CABIN FEVER

Re(living) The Shining amidst a pandemic

Prologue

Confinement feels against human nature. Despite the fictitious necessities of productivity and the sweet distraction of the black mirrors, ultimate suffocation seems inevitable. As sunlight begins to merge with the fluorescent, one wakes up each day to another yesterday. Slowly retiring from casual conversations, isolation becomes an additional side effect to the warped perception of time. As if to regress in the line of evolution, the posture becomes homo habilis, owing to one’s anchored disposition on the sofa. Suggesting a peculiar shrinkage, the rooms feel smaller each passing week. Exhausting the resources of paper to rid ourselves of impurities only raises the level of strain. The place can no longer sustain all three of us.

Chapter 1: “You’ve always been the caretaker”

Amidst the exploding, impending doom that is 2020, I found myself sitting on the floor in my childhood bedroom, surrounded with the specters of my earlier selves. Still at the height of the pandemic craze, the mementos of the alternate me’s in the forms of toys and frayed diaries intensified my anxiety of uncertainty and brought an overwhelming urge to escape. However, that was impossible, for I was dressed in my mother’s pajamas. Foolishly believing that the state mandated quarantine would only last three weeks, my sudden retreat to my parents’ place entailed a mere backpack of current possessions. Out of naivete, I was ill-prepared for the sense of claustrophobia and the horrifying relapse into the disciplinary rules of my constricting childhood. My mother oversaw the domestic chores I was to do, while my father took back on the task of inquiring whether I have completed my coursework for the day. Quarantine had bestowed upon me a psychological case of Benjamin Button-ing. Therefore, dressed in my mother’s floral apparel and my father’s extra-large socks, I was contemplating a flight to freedom. If not physical, at least metaphorical.

In hindsight, attempting to find refuge in rereading The Shining while entrapped during a global pandemic was not the brightest of ideas. Wendy’s futile shots at inventing projects of timepass, Jack’s frustration with those efforts as he struggles to find peace to write, and Danny caught in the middle of a parental discord evoked different aspects of my daily existence and felt eerily familiar. In this cautionary tale, Jack Torrance, an aspiring author and ex-teacher, brings his family of three up to the Colorado mountains to the Overlook Hotel, where he is employed as the winter caretaker. While Jack is thrilled with the opportunity for it gives a chance of completing his play in total solitude, his wife Wendy is hopeful but doubtful over Jack’s promises regarding his sobriety. Among their adult realities, their gifted son Danny is placed as the drive for the supernatural. An uncanny psychic ability, Danny’s “shine” conjures up the diabolical powers of the hotel as the family battles inner demons. The Overlook Hotel presents as the claustrophobic background and perform the heterotopic duty with darkness, silence and solitude. With their horrific tale of descend into madness, the Torrances encapsulate the suffocating reality of quarantine.

It is unfathomable to dissociate the corona lockdowns with commonly inhabited spaces. One might have been born into that exact apartment, yet the restrictions of quarantine slowly annihilate the normalcy of the familiar. Despite recognizing all the furnishing, the pictures and the household faces, the forbiddance to leave one’s place of residence long term, hinders the reality of the space. It becomes an echo of a previously existing realm. One’s most familiar habitat morphs into an alien territory. Michel Foucault defines heterotopias as sites where disparate places are “are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault, 1967, p. 6) Long-time confinement allows ordinary spaces to be turned into heterotopias by manipulating reality. Constant exposure to the same visual warps one’s sense of time. Foucault refers to places where “temporal discontinuities” exist a “heterchronia” yet, in essence, all heterotopias are exhaustively chronic. (Foucault, 1967, p. 6) My own experience of being quarantined with my family in our home allowed me to realize the feeling of “placelessness” and lost sense of time that Foucault attributes to heterotopias and led me to register The Shining on another level.

Like most heterotopias, hotels disturb or intensify the usual sense of time. One’s life tend not to revolve around hotels, they are usually temporary residencies for particular purposes. By nature, hotels present an “other space” since they function disparately for different people at the same time. Tiny rooms that allow strangers sleeping in so close proximity, long and silent hallways displaying the rooms like dominos, and kitschy still life paintings add to the creepy atmosphere. Combining mythical qualities with everyday features, hotels juxtapose a kind of placelessness with a disciplinary heterotopian site. The act of recognizing the transitory nature of the habitat grants the person the chance to behave outside of their previously accustomed traits. The textual space of the Overlook Hotel is essentially uncanny for it possesses the quality of representing the unfamiliar in quite a recognizable place. The layers upon layers of lives lived and meanings attached catalyze the unthinkable. By choosing a hotel as the backdrop of his narrative, Stephen King creates an opportunity for a disorienting and destabilizing reading experience. The author verbalizes the multilayered peculiarity of hotels through the former Overlook employee Watson who, while giving Jack Torrance the first tour, says:

