The Treachery of Images: The Accidental Cryptographer



One thing I’ve realized a million times: if I think something on this site needs more work, it needs more work. Before I discovered the handful of little codes the final 21 photos represent, which you’re about to read about here, all I had was a hunch that there was some language to them. I had written about that hunch in several places, saying I hoped someone would unlock it someday. Turns out that someone is me.

This all started as I was writing the script for the documentary series explaining my ideas about how the Four Directions subtext relates to the film’s phi grid compositions. I came to the point where I was explaining how I’d noticed that the photo to the right of photo Jack only ever reappears in the games room (play), and how the photo to his left only reappears in the lounge (work), and how the photo above photo Jack appears beside him all throughout the interview (heaven), and how the photo below him reappears all over the place, and at fairly sinister moments sometimes (hell).

It had been my concept, ever since discovering that the photos repeat throughout the hotel at all, that this was all we were meant to take from what I now call the Final 21 (F21) photos. After all, the “heaven” photo was the most recurring and shoved-in-our-faces of any photo, it seemed to me (we see it 13 times throughout the interview, in every cut back to Jack’s responses). So at the very least, once I’d noticed that, I couldn’t completely dispense with the feeling that this final wall of photos meant something. Then, upon realizing that the only places these landscape-style photos appear was the lobby, the games room, and the lounge, the fact that the “work” and “play” photos were totally segregated (between the games room and lounge) felt like a cute extension of the logic of having a “heaven” photo. And the “hell” photo felt like the obvious distention for “heaven”.

But I hate saying anything in any part of my analysis that someone might someday come along and rightly poke a hole through. At least, not without qualifying that what I’m saying is a 10%/35%/50% (self-educated) guess. And what I’ve discovered in these photos is beguiling (to say the least) in its near-perfection. I would love to throw the gauntlet down and say “Behold the glory of Kubrick!” But the glory could’ve been even more glorious, more breathtakingly perfect, and I’m wondering why it isn’t. I’m being vague here, but I think you’ll understand what I mean best if I tell you how I stumbled on the pattern–and let me start by saying, I’d long, long, long suspected that there was a secret language to the photos, but I was terrified of learning what it was. Since there’s 21 photos in the F21 Key, I thought it might be something like an alphabet (minus the vowels, say), and I was afraid I would discover a message saying something like, “Fuck the Beatles!” and I would spend the rest of my life pretending not to have ever noticed it.

But curiosity got the better of me: I started out by making a colour code for the F21. Then I made a screenshot for every moment from the film where a landscape-style photo appeared (including every repeat view of the same wall), and catalogued and colour-coded all of those. This meant going through each screenshot and highlighting each F21 photo as it appeared. Once I felt that I’d found every instance of a repeat, I’d strike the image, as seen here.

The Jack photo doesn’t reappear anywhere, so it gets no colour. At first I only suspected that it wouldn’t, I didn’t know that it wouldn’t, but it turned out to be that way.

Then, since multiple F21s could repeat in a single shot, I made a series of folders where I’d put a copy of each image where each F21 appeared. So, at that point, to keep the files organized, I numbered them 1-21, with the numbers corresponding to the photos like so.

And once I had them all in one place, it was easy to see how many times each photo reappeared. As in the case of these three shots of the eastern part of the Colorado lounge’s north wall, where we see that there’s a 17-value, a 6-value and a 14-value (on the day Jack’s throwing the ball at the wall), for a grand total of 37. But when Wendy’s being backed into the wall during the lounge fight, her head blocks the 14, making it a 23.

23. 37.

If this is somehow the first thing on this site that you’re reading, you might need reminding that the evilest room in the hotel is room 237. And that room happens to be right above and behind this 23-37. (I’m planning on writing a section that will list every instance of 237 in the film, which should someday be on the receiving end of this link, which at the moment is just a look at timecodes having to do with the number.)

So yeah, this was the first thing I started to notice. These point values were frequently adding up to things, or making a sequence of values that presented a familiar number. The example of this that hasn’t stopped playing through my mind the past two weeks (since I first noticed it) is how when Danny’s emerging from his experience in room 237, deep in the distance is a 13-value and a 10-value, and right by his head is a 7-value, for a neat little 23-7.

Then, as he moves forward, leaving behind the 7, first a 15 and an 18 appear to make 33, and then a second 7 appears on the stairs. So it’s not just that Danny can’t escape 237. Now it’s 23-33-7. That’s three times the 3-ness!

Once I noticed stuff like that I knew I was either on to something, or this truly was the most spectacular coincidence series in film history. Again, not wanting to be wrong in my assertions, I set out to catalogue every photo in the film, and as you can probably tell from the graphic below, this was no mean feat.

There’s mistakes on here from when the power went out in my building, and the shapes that were lying around got burned into the image as per my last save. So if you ever find yourself checking my work, and you notice a discrepancy, that might be why. There’s a few things I knew would look wrong to others (like some colour codes are shared between two different photos), but I knew what the weirdnesses were, so as far as I’m concerned this is good enough to be fact-checked.

The other big hurdle to feeling secure in my findings is that a great many images only ever appear horribly blurry. Like the Left-Behind Danny (LBD) wall in the Games Room, half of which is only ever seen both blurry and while the camera is moving, creating an extra layer of smudge. So like, notice the orange hexagons in the games room. The two on the Right-Behind Danny (RBD) wall are clearly the same image, but the one on the LBD wall is only my best guess from studying the 100 unique landscape-style photos that exist in the film (I’ve confirmed 89 unique images, and 19 remain too obscure to be sure, like the 4 on the LBD wall here without a colour shape).

Perhaps as many as 90-95% of the only-blurry photos I’m confident are the one I think it is. And I was especially careful to compare suspected F21 photos with any non-F21 that has a similar layout. Notice, for instance, how the yellow hexagon, black star, dark grey star, and grey star photos (in the above image) are all of a group of men in tuxedos standing in a line. And notice how easy they are to confuse with each other at a glance.

And if you think you can imagine the headache I got doing all the squinting and scrutinizing of these images…think again. This was by far the least fun of any study I’ve done of The Shining, but the results have been tantalizing enough to power me through the quagmire.

Oh, and blurriness wasn’t the only hurdle, just so you know. There’s also the phenomenon of photos randomly swapping with one another mid-movie. Like how the two times we see the south-facing wall of the northernmost western pillar in the lounge, the collections of photos are almost completely different. Except for the three I’ve highlighted, which, when you think of them together, seem to make a little pyramid (the red lines show the way the two sets make swooshing curves that, together, would make a sort of pyramid shape).

And if that seems delectably suggestive, there’s other times when the swaps don’t seem to be about much at all, like when only these two photos become different photos for every scene following the one where Jack’s whipping the tennis ball.

So you can imagine how it was that I made a few mistakes upon my first analysis. But I think it was all pretty much worth it for what I uncovered.

Click here to continue on to Room Totals and the Work/Play Dynamic