The Possibilities of Mental Illness in the Shining
Fictional characters are created to either reflect the authors’ personal experiences or address issues prevalent in or overlooked by society. Mental, physical, and emotional issues often plague characters created by Stephen King. Disturbing events often take place in his novels that contribute to supernatural and/or psychotic occurrences. Specifically, Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining makes his descent into mental insanity because of such events. Jack’s diagnosis relies heavily on these occurrences and will ultimately determine if it is a mental disorder or pure evil.
The Shining revolves around the life of Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic seeking to find solace to focus on his writing. In order to fulfill this desire, he accepts a job as a caretaker for the Overlook Hotel (Godfrey, 2015). The resort closes down for five months due to harsh winters, and Jack is responsible for living in the hotel during this time. He moves in with his wife, Wendy, and five-year old son, Danny. Throughout the course of the story, Jack discovers that he has an unexplainable connection with the hotel– almost as if he has visited the place before. He is also unaware that his son has supernatural powers and shares a psychological bond with the hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann. Hallorann refers to this bond as ‘the shining.’ Jack eventually reaches his psychological breaking point and begins to converse with the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel (Godfrey, 2015). One of these ghosts, Delbert Grady, was the previous caretaker for the hotel and also descended into mental insanity. Grady also sought the tranquil environment the hotel offered, but he eventually snapped and proceeded to murder his wife and two daughters with an axe. Grady shot himself afterward, but his spirit, along with many others, still live in the hotel. Jack’s son frequently has premonitions about the events that will take place but does not see ‘people’ nearly as much as his father. The story reaches a climax when Grady convinces Jack that his family is conspiring against him. This ‘revelation’ prompts him to take up the axe and torment his family by chasing them throughout the hotel (Godfrey, 2015). Jack’s mannerisms may suggest he succumbed to pure evil; however, it can be argued that his murderous rampage was triggered by paranoid schizophrenia additionally triggering vivid hallucinations.
The events in The Shining greatly differ in the novel and in the film. Interestingly, the film delves into Jack’s psyche more effectively than the novel. Freud’s essay, “The Uncanny,” contributed to the evolution of Jack’s character in the film (Christopher, 1984). King’s version of Jack was based more so on personal experiences he went through as a writer, whereas, Stanley Kubrick’s film focused on Jack’s mental [in]sanity. In his essay, Freud expounded on the perspective of an adult whose mental sanity may have surpassed his beliefs and manifests itself as a madman within (Christopher, 1984). Freud indicates there is an animistic universe in which “spirits, good and bad, inhabit all things and that thoughts and wishes are all-powerful over physical reality” (Christopher, 1984, p. 2). These events or feelings, deemed ‘uncanny,’ may have the power to manifest themselves and stimulate abnormal mental activity. The themes in Freud’s essay are relevant in Jack’s case and assert the concept of an “interchanging of the self” (Christopher, 1984, p. 3). Kubrick’s version of The Shining reveals the presence of an animistic world in the tensions between Jack, his wife, and his son. The entities Jack sees are natural to him but unnatural [uncanny] to everyone else (Christopher, 1984).
The oedipal tensions Freud characterized in his works became the basis of Kubrick’s plot in The Shining (Christopher, 1984). Before Jack abstained from alcohol, he exhibited a severe act of rage when he dislocated Danny’s arm after he scattered his papers on the floor. As a result, Jack vowed to remain sober forever, but there is a permanent strain on his relationship with Wendy and Danny. All three members of the Torrance family become distant with one another and deal with their struggles separately. The Overlook Hotel becomes the threshold of Freud’s theory of an animistic world, and the oedipal tensions increase rapidly (Christopher, 1984). Another key element depicted in Kubrick’s version of The Shining is the Overlook Hotel’s historical garden maze. The maze is first mentioned in the beginning of the film when Jack and his wife are given a tour of the hotel grounds. Towards the middle of the film, the maze is mentioned once again when Wendy and Danny decide to explore it. This part is crucial because it is when Jack’s mental instability becomes increasingly evident (Christopher, 1984). As Wendy and Danny explore the maze, Jack is in the hotel lobby looking at its model. At first, it merely seems as if he is staring blankly at the details of the maze; however, it becomes evident that two tiny figures–representing Danny and Wendy–are moving throughout. This not only represents the first of Jack’s many hallucinations, but also the very depths of the human mind (Christopher, 1984). Jack is slowly descending into mental madness and is experiencing “entrapment in his very own mind” (Christopher, 1984, p. 4). He tries to find solutions for all of the supernatural occurrences but reaches a dead end in the maze of his psyche. His only way out of this mental maze becomes the need to slaughter his family and join forces with his delusions. The final mention of the maze is at the very end when Jack freezes to death after attempting to murder Danny inside the maze. This is symbolic of the mind having the power to kill if mental issues are not treated properly.
