Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining

Horror films don’t much more iconic than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and while that’s true in general for the movie, it’s particularly true about the ending. After the slow burn of escalating terror that is the Torrance family spending the winter in the Overlook Hotel, the finale is an explosion of horror and chaos, and sticks in the mind of anyone who watches it. It’s eternally remarkable to behold, no matter how many times you watch it.

In recognition of its significance, I’ve done a deep dive into The Shining ending, and have written this piece to explore what happens, what it all means, and how it compares to the Stephen King book that inspired it. To begin, let’s recap exactly what goes down in the final scenes of the classic horror movie…

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining July 4th Ball 1921 photo

What Happens At The End Of The Shining

It’s not always cut-and-dry exactly where the beginning of a movie’s ending is, but in the case of The Shining we’ll pick up with what is the only physical representation of the supernatural in the film: Jack Torrance being freed from the locked pantry by the long-dead Delbert Grady, who informs the temporary caretaker that he must take care of Wendy and Danny “in the harshest possible way.” What’s more, there is a ticking clock, as Dick Halloran is on his way to intervene in The Overlook Hotel’s plans.

Meanwhile, while Wendy sleeps, Danny walks into her room in a hypnotic trance. He takes the chef’s knife from the nightstand and his mother’s lipstick from her vanity, and, all while muttering the word, writes “REDRUM” on the bathroom door. When the muttering turns into screaming, Wendy wakes up and tries to calm him down – but the temperature in the room sharply rises as she sees in the mirror that Danny’s message is “Murder” spelled backwards.

Not a moment later Jack arrives at the room and begins to smash at the door with a fire axe. With no other option for escape, Wendy takes Danny to the bathroom, and she is successful in getting him out the window, which has a nice pile of snow outside it, letting him make his way gracefully to the ground. Unfortunately the gap in the window is too small for Wendy to get through, so she instead has to stay in the locked bathroom, armed with the chef’s knife.

When Jack gets into the bedroom he taunts Wendy while using his axe to smash through the bathroom door. He tries to reach in, but his terrified wife slashes at him and cuts his hand. He reels from the pain, but then finds himself distracted by the sound of Dick Halloran approaching in a snowcat. As he leaves to take care of the Overlook Hotel’s cook, Danny runs back into the hotel and hides in the kitchen. And once she is sure that Jack is gone, Wendy leaves the bathroom.

Dick enters the hotel through the front door, and starts wandering around the halls looking for the Torrance family. Announcing his presence turns out to be a fatal mistake, as Jack surprises him and lodges his axe in Dick’s chest. A horrified Danny senses this horrific murder and escapes the kitchen to run back outside, getting Jack’s attention in the process.

Wendy searches for her son in the hotel, but instead of finding him she is treated to nothing but horrors presented by the history of the haunted hotel. Instead of being inside, the young boy is out in the hedge maze being pursued by his father. Realizing that he is leaving footprints in the snow, Danny carefully maneuvers backwards over his own tracks, and is able to throw Jack off his trail.

Getting out of the hedge maze, Danny reunites with Wendy, and together they get into Dick’s snowcat and escape. Jack, however, gets turned around and lost, and eventually gives up, slumping to the ground. By the next morning he freezes to death.

Back in the hotel, a long tracking shot leads out of the infamous The Gold Room to a gallery of photographs on the wall – the camera eventually focusing on a shot from the July 4th Ball in 1921. As we get closer and closer, we see that the man in front of the massive crowd is none other than Jack Torrance.

So what exactly happened to Jack Torrance? What does that photograph mean? That’s what we’ll dig into next!

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance frozen to death in The Shining

What Happens To Jack Torrance At The End Of The Shining

Getting down to brass tacks, the Torrance family is in trouble the very second that they walk through the doors of The Overlook Hotel. While to some people the Rocky Mountain lodge comes across as simply a place with a dark history and a dark aura, Danny’s powerful gifts function like a battery for it, and give its evil the power to corrupt those who are vulnerable. Unfortunately for Jack Torrance, he makes for a perfect victim to the supernatural forces.

To say the least, Jack Torrance goes into his employment as caretaker of the Overlook in a fragile state. In addition to having recently lost his job as a teacher, he is also off the wagon following an incident that saw him dislocate Danny’s shoulder while he was drunk. Add in the resentment he demonstrates towards his family as he tries to be a traditional breadwinner, and what you have is Jack already wearing strings that the hotel merely needs to pick up and manipulate.

