The Masque of the Red Death – May 1842

by Edgar Allen Poe



King’s Shining is replete with overt references to Poe’s short story, including a lengthy passage acting as flavour text at the novel’s opening, alongside the reference to John Lennon.

I couldn’t find many overt references in Kubrick’s version, but note how in the upper-left image above, there’s a red balloon sitting by a plant, as Jack heads to the ghost ball. The song he’s hearing that draws him there is Jack Hylton’s Masquerade. But when he arrives at the ball, nobody’s wearing a mask. In fact, there are two literal masks in the film, worn by the BJ bear (my theory is that Shelley Duvall was inside the suit), and a tiger mask in Danny’s bedroom in boulder. So literal masks are more associated to mother and child, which is consistent with the Pillars of Hercules imagery.

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It should also be noted that the hero of Poe’s short story is named Prince Prospero, which means he shares a name with the main figure of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is about an ex-duke of Milan (Prospero) whose power was stolen by his brother Antonio (Tony?), and then set adrift on the sea, until he and his daughter washed up on a remote island, where he learns sorcery, which he uses to control the weather and the monsters there. He creates an anti-masque and masque to help teach his daughter Miranda the values of chastity and a life well lived. Anti-masques and masques were a cultural tradition symbolic of civilization’s ascent out of barbarism.

If Shakespeare was critiquing the tradition of a masque and anti-masque, I do not know. But it seems that both Poe and King were doing so, and that Kubrick was either softening the blow, or subverting King’s use somewhat to suggest an overall societal trend toward advancement through technology (hence the Apollo 11 shirt). I think this comes down more to a difference of writerly goals, than a major rift in personal philosophy. Horror writers are interested in scares, and sometimes the easiest way to scare someone is simply to undermine their cultural values.

The blue balloon probably foreshadows Wendy’s return to this room during the blue skeleton ball.

In the shot with the balloons leading to the ghost ball, he has the red balloon sit behind the plant, just as Corman has the red death (in the technicolour procession) sit by the tree.

You know, I’m starting to wonder if that’s what all the indigenous motifs symbolize: the hotel’s own masque. Like, “Look! Aren’t we civilized! We built our civilization on the dead bodies of indigenous people’s, sure, but look! We hung portraits of them all over the place! We used their motifs in our décor and construction in almost every room! Sure, we’re bringing designers from Chicago to slowly remodel the hotel and gloss over that fact. But we had it before, and that’s what matters.” In fact, through that lens, the Gold Room remodelling is especially interesting (the place where Wendy really gets overwhelmed by the beauty). The only remnants of the Apache and Navajo in that room are in the light fixtures. And then, in its bathroom, there’s no motifs at all. It’s like, as bad as the appropriation of indigenous culture might look, in light of their largely unacknowledged genocide, it’s even worse to paper it over completely, and act like nothing ever happened. Like “it’s all forgotten now“.

As for the anti-masque/masque concept: Jack’s first approach to the Gold Room features him gesticulating wildly (in four different spasms of motion), and anti-masques were characterized by people behaving wildly, in reference to ancient, foregone barbarism. Jack’s second approach is calm and curious and civilized (after his initial tantrum with the goblets and rings in the lobby back halls).

But since the Overlook’s masque is inherently a cover for great evil, and since Jack was less in danger of murdering his family when he was in the anti-masque half of the film, there’s a reversal going on. This romanticization of the more civilized past is the “Make XYZ Great Again!” phenomenon racking the world today. It’s as if Kubrick (through King, Poe, and maybe even Shakespeare) is showing how even the ritual of masques and anti-masques, where the past is denigrated in favour of the more civilized present, is kind of a paradoxical critique of human nature. Like, sure we’ve come a long way in some respects, but we’re not immune to either devolution. We’re not immune to carrying out atrocities in the name of social progress.

Wendy looks at the tiger (Tony) mask while the doctor asks Danny to lay in bed for the rest of the day.

To balance this out, Kubrick is also showing the positive attributes of social progressivism (as in Apollo 11, or the profound folk poetry of The Beatles), and Tony certainly functions as a kind of masque for Danny. When Wendy sees the grotesque Pooh bear mask, she’s seeing the worst manifestation not only of herself, but of her own Tony: Winnie. Wendy’s not aware of her (minuscule) shine power, and probably doesn’t even realize that that’s what she’s seeing in this moment, but since the connections between Wendy and Winnie are so clear, I wonder if this is what Kubrick’s saying. People who shine, people with a wholesome connection to a second self, may or not think to see the connections that exist between themselves and this symbolic other, who may manifest as a historic/mythological figure or a pop culture icon. The way so many of us will most relate to a Frodo Baggins or a Mulan or a Black Panther or a Wendy Darling, but not take the full lesson, not take the bad with the good.

