Jack’s Crisis: What Role Did Narcissistic Injury and Cultural Circumstance Play in Jack’s Breakdown?

Arguably the most iconic scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the reveal of what exactly he has been writing during his time at The Overlook. As a terrified Wendy flips through pages and pages filled with only the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” the audience gets confirmation of something they are already fairly certain of: Jack is losing his mind (Kubrick 1:41). Exactly what has caused this to happen to him however, is unclear. What role did narcissistic injury and cultural circumstance play in Jack’s breakdown? Various scholars have proposed their own answers to this question, but the answer is completely different depending on who you ask. On one side of the spectrum there are views like that of Matthew Merced, who wrote for the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies about the psychological side of Jack’s issues, and then are people like Christopher Hoile, who wrote arguing that the supernatural aspects of the film are what had the most effect. The Overlook is haunted, but Jack is also haunted by personal issues before he steps foot in the hotel. This is one of the most horrifying parts of the film; upon further analysis, Jack’s breakdown may be caused by things that could happen to anyone. His failures haunt him, and with the film releasing after a time period where the entire country failed in a similar fashion, this was bound to have an impact on American audiences. Jack suffered a narcissistic injury, stemming from his personal failures, and it is demonstrated through his family and career problems that result in a serious insecurity. This reflects the American “crisis of confidence” that preceded the film’s release.

The decade before the release of The Shining was one that rocked the confidence of the United States, and by looking at this, we can understand how Jack may have been previously set up for narcissistic injury. As stated by the US History Organization, “Something was terribly wrong in America in the 1970’s” (US History). The country itself was no longer sure of itself. The supposed military superpower of the United States was failing to beat guerilla forces in Vietnam, there were gas lines due to an oil embargo, American citizens were held hostage in Iran, and the people no longer had faith in the office of the President after Watergate. Couple all of this with an economy experiencing stagflation, a combination of high inflation and unemployment previously thought to be impossible, and it is understandable why the American people no longer held the same confidence; Jimmy Carter’s memorable malaise speech, in which he described the nation’s problems as “a crisis of confidence… we can this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives”, summarizes how the people felt. This also correlated with a rise in serial killers, as the likes of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jim Jones, David Berkowitz, Dennis Rader, and John Wayne Gacy terrorized the nation and captivated its attention (Bergeron). This long list of famous serial killers is not something that would happen today, and this can be at least be partially attributed to the state of the country at the time. The unpredictability and uncertainty of national affairs was part of the push for these men to do terrible things, and the same can be said of Jack himself. Jack is not only a reflection of the American mindset during the 1970’s, but he would have been affected by it himself, further decreasing his confidence and making him more vulnerable to narcissistic injury.

While Jack was struggling with his failure before reaching the hotel, this is something that all people go through, as everyone is bound to fail at something important to them at some point in their lives. Where Jack differs from a normal person is that he suffered a narcissistic injury, meaning he was dealt such a blow to his ego and self confidence that he could not mentally recover. In his article “How Narcissistic Injury May Contribute to Reactive Violence: A Case Example Using Stanley Kubrick’ s The Shining”, Matthew Merced explains the phenomenon. He starts by giving an example of a real-life school shooting that happened in Washington. He discusses how the perpetrator, a seemingly normal, successful and happy 15-year-old boy, appeared to be calm, methodical and have a blank stare while shooting several of his classmates in their high school and then committing suicide. Merced explains that this was an example of reactive violence, and that it typically occurs to an already mentally unstable person after a severe narcissistic injury. In this example, one of the victims was a girl who had rejected the perpetrator when he asked her out on a date. Narcissistic injury triggers the brains defense systems, and most healthy people are able to cope, but a mentally weakened person’s normal defense systems may not be strong enough for them to move on from their failure, and the brain can subvert to a more primitive state where violence seems like the only option to protect oneself, and many perpetrator’s view these random acts of aggression as self-defense.

