Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 psychological horror film The Shining contains one of cinema’s most bizarre and unsettling scenes – when Shelley Duvall’s character Wendy glimpses a man in a bear costume seemingly engaged in a sexual act through an open hotel room door, has been interpreted by many as a symbol of sexual abuse.
According to some, the bear is actually a symbolic representation of Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance, and his predatory, abusive behavior towards his young son Danny.
Stanley Kubrick was renowned for his meticulous and detailed filmmaking, with every item and moment purposefully placed to convey symbolic meaning and there are references sprinkled throughout the film that provide clues.
Bears appear in artwork in Danny’s bedroom, and there is an awkward scene where Danny wakes up with his pants down next to a large stuffed bear toy.
Danny’s conversation with the psychologist in another scene. When questioned about his imaginary friend “Tony”, Danny becomes defensive and refuses to discuss it further. The sexual undertones of the line of questioning suggest Danny is hiding abuse from the psychologist.
Jack’s choice of reading material in one scene – a Playgirl magazine with articles about "Incest: Why Parents Sleep With Their Children" – as intentionally placed by Kubrick.
When Wendy sees the bear engaged in a twisted scene of sexuality, Kubrick is having her confront the disturbing truth about her husband.
In this new light, the inexplicable bear scene takes on a layer of tragic meaning. The solution to Kubrick’s cryptic puzzle is that the Overlook Hotel itself represents the dark recesses of Danny’s mind, as he tries to process the childhood trauma of his father’s abuse with his psychic abilities. Wendy and Jack are projections through which Danny grapples with this pain.
The bear scene is no longer just bizarre – it’s a glimpse into the psychological impact of abuse. Kubrick weaves this difficult theme throughout the film in his signature subtle, symbolic style.