poster in a shot of the two creepy girls haunting the Overlook. It bears the word ‘monarch,’ which was rumored to be a codename for a CIA program better known as MKUltra. The top-secret project, which popped up more recently in Stranger Things, was an attempt at what the CIA called ‘behavioral engineering’ (everyone else called it ‘mind control’) using experimental treatments and LSD.
According to this theory, the Overlook Hotel represents the CIA and Jack Torrance represents someone in the program whose mind is cracking— hence all of his hallucinations. The mysterious character of Bill Watson, who is always trailing behind the Torrances but says very little, is supposedly there on behalf of the hotel’s managers but could also represent someone from a government agency.
8 It’s Filled With Subliminal Sexual Images
The story goes that Stanley Kubrick was bored after making Barry Lyndon, his least commercially successful film. In the course of deciding on his next project, he supposedly read about subliminal advertising techniques, like the suggestive images sometimes hidden within print advertisements. Naturally, he then applied those methods to a horror film.
Some think that hundreds of subliminal images in The Shining tell a story about sexuality, possibly phantoms and demons who are attracted to humans. Examples include the ghostly woman in Room 237, but there is also an “erection” in the form of an optical illusion formed by Stuart Ullman standing in front of his paper tray. Other observers have pointed out that it’s unusual for a hotel to have carpeting that looks like penises (also in Room 237) and Playgirl magazine in the lobby (which Jack is reading near the start of the film).
7 Kubrick Vs. Stephen King
The Shining was originally a book by the famous horror author. He was so excited to work with Kubrick that he actually wrote a draft of the script himself…. which Kubrick didn’t even read. The director collaborated with another writer to write his own screenplay.
Not only did Kubrick once call King’s writing “weak,” he is thought to have included a dig at the writer in the finished movie. In the book, the Torrances drive a red Volkswagen to the Overlook. In the beginning of The Shining, we see that car is now yellow. At first glance it may seem harmless... until later, when Halloran is driving to rescue the Torrances and spots a red Volkswagen that's crushed in a horrific accident. This has been seen as a raised middle finger to King.
As for his part, King hated Kubrick’s take on The Shining.
6 It Was All A Dream
Room 237 points out that the layout of the Overlook is physically impossible. One artist created a floor plan of the hotel (from watching the movie countless times) and realized that the window that appears when Jack is meeting with hotel management couldn’t actually exist. When we’re following Danny riding around on his bike, many hallways don’t appear to lead to anything, like a labyrinth (more on that later).
The movie is also filled with hallucinations and dreams that make no sense. We still don’t know what the ending means, or who all the ghosts are.
On first viewing, it seems like Kubrick downplayed one of the key elements of King’s book: Jack’s alcoholism. But Jack also tells Wendy he dreamt about killing her and Danny. Some think Kubrick actually depicted Jack’s alcoholic hallucinations by creating a movie that is literally his worst nightmare.
5 Danny Is The Villain
To Shining newbies, the movie appears to have a number of plot holes. Those plot holes start to make sense if you view it as a story of son versus father.
We learn early in the film that Jack broke Danny’s arm once. Danny also exhibits signs of abuse: anxiety, poor academic performance, and antisocial behavior.
Danny also exhibits something else: psychic powers. The “shining” of the title refers to Danny’s gift, which Halloran is the only person to figure out. Is it a coincidence he ends up dead?
Danny could therefore be behind the ghostly visions in the film. Once he learns what he’s capable of (by generating the creepy twins), he uses his powers to drive Jack insane. Danny’s also the only person in the movie who could have let Jack out of the pantry, which is what allows him to chase Wendy outside and freeze to death.
4 Jack Has “The Shine”
How would you handle it if you had visual and auditory hallucinations and everyone around you just thought you were an unstable drunk? You might start to go crazy, which is what happens to Jack Torrance.
This theory says that Danny is not the only character in the movie with the gift of “the shine.” Danny comes to some understanding of his powers after talking to Halloran, but Jack doesn’t have this advantage. He sees and hears things he doesn’t understand, including ghosts. Seeing the dead is part of “the shine.”
In this interpretation, Danny’s imaginary friend Tony is controlling both of the Torrance men. Whenever we see Jack acting crazy in the film, we frequently cut back to Danny. Since we know Tony “lives” in Danny’s “mouth,” it’s possible this is to represent Tony controlling Jack.
3 The Hotel Is Hell, Jack Is The Devil
Jack Torrance signs a contract and his entire life goes to hell— literally, if you believe this theory— complete with rivers of blood and demons.
The employment contract could read as a classic Faustian bargain— Jack selling his soul in exchange for knowledge. Like all good conspiracy theories, there’s some room for interpretation. Is the ‘knowledge’ the writing Jack thinks he’s going to get done? Is it knowledge of the Overlook’s secrets? Or, on a mortal level, is it the drink he bargains for “on credit” in the ghostly lobby bar when his alcoholism gets the better of him?
A sister theory positions Jack Torrance as the Devil himself, and gives possible meaning to the famous “gotcha” final shot. In the framed photo from 1921, Jack’s posture is nearly identical to that of the Tarot card for Baphomet (i.e.: Satan).
2 The Labyrinth And The Minotaur
In Hollywood, even Greek myths are fair game for a remake. Another interpretation of the skiing poster is that the figure on it is a minotaur, the mythological beast that’s part man and part bull... and who kills children.
It’s from Danny’s perspective that we see this image, and Danny represents Theseus, who has to journey through the labyrinth to kill the minotaur. The Overlook Hotel is very labyrinthine, with its hallways and doors that seem to go nowhere. Danny journeys these halls (on his bike) and discovers his dad’s becoming a monster (in Room 237).
Not only does the hotel look maze-like, but in one of his most famous departures from the book, Kubrick added an actual maze, where Danny slays the child-killing monster, who can only be Jack. And the famous shot of Jack with his eyes rolling and his forehead jutting out? Looks a bit like a bull about to charge.
1 It’s Kubrick’s Apology For Faking The Moon Landing
Room 237 features a host of hidden messages supposedly buried within The Shining, but one supposedly confirms a famous urban legend: that the director faked shots of astronauts landing on the moon on behalf of the U.S. government.
Conspiracy theorists point out a few shots in the film: a pantry containing Tang (which was supplied to astronauts) and Danny wearing an Apollo 11 sweater. And the lines Jack says to Wendy during their (many) arguments about “honoring commitments” supposedly echo Kubrick’s fights with his own wife when she learned the truth about the Apollo mission.
The mysterious Room 237 at the Overlook Hotel was changed from Room 217 in the book, allegedly because the journey to the moon is 237,000 miles.
Naysayers claim Kubrick changed the room number so that visitors to the real hotel wouldn’t be scared to stay in Room 217... but according to the documentary, no such room exists.