Some of Mark Fisher’s best writings on hauntology orbit Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, whether writing about the film directly or The Caretaker’s sonic expansion on its themes.
Sound is central in general here. Kubrick’s films are all innately “listenable”, Fisher notes, and The Caretaker distills this down to the haunted ballroom, which is already an eerie space of presence and absence within the context of the film. We see it both empty and alive, but it only becomes a ballroom when the non-diegetic sound makes it so. The people who linger in the background of the scenes where Jack Torrance chats to the bartender are clearly mute, for instance, mouthing inaudible conversations without enunciation or meaning, corporeally present but affectively absent, whilst the crackle of 78s alone gives the room its appropriate atmosphere.
This is what makes the ballroom appear haunted. It is defined by its music, which makes us question the fact that we, like Jack himself, are “hearing what is not here, the recorded voice, the voice no longer the guarantor of presence”, as Fisher writes on his k-punk blog. Sound becomes a vector through which the time of the present is unfolded. The Caretaker makes this more explicit, taking the bounds and grooves of the circular disc, revolving at 78 rpm, and uncoiling it to become a labyrinthine straight, black line.
In this sense, as Fisher also writes elsewhere, The Shining is not simply a film about the past’s influence on the present. It’s “about the simultaneity of past and present, about the non-chronic, non-sequential time”, and the Stoic time of Aiôn, he suggests, in a nod to Deleuze’s Logic of Sense.
There, Deleuze considers how past and future seem to exist on a separate plane to now. Contrary to how we understand time, past and future are not subordinated and made relative to the phenomenological present, which utterly fills our perception. No, the past is not simply “that which has happened” and the future is not simply “that which is going to happen later”. For Deleuze, “There is always a more vast present which absorbs the past and the future.”
We see this in The Shining, if only at its end. Everyone surely remembers the first time they saw it and the subtle shock the final shot gives the brain — a bit like the ending to The Sixth Sense, albeit less often joked about, since The Shining retains its key ambiguity. (“I finally understand the ending of The Sixth Sense! Those were the people that worked on the movie!”)
The story of The Shining unfolds, at least for us, linearly — just as it does for the characters on screen. We follow its and their twists and turns, just as Danny roves around the Overlook’s corridors, but what we and he fail to see is the foldings, which the present roles over, inert like a marble. These folds only become apparent when we are unnerved by the visual non sequiturs of the Overlook’s ghosts, who intrude from elsewhere. They are the past intruding on the present, we believe, and leave it at that. But by the end of the film, we realise this perspective is insufficient.
When we see that famous portrait at the end, with Jack Torrance in the middle of the frame, the life and soul of the party, albeit photographed many decades before, we try to make the chronology make sense. If the ghosts that have haunted the Torrance’s are the past intruding on the present, is this the present intruding on the past? Perhaps Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a past caretaker? Or is the past merely repeating itself again? Maybe this past is simply Jack’s future?
The answer is none of the above. It is not significant that Jack Torrance the individual is in two times at once. Rather this undermines the very function of the individual. It turns him into a kind of “encasement”, to borrow again from Deleuze, “a coiling up of relative presents”. He is the caretaker, after all — the one who maintains the hotel; an important job, no doubt, but one determined by forces beyond himself. This isn’t how he thinks of himself, of course. Jack is a writer, and there is surely no clearer vector for the self in narrative film than that. (Not just something whose story is being told, but someone who tells their own story.) And yet, within a broader social hierarchy, the caretaker is at the bottom, less an exerciser of his own agency than a function, responding to the messes and accidents and breakages at occur around him. The hotel manager might insist that the hotel is at their mercy, for example, but when he leaves, the caretaker, the inverted manager who shepherds absent guests instead of present ones, is instead at the mercy of the hotel. He keeps things steady, at least until he forgets himself; then he is dissolved by the hotel altogether.
It is not simply a surreal analogy to say the Hotel plays the lead role in The Shining. It is true in every way. Unlike Jack Torrance, the hotel is not an encasement; it is “the extreme circle or external envelope”. The Hotel is Aion to Jack’s corporeal Chronos, and as Deleuze explains,
In accordance with Aion, only the past and future inhere or subsist in time. Instead of a present which absorbed the past and future, a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future, in both directions at once.
The present no longer subordinates the past and future; the past and future, as a kind of “thick” or “extended” present, both come to subordinate the phenomenological instant. Is it any wonder Jack goes mad? Aion overturns Chronos, Deleuze argues, by injecting into its domain the “becoming-mad of depth”.
Doctor Sleep, the 2019 sequel to The Shining, undoes most of this tension. As a translation of book to film, it is more loyal to King than to Kubrick, but nonetheless encases itself within Kubrick’s visual language and iconic set design. But something has gone awry here. Rather than the first film, made some forty years earlier, haunting the sequel, Doctor Sleep feels like familiar territory. It is not the story of a family torn apart but of families (both “good” and “evil”) coming together. The first film is curled up, transformed into its own encasement, made relative to and subordinated by its sibling, both visually and sonically. This does not feel like a continuation but a comfortable and stunted return.
Whereas the horror of The Shining comes from Kubrick’s subtle unravelling of Chronos into Aion, through Jack’s “becoming-mad”, the sequel emerges from the flattened time of our present — or, indeed, represents the ruinous present of Aion itself. Although it would seem, as Deleuze writes, “that the Aion cannot have any present at all, since in it the instant is always dividing into future and past … What is excessive in the event must be accomplished, even though it may not be realized or actualized without ruin.” This is to say that what is in tension in The Shining, the question of a quasi- and atemporal causality — the Stoic paradox that drives Jack mad: “to affirm destiny and to deny necessity” — is here resolved and made ruinous only to itself.
