What a Horror Movie Taught Me About America

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The supervisor of my historicism-based BA thesis on Stanley Kubrick’s cult horror film The Shining wrote in her feedback: “Your main thesis statement is sound and interesting but not terribly original”.

First, I was heartbroken. I spent more hours on that essay than I dare to admit, honing it to perfection (or so I thought). On the second thought, though, I was quite taken back because… . Well, let me introduce my “unoriginal” thesis statement:

I argued that Jack (The Shining’s protagonist who tries to murder his wife and son) is an aggressive reincarnation of America’s Founding Fathers.

I mean, just look at The Shining’s plot — it is, after all, an adaptation of Stephen King’s both terrific and terrifying novel: after landing a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, Jack Torrance (played to perfection by Jack Nicholson) moves his wife Wendy and their young son Danny to the Rocky Mountains where they will spend the winter in complete isolation — except for a company of ghosts. As the Torrances become snowbound, the tension between them, aggregated by the paranormal activity, culminates in Jack’s mental breakdown. As a result, Jack, instigated by the ghost of the Overlook’s former caretaker and a family murderer, Delbert Grady, hunts his wife and son through the hotel corridors with an axe. Bang.

So, if you think that The Shining’s murderous main character obviously symbolises the nation’s fathers, then the film doesn’t present a particularly flattering image of the United States, does it?

The Father’s Axe

Mount Rushmore — National Memorial of American imperialism? / Photo by May on Unsplash

‘So what?’ you might ask. How is one (fictional) family tragedy related to a whole nation and its origins?

You see, a nuclear family has played a bigger role in America than you might think; in fact, the family unit laid the foundation for the American nation. As Elaine Tyler May explains,

in the United States, a young country founded as a rather risky democratic experiment, most of the institutions that provided social order and a sense of identity were initially absent: the aristocracy with its implicit ideal of noblesse oblige, royalty grounded in kinship ties of the rulers, or even the deeply-rooted historical markers of identity grounded in a national soil, common traditions or customs. (11)

To solve this problem and unify the newly-formed nation-state, its “founders invested in the institution of the family the responsibility for maintaining social order in the democracy” by “plac[ing] the family in the center of the polity, as the institution where citizens are bred and nurtured” (May 11). The American family has thus been instrumentalised as a hegemonic tool of power since the eighteenth century. In The Shining, this is a theme reflected especially by the father, Jack.

Speaking of fatherhood, May’s mention of the American founders, or the “Founding Fathers”, as they have been called since the twentieth century (Paul 199), evokes another important meaning of “family” in American history. According to Heike Paul, the Founding Fathers “epitomize a political myth of origin that is phrased in a language of kinship” (197). As a myth, the Founding Fathers narrative functions as a medium through which “the psychology and world view of our cultural ancestors are transmitted to modern descendants” (Slotkin 3). Thus, to this day, “[t]he term ‘Fathers’ suggests tradition, legitimacy, and paternity and creates an allegory of family and affiliation that affirms the union and the cohesion of the […] nation” (Paul 197). This creates

“the Nation-as-Family metaphor, in which the nation is seen as a family, the government as a parent, and the citizens as children” (Lakoff 195).

One of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, on one-hundred dollar bills. / Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Like most myths, the Founding Fathers narrative is based on history, in this case on a group of historical personalities — “the delegates of the Thirteen Colonies who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and later the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights” (Paul 198–9). While it is often disputed how many of these politicians should be included in the Founding Fathers canon, the following prominent figures of the American Revolution and its aftermath unquestionably belong to it: “Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton” (Paul 201). In contrast to popular idealisation of the Founding Fathers, the founders did not always act in accordance with their preaching of liberty and equality:

They strived to remove the indigenous population, refused to abolish slavery, and reinforced a cult of hegemonic masculinity that marginalised women. To maintain these hierarchical structures — between the Anglo-Saxon American and the native Other, the master and the slave, and man and woman — the Founding Fathers relied on both the Nation-as-Family metaphor and the family unit itself.

As you can see, doing research for my thesis taught me a lot about American history, especially about America’s dark past. As I built up my argument, I identified three historical sources — expansionism, genocide, and hegemonic masculinity — of major issues America faces today: the consequences of multiple foreign interventions, racism as well as xenophobia, and gender inequality.

