The Ending of 'Doctor Sleep' Explained

Stephen King gets his Shining.

Doctor Sleep Screenshot
Warner Bros. Entertainment

Six years ago, Stephen King returned to The Shining with Doctor Sleep. Kinda. The book tracks the tormented life of an adult Dan Torrence as he struggles with alcoholism (his father’s disease), and battles a band of soul(a.k.a. steam)-sucking vampires who travel the country eating up children who share his particular gift. Doctor Sleep is a gut-churning exploration of how past trauma leaves its marks on your psyche and how connecting to your human neighbors is the only way to alleviate such pain. What it is not is a sequel to the terrors once glimpsed in Stanley Kubrick‘s Overlook Hotel.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan understands your disappointment. Whatever your thoughts of The Shining novel, you cannot deny that the 1980 cinematic effort is even more iconic and demands attention. Returning to the characters is necessary, but their freedom relies on their ability to confront their very real demons. They gotta go back, and to do that, Kubrick’s Overlook is required since it remained standing while King obliterated his version.

The ending of Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is out to please two masters: King and Kubrick. That’s a precarious station to balance. Tricky, tricky. For two-thirds of the film, King’s narrative plays out almost identical to the prose, then there is a drastic shift, and a mess load of characters are dispatched. Using their gifts, Dan (Ewan McGregor) and the young Abra (Kyliegh Curran) steer the bottomless hunger of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) toward the unholy residence standing defiantly in the Colorado Rockies.

Nearly having succumbed to its dark inhabitants once before, Dan believes the Overlook will make quick work of his new antagonist. He’s not wrong. They both attempt to trap Rose inside one of his mental lockboxes, but she’s too powerful and flees. The solution being one pertaining more to release rather than imprisonment. Dan opens the traps of his mind, freeing dozens upon dozens of the Overlook ghosts that he’s contained within himself since his childhood escape. Rose thought she knew hunger until she felt their bite. Munch, munch.

With nowhere left to go, the spirits return to Dan and take possession of his body. His tiny humanity flickers inside, and he’s able to control his physical self from slamming his father’s ax into Abra’s little skull. She wanders out into the cold to pay witness to the Overlook’s final destruction as Dan burns the bloody place down by sabotaging the boiler room. Stephen King gets his ending.

Doctor Sleep is all about triumph. The burning of the Overlook implies that the evil is directly linked to its foundation. Book readers know that the ground is sour, and trashing timber only does so much damage. Moviegoers understand that the destruction of the object often results in exorcism. Burn the Necronomicon, kill the Deadites! There is a finality to watching the Overlook go up in smoke. Dan dies, but he is liberated.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in ’80, Henry Thomas in ’19) crumbled under his alcoholism allowing monsters to invade. Dan Torrance faces the same internal creature. Still, as a direct result of his childhood confrontation with evil, he’s able to reject their second wave and offer the same defiant tools for Abra to utilize in the future. Dan is better off than Jack, and Abra is better off than Dan. That is the desired outcome that all generations dream for the next. Or at least they should.

The final scene does reveal how some Overlook spirits have attached themselves to Abra a la Dan, and it mirrors a similar clash he had as a child recovering from their torment. There is one big difference, however. Abra is fearless. The nude, rotting woman from Room 237 makes her home in Abra’s bathtub. As Dan did before her, she walks to the phantom’s location and shuts the door behind her. She’s got her own lockbox prepared for the beast. She even has a smile for it.

Doctor Sleep sends its audience out into the night with a skip in their step. Good thwarts evil. Stanley Kubrick had little use for such pleasantries. The Shining is the story of a man devoured by interior and exterior forces. Jack Torrance was destined to reside within the Overlook. Abra spits in fate’s face. She goes where she goes.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.