Room 237: Kubrick’s Conspiracy Theorists

By Jim Rohner · April 2, 2013

In watching the newly released documentary Room 237—an in depth look at the various mysteries behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning—an "either this or that" path of logic arises. Backed up by stills and film clips, we experience the interviewees only through their audio. They claim that seemingly blatant continuity errors are not just included, but framed in such a way as to draw the viewer's eye: chairs disappear and reappear, props change color, scenes are staged and edited in such a way that would be either spatially impossible or incongruous.

These inconsistencies are so apparent and regular that only two conclusions can be drawn: either Kubrick was sloppy or he did it all on purpose. The director of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange had a reputation that preceded him as a meticulous perfectionist, so they can't be mistakes, but so much planning and plotting would be involved in purposeful mistakes that he'd have to be operating on a schematic level so brilliant as to be seemingly unreachable for the rest of us mortals. Is The Shining documented proof that Kubrick half-assed things or is it a subtle satire of horror conventions?

I'm not sure which conclusion I'd rather believe.

And if Kubrick truly was as meticulous and subtle a craftsman as that, is it not possible that he could've included other hidden messages in his 1980 horror classic? Could The Shining be a comment on the horror of mankind's past as displayed in The Holocaust? An exposé on our country's mistreatment of the Native Americans? Is it a confession that Kubrick faked the moon landing? A comment on how demonic forces influence human sexuality?

Okay, it's probably not the latter two, yet the abundance of the supposed "proof" that all five interviewees point to as evidence and the confidence and clarity with which they speak would make it seem that all their perceptions carry equal weight. All five interviewees admit to obsessing over The Shining but their sincerity and coherency come across so clearly that, even if you were to think their theories crazy, it'd be unfair and dismissive to consider the theorizers as such. Indeed, it's clear that director Rodney Ascher casts no judgment on those he interviews. And why should he? The joy in viewing Room 237 doesn't have as much to do with the things the interviewees are saying as much as it does with the reasons why they're saying them—Stanley Kubrick was very, VERY good at what he did.

Kubrick’s Mortality has unfortunately robbed us of the chance to settle the matter definitively, but these motley array of perceptions couldn't exist were it not for the fact that the filmmaker crafted something so ominous, immortal and ambiguous 33 years ago.

Detractors of Room 237 would say that such in depth and diverse interpretations could be derived from any film if enough attention were given to it, but the fact that Kubrick's The Shining has even been worth revisiting three decades later immediately speaks to its inherent power. Listening to the interviewees map out the spatial impossibilities of The Overlook Hotel or highlight and explain the significance of the recurrence of the number 42 is a form of retrospective appreciation in how it makes the viewer realize that no matter what Kubrick may have intended The Shining to be, it was made in such a way as to allow other interpretations, other significances, to be drawn from it.

And while a great deal of time and effort is spent on reveling in the thematic agnosticism of The Shining, Room 237 also implicitly speaks on the contradiction of its own existence. The fact that a film was made that gives a subjective voice to some of the more far out interpretations of such an overwhelmingly adored film implies that those voices are just as valid and worthy of attention as any other. The advent of the internet critic and the democracy of film criticism has been embraced by some critics and mourned by others, but ultimately, it may not matter in the end. At one point late in the film, one of the interviewees makes a statement to the effect of, "with post-modern film criticism, it doesn't matter what the director may have intended." Considering this interviewee is the author of one of the interpretations more difficult to swallow, the natural reaction is to discard his comment, but once again, he's making the comment in a film populated by 4 other equally diverse opinions, all of which could not possibly have been intended by Kubrick.

But whether you agree with any of the interviewees or not, whether you think The Shining is a great film or an over-hyped disappointment, Room 237 confirms Kubrick's legacy as a master filmmaker because he created something that has lived on and even taken on a life of its own.