If you were compiling dual lists of horror’s best fathers and worst fathers of all time, both would be long with the top spots likely occupied by the same few dads. A list of good horror dads is a futile exercise, in my opinion. When discussing dads of horror, in particular, you really want to focus on the bad dads. It’s what we, as horror fans, come to see and expect from the books we read and movies we watch. You might envision a diverse list of bad and evil horror dads from both obscure indie films as well as more mainstream horror movies, but who deserves top-ranking? You could make a case for Victor Frankenstein, the OG of bad dads. While not technically the father of the monster, the hubristic, irresponsible doctor did unleash his unholy creation, sending in rampaging through the countryside for eight Universal Frankenstein films, including the 1948 Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein feature, with innumerable other incarnations produced by practically every major studio since the original film was released ninety-two years ago.

Some of the other usual suspects you will find on the naughty dads list is George Lutz, The Amityville Horror father, and the serial killer dad from the 1987 film, The Stepfather. Certainly, neither of these would be father of the year candidates. Patriarchs of nasty, murderous clans are also well represented, led by the cannibalistic Sawyer family progenitor from Tobe Hooper’s classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Papa Jupiter who sired his own bloodthirsty brood in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. All excellent candidates for the honor of top pop in horror history. However, for me, there is one horror dad who stands head and shoulders above all the others, and that is The Shining’s Jack Torrance, portrayed by the inimitable Jack Nicholson.

Whether or not you think Nicholson was a good choice or a bad choice by Stanley Kubrick to play this iconic role in his film adaptation of one of Stephen King’s seminal novels, there is not doubt that Nicholson made this character his own, and his contribution to the complexity of Jack Torrance, the flawed man and frustrated writer, cannot be overstated.

No one can effectively make an argument for Jack Torrance being an overall good dad, but was he pure evil personified? I don’t think so, at least. There is no doubt that Jack Torrance exhibited a seriously sinister nature, in both his thoughts and actions. However, exploring his character arc closely, it is apparent that there was another side to him, and it’s not all bad. Remember, the whole reason that he brought his family to the Overlook Hotel in the first place was to get a fresh start on his writing career so he could provide Wendy and Danny with a better future.

“I’m looking for a change,” he told Ullman early in the film.

Wiping the slate clean and atoning for past shortcomings was a definite motive for him. Indeed, something went very wrong along the way, but his intentions were noble to begin with, à la Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who did everything he did for his family. Could Jack Torrance, similarly, be considered a tragic figure, rather than being dismissed as a mere psychopath?

In this article, I wanted to have some fun with that premise, and on this Father’s Day pay tribute to one of the greatest dads in horror history. So, let’s start by considering Jack Torrance’s fathering abilities in comparison to five standard-bearing qualities that all “good dads” need to possess.

1. Dad being a good protector and provider is unquestionably the most essential quality to the family dynamic. Jack Torrance was keen on recognizing the various threats to his family, and he always acted of his concerns with a sense of immediacy. To begin with, he acknowledged the need to establish himself as a writer to bring stability and a steady income to his family in the long term, while taking the job as caretaker of the Overlook to earn money in the short term. He was not above taking on a menial job if it was beneficial to the family. As Jack came to realize that there was a danger of real physical harm to his family, he didn’t run from it. In fact, his attempt to shoulder that weight cost him his life in the end. He took brunt of the paranormal evil lurking inside the Overlook, so in that sense he did sacrifice himself for his wife and son, both of whom survived. Jack Torrance’s descent into madness could even be considered as magnanimous an act as Father Karras, in The Exorcist, when he demanded the demon leave Regan’s body and enter his at the end of the film, which caused his demise.

2. A good father teaches his children important lessons that they’ll need in life. Discipline is part of this process, something that is often the most difficult thing a father must do. Parents are the last to believe that their children are not angels, and because of this they may be hesitant to address sensitive issues that need their immediate attention. Jack Torrance did not fall into this trap. He was right there for Danny to guide him back onto what he considered to be the straight and narrow path. When Danny was becoming a bit too ‘willful,’ Jack didn’t hesitate to ‘correct him.’ If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. Pointing out the difference between right and wrong is a foundational parental responsibility, after all.

