In the past decade of film criticism on YouTube, it’s easy to make a quick buck by posting a fifteen-minute video spinning a yarn on how a film is really about something else or tied to an entirely unrelated film. These streamable parlor games are fine as a minor timewaster but they’re clearly not meant to be taken seriously. Every now and then, you’ll come across a clickbait article about how this random person’s theory “totally explains” the motives of a character and it “changes the whole film”. However, some theories manage to worm their way into a film’s lore and, by extension, a person’s reputation to the point that the waters are muddied and can affect how someone watches a film. This is most prevalent when watching Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.
The other night, I screened the film for my partner and his brother as it was a massive gap in their film background. It was also the first time I took my upgraded Blu-ray copy of the film for a spin. There was a distinct difference from the bare-bones version from the early 00’s that I had owned where the image was so crisp and clean and the plucking Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” tickled the ears. I hadn’t seen The Shining in roughly two years so I was due for a revisit to the Overlook Hotel. However, with each minute I spent, my mind could only go back to those days where I briefly fell down the rabbit hole and the stain that’s still there.
In late 2010, I stumbled upon the work of Rodney Ascher. At the time, he was riding off a wave newfound fame from Sundance with his documentary short “The S from Hell”, employing archive footage, phone interviews, and animations to weave a short history of a Screen Gems logo that allegedly terrified an entire generation. Some saw it as a mockumentary in trying to make something as innocent as a television logo into the boogeyman; others took it with a grain of salt and mostly shrugged their shoulders. The ultra-niche community of logo enthusiasts and documentarians (myself included, once upon a time), saw it as a chance in the limelight as it was the widest possible exposure for the subject of “scary logos” (I know the concept sounds absurd but a quick YouTube search will bring up some surprising results).
About a year later, Rodney released a trailer for his next project, Room 237. The teaser was an homage to the original trailer for The Shining where it’s just a stationary shot of an object at the far end of the corridor before a deluge of blood covers the screen. Instead of the elevators, we have a VCR player. The homage goes so far as to not only replicate the typeface used in the original trailer but to have moving objects on the right side once the blood washes over us (a cassette of The Shining instead of furniture). At the time, I was intrigued because it meant seeing a full-length feature from him and one that was on one of my favorite filmmakers. So, I waited since the film was not playing anywhere near me and decided to research some of the conspiracies myself.
The most prominent of these theories is that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing and that The Shining was his confession. Videos like “The Shining Code” would painstakingly repeat the same points about how the architecture is filled with A’s and 11’s and how Danny’s sweater with the rocket on it was symbolic of the rocket launching into space. Other points include how the back of the Overlook Hotel is a set since it can’t be seen from the initial helicopter shot from the intro, how Jack Torrance is supposed to be a stand-in for Kubrick, why the novel’s room 217 is changed to 237 to reflect the moon distance and more. As for the rest of the theories, you can choose from the film being a statement on Native American genocide, why Hitler took over and the Holocaust happened, and Danny Torrance being sexually abused by his father. Any one of these will do as long as you accept the thesis that The Shining is not really about what the initial premise proposes.
It wasn’t until around 2014 or so that I happened to catch the film uploaded to YouTube in parts. I had time to kill before attending a lecture and had Subway supper with me. Just eat and squeeze in a film on the side. As I sat through and clicked on each part, I became more and more disappointed in how it approached the subject and the general lack of polish involved. At one point, a subject’s kid interrupts the interview and the film stops dead in its tracks, just so that he can handle the problem. This is something that should’ve been edited out from the moment the editing software program was launched. Another person talks about how Kubrick’s head is airbrushed into the clouds in the title sequence, leaving a significant pause so that the viewer can look for it. Unfortunately, the person was being rather vague and gave no specific idea where it was other than “in the clouds”. Just another case of pareidolia.
As the credits rolled to the tune of a bouncier version of “Dies Irae”, I logged off and walked away with very little pleasure after waiting so long to see it. Room 237 did discuss one method of viewing that overlays a backwards play of the film on top of the film proper, creating these interesting images including clown makeup on Jack Torrance. As someone who’s interested in experimental film, this kind of viewing experience is right up my alley (it should be noted that the footage of these screenings included the FBI warning, something that was nonexistent in 1980, and can thus disrupt any possible synchronicity). I logged my entry and then just left it alone for a few years, only to casually return to it on Netflix a few years later and still feeling disappointed by the effort.
Room 237 can be named as a conspiracy documentary with some modicum of reputation behind it. It’s by no means as destructive and toxic as something like Vaxxed or a Dinesh D’Souza “film” but it’s not the first documentary to tackle this particular film and its history; if anything, it’s the first to bring it to a mainstream audience. A few documentaries (if you can call them that) like “The Shining Code” and “The Shone Report” have been available to stream on YouTube years before Room 237. Did the film make any impact? Not necessarily, although Imagine Dragons took the concept and ran with it for the music video for “On Top of the World”, complete with an upset Kubrick, allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the flair of a Wes Anderson film.
Rodney Ascher did recover from this with 2015’s sleep paralysis documentary, The Nightmare. He depicted the terrors of seeing the “shadow people” with staged reenactments and by placing the interviewed subjects on camera for the first time in his oeuvre. It does manage to get a few scares in, especially with how terrifying the experience can be in real life. As of this writing, it’s still available to stream on Netflix if you want to take a look.
Returning to present day, I took a stroll through one of the local secondhand shops and came across a DVD copy of Room 237. I remember asking it for Christmas a few times since I could never manage to find a physical copy in stores. I could’ve gone home with it but after all these years, I put it back on the shelf. I couldn’t justify having it in my collection. I’m trying to whittle down my library since there are films that I either want to upgrade to a higher format to save on shelf space or get rid of films that I thought would be fun to watch but turn out otherwise. It’s a slow process but it’s something. I walked out empty-handed that day.
After the recent screening of The Shining, I gave a CliffNotes version of the theories to them. They shook their heads and we carried on a different path, discussing how much was new to them and how much was from pop cultural osmosis. Considering how much is derived from the third act, it’s the giant signpost on the long and winding road through the hedge maze to get to the end, much like how most homages and parodies of It’s a Wonderful Life only focus on the parts where George Bailey wishes he wasn’t here. At the end of the night, they both enjoyed it and are glad to have finally seen it. It’s not necessarily my favorite Kubrick film (that goes to Eyes Wide Shut) or Stephen King adaptation (Misery) but it does have a strong place in horror film history. As for me, it’s taking a bit longer to untangle myself from the vines of conspiracies. Even now, the YouTube algorithm has Kubrick conspiracy videos in my recommended feed because I had to look up the timestamps for the Room 237 trailer, something I do not need.
Down the road, I’ll definitely show this to my kids when they come of age. I want them to experience it much like they will for films like The Birds or Eraserhead or Suspiria, films that will bury themselves in their subconscious. I want to connect with them through film, much like my father did with me once a week. Then, when they go off to college or out of the house, they’ll take those memories with them. But will I tell them about the alternate theories? Probably not. I want them to experience a film on their own merits first before analyzing it and shaping their viewpoints. Telling them otherwise would only tamper their experience and I don’t plan on making that same mistake twice.
The S From Hell: https://vimeo.com/18332484
Room 237 trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gL1fTlH81gU
The Nightmare trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMwREfkbI-Q
On Top of the World music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5tWYmIOWGk