The Shining, And the Concept of Unmasking

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I hate to be one of those people like “the book was better than the movie”, but, in the case of Kubrick’s film to King’s novel, there’s a couple of important aspects that either were not conveyed well or completely scrapped in the film. The Shining is, par none, my favorite King book of all time. There’s something hauntingly sad about a down-on-his-luck man who loses his mind and nearly his family to a malevolent force.

King proposes some interesting concepts in The Shining, and there’s one that few people address often. This idea of masking, and unmasking. About the ‘mask’ that both Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel itself put on for outside parties, that neither of the two are how they seem at first glance.

Jack Torrance’s Mask

Before the Overlook can sink its claws into the moldable psyche that belongs to Jack Torrance, we already know that underneath the layer of amicable family man lies a darkness that is capable of brutal, unflinching violence.

This is not the face of a man that slowly descended into madness; Jack Nicholson is a man that looks like he was born into it.

We are presented with more than a few instances of Jack’s anger getting the better of him. A three-year-old Danny gets into some of Jack’s important papers and spills beer on them. Jack takes recourse by yanking his son away with such force, that it breaks his arm.

Throughout the novel, he repeatedly voices his distaste and anger at himself for the incident. But, when Wendy and Jack take Danny to a child psychologist, King writes this:

“When Danny was three and a half, he spilled some beer on a bunch of paper I was working on…papers I was shuffling around, anyway…and I…well…oh shit.” His [Jack’s] voice broke, but his eyes remained dry and unflinching.”

This is interesting, in the sense that this one sentence argues that maybe Jack isn’t so apologetic for what he’s done.

He spends much of the novel lamenting on his mistakes. He acknowledges what he’s done to his son. Arguably, he makes amends for his past by quitting drinking. Jack believes that it was the drinking only, that caused him to hurt his son.

As a professor at a prestigious private school, Torrance is the leader of its debate team. He gets into a spat with a student who can’t control his stutter, and once again, Jack escalates the situation in a fleeting moment of fury. Later, Jack finds the student slashing his tires. He beats the kid with such force that blood pours from his ears. He gets fired, thus driving his family straight into the arms of the Overlook hotel, as its winter caretakers.

This occurs years after his vow of sobriety, meaning that Jack Torrance never addressed the root of the problem; his uncontrollable anger. What’s the point of cutting the weed if the root is still growing? The alcohol is simply a means to an end, a route that the Overlook uses to manipulate Jack into giving it Danny.

In almost every situation we see Jack in the book, he is always a hair-trigger away from violence, or an outburst. Jack Torrance’s mask is easily removable in the face of adversity. It peels off suddenly, and in these glimpses, we are able to see how someone like Jack, who presents the veneer of being an intelligent man, can do something so heinous.

Jack Torrence and the Overlook

So this idea of Unmasking in the novel comes directly from Horace Derwent’s (the once-owner of the Overlook) grand opening of the renovated hotel in 1945. It’s a costume party, and the unmasking occurs at 12 AM sharp. The “unmasking” in this case literally means taking off the costumes and celebrating a new day, a new Overlook. King enlists not only the costumes but the usage of passing time to ramp up the tension.

the shining party
The Famous “Overlook Hotel Holiday Party” of 1921. Horace Derwent is not among the guests.

In the final scene, before Jack Torrance completely gives over to the Overlook, he looks on in horror as the clock strikes midnight. Two figures emerge from the clockwork, and Jack watches miniature versions of himself and Danny, as he murders his son with a croquet mallet.

Because of Jack’s easily peeled mask, the Overlook Hotel has minimal trouble in using him for its own nefarious needs. The Overlook tricks Jack and tempts him with his favorite vice—drink. It convinces him to take care of it, and to never question its motivations, by dangling Jack’s past failures over his head. Because of these feelings of failure about his job, his role as a husband and father, and giving in to constant liquor consumption, he is more adamant about not leaving the hotel.

It appeals to Jack’s paranoia, and his victimhood complex by convincing him that its Danny and Wendy’s fault, not his own. The Overlook unmasks Jack easily, and finds, at his core, a man that can be used and tossed to get to the real prize: Danny.

The Mask of the Overlook

Jack Torrance isn’t the only character that King focuses on unmasking. The Overlook itself, though not quite a ‘character’ as it is more-so a concept, is also unmasked by the Torrance family in their winter stay. The hotel is famous for its fancy parties, and it’s fancier guests. The lurking, creeping underbelly of the Overlook isn’t immediately visible to anyone. But once in a while, the Overlook unmasks and we catch a glimpse of what is waiting beneath. An assortment of death, murder, and tragedy that comes to light.

The unmasking of the Overlook as well comes when it reveals its whole self to Jack Torrance. But, not its whole self, not at first. Like its elegant parties in the 1940s, the hotel presents a certain appearance to Jack. It tricks him by starting up a fancy, schmaltzy 1940’s party in the ballroom, with beautiful women, a Jazz band and glittering masks. And, shortly after that, it tricks him into restarting his drinking habit. At first, Jack is smitten by the allure.

the shining
The one and only mask seen in ‘The Shining’ Kubrick film; the mask of a fellating dogman.

But, in a fleeting moment of sobriety when the “bartender” brings up Danny, he realizes too little too late that the hotel wants something with his son. At that moment, the facade begins to peel. To unmask, if you will, and for a fleeting second, he sees the real horror.

“What do you want with my son? Danny’s not in this…is he?” He [Jack] heard the naked plea in his own voice.

Lloyd’s face seems to be running, changing, becoming something pestilent. The white skin becoming a hepatitis yellow, cracking. Red sores erupting on the skin, bleeding foul-smelling liquid. Droplets of blood sprint out on Lloyd’s forehead like sweat and somewhere a silver chime was striking the quarter-hour.

(Unmask, Unmask!)

But the allure of past vices becomes too loud for Jack to ignore. By the time he slams back his first Gin and Olive martini, he belongs to the hotel.

The final time King writes “unmask” in The Shining, is when Jack Torrance stands in the lobby of the Overlook. He holds a croquet mallet in his hands and murder in his eyes. At this point, he is fully unmasked.

Arguably, Wendy Torrance does her own unmasking in the book. She realizes her husband is not as harmless as she initially thought. That Jack is potentially dangerous to herself and their son. But by the time this comes to light, it’s already far too late. King makes a likable, relatable character of Wendy Torrance as well, but it’s her tragic, late husband that is fleshed out over the novel.

The downfall of Jack Torrance is tragic, but King takes great effort in creating something more menacing underneath the figure of father and husband. Something that slips through the cracks here and there until it breaks open at the end.

Here’s hoping that, if we ever get a Shining remake, Jack Torrance will slip into madness gradually instead of starting out at the bottom already like Jack Nicholson (I mean no disrespect, but come on!).

Sydney Richardson

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