Obsession Grows Tedious in Room 237

Being a Shining fan—of both the book and the movie—I was curious to see Room 237, the documentary about the many theories spawned by Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I’ve seen Kubrick’s version of The Shining more than five times—maybe even more than that—and never read too much into it. I always thought it was a damn fine movie, and I particularly liked the device of Danny’s index finger being his imaginary friend Tony (sometimes simpler is scarier) and Scatman Crothers’s performance as Dick Hallorann. After seeing the movie, I can never imagine anybody else as that character.


I’d been waiting a couple of weeks to see the movie and was grateful that the IFC Center was still showing it. After buying my ticket and entering the theater, I was thrilled to recognize it as the one where I saw Ron Perlman in The Last Winter several years before, and I remembered a nice red-and-black bathroom tucked away in the basement. I never made it down there, though, sidetracked by a display of T-shirts that at first glance appeared to be logos of heavy metal bands. Looking closer, though, the names were of arty directors in the style of heavy metal bands—there was Fassbinder, Herzog, and my personal favorite, Carpenter. I’m not sure about the trademark issues for this, but it’s a fun idea.


We went upstairs to a theater that I hadn’t been in before and waited…and waited…and waited for it to open. After being seated in the lobby for more than twenty minutes, the crowd had grown large and people actually formed a line to get into the movie theater. Reluctantly we joined them, but it didn’t make a difference as to better seating choice. The theater was full of overstuffed purple-and-white seats that were all sprung, and my chair felt like my father’s broken-down La-Z-Boy. My friends and I got four seats together, and all felt the same way about the chairs. Such a shame, it’s getting harder and harder to find a good, comfortable theater in New York.

Smart-people shorts were shown before the movie—one about politics and another about how Iraqi citizens who had risked their lives to help the U.S. armed forces during the war were now not being allowed promised refuge in the United States (as a result of their help, they were being assassinated by enemies). A woman came in late during these shorts and took the aisle seat next to our group—I knew we should have shifted over one more to close the gap. She had the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, and I didn’t think anything of it, except That should go rather quick.

The documentary Room 237 starts out strong with one man’s theory about what the Calumet baking powder means in a few scenes of The Shining, where the cans are prominently displayed. The theorists’ faces are never shown. Instead, the movie’s visuals are clips from the The Shining that have been slowed down to a crawl so each and every detail of a scene can be analyzed; some behind-the-scenes footage and stills of the movie are also shown. This part I really enjoyed, as I could appreciate how much really goes into building a scene. It was mesmerizing to see Jack Nicholson psyching himself up for his famous ax-wielding scene off camera and almost whacking one of the film crew in the head, and there are so many in-jokes in The Shining that I had never picked up on before because the images fly by so fast.


The faceless theorists of Room 237 started to get on my nerves, though. A speaker starts out with a theory on the movie—some are very strong and hold up—but then after you’ve started down the path with them, quite a few veer off into Crazytown. It reminded me of being in a bar, where you meet somebody for the first time and think, Wow, this guy seems really nice and smart, but then the conversation takes a turn and you realize the person is batshit crazy. The problem becomes how do you extricate yourself from this conversation?

With Room 237, I had paid $13 to be part of these conversations, so I was damned if I was walking out. I tried to tune out the annoying theorists, but then I ended up picking up on the peccadilloes of audience members around me. Like the woman with the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, which she made last for forty-five minutes by eating it kernel by kernel, all noisy, openmouthed chewing. After that, she took out her iPhone and made Facebook status updates before leaving, bored. Not to worry, a guy behind us started up being annoying once she left, with big, rumbling snores.

I think my threshold was very low because the theorists were annoying me, and I didn’t feel like I could trust any of them, and that in turn dialed up the annoying quirks that I can usually tune out.

Does American Horror Story Have Legs?

When I started watching American Horror Story at the beginning of the season, I think I was as perplexed as everybody else by the number of ghosts who crowded out the regular human cast. All of the different puzzle pieces were shocking and controversial—a gimp in a latex suit, a maid who “belongs” to the house and fluctuates in age between her twenties and sixties (and in personality between sluttiness and stark formality), and nurses in bloody uniforms. It was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the story was fractured, as only one aspect could be presented in a forty-or-so-minute episode, and I could only marvel at the strangeness and irregularity of the pieces. At one point, the story wasn’t gelling for me, and I was going to quit watching the series. There’s only so much time and so many series out there. Right before I was about to quit, though, the story started to come together in some sort of coherent fashion.

Now that the series has progressed, and I’ve seen the different decades of stories acted out on the stage of the haunted house, I’ve been thinking about the series’ title American Horror Story, and how all of the stories represent America or American. The series can be quite clever, but I’m not sure how far it can continue now that it’s given away all of its conceits.

All of the stories revolve around the character Constance (tartly played by Jessica Lange), an aging Southern belle who sits like a fat spider in the middle of this web, sucking everybody dry within her reach. She’s a ruined beauty who’s destroyed her face with too much plastic surgery, whose words are honey sweet, but if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll flay you to the bone.

Constance’s children are a wise-young daughter with Down’s syndrome, like one of Shakespeare’s fools who speaks the truth in nonsensical lines; a teen son who’s a psychopath, part of the rash of school shooters taking out classmates with multiple weapons; and a deformed but good-natured ogre locked away from the public.

When the traumatized Harmon family first moves into the centerpiece of the story, the house, husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) and wife Vivien (Connie Britton) are trying to heal their marriage after infidelity, along with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, who has inherited her older sister’s acting chops). Constance inserts herself into their lives right away—chasing or looking for her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) who is attracted to the house.

Constance wants the house. She has lost so many of her children to it, and I suppose she wants to be around them all the time. Shortly after the Harmons move into the house, Vivien finds herself pregnant with twins after a sexy night with her husband and the gimp ghost (who she thinks is her husband coming back for a second round). That act galvanizes the house and its ghosts as they move to claim each member of the Harmon family, one by one.

There are two settings overlapping in American Horror Story—modern LA and all of the stories and ghosts from the past that have overtaken the house. However, with each episode, more and more of the human cast join the undead. With each new ghost that pops up, it makes me wonder, What’s the point of using modern LA as a setting? At this rate, Constance is the only human left, and though she is a fascinating character, she cannot carry the series alone in modern LA. That leaves the house as a setting, describing a limbo between heaven and hell, but I’m not finding this very gripping now that all of the ghosts are explained. They can relive their tragedies and interact with other ghosts, but there’s no new ground to cover.

A story must have parameters; that’s what makes a story. You have a beginning, a middle, an end, and the story is complete in and of itself, but a series is always trying to bust out of these boundaries. I think probably one of the goals of a series is to go on infinitely, but I find American Horror Story to be overreaching.

The series’ creator Ryan Murphy has said with the conclusion of this season, he will be focusing on a new haunted house and new ghosts and human characters in the second season of American Horror Story. I’ll dial up a few episodes on Hulu when it starts to see if this is working. I have my doubts, though. The UK series Skins did quite well with a revolving cast, but that fit the season cycle since the show follows school-aged kids and they do graduate and go off into the world. I’m not sure how much more I can get invested in another season of American Horror Story if everybody’s going to be killed and claimed by a haunted house.