The death of Dick Hallorann in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is one of the great WTF head fakes in horror film history. It’s also one of the most infamous instances of the racist trope in which black people in horror are murdered to add excitement and pathos to the plight of white victims. And it’s a bleak, toothy acknowledgment of the racism of the looming white monster that is Hollywood, and the United States. In The Shining, which turns 40 today, May 23, this ugly history of the industry and the country is turned into a magnificently orchestrated — and queasily inevitable — jump scare.
Dick is the chief chef at the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains; he's also got psychic powers. He's wintering in Florida when he gets a mental distress call from Danny Torrance, the young, also-psychic son of the Overlook's winter caretaker, Jack. Jack has been possessed by the malevolent spirits of the hotel, and as he sinks into feral homicidal madness, Dick heads to the rescue. He catches a plane from Florida, drives across Colorado, and rents a snowcat to take him over the snowed-in road in the middle of a terrifying storm. He's arrived! Danny and his mom Wendy are safe!
And then just about as soon as Dick gets into the Overlook, Jack leaps from behind a corner and buries an ax in his heart.
The scene itself is a masterpiece of sound design and visuals. Dick enters the Overlook as you hear the wind blowing distantly outside, a faint whistling that makes the hotel feel even more empty and silent. Dick, played by Scatman Crothers, walks down the Overlook's cavernous, dimly lit hall, dead center in the screen, his feet making a soft thunk-thunk on the tiled floor. His back is to the viewer as he shuffles tentatively away; he looks awkward and vulnerable in his bulky coat.
"Anybody here? Anybody here?" he calls repeatedly, his voice echoing slightly. Then Jack Nicholson leaps from behind a pillar with a sharp howl, and as the ax sinks in, the soundtrack disgorges a scraping, hideous theme from composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Dick cries out in pain, and Danny, hidden away in the hotel, starts to scream, too, his shrieks indistinguishable from the music. The images cut from Danny's open mouth to Dick's agony, to Jack, whose tongue protrudes from his mouth. His face is a mask of gleeful concentration as he twists the ax in the wound.
Dick's death is the sole murder in The Shining, and part of its power is the way it's both a shocking twist and an inescapable climax. You think Dick is going to right the wrongs of the Overlook right up until that terrible, bloody moment when you know he won't. But once you know his fate, his long trip across the country seems, in retrospect, like a journey to the ax — you suddenly realize that sharp-edged doom that has been swinging throughout the movie.
It's not just fate that has come for Dick. It's prejudice. In the original Stephen King novel, Jack wounds Dick, but the cook survives, and escapes from the hotel with Danny (Danny Lloyd) and Wendy (Shelley Duvall). But horror films, in general, are unkind to black people, and that was especially true of those released during the '80s. As the site BlackHorrorMovies succinctly explains, "black actors and actresses are ... systematically relegated to supporting roles in the Hollywood system, and in horror movies, supporting roles equate to dying roles."
In other words, white people are the heroes; black people are not. So black people die.
The Shining only really has four major roles in it: Jack, Wendy, Danny, and Dick. Of these, Dick is the least important and gets the least screen time. He's there mostly to provide exposition, and explain to Danny and the audience how psychic powers work. The white family is the focus of attention. Dick, who — in line with a long, racist tradition of black people on screen — seems to have no family of his own, is just there to help the Torrances. So it's natural that Kubrick decided to sacrifice him to build suspense and up the stakes. That's what happens to black people in horror films.
Even by the standards of horror films, though, The Shining's racism feels particularly deliberate and premeditated. As Dick makes his way toward the Overlook, one of the ghosts in the hotel warns Jack the cook is coming. As they talk about Dick, they both repeat the n-word over and over, rolling it over their lips with almost sensuous bile. Jack is outraged that his son has called a black man for aid. His baffled anger is of a piece with his rage at Wendy when he accuses her of sabotaging his career because she wants to get medical care for their sick son. The Overlook looks into Jack's soul, and what it sees there is spittle-flecked self-pity and white male entitlement. Jack, in his own mind, deserves to be a success; he deserves to be a great novelist. He hasn't been able to fulfill his destiny. Some woman, some black man, some child, must pay.
The Shining is about the evils of abusive white men. But it's also a celebration of those evils. Jack is, after all, the film's main character, and Nicholson, eyebrows flexing with cheerful malevolence, gives the movie its most memorable performance. The grandiose, beautiful Overlook, with its ghosts, is a metaphor for Kubrick himself. They both magisterially orchestrate horrific images. Dick even tells Danny the ghosts are "just like pictures in a book" — or he could have said, just like pictures on a screen. Kubrick's formal mastery is also a kind of cold, sadistic control. He, and the Overlook, and Jack have got you. The film closes like a trap.
Dick's death is plotted by both the hotel and the movie, which makes the hotel a kind of metaphor for Hollywood, that industry which schemes constantly to kill people who look like Scatman Crothers. You can almost hear Jordan Peele yelling to poor Dick, back through the decades, "Get out!" But the doomed chef doesn't listen, his psychic senses useless against the force of Hollywood tropes. Someone needs to be sacrificed for horror; someone's corpse has to be the foundation for this great edifice. The hotel, like the movies, is a massive puppetmaster of death. It takes up Dick and takes up the ax. It brings them together from vast distances so they can be joined in an inevitable red marriage, giving birth to that terrifying scream.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.