Roger Ebert notes that the film does not really have a "reliable observer", with the possible exception of Dick Hallorann. Ebert believes various events call into question the reliability of Jack, Wendy, and Danny at various points. This leads Ebert to conclude that:
Kubrick is telling a story with ghosts (the two girls, the former caretaker and a bartender), but it isn't a "ghost story", because the ghosts may not be present in any sense at all except as visions experienced by Jack or Danny.
Ebert ultimately concludes that "The movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies". Likewise, film critic James Berardinelli (who is generally much less impressed with the film than Ebert), notes that "King would have us believe that the hotel is haunted. Kubrick is less definitive in the interpretations he offers." He dubs the film a failure as a ghost story, but brilliant as a study of "madness and the unreliable narrator."
Ghosts vs. cabin fever
In some sequences, there is a question of whether or not there are ghosts present. In the scenes where Jack sees ghosts he is always facing a mirror, or in the case of his storeroom conversation with Grady, a reflective, highly polished door. Film reviewer James Berardinelli notes "It has been pointed out that there's a mirror in every scene in which Jack sees a ghost, causing us to wonder whether the spirits are reflections of a tortured psyche." In Hollywood's Stephen King, Tony Magistrale writes:
Kubrick's reliance on mirrors as visual aids for underscoring the thematic meaning of this film portrays visually the internal transformations and oppositions that are occurring to Jack Torrance psychologically. Through...these devices, Kubrick dramatizes the hotel's methodical assault on Torrance's identity, its ability to stimulate the myriad of self-doubts and anxieties by creating opportunities to warp Torrance's perspective on himself and [his family]. Furthermore the fact that Jack looks into a mirror whenever he "speaks" to the hotel means, to some extent, that Kubrick implicates him directly into the hotel's "consciousness", because Jack is, in effect, talking to himself.
Ghosts are the implied explanation for Jack's escape from the locked storeroom. In an interview by scholar Michel Ciment, Kubrick stated:
It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: 'Jack must be imagining these things because he's crazy.' This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing...It's not until Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker who axed to death his family, slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural.
The two Gradys
Early in the film, Stuart Ullman tells Jack of a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, who, in 1970, succumbed to cabin fever, murdered his family and then killed himself. Later, Jack meets a ghostly butler named Grady. Jack says he knows about the murders, claiming to recognize Grady from pictures; however, the butler introduces himself as Delbert Grady.
Gordon Dahlquist of The Kubrick FAQ argues that the name change "deliberately mirrors Jack Torrance being both the husband of Wendy/father of Danny and the mysterious man in the July Fourth photo. It is to say he is two people: the man with choice in a perilous situation and the man who has 'always' been at the Overlook. It's a mistake to see the final photo as evidence that the events of the film are predetermined: Jack has any number of moments where he can act other than the way he does, and that his (poor) choices are fueled by weakness and fear perhaps merely speaks all the more to the questions about the personal and the political that The Shining brings up. In the same way Charles had a chance – once more, perhaps – to not take on Delbert's legacy, so Jack may have had a chance to escape his role as 'caretaker' to the interests of the powerful. It's the tragic course of this story that he chooses not to." Dahlquist's argument is that Delbert Grady, the 1920s butler, and Charles Grady, the 1970s caretaker, rather than being either two different people or the same are two 'manifestations' of a similar entity; a part permanently at the hotel (Delbert) and the part which is given the choice of whether to join the legacy of the hotel's murderous past (Charles), just as the man in the photo is not exactly Jack Torrance, but nor is he someone entirely different. Jack in the photo has 'always' been at the Overlook, Jack the caretaker chooses to become part of the hotel. The film's assistant editor Gordon Stainforth has commented on this issue, attempting to steer a course between the continuity-error explanation on one side and the hidden-meaning explanation on the other; "I don't think we'll ever quite unravel this. Was his full name Charles Delbert Grady? Perhaps Charles was a sort of nickname? Perhaps Ullman got the name wrong? But I also think that Stanley did NOT want the whole story to fit together too neatly, so [it is] absolutely correct, I think, to say that 'the sum of what we learn refuses to add up neatly'."
