'Animals in My Head':

Stanley Kubrick's Preoccupation with Bathrooms

by Jeff Westerman

'What in the name of Jesus H. Christ are you animals doing in my head?'

When Sgt. Hartman, in skivvies and a big, incongruous ranger hat, confronts the murderous and suicidal Private Pyle and the terror-stricken Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, Hartman is demanding to know what "you animals are doing in my head," he's of course using the military jargon 'head' for bathroom.  Yet this use of the word allows for the far funnier, scarier, and more literal meaning to come into play.

I believe Kubrick's work is primarily concerned with the havoc, comedy, terror, and chaos unleashed by the animals in human heads.  While humanity has landed on the moon, invented complex technologies to organize itself, and achieved an intelligent and sociable co-existence, the human animal is still a creature of tense dualities, which I argue are destined to pervert our own ambitions and accomplishments.  Many writers have commented on the depiction of the human personality as fatally flawed in Kubrick's films: the mad General Ripper in Dr Strangelove who exploits the flaws in a 'fail-safe' nuclear deterrent system to effect mass-destruction; the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey whose own instinct for self preservation has murderous consequences; and the Ludovico system of control that turns Alex into a 'clockwork orange'.

In these films, Kubrick critiques the notion of the perfect system. In fact it can be argued that in all of his films Kubrick shows us how perfect systems can collapse because of human weaknesses. In a wider sense though, I argue that social covenants such as marriage vows, and contracts between the individual and society can be subverted from within by humanity's animal instincts for sex, violence and selfishness. Kubrick  brilliantly illustrates these themes in his films.  But, underlying the rigor of all his scenarios there is the anarchic, adolescent urge to lampoon social niceties which surfaces in his humor, especially of the ÔtoiletÕ variety.  In all the settings of his films--spacecraft, war-rooms, palaces, bedrooms, prisons--one room always plays a prominent role, the bathroom. This is the room in which the human pretense of civilization falls away and the one place in which out animal instincts are revealed, because as Erving Goffman said. it is the one 'backstage area' where we take off our social masks and where truth is spoken. 

bathrooms are perhaps the main shielding places in Anglo-American society because in many households these are the only rooms in which the solitary person can properly lock himself. And it may be only under these guaranteed conditions that some individuals will feel safe in manifesting certain situationally improper involvements.

Goffman 1963, 40

Lolita, was the first Kubrick film to make significant use of bathrooms. The film's protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is seen in the bathroom, door locked, writing in his secret diary.  Just outside the door, his unloved wife, Charlotte, is knocking and calling to him, "Hum, what is it that you do in there?"  What Humbert is doing is writing the unspeakable truth - that he only married Charlotte to gain access to her teenaged daughter, Lolita, the object of his obsessive sexual desire.  As with many of Kubrick's male protagonists, the power of Humbert's obsession blinds him to the fact that others see what he is trying to keep hidden.  As he writes his secret diary in the locked bathroom, he is the model of propriety--in his bathrobe, perched on the bathtub with the toilet right next to him. Humbert is revealing what really ought to be flushed away. 

It is the eventual revelation of the diary which cause Charlotte's accidental death and creates the perfect opportunity for Humbert to be with Lolita. In the aftermath of the accident Humbert languishes in the bathtub, nonchalantly receiving visitors who wish to pay their respects. Here Humbert is exercising a newfound power, he is naked; his visitors are clothed, he is composed while they struggle to hold back their emotions. Also he accepts an offer of financial assistance from the driver of the vehicle that killed his wife. By accepting this 'reward' Humbert possesses the resources to pursue his relationship with Lolita in an unfettered way, far from the prying eyes of his wife's friends and neighbours. But his relationship with his 'nymphette' is dishonest from the start, because he loses the very thing he wishes most to possess through his false sense of propriety.

The bathroom motif continues in Kubrick's next film, Dr Strangelove. In an early scene the Hawkish General Turgidson is in the bathroom as his bikini clad-secretary, Miss Scott, takes a call from military command. This scene finds the general in his most vulnerable moment called to exercise his power.  In the closest he ever came to a direct statement about this, Kubrick told Joseph Gemelis,  'Confront  a man in his office with a nuclear alarm, and you have a documentary.  If the news reaches him in his living room, you have a drama.  If it catches him in the lavatory, the result is a comedy' (Gemelis 1970, 309). 

