WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Doctor Sleep, in theaters now.
Doctor Sleep features cameos from many of the spirits that first appeared in The Shining, each of them being used to terrify Dan Torrance or new character, Abra. But there's one spirit, in particular, that rises above the rest -- haunting not just Dan, but just about anyone she can get her hands on.
The rotting Old Woman from The Shining is the most prevalent of the malicious spirits that appear in Doctor Sleep, and she comes to represent the overall threat of the spirit world as a whole.
THE ROTTING OLD WOMAN
The rotting Old Woman is one of the most memorable spirits from The Shining. Shortly after "selling his soul" for a drink from the ghostly bartender Lloyd, Jack Torrance finds out from his wife Wendy that there's apparently another woman in the hotel. She begs Jack to look for her while she watches after their son Danny, who she apparently attacked. Jack ends up going into room 237 (where Dick Hallorann had warned Danny to avoid before he left) and indeed finds a woman inside the room.
At first glance, she's a beautiful young woman. She rises out the bathtub, completely nude, and walks over to Jack. She embraces him in a passionate kiss that he reciprocates... at least until he sees their reflection in the mirror. There, he sees the truth: she's actually a much, much older woman -- long dead, in fact -- rotting away and with pieces of what's left falling off of her corpse. Jack jumps away from her but she follows after him, cackling the whole way. It's one of the most surreal and frightening moments even in a movie that mostly constructed of similar sequences.
The opening moments of Doctor Sleep showcases how Danny and Wendy Torrance tried to move past the events of the previous film. Although they escaped the Overlook Hotel, it would always have an undeniable effect on them. That trauma comes literally for Danny, who is revealed to have been followed by the spirits of the Hotel, still desperate to feed off of and chasing after the last person they failed to take. The scene is set with the appearance of the rotting Old Woman, who comes out of Danny's new bathroom to menace him. Of all the spirits, she's the most immediately frightening and memorable.
The rotting Old Woman goes on to become a major symbol throughout the rest of the film. She becomes the first spirit that Dan learns how to contain from the spirit of Hallorann. Dan, still a child, learns how to trap the spirit within a mental prison inside his own mind. It's also shown that it's not a pleasant experience for the spirit, as the Old Woman screams while Dan contains her. But she's eventually released alongside the other spirits when Dan is being overwhelmed by Rose inside the Overlook Hotel. She quickly helps consume Rose, and (along with the other spirits) quickly readjusts to being in the Hotel.
Even after the Overlook Hotel is destroyed, the rotting Old Woman survives on in some form. The final moments of the film reveal Abra, who had traveled to the Overlook Hotel alongside Dan and helped him destroy it (and Rose the Hat) once and for all, had become the next target of the spirit. She'd encountered them all while escaping the Overlook, and now they follow her as they once did Dan. But she's been taught the same ability that Hallorann showed Dan, and the film ends with her presumably trapping the Old Woman in a mental box herself.
Of all the spirits in the Overlook Hotel, the rotting Old Woman might be the scariest element, something Doctor Sleep leans heavily into. She becomes shorthand for the evils of the Overlook Hotel and the way it targets Dan, thanks in part to her terrifying visage. She's the most prevalent of all the spirits, if for no other reason than this haunting appearance, but she's also the most thematically rich of the spirits that inhabit the original film: she's the lie at the center of the Hotel's effect on Jack. The Old Woman appears to Jack in the last moments of sanity, and it could be argued that she's embracing and laughing at the newest person to join the Hotel's power on her.
Ultimately, she's the truth of the Hotel or, at least, the souls that are stuck there, and Doctor Sleep makes a pretty compelling case for her being the most important of them all.
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep stars Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe and Zahn McClarnon. It is in theaters now.