The Shining mysterious 1921 photo

Stanley Kubrick ends “The Shining” with a puzzle. After Jack Torrance, its central character, dies, the audience sees a photograph of him at the Overlook Hotel in 1921. This photograph is impossible: for, in 1921, Jack was not yet born.

When a great artist ends a work with the impossible, it is always an invitation. If you are willing to explore the implied question, you will gain some in-depth understanding of the work and your understanding will become open to some idea that its creator believes would be of benefit to you for improving your life.

To explore Stanley’s end of “The Shining” puzzle, we must ask two questions. Why is Jack in the photograph? And why is the date important? For the moment, we will focus on the former.

The photograph depicts an ordinary scene: there is a party at the Overlook and Jack, who seems the guest-of-honour, is waving “hello.”

Stanley then calls our attention to a peculiar detail. Jack has an unidentifiable object cupped in his right hand. Why emphasize this detail if we cannot identify the object? For that matter, why would Jack wave “hello” while cupping an object?

The Shining 1921 photograph hand

Re-examining the image, we notice Jack’s entire body language is peculiar: one hand raised high, one hand pointing down. Try this at home and you will soon discover that there is zero chance of it occurring naturally. Yet, Stanley wants us to notice it. Why?

Clearly, Stanley has composed this photograph as an esoteric riddle, a puzzle with its meaning to be solved by deciphering metaphorical or allegorical language.

Now, in Tarot, the Devil is depicted in exactly the same manner as Jack. He holds a torch downward in his left hand, while raising his right hand. There is even a mark in the palm of his hand.

The Devil Tarot Card

This is key to truly understanding “The Shining.” Stanley has intentionally posed Jack’s body language as a metaphor for the Devil. As defined in Tarot, the Devil is a representation of those who have surrendered to their inner, base temptations. Jack spends most of “The Shining” wrestling with base temptations, and, ultimately, surrenders to them. This makes the Devil an appropriate metaphor.

Stanley also introduces the first verse of a song over the photograph: “Midnight, with the stars and you; midnight and a rendezvous. Your eyes held a message tender saying, ‘I surrender all my love to you.’”

In ghost stories, midnight is the witching hour – a time when evil spirits are at their most powerful. Understood this way, the song is describing a union during the witching hour, presumably with an evil spirit.

Through this photograph, then, Stanley seems to be suggesting that, after Jack surrenders to his temptations and dies, he is “re-incarnated” or reborn in a purer, self-aware form of evil.

Movie lovers will find this discovery interesting in two ways:

1) It is unlikely that Stanley would end his movie with a random reference to Tarot. If one were to explore the movie for other Tarot references, one might find a very powerful guide to how Stanley would hope to open one’s mind to an advanced understanding of the human condition. For example, consider the “Fool’s Journey” in Tarot to see how this explains other seemingly confusing scenes.

2) “The Shining” is a discussion about the nature of evil. The “re-incarnated” photograph sheds light on the position the movie takes: namely, that good and evil are eternal spirits living within all of us. What changes from one person to the next (and perhaps between levels of re-incarnation or rebirth as you travel through episodes in your life) is awareness of the evil. The function of the Hotel is to help Jack become aware of his evil, like pulling back layers of an onion. While Jack might embrace his demons, as a better person, you may be inspired to overcome yours.

Already we can see that “The Shining” is a more interesting movie than it may at first appear. But our work is not done. In a second post, we will explore the remaining part of the puzzle: what is the importance of the date?