Kubrick's other doubling/mirroring effects in the film:
- "Jack's interview with Ullman, whose confident affability contrasts with Jack's unconvincing nonchalance, pairs off with the meeting between Wendy and a female doctor, whose somber and professional womanhood reacts in stunned disbelief to Wendy's explanation for an old injury inflicted on Danny by his drunken father.
- During the interview, Jack and Ullman are joined by a hotel employee named Bill Watson, whose only real distinction (and function) is his striking physical resemblance to Jack, especially when seen from behind.
- The Grady sisters who look like twins but who are actually doubles (their ages of eight and ten are established in Jack's interview with Ullman).
- On two occasions Ullman says goodbye to two young female employees.
- In the Miami bedroom, two paintings showing a black nude woman on opposite walls (mirroring) are seen just before Hallorann experiences a "shining".
- Two versions of the same nude woman inhabit the green bathroom in Room 237.
- The film not only contains two mazes (the hedges outside, which are, appropriately, 13 feet high, and the model inside), but the Overlook itself is a maze and, significantly, breaks down into two sections, one old and one remodeled, one past, one present. (During Wendy's initial tour of the kitchen with Hallorann she remarks that it is like a maze, and she later characterizes the fast-emptying hotel as "like a ghost ship".)
- There are two Jack Torrances, the one who goes mad and freezes to death in present time and the one who appears in a 1921 photograph that hangs on the gold corridor wall inside the Overlook."
At the end of the film, the camera moves slowly towards a wall in the Overlook and a 1921 photograph, revealed to include Jack Torrance seen at the middle of a 1921 party. In an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick overtly declared that the photograph suggests that Jack was a reincarnation of an earlier official at the hotel. Still, this has not stopped interpreters from developing alternative readings, such as that Jack has been "absorbed" into the Overlook Hotel. Film critic Jonathan Romney, while acknowledging the absorption theory, wrote
As the ghostly butler Grady (Philip Stone) tells him during their chilling confrontation in the men's toilet, 'You're the caretaker, sir. You've always been the caretaker.' Perhaps in some earlier incarnation Jack really was around in 1921, and it's his present-day self that is the shadow, the phantom photographic copy. But if his picture has been there all along, why has no one noticed it? After all, it's right at the center of the central picture on the wall, and the Torrances have had a painfully drawn-out winter of mind-numbing leisure in which to inspect every corner of the place. Is it just that, like Poe's purloined letter, the thing in plain sight is the last thing you see? When you do see it, the effect is so unsettling because you realise the unthinkable was there under your nose – overlooked – the whole time.
Spatial layout of the Overlook Hotel
Screenwriter Todd Alcott has noted:
Much has been written, some of it quite intelligent, about the spatial anomalies and inconsistencies in The Shining: there are rooms with windows that should not be there and doors that couldn’t possibly lead to anywhere, rooms appear to be in one place in one scene and another place in another, wall fixtures and furniture pieces appear and disappear from scene to scene, props move from one room to another, and the layout of the Overlook makes no physical sense.
Artist Juli Kearns first identified and created maps of spatial discrepancies in the overall layout of the Overlook Hotel location, the interiors of which were constructed in studios in England. These spatial discrepancies included windows appearing in impossible places, such as in Stuart Ullman's office which is surrounded by interior hallways, and apartment doorways positioned in places where they cannot possibly lead to apartments. Rob Ager is another proponent of this theory. Jan Harlan, an Executive Producer on The Shining, was asked about the discontinuity of sets by Xan Brooks of The Guardian and confirmed the discontinuity was intentional, "The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside. The audience is deliberately made not to know where they're going. People say The Shining doesn't make sense. Well spotted! It's a ghost movie. It's not supposed to make sense." Harlan further elaborated to Kate Abbot for the same newspaper, "Stephen King gave him the go-ahead to change his book, so Stanley agreed – and wrote a much more ambiguous script. It's clear instantly there's something foul going on. At the little hotel, everything is like Disney, all kitsch wood on the outside – but the interiors don't make sense. Those huge corridors and ballrooms couldn't fit inside. In fact, nothing makes sense."