Children should always go to their parents when they’re in trouble or need help, but Danny didn’t always do that. He kept the things that Tony told him secret from his parents, and he confided more in Dick Hallorann, a stranger, than he did in his own father. While Danny is in no way at fault for interacting with Hallorann with whom he had so much in common, with their unique ability to ‘shine,’ one could still ask, would the whole murderous escapade been averted if Jack was let in on his son’s secret ability sooner? One thing is sure, it wouldn’t be much of a movie.

One notable criticism might be that Jack, as a writer, could have spent a little more time helping Danny with his English homework, or at least making the observation that his son needed help with dyslexia, forming letters backwards, and spelling entire words backward: REDRUM.

3. Another trait of a good father is leading by example, thereby instilling the qualities of personal responsibility and self-reliance in his children. Danny may or may not have been in earshot of Jack’s harangue to Wendy about his responsibilities to the owners of the Overlook to look after the hotel through spring, but Jack made it clear that he took the commitment seriously, and that he would fulfill the obligation at all costs, even to his own peril, as it turns out. He exalted the virtue of perseverance when he explained to his son in an early scene that the Donner Party’s cannibalism recourse was a matter of survival. If you consider the strength of character young Danny exhibits, it seems that the proverbial apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Despite having the ‘little boy who lives in his mouth’ warning him about the dangers of staying the winter in the unfamiliar, creepy hotel, he is not afraid to go off and play by himself. He’ll ride around on his Big Wheel confronting ghosts of murdered twin girls and a crazy old woman who attacks him, and although he is bothered by these episodes, he doesn’t really complain. For Danny, at such a young age, to endure these kinds of terrors, that’s really significant. And his ability to survive the perilous circumstances of his father’s attack at the end exhibits both bravery and ingenuity as he outsmarts his father and saves himself and his mother from the same brutal end that Dick Hallorann met. Surely such attributes are instilled by the parents who raised him, Wendy foremost perhaps, but Papa Jack would have had a lot to do with it as well.

4. The child of a good father is one who appreciates the value of things, not only those which belong to you, but the property of others. Danny was quite young when he made the costly mistake of scattering his father’s work papers all over the floor. The inadvertent dislocation of his shoulder (a few extra foot-pounds of energy per second) that resulted from his father’s drunken rage over the incident, was the source of much regret by Jack, so much so that he vowed never to touch alcohol again. I’m sure Danny’ room was always exceptionally neat, bed made, toys put away.

5. Spending quality time spent with children, especially when they are young, is very fulfilling for both father and child. You often hear about a father and son bonding over a game of catch with a baseball, but how many dads will take their son to spend the winter at a haunted hotel in a remote mountain with no one else around for miles? Very few, indeed. That’s a lifetime of quality time potential right there. Reading to their children is something fathers will do, but it’s rare that one would recite arbitrary and vaguely ominous lines from a beloved children’s book like The Three Little Pigs.

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin. Well, then, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

You got to love the classics.

And all kids love playing hide and seek. Throw a hedge maze into the mix and you’re talking hours of bonding fun for a father and his son. Clearly, that didn’t work out at all the way a sane Jack Torrance would have intended, chasing Danny with an axe through the snowy labyrinth on a wintery night, but you know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

Had things worked out the way Jack Torrance intended before he arrived at the Overlook with his family, and had his soul not been completely possessed by dark forces inside the hotel, who knows what kind of father Jack Torrance might have been. He could have finished his book and gone on to a great literary career, enjoying a life of prosperity and happiness with Wendy and Danny. Can you imagine Jack Torrance coaching Danny’s Little League team, giving that demonic stare and raising his eyebrows to an umpire? He’d get all the calls in his team’s favor.

So, this Father’s Day, let your dad know how much you care, and be thankful for all that he does. And doesn’t do. If there’s time, you might want to watch The Shining together to see a horror dad for the ages.


Published 6/18/23


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