The Labyrinth as Purgatory


The ending of Stanley Kubrick’s only horror film features a conceit not featured in the book: a chase through a snowy hedge maze at night. It is an iconic piece of cinema, merging claustrophobia, tension and despair. Every time I watch it I marvel at the brilliance of the child doubling back and covering his tracks. He outwits his psychotic father, turning the tables so that the killer ploughs deeper and deeper into the convoluted trap of his own death-drive.

Jack Torrance may freeze to death in the maze, but he fulfils a classic trope: the prisoner of the maze who wanders for all eternity. Often a maze will have a monster to mop-up these lost souls and bring the story to a close. Or there may be a time limit: Jennifer Connelly has thirteen hours to solve the labyrinth and rescue her baby sister. In The Maze Runner the high stone walls roll back during the day and close again at night; anyone trapped inside is attacked by strange mechanical-biological creatures.

The lost soul or purgatory element is still present in all these narratives. It is a powerful and enduring symbol. None of us can see our future, and so the ever-present turn of the labyrinth, obscuring what lays in front of us, is a haunting metaphor for our own sense of displacement. We are trapped in bodies which are trapped in an unravelling present. Our memories offer fading pictures of how we got to here. Omnipotence becomes a way of imagining a divine power that has the ability that we wish to have: seeing the past and future together as one meaningful tapestry. To see the whole might reveal to us an order to things that crystallises out of the chaos that we must navigate.


The last shot of The Shining makes it clear that we’ve been here before. We see an old black and white photo in the lobby dated 1921 that includes Jack Torrance among the guests, dressed for the period, beaming toward the camera. Evil repeats itself, replicates and finds new hosts. Jack Torrance has made a pact and is bound to it. When he enters the maze it is simply a symbolic gesture: he was already there, following its twists and turns blindly.

The killer is lost to himself, a man of contradictions and impossible futures. He follows an internal path that spirals downwards towards an inverted flame: it has no end, because evil is an event horizon and passing over it leads to an endless reconstruction of the crime.

The damned soul destroys reality over and over, until the cracks in the mirror are so numerous that he can never be pulled out by a thread. Instead he resides as the only guest in his infinite hotel.













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