This works on a number of levels. It is not only true of the film’s narrative, for example, but also the film itself, present in our reality rather than its own fiction. This is to say that what haunts this film is not Al Bowlly, who “already sounds like a ghost”, but the motifs of fan-fiction, where everything is present and nothing ever really dies. It is postmodernism, we might argue, but postmodernism itself retains a tension — it is the reactionary nature of modernism writ large, modernism’s folding back on itself, an atemporality in motion, the horror of which The Shining makes active. But in Doctor Sleep, and often in our cultural landscape at large, this tension is made passive and is neatly resolved. This isn’t a jungle narrative, a Heart-of-Darkness descent into the anarchitecture of the self. This is an Amazon narrative, a subordinated jungle — and I notably watched the film on Prime Video — where everything is available to us all of the time and somehow devoid of entanglement in being so. This is “the present of Aion”, for Deleuze:
it is the present without thickness … the present of the pure operation, not of the incorporation. It is not the present of subversion or actualization, but that of the counter-actualization, which keeps the former from overturning the latter, and the latter from being confused with the former, and which comes to duplicate the lining.
If The Shining pulled back the shower curtain on a “pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out in a straight line”, Doctor Sleep curls the line back around. In the original, it is the hotel that haunts, and it cannot be defeated. They can escape its grasp, but the Overlook does not end. It is particularly poignant, I have always thought, that Jack Torrance is halted in his murderous rampage by the cold. Though he “dies”, that the last time we see him is as a frozen gargoyle is telling. Hell might have frozen over, but like The Thing, that other aionic entity, it retains the intensive possibility of being thawed out again later. At the Overlook, impossibility is turned into compossibility.
In Doctor Sleep, we might expect this thawing out to occur, and it does, in a way. But we are also thrown back in the land of the all too human, less aware of forces beyond us, now at war with the corporeal itself, as Danny Torrance goes to war with a gang of ghouls who eat shines. Like vampiric capital, they can live forever if they eat well, wholly detached from the present like those ghosts that haunt the Torrance’s, but this is no longer a story of haunted Stoicism, in which we find ourselves at the mercy of indifferent forces and “incorporeal effects”. This is the story of Danny Torrance putting the pieces of his fragmented time back together, closing the loop, subordinating Aion back to Chronos. It feels good, in the here and now, but soon becomes internally incoherent. The Danny we meet in incapable of responding to the past, present and future; the Danny we say goodbye to is responsive to the present only.
In the end, the Overlook burns down, the nightmare is over and Danny is dead. “But we go on.” The film tries to affirm two truths. The present is all there is, and we are divine in our finitude; and the past and future never end, and in them the events of our lives are infinite. Both may be true, for a Stoic, but not simultaneously — or at least, not in the same temporal sense. One is interior, the other exterior — inside of time and outside of time as we know it. Doctor Sleep subordinates everything to its own interiority; Danny wins, at first, by paradoxically compartmentalizing the outside inside of his own head.
At one point in the film, an adult Danny is employed as an orderly in a hospice. The patients know him as Doctor Sleep. On the night of your death, when the hospice cat, sensing the inevitable, sits on your bed to watch passively and disconcert you, it is Danny who acts, talking to you and using his shine to comfort you at the end. It’s a nice gesture. But this is the overall effect of the film itself. It soothes the horror — a strange operation for a horror film — by making it personal and ours, and contradicts itself in the process. What was always powerful about Kubrick’s film, and indeed all of his works, is that they affirm an eternal return which, in Deleuze’s words, “is not longer that of individual, persons, and worlds”. Danny comforts those in the instant of their death, but this gesture becomes universal. In the process, he betrays the ghosts of his life. Doctor Sleep the film does much the same thing, betraying the ambiguity of its source.
This isn’t to argue that the film must affirm the horror of life and death, affirm its own misery. Rather, it should affirm the distance that Kubrick depicted. As Fisher wrote:
Unlike most Hollywood film-makers, Kubrick is no emotional pornographer — the point is not to identify with the characters. Such identification would merely reproduce the redundant subjective narcissism upon which consumer culture runs. What if the point were to escape from this hall of mirrors? To see ourselves in these characters, yes, — but from outside, instead of from inside — so that we appear not now as passionate subjects but mannequins trapped within the hideous, remorseless machines that produce and feed upon our subjective intimacies.
Doctor Sleep‘s first betrayal is transforming these “hideous, remorseless machines” into other people, for whom the world (and hotel) are just a stage. Though Danny returns to the Overlook for the final showdown, the point is instead that
We are all in the Overlook — locked into the treadmill repetition of someone else’s past mistakes, the viral time of abuse-begetting-abuse —- yet escape is possible: but such escape is precisely out into the impersonal, the emotionless, the cold of the Overlook snow rather than the heat of Jack’s passion.
In this respect, Kubrick resembles Spinoza — someone who correlated passion with passivity, and who thought that freedom, far from being the default position for human beings, was something attained only when the dense accretion of repetition-compulsions and habit-programs which constitute human subjectivity was hacked through. God, Spinoza thought, could not feel hate — or love…