The final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining remains one of the most ideologically pivotal scenes in horror canon. The camera pulls itself up into a close-up shot of one of the Overlook Hotel’s historical images: a framed picture of the hotel’s 1921 celebration of the Fourth of July. There, front and center, the audience sees him. We see Jack Torrance, a central character we had only experienced to this point in the present day of the film’s narrative: the late 70s/early 80s. He appears to be the same age as he was when we were introduced to him in the remainder of the film. This moment provides a metaphysical conundrum: how can one exist at the same age in the present and 50-60 years prior?
Torrance’s experiences throughout the The Shining’s runtime is a staple of horror. Ghosts, spectral presences, haunted people, places and things, and anything else that would require the extermination of Venkman and crew have been married to the horror genre since film’s inception in the 1890s. We are fascinated by what can only be described as the living past. It’s no surprise that the word “haunted” has a connotation that serves as a vivid description of a decision or choice that continues to be present in the mind of the agent who chose it in the past. It’s a memory that clings to us and does not easily let us go so that we can neither fully be in the present nor move forward into the future. Its survival depends on the parasitic relationship it has to our memory.
All the classic ghost stories of the horror genre tackle, on some level, the idea of our relationship to the past. Horror, however, has a way of taking the European conception of linear time and bending it back into itself. Ghosts require people to remember something from the past. Poltergeist, Pet Semetary and The Amityville Horror require their agents to recall the travesties done to the Native Americans in America’s past. The Shining, 1408, The Legend of Hell House, The Sixth Sense, among others trade on the past violent behaviors of characters who exist in the universe of the film. Still others like The Haunting in Connecticut: Ghosts of Georgia and The Skeleton Key find their memory steeped in the violence of slavery and Jim Crow.
Ghosts, at their root, are a warning that there will one day come a great reckoning, an avenging of past misdeeds and violence. Ghosts never stop their haunting until those they haunt have begun to understand and confront their culpability in the actions of the past. This is why ghost stories often end without resolution and life, but instead in continued ignorance and death. One general conception that could be drawn from American ghost stories is that we are not particularly good at confronting the evils of the past, confessing culpability and seeking restitution with those who have been harmed. Instead, we choose to be haunted time and again by the wounds we have created and let fester.
I recall being a senior in high school when the towers fell on the morning of September 11th. I was in Accounting–my first class of the day–and I remember how nothing was accomplished in school on that day. Our eyes, instead, were glued to the television as we tried to piece together what had happened and whether the destruction and violence laid out before us was actually real. My personal reflections around that day in the first 5-6 years following consisted of a memorial that brought me back to the anger and disbelief I felt that day. A memorial that stood as a reminder of the day, but the anger trapped within the memorial had shifted from a righteous anger at the actual evil of that day–the taking of innocent life–to an anger toward someone, specifically some ambiguous formulation of a Middle-Eastern terrorist or someone who vaguely fit the profile (including those peoples who weren’t even Middle Eastern and had no ties to Osama Bin Laden).
William James wrote on memory often and his conception of how we remember is quite helpful in this discussion of horror’s understanding of ghosts and hauntings:
“A general feeling of the past direction in time, then, a particular date conceived as lying along that direction, and defined by its name or phenomenal contents, an event imagined as located therein, and owned as part of my experience, — such are the elements of every act of memory.
It follows that what we began by calling the ‘image,’ or ‘copy,’ of the fact in the mind, is really not there at all in that simple shape, as a separate ‘idea.’ Or at least, if it be there as a separate idea, no memory will go with it. What memory goes with is, on the contrary, a very complex representation, that of the fact to be recalled plus its associates, the whole forming one ‘object’, known in one integral pulse of consciousness and demanding probably a vastly more intricate brain-process than that on which any simple sensorial image depends.” – The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, 650-651
James understood a memory as something that had an impact on us at the time of its happening, yet on the moment of recollection has become a mere copy or image of the original event to the point that the event no longer remains the original event, but becomes something that is associated with the original event. These associations are actually what constitute the ‘facts’ of the memory. Or to put it another way, our memory of something is burdened by the meaning we have infused it with since the original event has happened. To put this in historical terms, memory is revisionist history. Memory is shaped by our ideological persuasions, our beliefs and our politics, and our emotions now as opposed to the emotions we felt then. We feel these memories so strongly because they have relevant power to us at this present moment whereas the original event’s power was in our being at the exact moment of the original event.
Ghost narratives deal with the consequences of remembering the past poorly, instead of remembering the past redemptively. When it comes to the horror narratives that rely on the sins of a nation–Trail of Tears, slavery, Jim Crow, etc.–haunting us in the present, we selectively ignore the parts of the past that make us uncomfortable or hold us culpable whether actively or passively–a distinction between actually lynching a black person in the South or benefiting from a system that sidelines minorities. Nations write their own stories and no nation wants to introduce its sins or its failures into the narrative. Instead they push the narrative of progression towards a victorious climax decided upon by those in power.