Isolation has the potential to become a trigger to some sort of mental illness. Creativity itself has even been linked to the development of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Walia, 2015). Jack was in a setting of severe isolation, apart from society completely, and also happened to be very creative. These two factors alone are not sufficient reasons to diagnose Jack with paranoid schizophrenia; his case must be reviewed much deeper. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V requires delusions and hallucinations to be present in order to diagnose an individual with paranoid schizophrenia (Kreinin, Krishtul, & Menuchin, 2015). Clinically, Jack fits these requirements, but a proper diagnosis requires more concrete evidence. His downward spiral begins when he starts to lose his creative potency as a writer. This prompts Jack to feel almost powerless to his writer’s block and eventually to his family. One of Jack’s earliest delusions is triggered by the frustration with his wife for always doting on Danny. Jack begins to feel as if Danny has replaced him, and this transitions into the eventual belief that his family is conspiring against him. Delusions are the prelude to hallucinations and in cases of paranoid schizophrenia, believing is seeing.
Additionally, recent epidemiological studies found that “changes in the incidence and expression of classic schizophrenia symptoms…an increase in paranoia or delusions…are in accord with social, cultural, geographic, and ethnic changes” (Kreinin et. al, 2015, p. 118). It can be argued that Jack experienced all of these changes, because he moved into a spacious hotel in a different setting and environment he never experienced before. He believed the seclusion would help with his writing, but it actually triggered an unforeseen mental illness. Paranoid schizophrenia is unique, because it tends to develop closer to the age of thirty. Other types of schizophrenia typically develop in adolescence or early adult years–another key element that proves Jack is most likely a paranoid schizophrenic (Kreinin et. al, 2015). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V classifies paranoid schizophrenia as a subgroup of the schizophrenia disorders. Based on empirical data, clinical observations, and neurobiological imaging studies, Kreinin et. al (2015)developed two additional subgroups under paranoid schizophrenia: those who mainly have hallucinations and those who mainly have delusions. Unfortunately for Jack, he equally experienced both hallucinations and delusions. His delusions do not exclusively fall under the second subgroup, because they were not present for short periods of time. Jack’s delusions were powerful to a point in which he truly believed he needed to kill his family before they abandoned or harmed him. Hallucinations came later, and he experienced them with all five senses.
Silvano Arieti, a psychiatrist and the author of Interpretation of Schizophrenia, believed that patients hear voices partly because they expect to hear them (Piers, 2017). Arieti did not discredit auditory hallucinations in any way; rather, he believed if a person were struggling in a certain area of his/her life, they might be prone to hear voices either encouraging or discouraging them in this area (Piers, 2017). Piers acknowledges the relevance of Arieti’s findings to a certain extent; he believes the world of psychiatry should not completely dismiss a patient’s voices as “random or meaningless” (2017, p. 31). Psychiatrists Stephen M. Soreff and George N. McNeil mention Freud’s theory about wish fulfillment (Piers, 2017). Sometimes, wish fulfillment has the power to accentuate hallucinatory experiences. Hearing voices can also be attributed to religious affiliations in certain cases. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V states, “in some cultures, visual or auditory hallucinations with a religious content are a normal part of religious experience” (Piers, 2017, 31). A person’s religious or cultural influences have the potential to prompt auditory hallucinations as well. If someone experiences any or all of these hallucinations, he/she is not necessarily a paranoid schizophrenic. Going back to specifically Jack’s case, his hallucinations were not triggered by wish fulfillment or religious and cultural influences. His hallucinations started suddenly–without warning–and this is why his case is more serious.