“Any big hotels have got scandals,” he said. “Just like every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go. Sometimes one of em will pop off in his room, heart attack or stroke or something like that. Hotels are superstitious places. No thirteenth floor or room thirteenth, no mirrors on the back of the door as you come in through, stuff like that.” (King, 1977, p. 31)

Highlighting the inherent uncanniness of the hotel, King draws the villainous strength of the Overlook from the fact that it contains so many intimate aspects of different people’s personal narratives. As a result of its multilayered disposition, the hotel is presented as being capable of juxtaposing seemingly incompatible places in a single space. In addition to contextual factors, the author makes sure that the physical elements surrounding the hotel support the drowning confinement the characters are about to experience. True to its disposition, the place is represented as being “simultaneously mythic and real” (Foucault, 1967, p. 24). In the novel, Stephen King intensifies the heterotopic nature of the Overlook Hotel by magnifying its seclusion. Far removed from any sign of civilization, the hotel is placed among sheer rock so high one could barely see the top. King describes the oxymoronic heavenly placement of the hotel through Wendy’s eyes as she arrives:

For Wendy, it was discovering truth in a cliché: her breath was taken away. For a moment she was unable to breath at all; the view had knocked the wind from her. They were standing near the top of one peak. Across from them — who knew how far? — an even taller mountain reared into the sky, its jagged tip only a silhouette that was now nimbused by the sun, which was beginning its decline. The whole valley floor was spread out below them, the slopes that they had climbed in the laboring bug falling away with such dizzying suddenness that she knew to look down there for too long would bring on nausea and eventual vomiting. The imagination seemed to spring to full life in the clear air, beyond the rein of reason, and to look was to helplessly see one’s self plunging down and down and down, sky and slopes changing places in slow cartwheels, the scream drifting from your mouth like a lazy balloon as your hair and your dress billowed out… (King, 1977, p. 89)

The stark contrast with the hotel’s transcendent location and its sheer size with the unholy sensation it evokes foreshadows the looming downfall of the family. Heterotopias, such as hotels, have the capacity to isolate at will from the spaces surrounding them which makes entry or departure conditional. Though there is no actual restriction against departure from the Overlook, the remote location, the impending winter conditions combined with the supernatural forces at work prevent the Torrances from even imagining leaving once they arrive. It is clear that the hotel is to be a battle ground for the members to face several challenges in total solitude. Similar to Wendy’s mixed yet powerful response to the hotel’s overbearing presence, Jack feels the unease bleeding from the Overlook that could take over his family: “As he got behind the truck’s wheel it occurred to him that while he was fascinated by the Overlook, he didn’t much like it. He wasn’t sure it was good for either his wife or his son or himself.” (King, 1977, p. 272) However, Danny perceives the smothering wickedness present in the place most clearly as a result of his “shine.” It grants him the ability to foresee the oppressive solitude awaiting his family:

Beyond the playground there was an inconspicuous chain-link security fence, beyond that the wide, macadamized drive that led up to the hotel, and beyond that the valley itself, dropping away into the bright blue haze of afternoon. Danny didn’t know the word isolation, but if someone had explained it to him he would have seized on it. Far below, lying in the sun like a long black snake that had decided to snooze for a while, was the road that led back through Sidewinder Pass and eventually to Boulder. The road that would be closed all winter long. He felt a little suffocated at the thought. (King, 1977, p. 98).

Although The Shining explores its characters’ responses to inner dilemmas such as Jack Torrance’s clear struggle with alcoholism or Wendy’s doubts regarding the course of her marriage, the Overlook functions as the catalyst for the manifestation of the characters’ reactions to each. Confinement with no possible escape draws out each one’s dark side and plays them against one another. By locating its very much flawed characters inside a limited, and presumably evil space grants the novel the opportunity to analyze the disruptive outcomes of quarantine. Earlier in the novel when Jack interviews the hotel manager for the position, he employs the term “cabin fever” to explain the psychological condition that might have taken place with the former caretaker who ended up massacring his whole family. He defines the phrase saying:

“It is a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence — murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.” (King, 1977, p. 12)

Chapter 2: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”

