I wasn’t too excited going into Room 237. The film, directed by Rodney Ascher, follows several fans of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film, as they walk us through their theories on the hidden meaning of the film. I’m not a huge fan of The Shining; it’s not top shelf Kubrick. More importantly, I’m not excited by fan theories. Picking apart movies in search of hidden logic tends to detract from the joy of watching them. This process, when taken too seriously, takes an experience that should be immersive and turns it into a branch of amateur hermeneutics. I didn’t think that I would have much patience for listening to people spin their complicated theories out of bits and pieces of The Shining.
My eye rolling started almost as soon as the film began. One man claims that The Shining is a coded expression at Stanley Kubrick’s feelings about helping the U.S. government stage the footage for the moon landing. Another obsesses about the impossible architecture of the Overlook Hotel. Still others posit that The Shining is actually about the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans. In each of these cases, we’re taken through various scenes in painstaking detail. Did you know that the shelves in the pantry at the Overlook Hotel are stocked with Calumet Baking Powder because it serves as a symbol of the oppression of native Americans? Doesn’t that poster of a skier on the wall look like a Minotaur? See how the carpet reverses under Danny once when the movie cuts away from him? Some of the theories are more plausible than others. All of them are dull. The subjects of Room 237 are the kinds of people that you end up next to at a party where you smile and nod and them and keep swigging beers until an opportunity avails itself for you to politely extricate yourself from the conversation.
Thankfully, despite being filled with people talking about these theories, Room 237 isn’t exactly about them. Instead, the film is an exploration of obsession. While listening to these people go on about the details of The Shining, I started to understand how certain movies can lead to this peculiar form of madness. Why is it that people can go down the rabbit hole with The Shining, but not with Grown Ups 2? Why is it that even the tiniest details in The Shining can end in a giant government conspiracy, but those in a movie obsessed with detail like The Grand Budapest Hotel do not? It’s clear that there’s something about The Shining that grabs at some peoples’ rational minds and makes them spin around in circles. The film manages to drive some people into believing that the whole thing is coded message that only they can uncover through obsessive viewing.
Of course, The Shining isn’t the only thing that encourages this sort of obsessive search for truth. Television shows like Twin Peaks also create similar levels of obsession. Zooming out even further, events in real life can lead to obsessive theorizing as well. Think about all those conspiracy theories about 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination. When you look at these objects of obsession, you realize that all of them are difficult to logically comprehend. At the same time, each has a person or entity in the mix that might have a superhuman capacity for planning. In conspiracy theories, this entity is often the U.S. government. With Twin Peaks, it’s the mysterious hand of David Lynch. With The Shining, it’s Stanley Kubrick, who, as one of the subjects of the documentary states, was reputed to have an IQ of 200. In each of these cases, people prefer to ascribe something logically incomprehensible to a god-like entity than accept that these things, at some level, have no deeper logic to them.
Room 237 is a movie about people trying desperately to make sense out of chaos. The Shining is a film that’s chocked full of imagery and plot points that are both mysterious and irrational. Why does Jack Torrance go mad? Who is Danny talking to? What's exactly going on in room 237? Why is there blood coming from the elevator? Who are the twins? Why is Jack in a photo from the 1920s? The questions could go on forever because none of it makes any sense. There’s no reasonable explanation for many of the things that go on in The Shining. There’s no bright logical line guiding viewers from image to image. Instead, the whole thing operates on the logic of nightmares where our fears are dredged up from our unconscious and presented to us. And perhaps this irrationality is the most frightening thing of all because it taps into the ultimate fear that our lives are without meaning or purpose. Faced with that kind of fear, anyone could go crazy. Anyone might become the star of a movie like Room 237.