The Shining (1980) is an interesting film. At first, it feels like a traditional horror set-up - a guy gets hired to spend the winter in an enormous hotel, secluded from civilization, where obviously something will go very wrong. As the film develops, it becomes more mysterious, ambiguous, threatening, and hallucinatory. By the climax, you’re left wondering exactly what just happened. Nothing brings out that feeling more than the film’s final shot - a zoom in on an Overlook staff party from 1921, where it appears Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the film’s lovely central character, is standing front and center.
(The photograph, by the way, is an actual photo from 1921 with Jack’s head airbrushed onto another fellow’s body.)
So what’s Jack doing in 1921? In a film full of ambiguities, the photograph is something director Stanley Kubrick actually discussed in interviews. His answer not only explains the concept behind the photo, but serves to counter some other theories as to what’s going on overall at the Overlook Hotel.
Stanley Kubrick said, “The ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack.”
That means that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a guest or someone on staff at the Overlook in 1921. This corroborates many theories involving Charles Grady, the man who went stir crazy and killed his family in the Overlook (which Jack is informed about during his interview for the position) was the reincarnation of Delbert Grady, the ghost butler Jack meets in the hotel bathroom. The Overlook seems to have the power to recall reincarnated versions of its past guests and employees. Delbert Grady tells Jack that he’s “always been the caretaker,” implying the hotel continues to revisit its past inhabitants. It keeps calling back Gradys and Torrances to offer them a good vs. evil scenario, and they choose evil.
A popular conflicting theory is that the photo is effectively a collage of all the guests the hotel has “claimed” over the year - when Jack dies, his spirit gets absorbed into the photo, and thus into the hotel’s history. Even though the reincarnation theory came directly from Kubrick, the absorption theory is still plausible.
Either way, the end result is Jack becoming part of the hotel. Whether he’s on a list of victims or a reincarnation, he’s doomed to be stuck within the walls of the Overlook forever.