April was definitely the cruelest month. By then, we knew the contagion was not a minor issue. The previously granted “holiday” that turned each household into an indie bakery began to morph into an endless nightmare as the cases continued to increase. As Kelvin Knight confirms, heterotopias are “most effective when it distorts the conventional experience of time,” by either accumulating continually or being extremely fleeting (Knight, 2014, p. 17). Quarantine rendered our place a dreadful prison where a second lasted approximately a decade. As a family, we persisted on deceiving ourselves with pointless time killers. My mother kept with her embroidery while my father devoted himself to political reading. Because of my preoccupation with a disorderly work schedule and considerably heavier classwork during the day, the only time I could spare for leisurely activities was at night when both of my parents were sound asleep. Regardless we were to follow Jack’s utterances, “A stupid man is more prone to cabin fever just as he’s more prone to shoot someone over a card game or commit a spur-of-the-moment robbery. He gets bored” (King, 1977, p. 13). None of us in the family were stupid enough to let ourselves be bored enough to do something stupid. That’s when the obsessive behaviors emerged. Sunbathing cargo packages, constant cleansing of any alien item, repeated physical self-examinations. Our fatigue over a weary routine motivated us to direct our attentions towards the actions of the others. The only “others” available inside. Whenever I got up to enjoy some solitude in the only possible room, my mother quizzed me regularly: Where are you going? Our symbiotic existence became insanely natural that the mere act of departing the room warranted ludicrous interrogations. It drove me mad. Slowly but surely, cabin fever was getting to us.

Heterotopias provide a desirable setting for horror fiction for their inherent temporal and spatial characteristics that easily confuse its inhabitants (Hosseini, 2018, p. 59). Confining characters in a single location immediately increases the tension of a story. Seclusion of any kind evokes an act of introspection and contemplation over one’s personal struggles (Vuohelainen, 2010, p. 3). The difficulty to harmonize for a sustained period of time contributes to the characters’ individual struggles with personal complexes. Although their stay at the Overlook begins with high hopes of productivity and relaxation, as the winter conditions get more severe, the conflicts start to take place among the Torrances. Cold and icy whether alongside the howling wind increase the level of claustrophobia implying the unattainability of escape. Because Jack is the Achilles’ heel in the family due to his former problem with substance abuse and resulting inclination towards violence, he is the first one to show cracks. Deeper into the confinement, even small talk start making him agitable. Upon catching Jack investigating the history of the hotel through an ominous scrapbook, Wendy asks questions regarding her husband’s sudden enthusiasm towards the hotel:

“Find anything interesting?”

“Not much” he said, having to strive to keep his voice pleasant now. She was prying just the way she had always pried and poked at him when they had been at Stovington and Danny was still a crib-infant. Where are you going Jack? When will you be back? How much money do you have with you? Are you going to take the car? Is Al going to be with you? Will one of you stay sober? On and on. She had, pardon the expression, driven him to drink (King, 1977, p. 258)

A fictitious manifestation of King himself, Jack Torrance’s principal struggle is between his determination in writing and his relentless desire to drink throughout his confinement. Like the placeless mirror, the hotel provides Jack with a false self-perception over his ability to write. “A floating piece of space,” the Overlook permits Jack to leave behind the societal expectations regarding his creations and the place promises to operate both as a “great instrument of economic development,” and “simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination” (Foucault, 1967, p. 27). Though he initially perceives the job at an isolated hotel as an opportunity to finally have the time to write in peace, soon he realizes that confinement out of necessity is dissimilar to preferred seclusion. Solitude brings back Jack’s compulsion of heavy drinking. His tenacious need for alcohol becomes the primary obstacle in Jack’s creative process. The lack of distractive outlets aggravates his thoughts regarding the numbing effects of a drink and hinders the necessary concentration for writing. The frustration Jack feels externalizes through his reactions towards Wendy and Danny both of whom, he thinks, are the actual interrupters of his workflow. He blames them for constantly disturbing his writing process by asking meaningless questions or playing around while he works. When Wendy refuses to give him his painkiller replacement for alcohol, Jack’s frustration towards his wife instantly flares up:

“No Excedrin,” she said. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” he said, “these’ll do just fine.” But of course they wouldn’t, and she should have known it, too. At times she could be the stupidest bitch…

“Want some water?” she asked brightly.

(No I just want you to GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!)

“I’ll get some at the drinking fountain when I go up. Thanks.” (King, 1977, p. 260)

While writing is a demanding endeavor in itself, trying to write under constant interruptions is just painful. At around mid-April, the government decided businesses to operate under the “new normal,” for there was no end in sight for the quarantine. This meant that the classes were back in full force. Our small apartment began to function as an office, a classroom, a cafeteria, and a place of residence all at once, becoming “the smallest parcel of the world” and then “the totality of the world” (Foucault, 1967, p. 26). Three months into the confinement, I was to complete three research papers in requirement of my PhD courses. As the conditions of being entrapped began to affect the spirits of the family more severely, the same dull topics of discussion reheated every single day became intolerable. The initial patience and sympathy shown was outstripped by brutal honesty. I began to snap at my mother’s “unbearable nagging” quite similarly to Jack’s each time she kindly came into my room to bring me water which I believed was the cause of my distraction from the work I was waiting to be distracted from. I believed whatever I was able to produce was worthless.