Merced describes many people having episodes like these as “feeling detached” or even “describing the events as an out of body experience” (Merced). He then suggests that this is what triggered Jack’s outburst, not the supernatural powers of the hotel. Supporting this theory is the timing of Jack’s outbursts in the film. The first time Jack has a major outburst at Wendy is when he is working and he tells her to leave, which she responds to by saying “I’ll come back later, maybe you’ll let me read something then”. This is the first time he really appears to break, as he yells at his wife and tells her to “get the fuck out of here” (Kubrick 44:00). At this point, nothing supernatural has happened to Jack, and it is questions about his writing that set him off. This suggests that Merced’s ideas about reactive violence do indeed apply to Jack, and that his outbursts are triggered in part by the narcissistic injury of his career failure. This is a bout of narcissistic rage; severe symptoms of which “include outburst of physical violence, directed at both objects and people, and vocal outrage” (Understanding Narcissistic Rage). The 1970’s were the decade of the celebrity serial killer with apparently successful and seemingly normal men like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy gaining national attention for dozens of random killings (A Time of Malaise). The country was captivated by the question of how these men could commit such atrocities, and the answer may lie in Merced’s article. The increase in these serial killers during this time period suggests that the declining state of the country primed men for this type of insanity. Jack’s issues and the historical context combined with the scientific understanding of narcissistic injuries demonstrate that Jack is not a man possessed, but rather someone unable to deal with his personal failures. The expectations placed on Wendy also take a toll on Jack.

In his analysis of Wendy, Manchel describes her as a passive woman behaving how she was expected to at the time but ultimately ignoring her feelings about her family. During the scene where the doctor examines Danny, Manchel describes Wendy as “Nervous and smoking rapidly, Wendy personifies a deeply troubled woman who has genuine concerns for her child’s safety and the future of her marriage” (Manchel). While he suggests she knows that her relationship with Jack and Danny is not headed in a good direction, the patriarchal society during the time period suggests she should keep her concerns to herself, and she does, which ultimately ends up hurting herself and Jack. Her intentional ignorance is shown again when she describes the incident of Danny’s abuse to the doctor, as she makes excuses for him saying he was “had been drinking and got home late so he was in a bad mood” and describes the injury as a freak accident (Kubrick 17:00). It becomes clear that she does not truly believe this when Danny shows up bruised in the hotel and she immediately blames Jack. This disfunction and lack of accountability for Jack contributes to his mental instability. Torrance’s failure to live up to societal expectations results in a damaged ego, meaning he is primed for a psychotic meltdown before any supernatural intervention.

The stance that The Shining is indeed a supernatural film as it is first to be is one taken by many critics, and even Stanley Kubrick himself. In his article “The Uncanny and the Fairy Tale in Kubrick’s The Shining”, Christopher Hoile makes the argument that the driving force of the film is “two men possessed”, referring to Danny and Jack (Hoile). He argues that they follow a parallel development throughout the film, but ultimately make different decisions and Danny’s rejection of the apparitions is what prevents the murders at the hotel from being repeated (Hoile). However, the parallelism of Jack and Danny’s paths that Hoile repeated discusses can be debated. Jack’s torment for the majority of the film is purely realistic, and it is not until about an hour into the film that he encounters anything ghostly, well after he appears to lose his grip on sanity when Wendy questions him on his writing (Kubrick 44:00). On the other hand, Danny encounters supernatural forces almost immediately upon entering the hotel, and this is the main source of his troubles until Jack breaks down. Jack’s state can be attributed to narcissistic injury and societal pressure, whereas Danny’s is purely the work of The Overlook’s ghosts.

In addition to scholars such as Hoile, Kubrick contested the idea of the lack of supernatural action taken on Jack in a 1980 interview with critic Michael Ciment. In the interview Kubrick agrees that Jack comes to the hotel in a weak mental state, but says it is “at the mercy of its powerful evil, his is quickly ready to fulfill its dark role” and that “for the purposes of telling the story, my view is that the paranormal is genuine” (Ciment). It is important to note that this interview coincided with the release of the movie, and that Kubrick had part of it redacted. It is likely that Kubrick did not want to make the film appear too unsettling, and wanted to leave more interpretation open to the viewers. Earlier in the interview, Kubrick responds to a suggestion of a more realistic interpretation by saying “A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analyzed too closely … If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd” (Ciment). In the case of The Shining, however, this does not prove to be true. Using Merced’s psychological knowledge of how narcissistic breakdowns and injury works, it can be concluded that Jack’s actions could have realistically been triggered by personal failures.

