On 'The Shining,' 'Doctor Sleep,' and Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

[This article was written by Aaron Pruner and was originally published at Dread Central.]

Three things happened to me when I was nine-years-old: I almost died, I met my father for the first time, and I was introduced to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That was a watershed moment for me. Little did I know these three components of what made that year so challenging would come together in this odd amalgamation that helped to shape my still unformed identity.

I had heard the name Stephen King in passing, but I was still at a phase where any interest in flipping through a book, let alone a Stephen King book, was non-existent. However, spending a lot of time alone at home, while my mother took my disabled grandmother on errands, led me to discover all sorts of television goodies. And on this random bright Sunday afternoon, I flipped through the stations and landed on the iconic visuals of a young boy riding his tricycle through an expansive, odd-looking hotel.  

Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was watching but the movie immediately latched onto something deep inside. Sitting there on the carpet, just a couple feet from the TV set, it was as if Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and most importantly, little Danny Lloyd, had me in a state of terrified hypnosis. By the time Jack Torrance was dead and frozen in the middle of The Overlook Hotel’s hedge maze, I was unmovable. It took a few minutes for me to snap out of it and discover the model toy car I had constructed had been smashed, subconsciously, by my own two hands.

Growing up in a fractured family, I felt an immediate kinship to Danny Torrance. My father was more a story than a presence in my life — a constant warning of how not to behave; an incessant threat of what not to become. His struggles with addiction and my mother’s own escape from the physical and mental abuse of that relationship left my childhood a bit barren, impacted by the lingering effects of my grandfather’s surprise death which transpired just three years before I was born. 

My household, looking back on things now, was filled with the pieces of un-dealt-with grief from the accident that took my grandmother’s husband from the planet. There was no therapy, no support group, no foundation for which to heal from the accident that seemingly tore my family in half. And being that all this transpired before I was born, I was just the recipient of the after-effects of such trauma. But as lost as I felt throughout my formative years, there was something about Danny — his NASA shirt, steady curiosity, and need for parental connection — that led me to my first real bit of on-screen representation. This is weird to say, but The Shining was the first movie that made me feel seen.  

As I got older, I did my best to hold onto this odd bond I had with a fictional boy. Was I Danny? In some way, I told myself I was. Yet as I was constantly warned to not become my father — who was an addict, an ex-convict, associated with the Hell’s Angels and, this is true, a short-lived ’70s adult film star — I felt it was an inevitability that I’d eventually stop being Danny, and start being Jack. 

"We are each chapters in the multi-generational story of our family, going so far back it’s impossible to find the start," Mike Flanagan recently told me in a late-night email correspondence. "It’s a story without a beginning or an end. We enter this story as a minor supporting character in someone else’s chapter, and all of their journey becomes our prologue. At a certain point, we take the center stage, and the demons, traumas, triumphs, failings, strengths, and weaknesses of our parents all come to bear on how our story will play out. It’s profound."

Profound is an understatement.

In Doctor Sleep, both the 2013 book and recently released movie adaptation, this exact concept is explored in detail. While I know the story was not written solely for me, it was hard to view Mike Flanagan’s movie and not feel like my ongoing kinship with Dan Torrance had reached a new plateau. The Shining is a story about mental illness and addiction, two topics I am way too familiar with. But Doctor Sleep … that’s a story about recovery. Dan’s recovery. And the movie came at an integral time in my own life that it feels as if Danny’s story has bookended a large, important portion of my story.

Doctor Sleep gives us Dan Torrance at his most broken. But he does get help, finally dealing with his own addictive personality and the lingering impact his dead father has had on his life. There’s a moment in the movie where Dan receives an anniversary chip at his Alcoholics Anonymous group and the little speech he gives about sharing this positive moment of hope with his father — who once stood in a similar place with the intention of getting clean for himself and his family — punched me right in the gut. 

It’s been nearly a decade since I put in my own emotional work to finally get to the crux of certain destructive personality traits and, after a lifetime of being taught to hate the man who helped bring me into this world, I too had a moment of spiritual kinship with my dad. He couldn’t have been all bad. Right? I’m not sure, but it’s a notion I’ve held onto.

Dan worked to reclaim his life in Doctor Sleep. Instead of drowning out his special talent with whatever drug or drink he could find, he embraced his gifts. And then, almost a decade later, a young magical girl named Abra came into his life, inevitably teaching him the importance of being visible and the power of being seen. But this relationship, in its infancy, brought a fair share of anxiety and fear back into Dan’s world. Last year, the same thing happened to me.