I thought it would be good to note here something I read recently: Paul McCartney visited the set of Masque of the Red Death, just as Beatlemania was taking off. That’s probably relatively coincidental with everything else going on that connects all the film’s motifs, but consider that George Harrison visited The Shining‘s set, and might even be hidden in the film.


You might be aware that the numbers on the boxes in the pantry correlate to the Aarne-Thompson codes for the fables referenced by the film. Well, it took me a ridiculously long time to consider that these numbers might also tell us things about the various time codes throughout the film. If that sounds cool, head here to check it out, but for this analysis we’ll just be zooming in on one of these, the number 1439 next to Jack’s torso here, overlaying the woodpile outside the garage.

So far as I know, this is the only box that is on screen at the exact moment that the movie’s time is the time on the box. The movie’s official time is 23:59, which is 1439 seconds. It’s in this very moment that Jack gives his “word” that he’ll “take care of the business” of killing Wendy and Danny. So it occurred to me that perhaps there was something special about this moment. Like, Kubrick’s not one to leave something like this to arbitrariness, right?

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Well, for starters, the above image isn’t quite right. I went with it because the number is easier to see than in the real 1439 moment, where the shot is fading into the Gold Room part of the tour. That means that at 1440, Jack is completely inside the Overlook, and we won’t see him go outside again, until 7823 seconds (which is 11:07 on the other side, our Tower of Babel number – which might be on the cover of the magazine Aileen Lewis is holding by the TV behind Jack). Actually, if you extend the gap to the moment Jack actually leaves the mouth of the hotel, and begins to chase Danny, this is at 131:00, which is exactly 107:01 from that first point.

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Tower of Babel isn’t the point here (or isn’t entirely the point), I just wanted to show how these moments have a way of connecting to the time code.

The point is: the reason Lloyd and Grady and the 237 ghost appeal to Jack is that they allow him to let down him social defences. Every time he deals with one, he seems to become a little more wild, a little more feral. And isn’t that the point of a masque and an antemasque? That they allow us to reconnect with our genetic ancestry in a way that we know we need to do, but don’t fully understand why, and so become a kind of shamanistic release of evolutionary tension. When the cry comes to unmask, it’s the exhilaration of leaping through time, but it’s a leap forward in time, back from our wild and mysterious feral ways into our present sense of propriety. And when does the Overlook cry to unmask?

At midnight.

Which is one minute after 1439. So as Jack becomes absorbed by the hotel at 24:00/1440 (right after passing one of his first murder victims, the snowcat), he’s being granted access to the unmasking, and is only released again, once this pasteurization-of-the-soul process, and the work of killing Dick Hallorann, is complete. Although, on the flip side of the mirrorform, when the Grady chat is the forward action, Jack gives his word at the exact moment that the backwards shot fades into him being in the outside world again, as if signalling the freedom Grady will grant him in 17 seconds.

This might be a good time to mention how, at 24:07/1447 is when Wendy says that pink and gold and her favourite colours, a second before walking into the Gold ballroom for the first time. It’s partly cool because the box with 1439 is for peaches, and the ones above and below it are for Golden Rey (pink and peach are fairly synonymous in English, but also, you know, to the naked eye).

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The Golden Rey box has 25786 printed on it, and that number, divided by 3 makes 8595.3. And 8595 makes 143 minutes and 15 seconds, otherwise known as the exact length of the Golden Shining. I’ve wondered in other analyses if this is a nod to how we’ve got three feature-length ways of analyzing the film: the mirrorform, Redrum Road and the Golden Shining. There are, of course, numerous other styles of interpretation that I’ve explored on this site, but those are the three that deal with the film as a whole. Indeed require the film to be its whole length.

But since we’re talking about Wendy’s favourite colours, this notion of 3 full-length Shining movies brings to mind the fact that in the European version, the ball that rolls up to Danny is golden, while in the American version (the one I’ve exclusively been analyzing), the ball is pink.

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I only noticed this thanks to rewatching Room 237, which is evidently edited using the other version. But you can see how Kubrick achieved this effect probably by treating the image itself, which rendered all the colours on the rug darker, and had relatively little effect on the pink stars on his Apollo 11 sweater.