Later in the film, as General Jack D. Ripper, who has set the entire catastrophe in motion, sits in the office of his base which is under attack by U.S. forces. In the scenes with colonel Mandrake he confronts his impending capture and interrogation and decides to commit suicide rather than submit to their authority.  Ripper steps into the bathroom, puts a towel around his neck, stares into the mirror, and closes the door.  A gunshot is heard a moment later.  Ripper gives up his life, but seeks to guarantee his planned outcome through his death in the bathroom.

Bathrooms feature in Kubrick's next film 2001: A Space Odyssey in a brief comic scene where the space bureaucrat, Dr. Floyd, studies the intricate and intimidating instructions posted on a 'zero-gravity toilet' door.  This scene again suggest that, no matter how high a person's stature, everyone has to perform this basic animal requirement. 

At the end of 2001, astronaut Dave Bowman finds himself in a spectral room which he has reached by traveling through many dimensions and wrinkles of the cosmos.  His first awareness of the state his journey has left him in occurs when he steps into the suite's luxurious, if coldly empty bathroom.  He regards his reflection in a mirror there, wide-eyed to see that he has aged considerably.  Just as he's taking this in, he hears a noise, and peers out the door at a seated figure, dining at a table across the adjacent room.  Moments later, it is revealed that this second person is yet another Bowman, older still, who seems to sense he's being watched.  He gets up from the table and walks to the bathroom, but his younger self is no longer there.  Knowledge is again gained, and withheld, in a bathroom.  It should be noted that this scene occurs moments before the hopeful finale, which depicts the rebirth of this man, and very possibly that of all humanity, in a mystical and poignant tableaux.

In Kubrick's next film, A Clockwork Orange  we see the main character, Alex, late in the story, accidentally reveal his identity to the very last person he'd want it known to.  A man he victimized earlier in the film has rescued him from perishing in the elements, and has given Alex refuge in his home - the very home in which Alex had horribly assaulted the man and his wife, an assault which led to her eventual death.  Now Alex is upstairs, soaking away his bruises and chill in a hot bath, his host just downstairs.  Alex gradually relaxes, and begins to croon his signature tune, "Singin' in the Rain," which he performed while assaulting this man and his wife.  Alex is oblivious to the import of this song in this  house, but Mr.Alexander, downstairs, practically has a seizure as he hears the song, registering when he's heard it before.  While Alex chortles away in the bath, giving away his identity, his former victim now becomes Alex's captor, and hatches a scheme of revenge as sadistic as anything Alex has done in the past.  The truth again came out in a bathroom.  Power shifted, changing the rest of the story to come.

In 1975's  Barry Lyndon , the bathroom makes one subtle appearance.  Barry has betrayed his wife repeatedly, and has been observed in an infidelity just a scene or two ago.  Subsequently, we watch as Barry enters his wife's private chambers, where she is having a soak in the bathtub.  Barry walks over to her with a look of great contrition, kneels by the tub, and apologizes to her, with seemingly full sincerity.  She sadly listens, and accepts a tender kiss from him.  But however sincere his apology at this moment, and his humbling of himself before her, he soon inevitably reverts to his loutish ways.  The one true expression of his love for his wife in the entire movie, though, takes place in that special room of rooms.

     Whatever subtlety prevailed in the use of bathrooms up until Barry Lyndon is now abandoned with a vengeance in the last three films of Kubrick's career.  By now, even he must have known that the pattern was clear to his audience, and he begins to underline it boldly.

1980's The Shining,  along with exploring several other heavily freighted symbols (mirrors, doubles, eyes, doors, certain colors), runs amok in bathrooms.   If ever it was unclear that this room is the crucible of change, power, and truth for Kubrick, The Shining  puts the spotlight on it as never before.  Its first appearance comes early : Danny Torrance, the young boy gifted with "the shining," or ESP, is standing before the bathroom sink at home, staring at himself in the mirror (like Gen. Ripper and Dave Bowman before him).  A vision comes to him of the danger in the Overlook Hotel, where he and his parents are about to spend an isolated winter as caretakers.  Danny sees a river (torrents?) of blood pouring forth from an elevator we later come to know is in the hotel.  This flash of insight is so powerful that he passes out, necessitating a doctor's house-call.