Jack Torrance’s troubles are evident from Kubrick’s very first scene, which features a disturbing soundtrack laid over a bird’s eye view scene of a car driving through the wilderness to The Overlook (Kubrick 0:01). He accepts the job largely because he has failed in many aspects of his life, in his career, as a husband, as a father, and as a man in 1970’s America. It is these failures and his inability to deal with them that spur the horrors later in the movie. Jack’s insecurities about his career failure are made evident early in the film, when Stuart Ullman tells his business partner that Jack is a school teacher and Jack quickly interjects saying, “Former school teacher” and then stating that he is a writer and “teaching was more or less a way of making ends meet” (Kubrick 5:35). This is Jack’s most glaring insecurity, and his trip to The Overlook, while supposed to be a kickstart to his writing career, ends up destroying his faith in his ability to be successful as a writer, contributing to his mental breakdown. This reflects not only Jack’s failure, but also the struggles of the United States economy, which was suffering through stagflation and oil embargos. Much as American’s had to wait in line for gas, Jack had to work a job he hated and struggle to become a writer (Myre). Jack’s dissatisfaction with his family is also evident before he even reaches the hotel, and the societal expectations of the time amplify this failures effect on his self-worth. These sentiments are echoed by Frank Manchel, writing for Literature Film Quarterly. In introducing his thesis, he states “The Shining’s reception is skewed by a contemporary critical desire to make Jack Torrance—the white, American, middle-class father–the scapegoat for the sins of a patriarchal society” (Manchel). He does not excuse Jack’s actions in any way, but in saying this he does take a much more sympathetic view of the character than most critics. Rather than blaming Jack as in individual or the ghosts of The Overlook for the tragedy, he claims that pressures for men in society at the time and lack of options for Jack pushed him towards insanity. Similar Jack has failed, but the male driven society at the time offers him no fall back plan, as men are expected to succeed.

Jack Torrance’s mental breakdown and terrible actions in The Overlook can be attributed to his narcissistic injury as a result of his personal failures. This is demonstrated by his preexisting issues before arrival, coupled with his family issues and the American mindset during the time period. Jack’s problems can be seen as a microcosm for the American “crisis of confidence” during the 1970’s, and it is important that the country learns from this. Many of the issues that cause this phenomenon are reoccurring today, from Donald Trump’s election to the increased pollical and social divisiveness within the country today. The Gallup poll (How Popular Is Donald Trump) has Trump’s current approval rating around the same level as Nixon’s second term approval rating, and that should serve as an example of how history is in danger of repeating itself. As the public goes through this period of increased uncertainty and confusion, it is important that they remember how failure can affect us all. A confidence shock to an entire country can increase personal risk for narcissistic injury, and Americans must do their best to avoid this.

Works Cited

“A Time of Malaise.” US History, Independence Hall Association.

Bergeron, Ryan. “’The Seventies’: The Decade’s Worst Killers.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Aug. 2015.

Ciment, Michel. Kubrick. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.

Close, Glenn. “Mental Illness: The Stigma of Silence.” The Huffington Post, 21 Oct. 2009.

Ebert, Roger. “The Shining Movie Review & Film Summary.” RogerEbert.com, 18 June 2006

“How Popular Is Donald Trump?” FiveThirtyEight, 13 Dec. 2017.

Kilker, Robert. “The Monstrous Feminine in The Shining.” Literature Film Quarterly, 54-63.

Kubrick, Stanley, director. The Shining. Warner Bros., 1980.

Manchel, Frank. “What about Jack? Another perspective on family relationships in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 23, issue 1, 1995, pp. 68

Mattson, Kevin. “Examining Carter’s ‘Malaise Speech,’ 30 Years Later.” NPR, 12 July 2009.

Merced, Matthew. “How Narcissistic Injury May Contribute to Reactive Violence: A Case Example Using Stanley Kurbrick’s The Shining.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 18 Mar. 2016. Wiley Online Library, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017

Myre, Greg. “Gas Lines Evoke Memories Of Oil Crises In The 1970s.” NPR, 10 Nov. 2012.

Popovich, Adam. “The Shining: The Most Complex Horror Film Ever Made.” Grizzly Bomb, 25 Sept. 2015.

“Understanding Narcissistic Rage.” Psychologia.

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