But this isn’t the only of these pink/gold phenomena. When Danny approaches room 237, the lamp inside is pink. But when he shines it to Dick later, it’s gone gold.

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When Kubrick takes us inside the room, he gives us two lamps of approximate colour, as if to say, “Yeah, I know what I did there.

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The mirror moment puts the pink (1439) in Jack’s head, and the gold (25786) on Wendy’s shoulder.

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The mirror moments for these are also interesting, since both feature Jack in the Gold Room. Once while confronting the reality of Wendy’s story about the room. “Which room was it?” he asks.

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Once while strolling through his preferred fantasy.

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This fantasy/reality concept is furthered by the way the gold shot is framed with a phi grid approach.

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While the pink version has a rule-of-thirds framing.

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It’s probably also worth noting here how the Torrance apartment, Suite 3, is all pink on the adults’ side.

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Golden in Danny’s room.

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And a mixture of gold and pink in the middle.

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So it seems to me like the pink (American) and gold (European) balls are our invitation to the fantasy and the reality of this masquerade. But I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dry as one’s a fantasy, and one’s a reality. The length of the “fantasy” edition is 143 minutes, a Fibonacci number, which is a technique rooted in science. Whereas the 119-minute version (which I’ve not seen), might cut to credits around 117 minutes, which would be the Tower of Babel number again, which is rooted in religion.

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The tendency, I’ve noticed among my YouTube commenters, is to believe that Kubrick has a “preferred” version of the film. The Americans want to think it’s their version, the Europeans want to think it’s their version. I’ve long had problems with the pacing of this version I’ve spent 2.5 years of my life pouring over, so perhaps I’d find a 14-minute-reduced version more appealing to the senses. But I’ve scanned the list of deleted scenes, and I can see how this would render perhaps the majority of my analyses impossible to decipher. Is it possible that the shorter version has its own host of secret buried codes? Maybe. But it doesn’t have any scenes that this movie doesn’t have. So it would be working with all the same (undeleted) art objects, the same repeating lines of dialogue (where applicable), and all the same cultural references, like the Christian-themed music or the Norse-themed day placards. So he’s working with the all the same kinds of symbols, but reduced to a length that makes the Four Horsemen portals, and Danny’s lessons and escapes, and the Fibonacci Shining, and lots more, no doubt, impossible to figure out. So my gut tells me that the Tower of Babel time code is telling us that the European version is the version that Kubrick confused the language for, as it were.

And that’s not a dig. In fact, I think that’s a profound artistic statement. That he would create a version of the film whose confusion reflects the other version’s cohesion is almost mind-bogglingly clever. But it’s a serious test of our eyes and our minds. And that’s what this masquerade is all about.

I also want to mention that, as I was attempting to decode all the other films in Kubrick’s canon for a project called Mass Mirror, I found a Poe connection between Dr. Strangelove and Lolita. In Lolita, Humbert reads Poe to Lolita, drawing her attention to the wordplay in Poe’s writing (specifically, the poem Ulalume), and in Dr. Strangelove, POE is the combination of letters in Jack Ripper’s insane writings that Mandrake realizes is likely a jumble of the three-letter combination that will save the world. In the mirrorform for that film, Mandrake’s discovery comes soon after the President is informed that “the 23rd airborne division is stationed 7 miles away at Alvarado.” Alvarado was the name of a conquistador, who, in 1530s was in the area to be searching for El Dorado, which was supposedly discovered in 1537. And one of Poe’s last poems was called Eldorado, about an old man going off and searching for the lost city toward the end of his life. Lines from that poem echo lines that General Buck Turgidson says after crisis seems to be averted.

Now, 1537 is not 1439 or 1438, but it’s interesting that these numbers would be so reminiscent of one another. And El Dorado is a lost city of gold, so that goes with everything we’ve been looking at.

Speaking of tests for our eyes, I also noticed 1439s showing up in a test for our ears.

In the novel, Danny has his own version of movie Danny’s lessons and escapes, and they have to do with page numbers and the Fibonacci sequence. That’s a big subject we don’t need to get into, but I wanted to mention that, as the book approaches page 197 (the middle of his lessons and escapes), Danny is laying in bed, trying to decode Tony’s messages to him. And how he slides into that subject is by thinking (on page 194) about his friend from back in Vermont, Robin Stenger, whose father got taken to a sanitarium for behaving strangely. Danny reflects, clutching his Winnie-the-Pooh doll that he doesn’t want to get taken away by the dreaded MEN IN THE WHITE COATS. He wants to tell his mom and dad about what it’s like to have Tony living inside him, to have shine power, but he doesn’t know where to draw the line with them.