One of Jack’s first hallucinations was seeing a bartender named ‘Lloyd’ after saying “I’d give my soul for a drink” (Kubrick). Jack chose to abstain from alcohol after physically hurting Danny, but after he is accused of doing so again, he resorts to ‘drinking.’ Lloyd is only one of many hallucinations as Jack later enters a ballroom full of people with music blaring and an endless supply of alcohol. It is at this party that Jack meets Delbert Grady and he informs Jack about his son’s gift of ‘shining.’ Jack becomes increasingly paranoid after learning this information and becomes determined to exert complete control over his family. When Wendy expresses concern in regard to Danny’s health, Jack reverts the issue back to him by stating, “Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers?” (Kubrick). Jack’s delusions persistently torment him and make him believe every decision his wife makes is against him. Before meeting Grady, Jack told Lloyd about his marital problems and the lack of intimacy with his wife. The injuries Jack was accused of inflicting upon Danny were discovered to have been from a woman in Room 237. Jack experiences yet another hallucination when he goes to the room and sees a naked woman in the bathtub. She emerges from the bathtub, and Jack proceeds to embrace and kiss her. The tiny remnants of Jack’s sanity become overpowered by his hallucinations and delusions.
Jack evidently has a different brain chemistry and displays abnormal symptoms supporting this.His genes may have contributed to the development of his mental disorder; however, there is no family history proving this is the main cause.This proves that Jack is most likely suffering from a chemical imbalance.An excessive amount of dopamine or glutamate may be causing his psychotic episodes.Jack’s history with alcoholism could have also increased his dopamine levels and made him more susceptible to developing schizophrenia.Many people indulge in drinking alcohol and only develop physiological problems.In Jack’s case, there is reason to believe his alcoholism correlates to his disorder.Even though it is a myth that alcohol always turns into sugar, it has the ability to rapidly absorb and move to all parts of the body through the bloodstream (“Blood Alcohol Levels”).Alcohol has the ability to either increase or decrease blood sugar levels; Jack’s dopamine levels are evidently imbalanced. He succumbed to the overly aggressive, addictive, and sexually obsessive effects that increased levels of dopamine induce.Jack would need to be prescribed an antipsychotic drug to treat his paranoid schizophrenia.He may be resistant to taking an antipsychotic drug because of the many stigmas surrounding mental illness.After gaining Jack’s trust and helping him realize he can learn to live normally with this disorder, he may be more receptive to taking an antipsychotic drug.Since taking multiple antipsychotic drugs can produce devastating results, Jack should be prescribed Aripiprazole (“Abilify”).This drug specifically restores balance to chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain.Aripiprazole also decreases hallucinations and has the ability to improve concentration and positivity (“Abilify”).Quetiapine could also be an option in treating Jack’s disorder.Quetiapine produces similar effects as Aripiprazole and additionally improves one’s mood, sleep, appetite, and overall energy level (“Seroquel”).
Treating a case as severe as Jack’s is very difficult and could potentially worsen his state of mind if proper methods are not utilized. Prior to his psychotic breakdown, Jack did not display symptoms suggesting he was mentally ill. He abused his son once in a drunken rage but made a conscious decision to quit drinking for his family. This outburst was frightening but certainly not a reason for his wife to believe he had an underlying mental illness. As Jack’s state worsened, he became overly controlling of his family and refused to let them leave the hotel. Rather than being in denial, Wendy should have left the hotel and sought medical help for Jack. This would allow him to be placed on the proper medications sooner rather than later. Because he posed a threat to the family, Wendy may have prevented his mental breakdown by seeking help immediately. She and Danny would undoubtedly need to receive counseling as well after such a traumatic experience. Jack and his family should receive counseling separately for an extended amount of time in order to overcome the fearful and/or negative feelings towards each other. After Jack has been actively taking his medication and going to therapy, the family could come together and attend counseling sessions. At this point, family therapy would help them reunite after gaining a general understanding about Jack’s breakdown. This will give Wendy and Danny insight into Jack’s cognitive process and what they can do to support him.
