Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep.
A woman—sprightly, her face glowing with a dewy youthfulness—climbs atop a Winnebago. Above her, the night sky unfolds, a tapestry of velvet stars. She situates herself on a mat, surrounded by candles and an elegant glass of red wine. She’s dressed in soft yoga pants, her hair lazily braided and tucked under the brim of a silk top hat. On first glance, she looks like a woman in an Anthropologie catalogue—not a character plucked from the pages of a modern horror novel. But this is Rose the Hat, the lead villain in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Played by Rebecca Ferguson, she’s disarmingly terrifying. She looks out at the night sky not with wistfulness, but with hunger. The world is decaying around her, and she intends to suck it dry.
Doctor Sleep, the film, functions as a few things. It’s a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, adapted from King’s 1977 novel of the same name, and a bridge between both versions of the story. King famously hated Kubrick’s film, which takes a more clinical approach to the novel’s supernatural and emotional subject matter, but allowed Flanagan to borrow from its iconography. In Doctor Sleep, we follow an adult version of Danny Torrance, who in The Shining spent a winter in the isolated Overlook Hotel, his father Jack serving as the off-season caretaker. Under the influence of cabin fever and hotel ghosts, Jack spiraled out of control and tried to kill his family—who narrowly escaped.
In King’s novel, Jack dies in a boiler room explosion, and the hotel is destroyed. In Kubrick’s film, Jack freezes in a hedge maze and his spirit is preserved in the still-standing Overlook. In Flanagan’s take, the hotel still exists, but themes of generational trauma—like alcoholism and abuse—bleed back into frame. The marriage of King and Kubrick is one of the film’s great strengths; it even pleased King himself. “Everything that I ever disliked about the Kubrick version of The Shining is redeemed for me here,” he confessed in a recent interview.
But what does any of this have to do with a hippie woman in a top hat sitting on a trailer? It’s a good question, and one that puzzled readers when the Doctor Sleep novel was released back in 2013. Running parallel to Danny Torrance’s troubled adulthood is the story of Rose the Hat, leader of a group called the True Knot—a cultish family that feeds on “steam,” another word for the psychic “shining” ability that folks like Danny have. Steam keeps Rose and her family near-immortal, but at a cost; to retain it in its purest form, they have to brutally and painfully murder children who shine. The result, on page, is a bit of a tonal clashing. The True Knot are described as polyester, kitschy; like a group of old roadies left in the dust. Their soul-sucking is vampiric, a disorienting swerve from the ghost story that is The Shining.
Warner Bros. Pictures
And yet somehow Flanagan makes them work. By removing those kitschy elements and rooting them firmly in the real world—they look like people you’d see in the supermarket, blending seamlessly into the mundane everyday—they’re somehow even scarier. Rose the Hat epitomizes this; you can picture her rummaging through the sale bin at World Market, braiding her hair into mock dreds, scolding you for cutting in line at Whole Foods. She’s the friend who won’t shut up about Woodstock, even though she never went. She both consumes and appropriates culture, in unknowable ways; are those Indian-beaded pillows in her trailer from a trip overseas, an anecdote from a storied and ageless past, or just a showy mockery? Are the silky fabrics that drip from her shoulders a relic of timelessness, or a window dressing?
Rose is a mirror; a symbol for our own obsession with the past—and our desperation to cling to culture as traditions fade from style. At one point, Rose slanders today’s children for their fixation on cell phones and Netflix. Steam is a rarity, imagination now replaced by instant gratification. Her violent consumption of youth is allegorical; humans slaughter cows to feed their families, Rose slaughters children to feed hers. It’s not a necessity so much as a practice. A means to an end. If the children today don’t care about the riches of the world—culture, lore, nature—they’re nothing more than cattle meat to preservationists like the True Knot.
Fate eventually puts Danny on a collision course with Rose. He psychically communicates with a young girl named Abra, who has a strong “shining” ability. This gets the attention of Rose, who senses it from afar. Soon, they’re all drawn together magnetically—and detrimentally. Danny and Abra kill off the True Knot, and face Rose in the halls of the Overlook Hotel, where the walls of trauma tumble down. It is a confrontation of many clashing identities and principles. Danny must face his addiction and childhood fears. Abra must learn that you can’t bury away that which taunts you. Rose must learn that time is a construct, and that generations evolve. In the end, she loses, and is consumed by the hotel—becoming the very ghost she’s been chasing.
Flanagan and Ferguson pull off an incredible feat with the character. They make her both vile and sympathetic. Aspirational and doomed. There are many lessons you can read into her, many fears reflected in her glowing eyes as she feeds on a dying child. She’s a perfect modern villain—and one of the best cinematic Stephen King villains ever—for how utterly normal she is. A woman who looks into the stars from the top of her Winnebago and latches onto something amorphous. Sometimes the view is all you need.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures