The Shining is one the most lauded horror movies ever made. Its influence appears throughout television shows and films of all genres. Its successor, Doctor Sleep, traded in a different kind of terror, evoking elements for a stunning supernatural thriller. Doctor Sleep‘s reviews and influence don’t match The Shining‘s. But, for all its glory, The Shining further promoted racist and sexist tropes, while centralizing white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in the form of a protagonist turned antagonist.
Doctor Sleep showed Black people and women as powerful characters who existed outside of tropes. It also shone a light on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To many, it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but in my eyes it is more influential to the horror genre than we give it credit for.
Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, sprang to life from famed director Stanley Kubrick in 1980. This psychological thriller focused on writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) venturing into the Rocky Mountains as the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. The hotel, built on a Native American burial ground, lost its last caretaker family to murder/suicide. Bringing his wife, Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall), and his son, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), along for the stay, Jack hopes that this frosty respite away in the Rocky Mountains will rip him away from the grip of writer’s block.
Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Danny begins to manifest a supernatural power. Jack’s mental health declines and he lashes out at those around him. The mental decline (or possession) is just one element of cyclical violence portrayed or alluded to within the film.
This cyclical violence, or rather healing from it, is a component of The Shining’s sequel, Doctor Sleep. Danny Torrance is now an adult. He suffers from PTSD and alcohol abuse, but he has a better understanding and control over his supernatural abilities. Danny battles with his demons, inherited from his time at Overlook Hotel. But now, he uses his abilities to protect a young girl with even stronger “shining” powers than himself from a traveling cult. A cult that kills and absorbs “the shining” from children.
And although it deviates from its predecessor by focusing more on the occult, it also attempts to rectify the tragic stereotypes defining different elements of The Shining. One element is its take on race. The magical negro trope serves to highlight Black characters as wise and deeply spiritual, who give guidance to a more privileged main character. They may or may not have powers, but once they serve their purpose, they story removes them from the picture.
Essentially, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) fell victim to this trope in The Shining. After he informs Danny of the ability that he holds, Dick leaves the hotel. He returns to protect Danny and finds himself on the other end of Jack’s axe. Dick served his purpose and he was consequently removed from the film. Being the lone Black character in the movie, it feels demoralizing to witness his death. He’s not a fully developed character beyond sacrificing his wisdom and life to support Danny.
Additionally, The Shining alludes to the supernatural events occurring as a consequence of the indigenous people murdered at the expense of the expansion of Overlook Hotel. Muted elements of indigenous artifacts and motifs seem to call attention to what could influence the supernatural presence within the hotel. It instead compresses indigenous cultures through a lens that further caricatures them. And it focuses on stereotypical mysticism associated with indigenous folks on-screen even though no indigenous person features in the film.
Doctor Sleep somewhat turns this on its head. The focus is less about placing caricatured mysticism onto Black and Brown characters and more on the innate powers of individuals. It’s even further reshaped as one of the leads, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is a young, Black girl with “the shining.” Abra is carefree and powerful. She does not exist in the film as a trope or a punching bag.
The redefining of women outside of misogynistic tropes arises through the incorporation of characters like Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind). Though on the opposite ends of the moral compass, these characters command respect. They are powerful, and fully capable of running circles around the men within the film. They don’t exist to live with the mistakes of men—something we cannot say for its predecessor.
The Shining’s inclusion of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy is relegated to an emotionally weathered and abused woman. Her primary role is to be a conduit for hysteria. Wendy’s characterization in the film, different from King’s novel, paints her as a damsel-in-distress. Movie Wendy is simply an accessory to the decline of her husband’s mental health. King, a vocal opponent of Kubrick’s film, called the characterization of Wendy in a 2013 interview “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film”.
With The Shining being an influential movie, this reinforcement of tropes shines the brightest. Instead of creating a film highlighting the horrors of colonialism, racism, and delivering a holistically developed woman lead, it all becomes an accessory to the glorification of Nicholson’s character. Jack Torrance comes to represent all of the things that served as the undercurrent to the film’s plot: the power and consequences of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy.
Similar to The Joker, The Shining creates a white character whose actions become justified by “the circumstances given” and declining mental health. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of those caught within their orbit, such as Dick, Wendy, and Danny. They inherit Jack’s wrath in the form of death or trauma.
Like his father, Danny struggles with navigating his own mental health, but this is just an element of his character. Doctor Sleep focuses on healing from trauma, as opposed to glorifying those who created it in the first place. It puts more emphasis on developing characters free from tropes and creates a space for movies to right the wrongs of the past.
As beloved as The Shining is, its legacy also keeps harmful tropes alive. Yet, its legacy has a chance to change for the better through new and improved movies, like Doctor Sleep. Sleep is metaphor for what we can do with what we inherit. How we can use it to create a better existence for those around us. It’s an example of how we can learn from past films to create new ones that steer the horror genre in the right direction.