(Note: The following subchapters focus on American history rather than Kubrick’s film. If you want to read more about The Shining and find out how Jack (with the help of his axe) re-enacts the history of the Founding Fathers, drop me a personal note and I will gladly send you my BA thesis via e-mail.)

1. Foreign Intervention

Photo by Mahir Uysal on Unsplash

One parallel between The Shining’s Jack and the American founders is the obsessive need to control and expand one’s territory. According to Mary E. Stuckey, “the idea of expansion” was crucial for the development of American national identity (229), and was thus reinforced by the nation’s fathers. The main impetus for American expansionism was the belief in the so-called frontier myth, i.e.

“the conception of America as a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top” (Slotkin 5).

This promise of an “abundance of land and other forms of economic opportunity” drove pioneers to gradually push the frontier farther west (Weeks 8). Notably, many narratives describing the westward expansion tend to romanticise early settlers as heroes; however, while “[p]ioneers are often honored for their sacrifices and the virtues that served to build the nation” (Stuckey 247), in reality, they committed an aggressive act of imperialism. In order to gain new land, settlers often had to fight Native Americans, forcing indigenous tribes to leave their homes (Romero 159).

Despite the violence, the founders supported the movement westward, since it unified the nation against the Other — “Native Americans, the Spanish, French, and English” — expanded political power by controlling an ever-larger territory, and opened new economic opportunities (Arredondo 39). As Paul states, “each [of the Founding Fathers] in his own way contributed to the existence and expansion of the US as empire” (228). For instance, George Washington was initially a land speculator, and therefore interested in territorial acquisition for economic reasons (Black 69). Similarly, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson shared “an enthusiasm for economic progress [and] rapid westward expansion” (Pangle 40). Additionally, both Franklin and Jefferson were motivated to push the frontier farther west by their racist objective to exterminate all “tawneys”, i.e. Native Americans, in order to increase “the lovely white” (Franklin 10).

The violent advance of the frontier was legitimised by the so-called Manifest Destiny philosophy, according to which Americans were destined to “overspread the continent allotted by Providence” (Isenberg and Richards 6). Thus, the Founding Fathers convinced the nation that the American expansion was God-given. Another rhetoric used by the founders to justify the violent advance westwards was the claim that the expansion served as a civilising mission. The frontier was depicted as a savage place to which settlers had to bring civilisation by conquering the wilderness (Paul 342). Armed with these justifications, the founders could easily push the nation to expand westward despite the danger and violence at the frontier.

While there is no American “expansionism” per se today, American foreign intervention continues the Founding Father’s legacy. The 20th and 21st-century justifications for such interventions carry similar tone as those in the 18th and 19th century — George W. Bush’s administrative, for instance, framed the infamous intervention in Iraq as America’s “religious obligation to spread democracy” (Fiala 126).

2. Racism and Xenophobia

Photo by Hatim Belyamani on Unsplash

Aggression towards Native Americans is another important trope in The Shining. As Benjamin Madley observes, many of the Founding Fathers strived for a complete removal of the indigenous tribes from the “American” territory (109). For instance, “President George Washington’s secretary of war, Henry Knox, considered expelling or destroying various American Indian tribes, and in 1790 ordered […] ‘to extirpate, utterly, if possible’ resisting Shawnees and their allies in Ohio” (Madley 109).

The efforts to exterminate the indigenous population reached a national level when Thomas Jefferson, “perhaps the first sitting U.S. president to consider genocide” (Madley 109), began to promote the “Indian Removal”. Similarly, Andrew Jackson proclaimed that to eradicate the natives simply meant “to make room for another” generation of Anglo-Saxon Americans (qtd. in Madley 109). Indeed, Jackson’s policies and the “increasing number of European immigrant settlers led to forcible removal and displacement” of Native American tribes (Romero 159). This forced migration, also called the Trail of Tears, resulted in thousands of deaths: the natives “died of hunger, exposure, accidents, and disease during and immediately after their deportation” (Madley 119). The last example of the Founding Fathers’ aggression towards the Native Americans are “[s]tate-sponsored body-part bounties — rewards officially paid for Native Americans’ heads and scalps”, which were supported by the US government until as late as 1885 (Madley 114).

It is no coincidence that the Overlook of The Shining is built on a Native American burial site. This alone alludes to the Native American genocide: as Joseph Bruchac states, nothing “exemplif[ies] the destruction of the Indian” better than an Indian graveyard (262). Furthermore, the Overlook’s history and location conspicuously resemble that of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This monument, built between 1927 and 1941, shows the faces of four American presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln — carved into a granite rock; importantly, the first two figures belong to the Founding Fathers canon. According to Teresa Bergman, the memorial in fact commemorates American expansionism and, therefore, acts as a symbol of not only patriotism but also imperialism (94).

Similarly to the Overlook, the massive stone statue impresses with its grandiosity, and thus symbolises the founders’ aim to conquer wilderness and impose civilisation upon what they defined as savagery. The most obvious parallel between the Overlook and Mount Rushmore, however, is the fact that the National Memorial was “built on land belonging to and considered holy by the Lakota”, an indigenous tribe, who protested against the construction (Paul 229). Thus, the Overlook’s fictional history mirrors American imperialism and implies that America, just like the hotel, was built at the expense of indigenous peoples.

Native Americans were not the only ethnicity tyrannised by the Founding Fathers. The Declaration of Independence promised that

all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (“Declaration of Independence”).

In practice, however, this did not apply to African Americans who remained enslaved even after the Revolution (In the Constitution of 1787, not only slavery was permitted but also the African slave trade (Vorenberg 9); slavery was officially abolished almost a century later, in 1865 (Vorenberg 1).). Many of the Founding Fathers, such as Franklin, Jefferson or Washington, were not only reluctant to abolish slavery, but even practiced it themselves by owning plantations and slaves (Paul 201–2).

Racism has remained present in America until today, with police violence against people of colour acting as a prime example of deeply ingrained toxic masculinity and xenophobia.

3. Gender Inequality

Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

Hegemonic masculinity is another ideological belief shared by the Founding Fathers, the Overlook Hotel, and Jack. This concept is based on “attitudes and practices among men that perpetuate gender inequality, involving both men’s domination over women and the power of some men over other (often minority groups of) men” (Jewkes et al. 113). According to Mark E. Kann, the founders, an elite consisting of white, upper-class men, were in the ideal position to spread hegemonic masculinity across America. Accordingly, the Founding Fathers “did not consider a male fully qualified for rights or citizenship unless he proved his manhood. In their minds, a ‘real man’ was an independent family man who fit into society” (Kann xii). As Kann implies, a man could only prove his worthiness and find his place within American society by becoming a patriarch.

In a broader sense, “[i]f patriarchy meant that males ruled their families, patriarchal political rhetoric suggested that American males should govern the continent” (Kann 7). This resulted not only in the exclusion of women from politics but also in the disregard for women’s rights in all areas of life, since “[m]ost founders could not imagine a society where women were free and equal […]. Generally, the founders took patriarchy for granted and forgot the ladies” (Kann 7). The Declaration of Independence reflects this attitude, as it states that “all men are equal”, a phrasing which intentionally excludes female citizens. Additionally, some Founding Fathers even encouraged hatred towards women, whom they perceived as “lustful, fickle, selfish creatures” (Kann xiii). Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote a misogynist poem, in which he called women “[d]estructive, damnable, deceitful” (qtd. in Kann 7). Consequently, the Founding Fathers came to believe that “[t]he best way to limit women’s mischief was to subordinate them to fathers and husbands and to focus their energies on bearing and nurturing children” (Kann xiii).

After the Declaration of Independence, it took two centuries until patriarchy found itself under legitimate threat. While previous feminist movements fought for access to legal rights such as voting, the women’s liberation movement of the 70s focused on equality in private life as well. As “declining marriage rates, rising divorce rates, [and] the increase of women-headed families” during the era show (Carroll xiv), the family hierarchy was, for the first time, subject to change. According to a study conducted by Karen Mason and Yu-Hsia Lu, both men’s and women’s views on gender roles grew significantly more egalitarian by the late 70s (55). For instance, it became increasingly acceptable for married mothers to work; thus, many wives could finally leave the domestic sphere and “interfere” in “men’s” affairs (Mason and Lu 54).

