from Collective Learning:
The following video is based upon chapters 16 & 17 of this analysis, though both the video and article equivalents contain their own pieces of unique information. The text version is slightly more in-depth as well.
One of the most frequent questions I’ve received about The Shining is “What does the guy in the bear costume mean?” The popular interpretation is that the scene is a throwback to a subplot of Stephen King’s book, in which a party guest in a dog costume has a homosexual relationship with one of the hotel’s former owners. For a detailed description of this subplot follow this link. The first thing to note is that in the film the guy is dressed in a bear costume instead of a dog costume.
A shift from dog to bear costume doesn’t have any significant effect on the aesthetic scariness of the scene so there must have been some sort of logic at work in Kubrick’s decision. The second obvious factor is that Kubrick has omitted the entire back story associated to the dog costumed man in the book, leaving his audience at a complete loss as to the scene’s meaning.
In researching the film I have found three thematic interpretations of the bear man scene and I believe Kubrick intended all three of these metaphors as part of the subliminal narrative. This chapter will cover the first of those themes.
There are actually several other references in the film to bears. The easiest one to notice is in the scene of Danny talking to the psychiatrist. In the close up of Danny we see that his pillow has a teddy bear face on it. Look carefully at this teddy pillow. Its eyes are similar in design to the floor dials of the gaping mouth elevator, which we’ve already identified as symbolic eyes, and the teddy’s mouth is bright red, which again is similar to the gaping mouth doors of the elevator.
Another connection is that both of these bear motifs are featured in relation to beds or bedrooms.
Now I won’t beat around the bush by building up to my interpretation of this theme. Some readers will probably disapprove or take offence at what I’m about to say regardless of how I explain it, so I’ll just say it outright. Danny has been sexually abused by Jack. Here is a piece of evidence which on its own acts as virtual confirmation of this theme. When Ullman and Bill Watson approach Jack in the lobby on Closing Day, Jack is reading a January 1978 issue of Playgirl Magazine.
First of all there’s the obvious homosexual innuendo, but the story titles featured on this particular issue include the following:
INTERVIEW: THE SELLING OF (STARSKY & HUTCH’S) DAVID SOUL
INCEST: Why parents sleep with their children.
HOW TO AVOID A DEAD END AFFAIR.
Of course the caption relating to incest is the one that’s relevant to this chapter, while the Starsky & Hutch caption may be a reference to Jack giving his soul for a drink and the affair caption could be related to Jack’s encounter with the woman in room 237. Notice how Ullman even points his finger at the magazine as if informing us of its significance.
Returning to the comparisons between the bear costumed man scene and Danny talking to the psychiatrist, sexuality is subtly referenced in both scenes. The bear man appears to be giving felatio to the man on the bed, just as the dog man in the book was carrying out a sexual submission role with his partner. The open patch on the bear man’s behind in the film simply adds to the sexual emphasis.