You know, I’m not going to use the cliche term that "I’m a work in progress." But there is truth to that saying. And no matter how far anyone can go, through therapy and whatever other positive tools that are at one’s disposal, we’re never truly fixed. 2018 was the year I learned I was going to be a father. 

How was I going to do this and not fuck up? What was the possibility that I too would continue the cycle of trauma, grief, and depression that has glued itself to my familial bloodline? And given my sheer lack of knowledge about my dad and who he really was, how was I to know whether or not certain destructive personality traits of his weren’t just stamped on my DNA as soon as I was spat out into this world, only to resurface once I eventually held my baby daughter in my arms?

I was used to being Danny. I was afraid of becoming Jack.

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve dealt with my own struggles with addiction and depression. Self-inflicted mental abuse was my drug and to get the stuff that triggered this odd comforting high, I’d turn to any avenue — physical or emotional — that would result in some form of punishment. If I was to continue down this path, there was a high probability that this pattern would be renewed in my own daughter’s internal and external machinations. I couldn’t have that.

There were many sleepless nights that transpired over the course of that year. The panic attacks were constant. Self-doubt is quite a bitch and this strain of it, the kind that convinces you that history will repeat, that there’s no escape from whatever pre-destined outcome you’ve been running from, is a jagged knife stuck right in the proverbial tire. 

"There’s only so much we can control," Flanagan continued as if he was imparting a helping of life advice, while also explaining his own proclivity in telling cinematic stories about the lingering effects of familial trauma. “The story is written on our genes. We are powerless to change so much of it – our hair color. Eye color. Proclivity for addiction. Likelihood of heart disease. Expected longevity. So much of our story is written for us, and those words are etched into literally every cell of our being… the idea that there are things we can change is a profound and beautiful one for me.”

The constant lack of sleep, the incessant fears of fulfilling my father’s destructive legacy in my own dadhood, the biting anger that I was even put in this position in the first place … it was all quite exhausting. The more I fought it, the more this oddball collection of personal demons would come closer to stare me right in the face. These invisible monsters were sucking the life from me like my own personal True Knot — Rose the Hat’s community of psychic vampires in Doctor Sleep who hunt and eat children’s magical souls.

"Danny Torrance, as the next chapter of Jack Torrance, is a critical inflection point that resonated with me very powerfully," Flanagan went on. "Because he could go either way. His story was written in blood and terror when he was brand new – just a supporting character in the defining climax of Jack Torrance’s struggle with adulthood, sobriety, and his own nature. How does Dan claim agency over his own story?  And even if he can come to terms with what happened to him, what does that look like?" 

Dan Torrance does not head back to the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s version of Doctor Sleep, because, in King’s The Shining, the hotel burned down. But there’s the resonant choice by Flanagan to put Dan back in that bad building to face the monsters of his past — as well as the ghost of his father, to try to appeal to whatever good might be left in Jack. It felt like a poignant decision. I’ve seen the movie twice. I cried both times.

All these internal shouting matches I had with my father, all these imaginative worries, each and every concern and self-inflicted character assault … every single one of them seemed to dissipate into the background as soon as my daughter Lily was born. I’d be lying if I said the internal conflict was resolved completely. But knowing the chaos is my own, and claiming agency over the story, instead of simply being words on the page of someone else’s narrative, has created a different outcome. Sometimes I feel like I’m living someone else’s life, because I was never given the room to imagine this existence as my own. 

"The complexities and contradictions of Dan’s feelings about his father — the man who made him, who raised him, who tried to kill him, and who would also define his adulthood — are the real stories of this world," Flanagan concluded. "These are the moments that make me want to make movies. They strike a chord with me, and even if the answers aren’t apparent, I want to explore the questions."

Flanagan’s vision of Doctor Sleep ends with Dan facing his childhood trauma and demons head-on, only to set The Overlook ablaze — much like his father did in King’s 1977 book — sacrificing himself in the process, leaving the building a pile of ash in the hopes of protecting a young girl from the monsters of the world, ultimately putting a stop to the cycle of grief that has plagued him his entire life. 

It’s a drastic measure, to be sure. But honestly, I’d do the same thing. Would I lock myself in the boiler room of the structure that housed the traumatic ghosts of my past in order to save my infant daughter from a predestined future? Without hesitation. Without a doubt.