As seen through the various visions that the characters have throughout The Shining, The Overlook has taken many victims and installed them as permanent residents of the hotel – the prime example being Delbert Grady, who, like Jack, was also once hired to look after the establishment during a long winter. He too couldn’t resist the ghostly whisperings in his ear, and he killed his entire family and himself, becoming a new source for those ghostly whisperings as a result.

Had Jack been successful in killing Wendy and Danny, they too would have seen their souls forever trapped, but instead it’s just he who is rendered psychotic, dead and an everlasting presence in The Overlook Hotel through past, present, and future – fulfilling the “prophecy” of Grady’s ghost earlier in the movie when Jack is told, “You are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir; I’ve always been here.”

Danny Torrance writes REDRUM in The Shining

How The Shining Ending Differs From Stephen King’s Book

There is an entire CinemaBlend feature to be written cataloging all of the differences between Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the Stephen King book that it’s based on (stay tuned on that front…), but this piece is about the ending, and that alone provides more than enough material to explore.

To start there is the fate of Dick Halloran. Stanley Kubrick made the decision to give the Overlook Hotel’s head cook a violent and horrible end, whereas Stephen King’s original text allows him to survive. Jack Torrance gives him a serious whack with a roque mallet (the insane caretaker doesn’t have an axe in the book), but he recovers from the injury quickly enough so that he can fulfill his goal to help Wendy and Danny escape a terrible fate.

Then there is the whole hedge maze chase sequence, which was a wholly original idea created for the film adaptation of The Shining. The Overlook Hotel does have interesting topiary in Stephen King’s novel, but what the author originally came up with was animals that quietly come to life to attack. It’s a controversial choice in the eyes of those who prefer King’s version, but it’s also worth recognizing that bringing that effect to life realistically in 1980 would have been incredibly challenging.

So if he doesn’t freeze to death in a maze, what happens to Jack Torrance in the book? Pretty much the exact opposite. One detail from Stephen King’s source material that Stanley Kubrick didn’t include in the movie version is that part of Jack’s responsibility as caretaker is to maintain the boiler and ensure that it doesn’t overheat. Danny is able to survive his father’s supernatural/possession-driven rage because he distracts him just long enough for the boiler to start moving into the red zone – and the evil forces prioritize saving the hotel over killing the boy. Jack’s sanity returns when he gets to the boiler room, resisting the commands of the hotel, and he dies as the Overlook burns to the ground.

Obviously the book is very different, but thanks to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep a kind of peace has been created between the two versions of The Shining.

Ewan McGregor and Henry Thomas as Danny and Jack Torrance in Doctor Sleep Director's Cut

How Jack Torrance’s Story Continues In Doctor Sleep

When Stephen King wrote Doctor Sleep, he included a number of elements that specifically made the book a direct follow up to his version of The Shining and not Stanley Kubrick’s, and that put writer/director Mike Flanagan in an unenviable position even while working on what many filmmakers would consider a dream project. What Flanagan was able to accomplish, however, was truly astonishing – both successfully continuing the legacy of the legendary 1980 film and making a respectful, faithful adaptation of King’s sequel novel.

With the Overlook Hotel still standing at the end of the Stanley Kubrick movie, Doctor Sleep has the opportunity to revisit iconic locations in its storytelling, and also the fate of Jack Torrance (who is played by Henry Thomas instead of Jack Nicholson). With many of the lodging’s ghosts locked up in Dan Torrance’s mind by the time he returns to the Rocky Mountains, Jack plays multiple roles as the “power” comes back on in the derelict establishment – which is something that is actually better shown in the movie’s director’s cut. Jack takes on the parts played by both Lloyd The Bartender and Delbert Grady when dealing with his son, and seems to have all of his individuality and humanity stripped away (notably having no emotional reaction when Dan brings up Wendy).

It’s really at the very end that things come full circle, however, as Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep takes Stephen King’s original ending for The Shining and transposes it, featuring a possessed Dan Torrance distracted from a fight and rushing to the boiler room to try and stop it from exploding. Like the book version of his father, Dan is able to resist the influence of the hotel long enough for flames to start spreading, and as he dies he is reunited with his mother – and Jack’s spirit is presumably freed from the Overlook as it burns.

Hopefully this examination of The Shining’s ending has only served to enhance your appreciation of it – and if you now find yourself in the mood to watch the movie, you can do so by streaming it on HBO Max, purchasing it digitally, or by buying it on 4K, Blu-ray, or DVD.

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