Charles Grady, Delbert Grady and the Overlook Hotel

The Shining, today regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, tells a story of isolation, paranoia and paranormal activity involving a family of three at the snowbound Overlook Hotel.

The Shining Jack Torrance
Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson

Early on in the movie, the hotel manager Stuart Ullman shares some of the Overlook Hotel’s grisly history with Jack Torrance, who is interviewing for the position of winter caretaker. During the interview, Ullman tells Jack his predecessor hired a man named Charles Grady who appeared totally normal with no prior history of violence. During the winter, Charles apparently experienced cabin fever and murdered his wife and two daughters with an axe before neatly stacking them in one of the rooms and killing himself with a shotgun.

Throughout the film, Jack’s psychic son Danny experiences visions of two twin girls, including one instance where they say “Come play with us, Danny” and another where Danny sees their murdered bodies in a bloody mess in the hall.

Eventually, Jack encounters a ghost who says his name is Delbert Grady, who Jack initially says is the caretaker, saying he recognized Delbert from the newspapers and presumably Ullman’s story. However, Delbert instead tells Jack “you’ve always been the caretaker, sir.”

Delbert Grady
The waiter Delbert Grady

So here we have apparently two different Grady’s, but is it a plot hole, a filmmaker’s mistake, something that was lost in the adaptation from the book of The Shining or yet another clue in an extremely multi-layered film? The question is one without a definite answer, and yet there may be enough hints throughout the film to suggest the truth behind Charles and Delbert Grady.

One issue is how Jack tells Delbert he saw Delbert’s picture in the newspaper. If the murder were in a somewhat recent newspaper for Jack to have read it, wouldn’t the picture be of Charles Grady instead of Delbert? The answer is Jack found a scrapbook (which is briefly seen next to his typewriter) which explains some of the hotel’s dark history, which is where Jack saw the newspaper and not in a recent publication. Though it is a bigger part of the book, the scrapbook only makes a brief appearance in the film.

The end of the film could provide a clue as to the two Grady’s. While attempting to explain the ending of The Shining would warrant an article of its own, it is important to note the date which appears on the photograph: July 4, 1921. At one point, Jack appears to have a vision that he is in a large party, which is presumably the same party in the photograph. Why Jack’s image is in the photograph is another discussion entirely, but because the party in the photo was from July 4, 1921, we can safely assume it’s probably the same party where Jack meets Delbert.

The Shining Ballroom
The mysterious photo

In the book, Delbert Grady was the first winter caretaker under Ullman in 1970-71. Like Jack, Delbert was an alcoholic but managed to kill his wife and daughters. Though according to Ullman in the film, it was his predecessor who hired a man named Grady, though his predecessor was probably not the manager as far back as 1921. Not to mention Ullman specified Charles was the winter caretaker and apparently suffered from cabin fever. Delbert however says one of his daughters attempted to burn the hotel down, so he “corrected” them, and “corrected” his wife when she attempted to interfere.

The dialogue during Delbert’s and Jack’s first meeting can also provide some clues as to what’s going on. When Jack accuses Delbert of being the caretaker, Delbert responds “You’ve always been the caretaker” and later says “I’ve always been here.” Delbert could have been saying he himself (as a ghost) has “always” been at the Overlook because he’s a spirit, but he could have also potentially been referring to reincarnation.

The Shining Bloody Elevators
The infamous elevator scene, symbolizing the Overlook Hotel’s violent past

One of the theories as to why Jack is in the photo from 1921 is that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of someone who previously worked at the Overlook, a theory which is supported from the way Jack tells his wife Wendy he felt like he had been at the Overlook  before. This would mean in terms of the photo, it’s not Jack himself being absorbed into the photo, but someone Jack was in a past life who was at the party in 1921.

If it is indeed reincarnation, then it is almost a certainty that there were two different Grady’s, the Delbert Grady from the 1920’s and Charles Grady who was hired by Ullman’s predecessor, possibly during the 1970’s, the 1960’s or earlier. Jack Torrance is merely the most recent reincarnation of a spirit that keeps returning to the Overlook and attempting to kill their wife and children.

It is important to note that there has never been an official explanation as to why Charles Grady is only mentioned once while Delbert Grady is actually seen on film, so the decision is ultimately up to the viewer. However, it is definitely more interesting to speculate who the two individuals are than merely chalking it up to a filmmaker’s error.

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3 thoughts on “Charles Grady, Delbert Grady and the Overlook Hotel

  1. Well, I’d say that first and foremost, Grady is playing fast and loose with the truth in the bathroom scene, to say the least. Delbert is Charles Grady. There’s something very weird happening with time in The Shining, just as there’s something very weird happening with space: it’s been pointed out in several online discussions and videos that the layout of the Overlook makes no spatial sense: for instance, there’s no way that Ullman’s office could have windows, at least not with a view of the outside, and there are several other major inconsistencies in the hotel’s layout. Since Kubrick was a highly deliberate filmmaker, intimately involved with every aspect of the production design and set building, I don’t think any of this was accidental. Its purpose is first and foremost to disorient the viewer. As for the question of time, there’s a strange overlap of temporality with eternity: talk of Jack (and Delbert) having always been at the Overlook, even though obviously Jack and Charles/Delbert have beginning and end points in their respective character arcs. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what the solution to this puzzle is, if there even is one; as far as I can see, once someone dies at the Overlook, they seem to be subsumed into its past. Charles was the man who murdered his family in 1970, and yet as a ghost he’s Delbert, an affable English butler type. Jack was the same Jack who died at the end of the film, and yet also the Jack in the picture from 1921, as though the Overlook itself assigned them new identities and jobs once they’d made the ultimate sacrifice of their families and/or themselves.

    1. I appreciate the feedback! You make good points about Charles/Delbert Grady being a potentially unreliable narrator, that was something I had not previously considered. It is interesting you suggest the Overlook may “assign” people positions, which would explain why Grady tells Jack “You’ve always been the caretaker.” If the Overlook exists in some weird pocket-dimension or something, then Grady wouldn’t mean Jack is reincarnated, he means people get “assigned” to something in the hotel forever and ever, like the twins say at one point: “Come play with us Danny, forever and ever.”
      I also appreciate you mentioned the layout of Overlook, normally it seems people bring up the contradictory layout to make the argument the film is a dream or actually Jack’s book, theories I personally disagree with. However, if we look at it as the Overlook being a gateway to or itself some kind of Hell/pocket dimension, then that explains why the Overlook can change its layout at will. Though I think Kubrick did the contradictory layout to confuse the audience, not necessarily for story-related purposes. But then again, this is the director who demanded the meeting table in Dr. Strangelove be painted green to look like a poker table in a movie that was shot in black-and-white.

      1. Ah yes, the famous green poker table from Strangelove. Thanks for your reply — I think it’s a testament to The Shining that after almost 40 years it still provokes such lively discussion and debate. When I was younger the idea of puzzles with no solution were a matter of some anxiety, but as I’ve gotten older they’re exactly the sorts of things that pique my interest the most.

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