Later in the prologue, while getting a tour of the hotel from its manager, Jack and Wendy, Danny's parents, end up in the shabby caretaker's quarters where they will live.  Their walk-through of the apartment, dismaying as it is, ends with them standing in the bathroom, forcing a smile, and Jack declaring the rooms "homey."  Faced with the truth of their lot, the couple lie to themselves in the room associated with revelation, "overlooking" what is plain to see. 

The bathroom gets deadly serious in its next appearance, when Jack , later in the snowbound winter, investigates Danny's report of a "crazy woman" in one of the hotel rooms, who tried to strangle the boy.  The hotel is stirring to life, and it reaches out to Jack in Room 237's bathroom, where his ghostly encounter takes the form of a beautiful naked woman, who rises up out of the tub, seductive in a decidely aloof way.  But she's not what she seems, and, as Jack kisses her, his glance into the mirror behind her shows him that she has become the decomposing corpse of an old woman.  She laughs long and loud at her practical joke, following Jack as he backs away from her in terror.  First he was seduced and tricked in the bathroom, then shown the true face of the hotel, laughing at him.  And, to cap it all, Jack lies to Wendy afterwards, telling her he found no one  in Room 237!   The truth of what Jack saw convinced him to lie, to again "overlook" the evidence, because of his overwhelming desire to remain in the hotel at all cost.

Another crucial scene, perhaps the ultimate sequence of the movie, brings us into the bathroom yet again.   This time, Jack encounters a butler, Grady, who may or may not be the former caretaker, who killed his family and himself some years before.  He spills a drink on Jack in the grand ballroom, and guides him into the blood-red men's room to clean him up.  In the course of their increasingly unnerving conversation, Grady transforms from an obsequious valet into the very voice of the hotel. He fills Jack in on the important fact that both of them have "always been here," that they have predetermined roles to play in the service of the hotel's wishes, and inadvertently reveals that they each comprehend only what the hotel wants them to.  Hearing these "orders from The House," Jack gradually shifts from cocky and certain to childishly receptive, as Grady instructs him to kill his family, or "correct" them, as he so delicately, horribly puts it.  By the time their bathroom discussion is over, we know more than we ever wanted to about Grady, the hotel, Jack's total surrender to its sway, and the likely outcome of the story, if Jack's new-found assignment is not prevented.  The dynamics of this scene are simply exquisite, as the masks come off, true character emerges, and the hotel's core desires are revealed.  (And notice, just for the nuanced pleasure of it, how not only do Grady and Jack exchange their original positions of power here, but their bodies actually mirror this shift.  Grady starts off looking distinctly shorter than Jack, who's all macho posturing to Grady's servile flutterings.  But by the end of the scene, as Grady's true intentions emerge, he appears, through brilliant camera work and angles of lighting, to eventually tower over a now-speechless Jack).  Repeated viewings only reveal more details, and it's stunning to note how many things are happening at once in that red, red bathroom.

And there's still one more crucial bathroom scene to come, taking things completely over the top.  This final example occurs when Jack comes after his family with an axe, bent on fulfilling the hotel's wishes.  Wendy dashes into the bathroom in the caretaker's apartment with Danny, as Jack chops his way through the outer door to their rooms.  She helps Danny escape through the bathroom's tiny window, and he slides safely down a mountainous snow drift, like an image from a fairy tale.  But she can't fit through the window herself, and, picking up a large kitchen knife, she despairingly braces for Jack's onslaught.  He is now an utter maniac, a husband and father no longer.  He is all the animals in his own head now, all the hotel's animals, too, grabbing after the power over life and death.  He begins to smash the bathroom door with his axe, clearly enjoying his work, confident he'll kill Wendy momentarily.  But, there in the bathroom, cornered, she has a life-saving flash of inspiration, and cuts Jack's hand badly as he reaches through the broken door panels to unlock the door.  He is thwarted, realizing she will cut him every time he tries to enter the room.  And just at that moment, before he resumes his attack, a noise in the distance distracts him, the arrival of Halloran, Danny's would-be rescuer, and he withdraws to investigate.  On the verge of wielding ultimate power, Jack falters, and Wendy discovers strength in herself she never needed to call on before.  It all just happened  to have taken place in a bathroom... 

