Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’: A Biblical Prophecy?

The Jewish director’s layered references to the scriptures helped make the film a masterpiece of the horror genre.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in "The Shining" directed by Stanley Kubrick.Credit: AP, courtesy of Warner Bros. Inc.
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Ever since it was released 35 years ago, movie scholars, critics and fans have been trying to unlock the secrets of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” a masterpiece of the horror genre. But they have mostly overlooked the potent biblical allegories beneath the surface that help us delve deeper into both the film’s meaning and the psyche of its Jewish director.

Like Freud, whom Kubrick fervently admired, Kubrick used the Bible to reflect on his own identity as a Jew. This is made clear in the two key male characters, father and son Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Danny (Daniel Lloyd) Torrance. Kubrick’s subtle references to the Bible in The Shining, in the form of Jacob and Daniel, are not merely tangential but provide a key to unlocking the secrets of a complex and multi-layered film.

The name Jack is brimming with biblical allusion. Jack can be read as the diminutive of Jacob, the Biblical patriarch, whose sons were the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Jack in the film can be read as a stand-in for Jacob, but not just in his name. In Genesis 28:10-18 Jacob dreams of a heavenly stairway, ladder or ramp on which angels were ascending and descending. In The Shining, like Jacob, Jack awakes from a terrifying dream in which he murders his family. If if that parallel is not enough, Kubrick chose Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Awakening of Jacob as the accompanying musical track, thus explicitly suggesting “Jacob’s Dream.”

Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Jack Nicholson in car on their way to resort in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980. Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty Images

In order to reinforce the connection, Kubrick even inserted a ladder or stairway to heaven in the form of an elevator.

After wrestling with an angel who injures Jacob’s thigh, his name is changed from Ya’acov to Yisrael (Israel). The damage caused to his thigh causes him to limp. In a close parallel, Jack is injured by his wife Wendy during the course of the film, crippling his leg. In this respect, it is telling that in the partial draft script dated February 13 and 16, 1978, it is written that Wendy stabs Jack “in the thigh.” Jack’s disability is emphasized as he drags his limp foot in pursuit of his son Danny.

Significantly, Kubrick’s father was named Jacob or Jack. This might be read as an unhappy coincidence, but Kubrick’s choice to retain this name (which Stephen King came up with) provides an oedipal dimension drawn from Kubrick’s own life furthered by the biblical resonances.

Jacob was the son of Isaac, who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright by fooling his blind father. Does Kubrick see something of the biblical Jacob in his father? Jack in the movie, as an ax-wielding maniac driven mad by cabin fever in the isolated Overlook Hotel, seeks to “correct” – that is, murder – his family. Can we read this as a reflection on Kubrick’s own father?

Jack has named his son Daniel, another name awash with biblical echoes. Daniel is the name of the biblical prophet and Babylonian royal courtier who was “terrified” by “the visions of my head” (Daniel 7:15). He was adept at divination and interpreting dreams, and “had understanding of visions and dreams of all kinds” (Daniel 1:17). When the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, dreams of strange writing on the wall, Daniel is the only one able to decipher it.

Danny is also gifted at divination and of being able to see events in the future and past, a trait he has inherited from his father. Indeed, precisely that ability, called “shining” by a character in the film, gives the book and film its name.

“You wouldn’t do anything to hurt us?” Danny asks his father in an act of uncanny premonition. Thus Danny sees the proverbial “writing on the wall.” In fact, he actually writes it himself when he scrawls “Redrum” (“murder backwards”) on the bedroom door, its real meaning only discernible in the mirror, when his father is on the rampage.

These dreams link the biblical Daniel to the dreamer Jacob, but also suggest that Kubrick sees himself in Danny, as another kind of visionary. After all, movies have long been compared to dreams encapsulated in Hollywood’s nickname “the dream factory.” If so, is Kubrick placing himself in the shoes of Danny who, ultimately, outwits his father and escapes his clutches?

Daniel also translates from the Hebrew as “God is my judge,” “God judges,” or “Judge of God.” In this respect, it is significant that the opening music of the film is an electronic rendering of the 13th-century Latin hymn Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). Dies Irae is likely derived from the Hebrew prayer Unetanneh Tokef (“Let us tell”), recited as part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy when we seek to avoid divine anger and judgment.

Like the hymn, the very structure of The Shining focuses on a single “Day of Wrath” or judgment day – an intertitle notes that it is “Wednesday” – during which Jack, like the judging God in the chant, attempts to sacrifice his son. These parallels indicate that The Shining is about a divine Day of Wrath or judgment visited by a father upon his son.

Kubrick may not have practiced any religion, but he never denied his background. He was interested in his ethnic, cultural and religious heritage. The Shining, although based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name, introduced audio-visual biblical imagery not present in the book. Such themes injected Kubrick’s own history and biography into the film.