The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Documentary Review: Room 237

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Room 237, a delirious trip down multiple rabbit-holes of film fandom, provides me with constant assurance that no matter how obsessed I may become with a movie, there’s always someone more obsessed. 

For the uninitiated, Room 237 is an amalgam of documentaries about Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining. Director Rodney Ascher interviews five different film enthusiasts about their interpretations of the movie. Their takes on Kubrick’s seminal flick range from eccentrically detailed to outright insane — and therein lies the fun. Here’s the trailer:

Anyone who hasn’t had an all-night bull session talking about a great piece of art might not understand the appeal of Room 237. After all, what’s appealing in listening to someone claim that Kubrick helped fake the Apollo moon landings? But here’s where Ascher’s documentary holds some surprises: The crazier the interpretation, the more fascinating it is.

Take one filmmaker who decides that The Shining should be viewed “forward and backward” in the most literal sense possible. He superimposes two copies of the movie over each other, watching it from back to front (and back again) at the same time. The results: Mesmerizing. Incredible images — all of which appear completely by accident — emerge from the experiment: Jack Torrance simultaneously interviews with Mr. Ullman while a spectral double of himself stalks through the hedge maze, axe in hand. Another remarkable image: While meeting with the Overlook’s former caretaker in the Gold Room’s red bathroom, images of the slaughtered twins appear over the two doomed men’s faces like clown makeup. 

But of course, it’s not like Kubrick intended for any of those images to result from such an experiment. In saying that, I don’t mean to lend too much — or any — weight to Kubrick’s shadowy intentions with his adaptation of Stephen King’s third novel. What I’m saying is that the magic of those images are a happy side-effect of confirmation bias, a concept that could stand in for this movie’s title.

Confirmation Bias: The Movie. It’s got a nice ring to it.

Here’s what I mean: I’ve had my own kooky pet theories about books and movies before. Hell, I once argued that Samuel Beckett’s Endgame took place inside Hamm’s head, and that the two windows were his eyes looking out onto his padded cell. When I wrote that sorry essay for my sophomore-year drama class in college, I saw evidence for my hare-brained idea on every page, in every word of Beckett’s play. The same goes for the interview subjects in Room 237. 

That said: As silly as my argument sounds, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing such lines of inquiry. For example, the post-apocalyptic bunker that Beckett describes works very well as a virtual headspace for his loquacious lead character. (Incidentally, I love virtual headspaces.)

Pivoting back to Room 237, here’s the deal: Even though some of the theories advanced are bizarre or seemingly untenable, it’s still fascinating to listen to these subjects wax poetical about their favorite movie. Ascher also makes the wise choice to never show any of his subjects’ faces. We only hear their voices. (Incidentally, I feel like there’s a inversely proportional relationship between how insane the subject sounds versus how insane their theory is.)

And to be fair — some of these takes on The Shining aren’t all that crazy.

One Shining expert sees the movie as a longform exploration of sexual deviance, repression, obsession, discovery and violence. Hey, I can get on board with that. I mean, the movie features a forbidden room where a beautiful naked woman morphs into a ghoulish banshee, and at the end, you’re treated to the largest menstrual flow in cinematic history. The theory has legs.

Two other experts argue that The Shining holds within its symbology a condemnation of two different genocides: Native American and Jewish. Once again, these ideas have serious textual support. One expert points out how Kubrick uses a fade transition to transform a huge pile of luggage into a crowd of people. He backs up his claim with a photo of a mountain of suitcases abandoned by Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It’s chilling.

I could recount these striking moments at length, but that’s not really my job. (Shame on me for recounting so many.) So instead, I’ll heap praise on Ascher and his team for assembling so much footage from Kubrick’s catalog of work, as well as other supporting B-roll that tells a hilarious story. Ascher never directly pokes fun at his subjects, but he very slyly and very indirectly makes occasional light of them with goofy shots of 1970s-era movie houses, where bell-bottom-clad teenagers react to their wild claims.

I’ll close with a related recommendation: Film analyst Rob Ager maintains an excellent website and YouTube channel called Collative Learning. He explores dozens of movies in detail, including many of Kubrick’s. He’s got his own Room 237-worthy take on The Shining — it’s a metaphor for the Gold Rush — and in addition, he’s published a two-part video essay on the strange nature of the Overlook’s architecture. Essentially, he argues that the layout of the Overlook doesn’t make any sense — doors, windows and hallways appear where they can’t or shouldn’t — and furthermore, that the hotel itself changes shape over the course of the movie.

This happens to be a fairly well-trod line of inquiry into the movie. At least two of the subjects in Room 237 mention the hotel’s spatial weirdness, including one woman who went so far as to construct maps of the hotel itself. All of Ager’s content is worth ingesting, but here’s the first part of his look at The Shining’s spatial anomalies:

Room 237 is available on a variety of paid platforms, including Netflix streaming.