And how can those scenes possibly be topped, either as brilliant drama, or in their use as symbolism?

Kubrick's solution comes in the previously mentioned FULL METAL JACKET,  in which the lowly (and aptly named) Private Pyle usurps the authority of his bullying sergeant in the most decisive way - by shooting him dead.  In the bathroom.  As Gen. Ripper achieved the ultimate victory in DR. STRANGELOVE  (or so he thought), by committing suicide and keeping his vital secrets safe, so Pvt. Pyle relieves himself of both Sgt. Hartman, his hated tormentor, and the madness his boot camp life has plunged him into.  He can see no other way out, feels powerless, and still he finally achieves a measure of power through the satisfaction of killing Hartman, before taking his own life.  In Pyle's limited perspective, perhaps, he has staged a coup by killing his sergeant.  No matter that there are scores of candidates ready to step into Hartman's shoes; Pyle has done away with his tormentor (the animal in his  head).   And Hartman dies asserting his earlier authority, staring Pyle down, still ridiculing him, and ordering him to surrender his weapon.  Hartman is confident he can tame the animals in his "head" and defuse the situation.  And, should he fail, he's quite willing to sacrifice his own life trying, believing that command and control must be maintained at all cost.  He gives up his life to an underling for the sake of preserving the greater power, his "beloved Corps."  To his way of thinking, he has won a more important victory than saving his own hide - he's thrown himself on the proverbial grenade to save the platoon.  And Pyle, having destroyed the personification of all his own misery, is ready to pull the trigger on himself.  He not only knocks authority off its pedestal, but chooses his own form of justice for himself, denying his enemies any further control over his life by ending it immediately.

This scene, seemingly a simple, if shocking, denouement to a tension which has built for 45 excruciating minutes, is actually quite complex.  The inner-workings, as the wheels turn in the minds of these two men, pass over their faces throughout the scene, shifting and shading their dance of death.  Hartman, when he realizes he's going to have to put his life on the line to stop Pyle, smiles to himself in a strangely elated way, before he speaks his final sentences.  He seems to be pleased, recognizing that Fate is allowing him a great moment in which to distinguish himself as a valorous Marine.  And Pyle, too, smiles, at the same moment of realization - he has engaged his enemy head-on, and they are both now consciously stepping forward to play out their ultimate roles.  It's a smile of recognition which passes between them, rank against rank, life against life, authority versus individual will.  One man will only give up his power by dying, and the other can only gain it through killing.  Their illusions are stronger than even their wills to live, as has been played out somewhere in every one of Kubrick's films.  But never more bluntly than in this case.

Then, finally, after a 12-year wait,  EYES WIDE SHUT  came along.  One early rumor had it that : "The shooting of a crucial scene in a bathroom has been going on for 3 weeks."  Well, surprise!  When at last the happy opening day rolled around, it was overshadowed with sadness at the death of Kubrick the man. But he left us in top form.

Therefore, it didn't take long for this film to get right into the next bathroom!  In fact, within the opening sequence, as Bill and Alice Harford are getting ready to go out to a formal Christmas party, we visit them momentarily in the bathroom.  Characteristically, even this tiny scene is vitally important, as it reveals one central truth about their marriage, which is that Bill takes his wife for granted.  We see this as she's sitting on the toilet (no mincing around it this time), and he's looking at himself in the mirror.  She asks how she looks, how's her hair, and, without even glancing at her, he says "Perfect."  She duly notes, "You're not even looking at it."  The setup for the entire film has just taken place.

Then, only 8 minutes into the picture, the first crucible arrives.  Bill, a doctor, has been summoned by the host of the party, Victor Ziegler, to an urgent situation taking place in - the bathroom.  Ziegler (only now zipping up his pants - what has he been doing in the minutes between sending for Bill, and Bill's arrival?!) is waiting for him, in the company of a comatose woman sprawled naked in a blood-red easy chair.  She has overdosed.  It emerges that Ziegler could care less about her condition; he simply wants this potentially embarrassing situation dealt with.  Bill manages to wake her, examine her briefly, and give her a pompous warning about the dangers of her drug habit.  Ziegler can barely contain his impatience to get her out of there so he can return to his party.  But first, he realizes he's in a compromising position, and must enlist Bill's silence about what's happened.  He tells Bill he hopes that "this is just between us," and Bill blithely says, "Of course."  No scruples required, not in the bathroom.

