Contributor David Scott, Recovery Specialist for University of Pittsburgh and avid horror fan, breaks down how the genre has represented addiction and recovery in modern times and how staying spooky has helped him overcome his own personal demons
My mother was an addict.
At the age of 43 she was diagnosed with Lupus and prescribed morphine and the drug Soma for her pain. It didn’t take long for her to begin abusing her medications frequently and wasn’t uncommon for myself or my stepdad to push her awake as she nodded off on the couch with a lit cigarette in her hand…but it also wasn’t uncommon for us not to catch her in time and for her to burn a hole in the fabric.
We were fortunate that the fires never spread far before she jolted awake from the burning sensation the cigarette would cause as it hit the inside of her finger. Eventually the holes took over a lot of fabric in our home and my mother would move from the couch to the bedroom where we continued to see her do much of the same with the addition of watching her physical and mental health slowly decline due to the 1-2 combination of chronic disease and drug abuse. My mother passed from Cancer at the age of 57. If the cancer didn’t get her first, the addiction would have…as it did her brother five years later…as it almost did me a year after that when I had overdosed…as it almost did my nephew that same day when he overdosed on the same purchase.
“Addiction is a family disease.”
It’s a common phrase, and you can take it as a meaning of an inherited trait, or you can take it as a metaphor as to how an individual’s addiction can burn a hole straight through the fabric of the family. While I have had the unfortunate circumstance of being subject to both interpretations, I am not alone in my experience. One of the benefits of recovery support groups is that you find others who’ve suffered the same fate. You can either find someone that says “me too” or you can be that pillar to another. It’s why isolation is so detrimental to an addict. The more you sit in it sober or not, the more guilt, the more shame, the more of feeling like you’re a monster.
Stephen King makes it evident that he is quite aware of that monster in both The Shining and its sequel Doctor Sleep. Having battled alcoholism himself through the 70’s and the better part of the 80’s, King is very open about his recovery as well as his use of a 12-Step program to help overcome that battle. Therefore, it’s no wonder why Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining so deeply bothered him. In Kubrick’s version, Jack is icy from the start. Jack is the monster. As the opening credit’s role with the Torrance family on the way to The Overlook, there is no hope. Jack is distant and aloof as the rest of his family look upon the mountain range with wonder and excitement. Wendy and Danny immediately feel like lambs being led to slaughter, almost as if Jack himself has planned his caretaking job to dispose of them. The novel’s Jack Torrance, at least from an addict’s perspective, is more relatable. We see his battle and, sadly, we see him lose that battle. Where Kubrick’s obvious antagonists are The Overlook and Jack, King wants to understand that the true evil not only lies within the walls of the hotel but also within Jack’s addiction to alcohol.
While it may not be the most accurate adaptation, Kubrick’s The Shining is hard to argue against as one of the greatest horror films ever made. There’s no doubt that the film holds up on its own and with iconography as rich as the Overlook’s art-deco rug, the Grady twins, and Nicholson’s face as he shouts through an axed-in door. Kubrick’s adaptation will forever overshadow the novel in terms of popular culture. However, it is King whose name will forever be synonymous with the Master of Horror.
In the forty-three years since Kubrick’s The Shining had been released, King has continued to produce bestseller after bestseller. He continued to dominate the box-office as well through the 1980’s, becoming the go-to for Hollywood studios to crank out horror hits. Becoming a bigger celebrity led King to a whole new world of addictive substances. King has stated in his fantastic book On Writing (2000) that eventually his addiction to cocaine, alcohol, and a list of other drugs spiraled so out of control he hardly remembers writing the novel Cujo at all. With his addiction problem now becoming evident to his family, they would stage an intervention in 1987, starting King’s journey of 12-step recovery, which would eventually lead him to, after 36 years, revisiting the Torrance family in 2013’s Doctor Sleep.
In Doctor Sleep, we catch up with Danny Torrance. While Dick Hallorann has acted as sort of an “Obi-Wan” to Danny, it doesn’t prevent the trauma of Danny’s experience to manifest in the same alcoholism and anger issues as his own father. This is where, in my opinion, King really manifests the addict in his work. Without spoilers, in a scene that should be considered amongst King’s most heart-wrenching and disturbing, Danny hits his “rock bottom.” As someone who had once let substance dictate my life, it was hard to not put the book down at this moment and feel the anxiety of that lived experience. When we suffer in active addiction the morality of our actions seldom catches us while the acts are being committed, but after, it is exasperating. The guilt comes. The shame comes. The hopelessness. The cycle repeats and behind most of us is a good person who is so ashamed of our actions that we punish ourselves by slowly killing ourselves. It is not lost upon us the harm that we cause to ourselves and others. Danny feels it in those moments. Jack felt it in the original. They are both antagonist and casualty. However, sometimes we get a respite in between this that allows us clarity. After the “rock bottom,” Danny seeks the help from Alcoholics Anonymous. Unlike his father, whose “white knuckling” led him to be damned, Danny surrounds himself with others like him. Utilizing his gift of The Shining, Danny finds his worth in assisting hospice patients in their transition to death. In 12-step programs, “acts of service” are often a piece of the puzzle in one’s journey of recovery, no doubt something King had felt necessary to examine with Danny. Reading Doctor Sleep feels like King sharing his catharsis. As if he needed to thoroughly exhume the personal demons that went into The Shining and make sure they were forever locked away in some place a little more tightly guarded.
While the novel Doctor Sleep works as a sequel to The Shining, one key element of fanfare is missing: The Overlook. However, in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation he managed not only to capture the heart of the story while deviating from its finale, but also miraculously married both King novels to Kubrick’s canon. The film Doctor Sleep (2019) stars Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance. It’s fitting casting as McGregor himself is in recovery from alcoholism. In fact, it was McGregor who pushed for Flanagan to emphasize the recovery aspects of Danny Torrance in the film. An emphasis that, in turn, would help Mike Flanagan realize he too suffered from addiction issues.
This wouldn’t be, however, the only time Flanagan tackled addiction and recovery. With works such as The Haunting Of Hill House(2018), Midnight Mass (2021), The Midnight Club (2022), and most recently The Fall of The House of Usher (2023) all tackling the subject in one form or another, Flanagan has managed to encapsulate the horrors of addiction without the demonization by crafting stories that capture the heart of the character. In next month’s section of Dark, Demonic, and Dopesick, we will touch more on the works of Mike Flanagan including a deeper look at his adaptation of Doctor Sleep and how important it is to show the human side of the disease.