Yet ghost stories haunt us between the cracks of those narratives of victory. Blood and sin will always come crying out from the ground no matter what spin we put upon it. Ghosts are a testimony to our willful blind spots. They haunt us and sometimes they grow angry enough in the midst of being ignored that they will even harm us if not confronted. Steve Freeling refused to respect the sacredness of the land on which his development and his house sat and he almost loses his daughter to the tortured souls in the television screen. The elderly gentlemen in 1981’s Ghost Story have covered up their part in the murder of a young woman and now she has come back from the grave to kill them.
Then there is The Shining which gives an interesting variation on memory. The ghosts of The Overlook Hotel are not directly tied to Jack Torrance specifically. Jack’s past mistakes and violence towards Danny take place in the inner turmoil of his mind whereas we, the audience, only see the violent past of the hotel upon the screen. We have no doubt that the ghosts of the hotel are only making his inner turmoil worse, exacerbating it to a point beyond hope and redemption. Yet, Jack is plagued by a past with which he is not directly culpable. Why does he pay the price for the violence and evil done before his presence at the hotel?
This echoes current issues about race in American society right now. White people declare that the sins of their fathers–slaveholders, KKK, Jim Crow policies, white supremacy–were their sins and their sins alone. Why, then, should we be charged with confessing sins we did not commit, asking for forgiveness, and seeking restitution by way of reparations. And, on the surface, there is an valid argument. Yet many of these people also claim to be Evangelical Christians, a people who hold a high view of Scripture. Yet the Scriptures often talk about how sin is never private and transcends generations:
“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” – Nehemiah 9:1,2 (NKJV, emphasis mine)
“In the thirty-eighth year of Azariah king of Judah, Zechariah the son of Jeroboam reigned over Israel in Samaria six months. And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, as his fathers had done; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin. – 2 Kings 15:8,9 (NKJV, emphasis mine)
“Moreover all these curses shall come upon you and pursue and overtake you, until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. And they shall be upon you for a sign and a wonder, and on your descendants forever.” – Deuteronomy 28: 45,46 (NKJV, emphasis mine)
These are just a few passages that speak to how sins affect and infect the people around us and those who come after us. While it is true that each person is held accountable for their specific individual sins, there is a rhythm to disobedience that travels from parent to child, past citizens to present citizens, and so forth. Zechariah did not depart from the sins of his father, Jeroboam. His father’s sins, or curses, were upon him and he walked in their ways. The children of Israel confessed the sins of their fathers. Why would they do that unless there was a part of sin that spoils the roots of the family tree? A dying tree cannot make good fruit, just like a sinful family or community cannot practice the fruit of the spirit unless they confess and repent both individually and as a family/community, or as a nation. The central figure of covenantal curses is Adam. The sin of all humanity began with the disobedience of a man (and a woman). The point is that sins are not exclusively individual, their public and communal consequences can echo through the generations. The son or daughter can get caught up in the same vicious cycle of sin as their parents did. Studies time and time again show that those who are abused at children are at higher risk to repeat the same behavior in their own lives. Same with addiction. Same with violence. Same with all sin.
So while Jack Torrance is not directly responsible for the acts of violence that happened in the hotel, his own acts of violence and alcoholism fall into the rhythm of the hotel’s curses making it easy for the hotel to exploit those individual sins in order to make Jack walk in the path of his forebears. Not to mention that the hotel’s manager, Stuart Ullman, casually mentions that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground. This calling back to the national sins America committed against the Native Americans which continue to be a curse on the heads of the children of America who have not confronted and confessed their sins and sought forgiveness from those who still suffer from the consequences of those national sins.
Jack is primed to be like the kings of the Old Testament, to walk in the ways of their fathers. The past, literally, consumes him and he becomes nothing more than another memorial to the hotel’s curse as shown by the picture in the final shot of the film. Jack was not able to recall his sins redemptively. His memory trapped him in a void of brokenness, hopelessness and futility. The work of redemptive memory is the Lord’s. It is a memory that places events in a context where we justly confront the reality of that moment, confess our own culpability in that moment, and seek forgiveness from God and from those we harmed or were unjust towards. This is something we cannot do on our own. We must rely on the God of our fathers (and mothers) who carried them through when they were dead in their sins as we are dead in our sins–and their sins.
Nearly seventeen years removed from the events of September 11, 2001, I live less in a remembrance of anger against those who blew up the World Trade Center towers (and the factions they served). I now memorialize that day as a day that an evil happened and many people died unjustly, yet, through my own studies, reading, and prayer, have come to the understanding that those events did not happen in a vacuum, but were in fact a sinful response to prior sin(s) that our nation committed against those in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries in recent history. While that recognition does not excuse the actions of those eleven men on that day, it does help me acknowledge the rhythms of sin that thread through the generations of our lives, both individually and collectively, in hopes that one day we will learn to remember redemptively and the ghosts that haunt us like those in horror cinema will be released and placed in His rest; a rest that is both just and gracious…and always present.