However, women’s movements and the gender-role changes triggered male anxiety. This is why, in The Shining, the Overlook Hotel has such a powerful role: it “provides an […] opportunity to recover a lost territory of American masculinity; it is a rich man’s hotel from an age of rich men, from the age of unrestricted capital expansion, before women’s suffrage, the income tax, civil rights, and other indignities” (Kuberski 147–8).

Today, this toxic, masculine fantasy of reclaiming the lost territory of absolute power still lives on: take Trump’s (in)famous slogans like the nostalgic call for white, patriarchal supremacy “Make America great again”, or the misogynist motto “Grab them by the pussy”.

Conclusion (Spoiler Alert!)

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

The Shining can, indeed, be considered the greatest American ghost story ever; but its real ghosts are neither the bogeymen haunting the Overlook nor the skeletons violently pushed out of the Torrances’ closet. As Fredric Jameson writes,

Jack “is possessed neither by evil as such nor by the ‘devil’ or some analogous occult force, but rather simply by History, by the American past” (119–20).

demands that we evaluate not only the film itself, but our reactions to it as well. ‘Do you see yourself and your attitudes and values reflected here?’ Kubrick seems to be asking us. ‘Which aspects? What about your country? Your family? Your ideas about family? About marriage? […] Being male? Being female?’ (Smith 304)

The traditional family hierarchy, in particular, is questioned throughout the film. In the Overlook’s heterotopia, Jack is chosen to maintain the Founding Fathers’ legacy of power structures which have become increasingly challenged. In the end, Jack does not fulfil his task, since he lets his wife and son escape while he himself freezes to death inside the Overlook’s maze. Considering the Nation-as-Family metaphor, Jack’s failure to maintain patriarchy in his own family indicates that the same fate awaits American society where women, American Indians, and blacks America’s traditional victims — can no longer be fully controlled: during the 70s, the American Indian Movement “helped to bring about cultural revitalization [and] reduce police harassment” (Carlisle and Golson 11), African Americans for the first time celebrated electoral victories (Schaefer 28), and feminism was on the rise.

Despite the optimism of the 70s, Kubrick was still wary of the future and wanted his audience to share his scepticism. This is illustrated by the end of The Shining where Jack’s frozen corpse appears in a single still image inserted between two scenes. As Lurie notes, “tableaus”, such as this one, are “classically […] used to portray characters and events from history, to make such figures live again in the present” (82). Thus, Kubrick suggests that even though a particular perpetrator is dead, and therefore rendered powerless, the Founding Fathers’ aggression survives, unnoticed or, perhaps, overlooked.

The final scene of The Shining emphasises the notion, as the camera zooms in on a black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall of The Overlook’s lobby. The picture shows a smiling Jack dressed in a 1920s-era tuxedo and surrounded by a merry crowd at — according to the caption — the Independence Ball of 1921. As Bill Blakemore argues, the irony of placing such idyllic picture at the end of a horror film enhances that

“most Americans overlook the fact that July Fourth was no ball, nor any kind of Independence Day, for native Americans” (F6), African Americans, or women.

In a broader sense, Jack’s individual reincarnation stands for the vicious circle of violence created by the Founding Fathers. This manifests in the film as Grady, the ghost of a former caretaker who murdered his two daughters and wife, passing toxic masculinity down to Jack who in return passes violence onto his son — for instance by breaking the boy’s arm prior to the beginning of the narrative. In the end, it does not matter that Jack, Grady, and all the other inhabitants of the Overlook are — after falling victims to their own aggression — dead:

Ever since the founding of America, men like Jack have emerged generation after generation, handing the never-ending task of “keeping America clean” (quote from The Shining) down to their sons . We have been — and unfortunately still are — witnesses of that toxic masculinity living on and on in American society. It has penetrated both the White House and American homes across all classes.

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Creative Writing student in Nottingham. Published by The London Magazine, Ambit, Firewords, Poetry Society, The Moth, Acumen, etc. On Twitter as @VitovaDenisa

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