WHEN “The Shining” was released in 1980, many viewers, including the critic Pauline Kael, left theaters mystified by what they had just seen. Expecting a standard frightfest based on a Stephen King best seller, they got an unexplained river of blood surging out of hotel elevators, a vision of cobwebbed skeletons and a weird guy in a bear suit doing something untoward with a gentleman in a tuxedo.
Three decades on, scholars and fans are still trying to decipher this puzzle of a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. To them it’s only ostensibly about an alcoholic father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) going more than stir crazy while his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny, try to cope in an isolated hotel, the Overlook. Mr. Kubrick was famously averse to offering explanations of his films — “I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself,” he once wrote — which has led to a mind-boggling array of theories about just what he was up to.
The hotel’s hedge maze, many Kubrick authorities agree, is a reference to the myth of the Minotaur; others have drawn convincing connections between the Overlook’s well-stocked pantry and the confectionery cottage in Hansel and Gretel. The more one views the film — and many of these scholars admit to viewing it hundreds of times — the more symbols and connections appear.
“Room 237,” the first full-length documentary by the director Rodney Ascher, examines several of the most intriguing of these theories. It’s really about the Holocaust, one interviewee says, and Mr. Kubrick’s inability to address the horrors of the Final Solution on film. No, it’s about a different genocide, that of American Indians, another says, pointing to all the tribal-theme items adorning the Overlook Hotel’s walls. A third claims it’s really Kubrick’s veiled confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo Moon landings.
When Mr. Ascher first began discussing the project with his friend Tim Kirk, who would later become the film’s producer, the two were simply hoping to find enough fans and theories to flesh out a series of short films, maybe something to post on YouTube. “On paper it seems like a very specific niche,” Mr. Ascher said, speaking at the oldest standing Bob’s Big Boy, in Burbank, not far from a campus of the New York Film Academy, where he teaches a class in editing. “The Secret Meanings of ‘The Shining’ — we should be able to wrap that up pretty quick. But the thing kept growing and growing.” By the time the two were done, “Room 237,” which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, was nearly two hours long.
What they had stumbled upon was a subculture of Kubrick fans that has been expanding over the last several years. The group includes professors and historians, fanboys and artists, many of whom have posted their theories online accompanied by maps, videos, and pages-long explications pleading their cases. The Liverpudlian filmmaker Rob Ager’s video analyses of “The Shining” have garnered hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits; the voluminous online essays of Kevin McLeod, a k a “mstrmnd,” range from the film’s marketing materials to its many uses of artificial light.
“The initial reception by journalists of most of Kubrick’s films was negative,” said the film scholar Julian Rice, author of “Kubrick’s Hope: Discovering Optimism from ‘2001’ to ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ ” “But as time went on, his films were taken more and more seriously, and now people are redefining him in terms of all of the contemporary postmodern theories. Many of the current critics think in different terms than Kubrick thought when he was making those films. They think in a different vocabulary, and they have different concerns.”
Among the topics of discussion are the many liberties, large and small, that Kubrick took with the original novel. Mr. King, who declined to comment for this article, has never concealed his dislike for the film and the way the director changed and discarded scenes, themes and details. In the book Jack’s Volkswagen is red; in the film it’s yellow. No big thing, until one discovers that King’s red VW actually did make it into the film, crushed underneath an overturned semi.
But that’s not the only kind of symbolic moment “Shining” buffs are interested in; they have much bigger themes in mind. To one of the subjects of “Room 237,” Geoffrey Cocks, a history professor at Albion College in Michigan and author of “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust,” the film is full of references, some subtle, some less so, to the Final Solution. There are the film’s many references to 1942, the year the Nazis began their extermination of Jews at Auschwitz: a 42 appears on a shirt worn by Danny; “Summer of ’42” is playing on the Torrances’ television; Wendy takes 42 swings with a bat at Jack. And then there’s that gusher of blood. “That’s as good a visual metonym for the horror of the 20th century that has ever been filmed,” Mr. Cocks said in an interview.
When Bill Blakemore, a veteran ABC News correspondent and another “Shining” theorist in the documentary, noticed cans of Calumet baking powder emblazoned with an Indian chief logo in “The Shining,” he knew immediately what Kubrick had in mind. “I told my friends, ‘That movie was about the genocide of the American Indians.’ ”
In 1987 Mr. Blakemore wrote an article for The Washington Post, noting the film’s use of Indian decorative elements (in one scene Mr. Nicholson hurls a tennis ball repeatedly against an Indian wall hanging), the Calumet cans and the Overlook’s location on an old Indian burial ground. “It’s about ghosts and memories and how we put together our sense of what has happened in the past,” Mr. Blakemore said in an interview. “ ‘I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years, and not all of ’em was good.’ He’s talking about the way the human race does it, and has done it over and over again.”
The documentary’s biggest leap of faith comes with Jay Weidner, who posits that Mr. Kubrick helped NASA fake the Apollo Moon landings, then used “The Shining” to both confess his involvement — and brag about it. Mr. Weidner is at work on a DVD about the Kubrick-Apollo connection, his second, and cites as evidence a sweater worn by Danny with “Apollo 11” on it, and the hexagonal design on the hotel hallway carpet pattern, which he argues is a dead ringer for the aerial view of the Apollo launching pad. “The entire substory of ‘The Shining,’ ” Mr. Weidner said in an interview, “is the story of Kubrick making the Apollo footage and then trying to hide it from his wife, and then her finding out about it.”
Despite the scope of the film, which uses scenes from the 1940 “Thief of Bagdad,” “Spellbound,” Creepshow” and F. W. Murnau’s silent “Faust” to illustrate different hypotheses, Mr. Ascher said he only scratched the surface of the vast number of “Shining” theories. Why so many? The film “is a compelling work of art that acts as a kind of mirror, especially for thoughtful people, who see aspects of themselves that are among the most precious things they have experienced,” Mr. Rice said. “That’s in the best sense. In some cases it might also be a paranoia that they want to expurgate in some way.”
“Room 237” — the title is a reference to a haunted room in the hotel — ends with no clear consensus on just what “The Shining” actually means. How could it? But there’s no denying the filmmakers had a pretty serious, cerebral bunch to work with.
“This isn’t ‘Trekkies,’ ” said Mr. Kirk, referring to the 1997 documentary about the glorious excesses of “Star Trek” fandom. “We don’t have guys having ‘Shining’ weddings, or driving around in yellow VWs with ‘ROOM 237’ license plates. There were no conventions to go to.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 29, 2012
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described imagery from “The Shining.” The gentleman seen with the weird guy in the bear suit is wearing a tuxedo, but not a top hat.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 29, 2012, on page AR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Cracking the Code in ‘Heeere’s Johnny!’.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/movies/room-237-documentary-with-theories-about-the-shining.html?_r=3