Markus Gole (2015), a psychologist and philosopher, developed an ingenious treatment plan for individuals with paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenia is a very abstract illness that may be treated differently for each patient. Gole (2015) combines his psychological and philosophical expertise in order to develop alternative treatment plans. The individuals in his study have paranoid schizophrenia, and some also suffer from substance abuse; both apply to Jack. In Gole’s (2015) treatment plan, patients were required to participate in philosophical discussions and read excerpts from literature relevant to these discussions. This alternative treatment plan would be ideal for Jack. He accepted the position at the Overlook Hotel for the secluded environment that would encourage his writing. It quickly became evident that seclusion is actually a trigger for Jack, because it allows him to ruminate to a point of insanity. Rather than remaining in this psychologically damaging environment, he would most likely thrive with this treatment plan. He would be surrounded by people who struggle with substance abuse and have paranoid schizophrenia. This would allow Jack to feel more comfortable and receptive to receiving treatment, because he would not feel alone. He is also a writer and would benefit from discussions that would promote his philosophical thinking. Those who suffer with paranoid schizophrenia are not completely mentally incoherent; they would benefit from gaining knowledge and stimulating their intellectual thought processes (Gole, 2015). This is essentially the purpose of this treatment plan. Jack would not need to feel as if he were alone or abnormal. Instead of being confined to a mental institution, apart from his family, he could learn to cope with his condition and still keep his hobbies. This approach is a combination of clinical psychology and clinical philosophy. The purpose of this treatment plan would be to encourage Jack’s reading and writing interest, while simultaneously helping him understand his disorder and develop a positive self-image (Gole, 2015).
The hallucinations Jack experienced prove his case is very serious: he did not merely hear voices a few times or experience a supernatural occurrence; he undoubtedly has paranoid schizophrenia. A trigger may be attributed to the sudden change of setting and the emotional strains between his family. Jack felt as if he were losing his family and his touch with writing; therefore, he felt as if he were losing everything. Assessing only Jack’s case, apart from his family’s conditions, can properly lead to a diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia. Once he started experiencing hallucinations and delusions, they continued to persist. Jack’s experiences were not mild, and he allowed them to control his beliefs, personality, and views towards his family. Supernatural elements are evident in Jack’s case, but he did not succumb to evil. Jack Torrance developed paranoid schizophrenia, and if this treatment plan were implemented, he would live a relatively normal life.
Christopher, H. (1984). The uncanny and the fairytale in kubrick’s ‘the shining.’ Literature/Film Quarterly, (1), 5.
Godfrey, N. (2015). Into the maze: Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The shining.’ Screen Education, (78), 124.
Gole, M. (2015). Clinical philosophy in the treatment of paranoid schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 17(4), 53-60. doi:10.12740/APP/60949
Kreinin, A., Krishtul, V., Zvi, K., & Menuchin, M. (2015). Clinico-Epidemiological comparison of celusion-prominent and hallucination-prominent clinical subgroups of paranoid schizophrenia. Clinical Schizophrenia & Related Psychoses, 9(3), 117-124.
Kubrick, S. (1980). The Shining. England: Elstree Studios.
Walia, A. (2015). Genetic link found between mental illness and creativity. Retrieved from
Piers, R. W. (2017). Hearing voices and psychiatry’s (real) medical model. Psychiatric Times,
(2018, June 24). Blood Alcohol Levels. Retrieved from https://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects.
(2018, June 26). Abilify; Seroquel. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/drugs.
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