Winnie-the-Pooh was the imaginary friend of Christopher Robin, and here we have a Robin Stenger, whose father was losing the ability to tell what’s real and what’s imaginary. Well, the Stenger test is a hearing test designed to do exactly this. To use science to weed out people pretending to have hearing problems from people who actually have them.

So, as I was analyzing the film’s music, I started to notice 1439s and 1438s, and even some 1437s popping up in the way various songs were placed throughout the film. Here’s a list.

  • It’s 14:37 between the second and third performances of On the Nature of Sound #2 (121:03-135:40).
  • The final performance of On the Nature of Sound #1 ends at 114:37.
  • There’s a 14:39 gap between the second and third performances of Polymorphia (114:29-129:08), and this one’s especially cool because it includes the pantry scene with Grady, and for 3:49 of that scene, there’s a 1439 box on screen.
  • The last performance of Dream of Jacob ends at 4:39 of that song, thanks to a jump in the music. The action in that moment is Jack fleeing room 237.
  • The gaps between each performance of Utrenja: Kanon Paschy add up to 1438 seconds. It’s possible I’d shaved the seconds wrong (a lot of songs begin and end mid-second), and it’s truly 1439, which would go well with the fact that this song accompanies Jack getting clubbed and sliced by Wendy, and finally trapped in the maze by Danny. But maybe that’s why it would be 1438, because this isn’t Jack’s betrayal of his family, it’s his family’s retaliation. In that case, perhaps 1438/23:58 represents a moving backwards in time from midnight.
  • The gaps between the Utrenja: Ewangelia performances add to 9:34, which felt like a nice, backwards nod to the other Utrenja song. Fitting, since this song accompanies Jack’s murder of Hallorann, and Wendy’s discovery of Hallorann’s corpse. Also, given there’s a “1” missing in this number, I’m reminded of the fact that two of the songs at the ghost ball (the two Al Bowlly tracks, Midnight, the Stars and You, and It’s All Forgotten Now), were recorded in 1934.
  • The second performance of Ewangelia is made up of an 81-second portion and a 34-second portion: a 1438 jumble, perhaps. The following performance does a similar thing, where it plays for an 18-second portion, followed by a 43-second portion. And just to be clear, in case I haven’t mentioned: Kubrick used songs that are very difficult to tell when he’s jumped to a random other part of the song, without a break in the sound of the soundtrack. So, when I say “performance”, I mean an unbroken chain of sound on the soundtrack. And the “portions” are different parts of these songs jammed together unbeknownst to the average listener’s ear (myself included).

It was from looking at all these religious songs connecting to the time code that I finally looked up 14:39s in the bible, and sure enough there’s a small handful (even more if you’d count 39:14 entries). And while a few could vaguely apply to this moment, the one that caught my attention was Samuel 14:39, which is about a time when King Saul was trying to get his soldiers to agree to help him kill his son Jonathan (the name that “Jack” comes from) for eating honey, despite Saul’s decree that no man should eat before sundown (Jonathan thinks this decree is silly because it requires soldiers to fight while weak from hunger). In the 1439 scene, Jack is shown to have eaten a mess of carbohydrates, like crackers and spam and peanut butter, during his (6:30am-4:00pm) time in lockup. The verse goes, Saul: “As surely as the LORD who saves Israel lives, even if it is my son Jonathan, he must die!” But not one of the troops said a word.

I should mention too that Saul’s beef is especially with the Philistines, who Samson later genocides, and Samson is referenced in one of the hotel’s paintings.

This is the only of the verses that come up in the 14:39 search that contains the word “word”, and it’s about no one saying a word. And in Jack’s 1439 moment, he says a word, and that word signifies his willingness to kill his son. There’s a fair bit of sun and moon imagery in the film, and Saul sounds like Sol, the sun god. So, Jack taking on the attitude of Saul could reflect his wanting to join the ranks of the sun demons. In fact, on his way to kill Geryon, Hercules shoots an arrow at the sun god, who gives him the golden bowl he’ll use to ride the Atlantic waves toward Geryon’s island.

As for the novel, Jack first encounters a call to unmask on page 155, when he discovers the Overlook scrapbook. He finds an invitation to the Overlook’s grand re-opening, happening just three weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unmasking will happen at midnight, the card tells us.