Lack of visual and social nourishment induces an uninspired state of mind. What feels like eternal confinement harms the creative process of an individual. Although Jack Torrance is never described as a prolific author, the initial phases of their stay at the hotel brings about a sense of inspiration to the character. By nature, heterotopias “makes it possible for the subject to locate him/herself in a place where s/he is not” through the process of reflection (Hosseini, 2018, p. 43). The hotel supplies Jack an unshaken belief in the benefit of seclusion without the interference of financial troubles and the primary change of scenery leads him to a satisfactory purge of buildup emotions over his previous teaching job. Wendy listens delightedly to the ceaseless sounds of her husband’s typewriter as Jack writes his very autobiographical play titled The Little School. However, the detrimental effects of quarantining inside the insidious hotel causes a sharp decline in his abilities and distorts Jack’s perception of his work: “He looked down at the play with smoldering ill temper. How could he have thought it was good? It was puerile. It had been done a thousand times. Worse, he had no idea how to finish it.” (King, 1977, p. 377)

Epilogue

Despite the fact that Stephen King’s The Shining is highly fictional in its depiction of supernatural horrors of haunted hotels, it frankly encapsulates the stranger than fiction reality of a quarantine life, approved by first-hand trial. Having “the curious property of being in relation with all other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror or reflect,” the Overlook Hotel helps deconstruct the traditional conceptions of family relationships under severe circumstances (Foucault, 1967, p. 24). By furnishing the story on a heterotopic canvas of a creepy, lonely hotel, the author conveys the extreme effects of long-term confinement quite honestly, especially on creative minds. Based on King’s personal experiences with substance abuse and writer’s block, The Shining creates a framework of what to expect when it comes to the unexpected conditions of a family lockdown and reveals the ease for an ordinary space to metamorphose into an uncanny heterotopia. I’d like to conclude this paper with a quotation summarizing the ramifications of cabin fever that dawned on me while trying to finish off this paper. How, after the traumatic quarantine, one cannot keep their mind from always being occupied with the hatefully loving place of confinement. After Danny’s encounter with an unknown woman in the Room 217 that leaves him scarred and catatonic, Wendy comes clean to Jack about the effects of the ghastly place:

“Danny said it just right… the place seemed good for you. You were away from all the pressures that made you so unhappy at Stovington. You were your own boss, working with your hands so you could save your brain — all of your brain — for your evenings writing. Then… I don’t know just when… the place began to seem bad for you. Spending all that time down in the cellar, sifting through those old papers, all that old history. Talking in your sleep”

“In my sleep?” Jack asked. His face wore a caustios, startled expression. “I talk in my sleep?”

“Most of it is slurry. Once I got up to use the bathroom and you were saying ‘To hell with it, bring in the slots at least, no one will know, no one will ever know.’ Another time you woke me up, practically yelling, ‘Unmask, unmask, unmask’”

“Jesus Christ,” he said and rubbed a hand over his face. He looked ill.

“All your old drinking habits, too. Chewing Excedrin. Wiping your mouth all the time. Cranky in the morning. And you haven’t been able to finish the play yet, have you?”

“No. Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I’ve been thinking about something else… a new project”

“This hotel” (King, 1977, p. 361–362)

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. (2009). ‘Les Hétérotopies.’ In Le Corps utopique suivi de Les Hétérotopies. Edited, with an Afterword by Daniel Defert. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, 21–90.

Foucault, Micheş, (1967). ‘Of Other Spaces.’ Translated by Jay Miskowiec. In Diacritics. 16.1 (Spring 1986): 22–26.

Foucault, Michel. (1966). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.

Housseini, Seyyed Mohsen (2018) “Macabre Collectibles: Collecting Culture and Stephen King” Retrieved from: https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/13465/Hosseini_SeyyedMohsen.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1

King, Stephen. (1977) The Shining. Random House LLC, New York.

Knight, Kevin (2014) “Real Places and Impossible Spaces: Foucault’s Heterotopia in the Fiction of James Joyce, Vladimir Nobakov, and W.G. Sebald” Retrieved from: http://www.heterotopiastudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2014KnightKTPhD.pdf

Vuohelainen, Minna (2010) “Cribbed, Cabined, and Confined: Fear, Claustrophobia and Modernity in Richard Marsh’s Urban Gothic Fiction”. Journal of Literature and Science. Vol 3, No 1. 23–26.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rânâ Yürüker

Rânâ Yürüker

writer, filmmaker. Into anything remotely mysterious. Currently doing PhD on Literature and Cinema.