Please note that this post contains spoilers for Doctor Sleep.
The Shining is one of the most iconic, disturbing, and influential horror films of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s take on the Stephen King novel of the same name, The Shining brought a bold new visionary approach to the horror genre, showing that even auteur directors could take a stab at scaring folks without losing their credibility. Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan’s vision of the sequel novel, is a worthy successor in every sense of the word.
While the notion of making a modern-day sequel to one of the most iconic horror stories of all time might seem like a bit of a miss from the jump, King wrote the sequel by tapping into both a central theme of the original novel and a major crisis that occurred in his own life: the battle with addiction. Fans of both the book and film versions of The Shining will recall how Jack Torrance struggled with his alcoholism and the hell that he put his family through as a result.
More specifically, the scene where the evil spirits of the Overlook hotel take hold of Jack Torrance completely is when they convince him to get drunk in the lobby of the hotel. Of course, there is no booze in the hotel whatsoever but, by allowing himself to give in to his demons, Jack gives the spirits all of the cachet they need to take hold of his consciousness and unleash their murderous fury on his wife and son.
In real life, King’s addictions went far beyond alcohol. As has been recounted several times, many of his novels were written, or rewritten, while in the throes of his cocaine addiction. Famously, The Tommyknockers (which King thinks is his worst book) was written during the height of his addiction. However, It and Misery were also written during this same period, showing that the results of this frenetic energy could really go either way.
Regardless of the quality of the material, though, King was wading into his own personal hell, and it was the same hell he’d created for many of his characters on the page. Jack Torrance is one of the earliest versions of this addict, emerging from what was only King’s third novel. He’s also a writer and, by this marker, the closest proxy to what King would turn into over the decade following the publication of The Shining.
With that in mind, if The Shining is a book about addiction, Doctor Sleep is a book about recovery. While the film version does make some changes, the battle with addiction is still the focal point of the story. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Danny finds himself in the throes of full-blown addiction when we first meet him as an adult.
Having hit rock bottom, Danny drinks and does drugs to stifle his psychic gift, his shining. However, after leaving an overdosed woman and her child to die in a dilapidated apartment, Danny finally realizes he can’t go on this way. As he enters an Alcoholics Anonymous program and begins to turn his life around, Abra, a young girl with powers like Danny’s, comes into his life. This is where the structural similarity — and dichotomy — between The Shining and Doctor Sleep first becomes apparent.
Whereas The Shining is about a man damning himself by giving into addiction one final time, Doctor Sleep is about a man saving himself by resisting that addiction. Where Jack attempts to murder his son while battling his addiction, Danny selflessly tries to save his surrogate daughter by any means necessary. And who is he defending her from? Why, some of the nastiest addicts on the planet, of course.
The True Knot are a group of real-life psychic vampires, literally sucking the life force and the shine out of young psychics. Deviants, torturers, and murderers, The True Knot entice, debase and snuff out the lives of children in order to extend their own life cycles. While many addicts have horror stories about how far they’ve gone to get their next fix, The True Knot are the bottom of the barrel.
The utter terror their young victims feel, and the glorious ecstasy that The True Knot breathes in from this pain and suffering, are some of the most chilling elements in Doctor Sleep. The central conflict of the film becomes a battle between a group of addicts and a man on the path to recovery. Driving home this point even further, the strongest character in the film is young Abra, a girl who’s never even touched drugs or alcohol.
Though Danny may be in recovery, his battle with addiction is far from over. Even if he can stand in front of his AA group and say of his 6 months of sobriety, “this is for Jack Torrance,” it doesn’t stop him from painstakingly, hand-shakingly pouring a drink later on. Danny is able to resist the urge even at that dark point in his story, but that isn’t the end of his demons.
Later, when he returns to the Overlook hotel, Danny is confronted by none other than Jack Torrance, now another spirit trapped in this hell. He explains to Danny, in the very same bar where he took the drink that damned him, how what the world does to us is “enough to make a man sick.”
“This is the medicine,” he tells Danny, holding up a glass of liquor. “Are you gonna take your medicine?” It isn’t until Danny says, “No, I’m not,” that he’s finally free of his demons, having confronted the source of his childhood trauma for good, while still mastering and resisting his addiction in the process.
Unfortunately, Doctor Sleep has one final surprise up its sleeve. As the sinister Rose the Hat, the last remaining member of The True Knot, comes for Danny and Abra, she overdoses. Taking in all of the “steam” that The True Knot had collected over the years, Rose becomes too powerful for even Danny and Abra to handle, forcing Danny into his last, most desperate act.
Throughout the film, Danny confronts and imprisons all of the evil spirits of the Overlook. Using a trick that Dick Halloran taught him, he puts them in a series of boxes in his mind, locking them away to starve forever. However, in order to save Abra from Rose, Danny makes the ultimate sacrifice: he lets his demons out. As these starving addicts are released upon Rose, they consume her in a matter of seconds. There is never enough for an addict, and released from their bonds, the demons of Danny’s past take control of him, forcing him to become his father at last.
Stalking around the Overlook with an ax and a limp, chasing a scared child, Danny “Doctor Sleep” Torrance becomes the mirror image of his father. However, he’s able to save his soul, even if it’s at the cost of his life. Resisting the addiction, and the demons, one last time, Danny uses the boiler to blow up the Overlook, freeing himself at last from his addiction and the horrible place it drove him to it.
Doctor Sleep is a fantastic story, and an incredible sequel, even ignoring the subtext of addiction that plays throughout. When looked at this way the story becomes a set of rhyming couplets, creating fascinating connections and through lines to both The Shining and the man who wrote it. In the end, Doctor Sleep isn’t just one of the best horror sequels ever, it’s also one of the best addiction stories as well.