Next, there’s a random cry of “(Unmask, unmask!)” that might just be happening inside Jack’s mind, on page 343, and then a true cry from the ghost ball ghosts on pages 352 and 353, while Grady is getting Jack to promise to deal harshly with his family.

The page opposite 343 is 105, the first page of Jack being alone at the hotel, or alone in any way. He’s reflecting that the hotel might be what he needs to really find himself.

The pages opposite 352 and 353 (95 and 96) are the end of Ullman’s tour, with Wendy coming down from the austerity of the Presidential Suite and then finding relief in the humble digs that will be their quarters. The page opposite Jack giving his word (pg. 382) that he’ll kill Wendy is page 66, the false start of Ullman’s tour (he’s interrupted), while Wendy recalls wistfully her honeymoon with Jack at the Beekman Tower in New York. Danny plucks this word out of her head, but mistranslates it to “beak-man”. In fact, book Jack rambles on that he gives his “promise” and his “sacred vow” to Grady too, which seems like a pretty sad thing to have opposite sweet memories of a honeymoon.

But yes, the calls to unmask happen opposite a) Ullman’s tour, and b) Jack being a man of the Overlook, alone and on his own. I suppose that’s the book’s version of what the movie did by having Jack never (visually) leave the hotel (he does somehow kill the snowcat, which he might do by way of some special inner access, but either way, we don’t see him do it).

I should probably consider the other 1439 moment: 14:39.

Here, the doctor is about to assure Wendy that there’s nothing wrong with Danny while Jack stalks past the door behind which Danny is hiding in his steel drawer. So, I know I’ve said it a million times, but the pretence was that Grady was letting Jack out to kill Danny and Wendy, but it really wanted Hallorann the most. If it wanted to, it could’ve nudged Jack down that hall with a ghost shine, like the one it’ll send Wendy in this very same spot, not much later.

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Oh, and here’s another cool one on that note. Tony/Danny writes REDRUM one time, says it 43 times in that scene, and says it 9 times the first time, drawing Wendy in for the “Danny’s not here, Mrs. Torrance” conversation.

And of course there’s the fact that the film is 143 minutes and 45 seconds, from the start of the logo, to the bitter end of the credits. That would be 143.75.

Then we could consider how page 143 of the novel is Danny’s first lesson, and how page 439 is Dick in the equipment shed while the hotel burns to death, contemplating murdering the mother and child, thanks to some shines from the hotel. On 143 Danny’s shines from Tony are intended to help the boy survive his ordeal, but they’re frightening. They’re also inspired by a line that comes from an artwork rooted in the science-friendly Fibonacci sequence.

When the hotel is shining Dick on 439, it says, “(Spare the rod, spoil the child.)” Which happens to be a common twist on a religion-friendly bible verse, proverbs 13:24. It’s intended to help the family not survive, and it’s meant to sound cooing. Dick does go some length down its rabbit hole before snapping out of it. And while this verse doesn’t completely jumble into what we want (1432 is the best it could do), those two numbers do add to 37, which is cool, but also, movie Danny’s lessons and escapes are based on a 1234-2341 pattern.

While I’m on the subject of book length, the total page count is 447. And midnight is 1440 minutes. So if we regard ones as twisted sevens, that could be a sly backwards 1440, minus a zero. Maybe that seems like a reach, and maybe it is one. The last page of the hotel burning to death is 441, at least.

And there is one really amazing moment in the timing of the song Kanon, which plays while Jack’s attacking suite 3. At 7439 seconds (2:03:59), that’s the moment that Jack’s axe finally punches through the bathroom door (on his 25th chop, as it happens – 17 gets him through the front door, and 12 get him through this one), and by 2:04:00 Wendy’s scream-of-horror face is in full swing. That would make it seem like Kubrick saw a twisted one in his sevens. But yeah, the portion of the song playing at that moment, ends at 7:19, which is 439 seconds. But that moment technically ends at the end of 2:03:58 (7:19 times two is 14:38), and 2:03:59 jumps back to 5:39 of the song. And there’s even a second layer of brilliance there, because what Kubrick did, for just those two seconds, was splice in a 2-second moment from earlier in the song: the time code 4:16-4:17. That means that Wendy and Danny’s “home” number, 4:17, is happening at the same time as this warped version of Jack’s escape number, 7439, which signalled the moment that he became consumed by the hotel, found his new home.

Next literary reference: Jeeves