The Shining: 5 Things Jack Torrance Taught Us About Social Distancing and Quarantine

Jack Nicholson Social Distancing in The Shining
Photo: Warner Bros.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining turns 40 years old this week. Despite being the filmmaker’s late-in-life stab at commercialism after the failure of Barry Lyndon, his single attempt at horror remains one of the most artful, and hauntingly confounding, chillers ever produced. It turned Stephen King’s traditional haunted hotel yarn into a metaphysical nightmare of… well, just about anything you want. As Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 documentary explored, there are Kubrick conspiracy theorists who will tell you The Shining is about everything from white guilt over the generational mass murder of American Indians (plausible) to a confession of Kubrick’s complicity in faking the moon landing (bonkers). Ryan Lambie took a more evidence-based approach in considering the immutability of evil in Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, which gets to the essence of the movie’s macabre ending where Jack Nicholson’s chipper axe murderer, Jack Torrance, joins the party of the dead forevermore.

So some might say 40 years on, there’s little left to unearth beneath the Overlook’s snow. Yet we beg to differ. In times such as these, where your dear writer has spent more than two months in self-quarantine due to a pandemic, I’d argue there’s a wealth of information we’ve yet to learn from dear old Jack and his endless winter in the Colorado Rockies. Because as you probably realize by now, we’re all caretakers of the Overlook these days. Accept it and then embrace these five lessons that will get you closer to a management position.

Jack Nicholson Writing in The Shining

Keep Writing and Stay Productive

Something admirable about Jack Torrance is that even when the days blur together, he still gets up in the morning and bangs out a few dozen pages on the typewriter. Sure, Stephen King infamously loathes The Shining movie, but even he—a man who’s proudly disciplined himself to write at least six pages every day—should be impressed by one scene Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson added.

After months of being denied the ability to talk with her husband in his writing “office”—the dining room everyone has to walk through, because Jack’s that guy—Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) sneaks a peak at the novel he’s furiously typed away: It’s hundreds of pages of a single sentence, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” By the mid-point of his magnum opus, the author had even started to make shapes and patterns out of his paragraphs.

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Now as an editor, I would offer a few notes on its redundancy and limited word choices, but in a post-quarantine world, I have to admire that Jack gets up and forces himself to meet the keyboard, even when the inspiration isn’t there. Consider numerous scenes of Jack procrastinating and struggling with writer’s block, be it by bouncing tennis balls off walls or just staring into the abyss of white snow outside, perhaps hoping it’ll stare back. Who can’t relate now?

And yet, Jack keeps his regimen up and brings order and shape to his daily life. On one page, it even looks like an inverted pyramid.

Jack and Danny in The Shining

Spend Quality Time with Family

One of the few blessings that come out of weeks and months of self-isolation is it’s forced us to spend a lot more time with those in our lives. That can be a spouse, a loved one, or even children. For Jack it’s Wendy and their six-year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Before going up into the mountains—like the Donner Party as Wendy is wont to point out—Jack’s been a little bit distracted. All because he maybe, kind of, possibly broke his son’s arm. But it was an accident, right?

“I never laid a hand on him, goddammit,” Jack laments to his new best bud, Lloyd the Bartender, who, by the by, may not actually be there. “I didn’t. I wouldn’t touch one hair on his goddamn little head. I love the little son of a bitch!” And the broken arm? “It could have happened to anybody, and it was three goddamn years ago!”

So it was. And while time has a habit of becoming circuitous for Overlook’s most long standing guests,  Jack’s evolved and is now reflecting on his commitments. Such thoughts result in sweet moments like the image above where Jack puts his arms around Danny and says he loves the lad. Look at that tenderness! Feel that warmth! From what I’ve heard from folks with children under eight, they might feel the same kind of love whenever it’s class time for kids sheltering in place.

The men's bathroom in The Shining

Wash Your Hands

You don’t have to be an epidemiologist anymore to know you should always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control has even encouraged folks to sing little songs like “Happy Birthday” twice in a row to make sure they’ve cleaned their hands for a long enough period.

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But to be honest, that’s the bare minimum. If you want to be thorough, be like Jack and take a lesson from the guest in Room #237. While we never learn her name in the film, the lady in the water takes cleanliness to the next level when she spends days in the same bathtub. Decades if you count her ghost. That’s what Jack came to appreciate when he entered 237’s bathroom and discovered what he thought was a beautiful young woman. After a lifetime of getting clean, 237’s perma-resident steps out of the tub and celebrates her good health by giving Jack a big wet kiss.

Granted she almost instantly begins decomposing, turning into the corpse of an old crone in Jack’s arms. Still, you can be gosh darn sure that after the abject horror subsided, Jack immediately washed his hands. Likely for more than 20 seconds. You’re welcome.

Jack at Overlook Bar in The Shining

Stay in Touch with Socially Distanced (and Deceased) Friends

Not all of us can be happily living it up with the family like Jack. As a New Yorker, I can sympathize with those feelings, particularly isolated from a social life and friends who cannot actually come in close physical proximity. That’s why phone, Zoom, and FaceTime calls, especially to those far removed from others, have become vital.

Jack proves this with his good pal Lloyd (Joe Turkel). Despite only knowing him for a few days, Jack was quick to deduce the fella in the velvet tuxedo “was always the best of them. The best goddamned bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine.” Lloyd helps Jack cope with five miserable five months on the wagon and he also introduces him to another buddy, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). Under different circumstances, Jack might’ve thought twice about befriending a man such as Grady, who despite his polished English manners once struggled with isolation at the Overlook Hotel… to the point where he chopped his wife and twin daughters into little bits and then blew his brains out.

But in self-quarantine, these two become as thick as thieves! They even plan little surprises for Jack’s own family. And though Delb and Lloyd can’t get too physically close—only Jack has the ability to “correct” his naughty son—they can still make small gestures that show they care. Hence it’s Grady who lets Jack out of the food pantry after Wendy locked him in (what a goose). And for the record, it’s the fact only Grady (or his spectral cohorts) could open the lock that proves ghosts exist in The Shining, just as it proves they care.

Jack Torrance Frozen in The Shining Hedge Maze

Don’t Go Outside Without the Proper Protective Gear

By the end of Kubrick’s version of The Shining, the above lessons have overlapped, and an attempt at “correction” gives way to a wacky game of hide and seek between father-and-son. As we’ve learned in our own self-isolation, one of the advantages of being in a rural setting is going outside at further distances without running into anyone, and that’s exactly what happens to Jack when he chases his boy through the Overlook’s famed Hedge Maze.

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Now there are admittedly a few things Jack didn’t think through about this bonding time in plumes of fresh powder. For one, it’s a fatal faux pas to completely disregard the advisable protective gear while leaving the house. Where are the gloves, Jack? Maybe a nice mask made out of a scarf? You definitely could’ve used a coat… Maybe this recklessness is really why Danny works so hard to maintain a safe social distance?

Alas, Jack learns the hard way what happens when you ignore scientific recommendations about going outside: you become a human popsicle.

That final image of Jack Torrance’s body is of course just one of many enduring spirits left by The Shining’s legacy. Unfairly dismissed in its time as being a lesser Kubrick effort, the movie is now considered one of the benchmarks of the horror genre and one of its enigmatic filmmaker’s most impenetrable experiences. With its seemingly endless Steadicam tracking shots gliding down the Overlook’s hallways, and its unnaturally unnerving performances—including the oft-overlooked Shelley Duvall, who is devastating as the tortured wife—there is something primal about the movie that’s made it last for 40 years. And like the Overlook Hotel, it’ll stand for 40 more.

Hopefully we’ll be able to leave our own homemade mazes before then though.