Unearthly Terrains of the Overlook Hotel

Kyle Reynolds is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and a cofounder of is-of ce, a design rm located in Chicago.
Nearly every critical analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) agrees that the spaces of the Overlook Hotel are unclear in their organization. Many critics, including Dennis Bingham,1 Christopher Hoile, Paul Mayersberg, and Juhani Pallasmaa,2 suggest that the layout of the hotel is difficult — if not impossible — to discern.

This conclusion is perhaps a symptom of the statement Wendy Torrance (played by Shelley Duval) makes as she is touring the kitchen in one of the opening scenes: “This whole place is such an enormous maze, I feel like I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in.”

Apart from foreshadowing the maze garden that occupies the lm’s final and most dramatic scene, this line of the screenplay also serves to draw the analogy between the maze itself–the maze that is the Torrance family–and the spatial layout of the hotel. This tripartite relationship between literal maze, family, and spatial layout is interwoven by numerous critics. Both Christopher Hoile and Paul Mayersberg read The Shining as a recasting of the Oedipus myth (Mayersberg’s discussion is in a chapter titled “The Revenge of Oedipus”). Mayersberg relates this Oedipal relationship to the Overlook’s infamous maze and its parallels of confusion and disorientation. He writes: “The family hierarchy, Dad, Mom and kid, is very strong. The equivalent hierarchy in the Overlook Hotel itself is the idea of the maze in which they are lost, both inside and out.”3 Hoile is more explicit in the analogy between the maze and the hotel, writing, ”Just as Torrance had led his family into the maze of the hotel, Danny leads his father into the garden maze.”4 Juhani Pallasmaa writes more specifically about Kubrick’s depiction of the architecture versus Stephen King’s description in his 1977 novel: “Kubrick’s Overlook is no clearer in its architectural structure. The visual images are painfully precise, but they fail to establish a coherent architectural ensemble.... The location of the various spaces cannot be deduced with certainty. Corridors and stairs create a confusing and endless labyrinth that generates a feeling of disorientation and dizziness, akin to the mental effect of M. C. Escher’s spatially paradoxical drawings.”

Yet, if Kubrick’s goal were to create a maze-like interior, the use of still shots, panning, and cuts between the separate spaces would certainly have confused the viewer more thoroughly. Instead, Kubrick uses a technical device invented in the mid-1970s―the Steadicam. This apparatus consists of a camera mounted to a structure that maintains equilibrium, permitting the cameraperson to walk or run during filming while sustaining an even and balanced picture. The Steadicam is used throughout the lm, most extensively in a three-minute ride following Danny Torrance (played by Danny Lloyd), as he pedals through the hotel on his tricycle — a shot that at once orients (through continuity) and disorients (through movement and variety) the viewer.

The continuity afforded by the invention of the Steadicam renders the fictional space of the hotel more completely than it would through rapid montage,5 which heightens the effects of its unusual layout. It also preserves the original strength of montage — viewer impressibility — through visually compelling imagery.6

Freed from the constraints of reality, the architectural space of lm is based solely on impressibility and its role in constructing narrative. The Overlook Hotel looks like architecture, but something is slightly off. The spaces appear familiar, yet on closer inspection their impossibilities are apparent. The doors to the hotel rooms are spaced too closely together; each corridor seems to lead only to single rooms; and the distance between spaces does not correspond to the immense size of the hotel, as depicted from the exterior in the opening scene. It is this slightly off-balance nature of the spatial layout that works under a version of cognitive dissonance, which is to say, what the Steadicam emits as continuous autonomy must also be reconciled with what orthographic projection reveals as an inconsistent appendage. In this sense, the Overlook hotel moves through differing architectural modes within the cinematic language of cut and frame. As a kind of morphing object that in some instances only exists as an elevation and other occasions enters into an axonometric view, it echoes Halloran’s conversation with Danny, in which he remarks that the hotel itself has the ability to stage both what has happened previously and what has not yet come into being. By tracking the camera movement of each set, the spaces of the Overlook Hotel can be mapped and understood in the following terms:

In the days of early cinematic experimentation, the filmmaker Lev Kuleshov used footage from separate locations to combine into a new fictional place that could not possibly exist in reality. This discovery lead Kuleshov to conclude that “The basic strength of cinema lies in montage [, ...] through montage it is possible to create a new earthly terrain that does not exist anywhere.”8

The idea that the physical construct of the Overlook Hotel is itself an apparition is understated compared to the intense visions and apparitions that affect the characters within its enclosure. Through continuous montage we enter almost subconsciously into Kuleshov’s landscape of new earthly terrains, a fictional space existing only in our perceptual and mental connections between the shots.

Using orthographic projection and analysis, it is possible to enter into the unearthly terrains of the Overlook Hotel revealed through drawing―that is, instead of understanding the space of the hotel through a sequence of perspective views in time, to look at the entire layout and its relations at once, in space. Through drawing, we can understand the impossibility of the spatial organization, and thus — one might conclude — the method in Kubrick’s sleight of hand. These drawings return us to a state in which the impossible space of the architecture mirrors Jack’s mind. The uncanny doubling of space overlaid on space reflects the psychological break occurring. The incongruity and irresolution of the drawing — the necessity to use the dashed line — marks this mental rupture. In the end, the lm’s maze (not the cause of Jack’s demise in the original story) is perhaps the least confusing and least spatially complex component of The Shining’s terrains.

And yet, the impossibilities revealed in the drawings are not defects. Rather, they are opportunities for activating architecture’s role within lm and developing new disciplinary ambitions outside of it. Filmic space’s close approximation of architecture implies new aesthetic possibilities of fake authenticity.9 Not with the goal of building realistic places, but in developing peculiar architectures that aren’t shy about being not quite right. The potential lies in conflating the architecture of artifice with reality without falling victim to the tropes of horror as genre.

Drawings by Apexa Patel


1 Dennis Bingham, “The Displaced Auteur: A Reception History of The Shining,
in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, ed. Mario Falsetto (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), 284 – 301.

2 Juhani Pallasmaa, “Monster in the Maze, the Architecture of The Shining,” in Stanley Kubrick Kinematograph (Frankfurt: Deutsches Film museum, 2004), 198 – 207.

3 Paul Mayersberg, “The Overlook Hotel,”
in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, ed. Mario Falsetto (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), 253 – 259.

4 Christopher Hoile, “The Uncanny and the Fairy Tale in Kubrick’s the Shining,” Literature/Film Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1984), 5 –12.

5 Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film: Writings (Berkeley: University of California, 1974), 48. “Montage is the organization of cinematic material.”

6 Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film: Writings (Berkeley: University of California, 1974), 45.

7 These coincident occupations heighten the tension between characters and often results in moments of “paralysis.” The film has a distinct staccato that oscillates between movement and stasis with continuous motion acting as the ground against which the figure of paralysis is set. The scenes of paralysis are markers of the evolving psyche of each character; there are 14 such episodes. These moments expose the characters’ thoughts, fears, and motivations, accelerating the story in the process.

8 Lev V. Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film: Writings (Berkeley: University of California, 1974), 52.

9 Dave Hickey, “Dialectical Utopias.”

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