But, like the ripples expanding across water from a dropped stone, the implications of this scene course throughout the rest of the story.  We see enough about Ziegler here to assess his personal evil, and the party's setting reveals his fabulous wealth and power.  He makes his first offer of a Mephistophelean bargain to Bill here, as he will again, late in the film.  Bill, for his part, is a callow social climber, ambitious enough to cope with the situation without breaking his stride.  As he told Alice earlier in the party sequence, "This  is what you get for making house-calls."  Having now made the ultimate house-call, Bill's appetite for privilege has been whetted, and he begins to act out his belief that he's somehow privy to the inner sanctum to a greater degree than ever before.  Believing and acting on this, his behavior results in an abrupt reality check from Ziegler later on, when his subsequent party-crashing at a much riskier party gets him put firmly back into his assigned social rank.  Bill comes to understand that keeping Ziegler's secret in no way entitles him to move above his station - that the privilege of making house-calls is in itself the reward he's expected to content himself with.

The alpha male will take him into his confidence only when he needs to, and Bill will definitely be invited to next year's Christmas party, but any further assumption he makes will get him slapped down post-haste.  Yet the scene in the bathroom has unleashed Bill's yearnings to move in circles beyond his reach.  This is because Bill, like so many men in Kubrick's work, is dangerously oblivious to how those coveted circles really work, and what the true price of admission is.  And he's equally oblivious of his own deepest motives, using his bland behavior to hide from even himself the urgency of his desires, and his willingness to jeopardize all he holds dear just to climb another rung in the social ladder.  (Like Jack in the Overlook Hotel, easily ignoring the horror of what he's being urged to do to his family, because he's so hungrily eyeing the desired prize).  Bill is quite ripe for corruption.  It's come slowly to him, through money, his success, his charisma, and he's already poised to take the next step forward (or downward), as shown by his total lack of outrage over what he finds in Ziegler's bathroom.  And Ziegler knew just who to call for help, among his many minions.  Bill thinks he's endeared himself to Ziegler, but to Ziegler he's just another servant.  And, all the while, the real center of his life, his family, is slipping away from him at the same pace with which he seeks adventure and recognition away from it.  Because he's so out of touch with his own inner drives, he's incapable of communicating his confusion to the one honest person in his whole sorry existence - his wife Alice.

Just as Jack Torrance, the permanent and lowly caretaker, is flattered into a sense of his own importance by the manipulations of Grady in the Overlook's men's room, so Bill Harford is seduced by the belief that he's been taken into Ziegler's confidence, and is able to ignore the true sliminess of the setting involved.  While Bill feels closer to the center of power through the bargain made in Ziegler's upholstered bathroom, and greedily anticipates new and guilt-free liberties, he's merely played the mark to a craftier and vastly more experienced con man.

It would appear that, with each successive bathroom episode, Kubrick etched the importance of that room with greater clarity and directness.  Here is the place where all ambition, pretension, and vanity are cast into stark relief against the reality of the physical bodies we inhabit, grow old in, die in.  No matter how high-flown humanity's grand designs are, people are ultimately seduced and fooled by them.  These highly un-glamorous plumbing facilities are the last chance available to remind us of natural laws, actual  humanity, perhaps the integrity of the animals we humans still simply are, and often resent being.  Once we cross into the realm of living in our heads, we've cut ourselves off from the wisdom and knowledge our bodies ground us in.  If we only live in our heads, and begin to lose the fear of the consequences our bodies may experience due to our minds running riot, we're certain to be smacked down by the brick wall of physical reality.   And there's hardly a more incontrovertible proof of human existence than the necessary activities attended to in the bathroom.   Absolutely no pretense is possible sitting on a toilet.  We can conquer the animals in our heads only so long as we remember exactly what we are - animals in the "head."


Gelmis, J. (1970) The Film Director as Superstar. New York:Doubleday.

Goffman, E. (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

(Jeff Westerman: Email: ZephyrJW@roadrunner.com)