Former teacher and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) interviews for a caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel in an effort to rebuild his life after his volatile temper lost him his teaching position. The hotel manager, Mr. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), warns Jack that he and his family will be snowbound through most of the winter and of the potential risk for cabin fever. He drives the point home by recounting a season when the caretaker, Charles Grady, went crazy and brutaly killed his wife, his two girls (Lisa Burns and Louise Burns), and finally himself. Given his own desperation and the opportunity to pursue his true passion, writing, Jack acknowledges the warning, but accepts the job.
Meanwhile, Jack's son Danny (Danny Lloyd) has a seizure while talking to his imaginary friend Tony about the Overlook Hotel. He has a vision of blood splashing out of an elevator in the hotel, an image which is revisited several times throughout the film.
Upon Danny's arrival at the hotel, head chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) recognizes that Danny is telepathic, and speaks to him mentally to offer him some ice cream. He explains that he and his grandmother both had the gift; she referred to this communication as "shining." He also counsels Danny about the hotel, hinting that something terrible had happened there and left a trace, "as if someone burned toast," which only people who can "shine" will perceive. Danny questions Dick about what went on in the hotel, and about Room 237 in particular as Danny can sense that Dick is especially afraid of that room. Though he strives to assure Danny that the images he sees in the hotel are just "like pictures in a book" and can't hurt him, Dick sternly warns Danny to stay out of that room.
Jack's mental health deteriorates rapidly once the family is alone in the hotel. He has writer's block, sleeps too little, and is irritable. Danny has visions of the two murdered Grady girls, but tells no one. He continues to wonder about Room 237.
While the weather is still relatively warm, Jack's wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny walk through a maze of tall hedges, making a game out of it, stopping at dead ends and fixing their mistakes.
One day, a ball rolls toward Danny as he plays with his toys. It appears to have come from the open door of Room 237, which Danny enters. At that moment, Wendy comes running from the basement at the sound of Jack's screams in the lounge. He tells her that he had a nightmare in which he used an axe to chop Danny and her to pieces. As a disconcerted Wendy promises that "Everything's gonna be okay," Danny appears at the other end of the room, looking disoriented and sucking his thumb. His sweater is ripped and there are bruises on his neck. He does not answer when Wendy asks what happened. She angrily accuses Jack of hurting Danny and takes the child back to their suite.
Jack is furious about the accusation. He storms around the hotel, making his way to the Gold Ballroom. Sinking defeatedly onto a stool at an empty bar, his head in his hands, Jack declares that he would sell his soul for one drink. When he looks up he discovers a bartender (Joe Turkel), who serves him a drink. Jack is nonplussed by the sudden appearance of the bartender and even addresses him by his name, Lloyd. In the course of telling his troubles to Lloyd, Jack reveals that he unintentionally dislocated Danny's shoulder, the same accident Wendy mentioned to Danny's pediatrician earlier. Notably, Jack states that the injury happened three years ago, while in explaining the same story to the pediatrician, Wendy said that Jack, who vowed to quit drinking immediately following the accident, has currently been sober for only five months.
A frantic Wendy enters, finding Jack seemingly alone at the bar; she pleads with him to investigate Danny's claim that "a crazy woman" attacked him in the bathtub of Room 237. Jack, who acts a bit tipsy, grudgingly agrees to go have a look.
As Jack approaches the door to Room 237, Danny appears to be having a seizure in his own room. Dick, back at his home in Florida, stares wide-eyed as he picks up on a signal Danny is sending.
Jack cautiously enters Room 237. The bedroom is empty and he proceeds to the bathroom. He watches lustfully as a young, beautiful, naked woman (Lia Beldam) pulls back the shower curtain and steps slowly out of the bathtub. The two approach each other and embrace in a passionate kiss. Jack catches a glimpse of their reflection in the mirror and sees the woman is actually a rotting corpse. He recoils in horror-- the young lady standing before him has transformed into an elderly woman (Billie Gibson); a walking corpse with rotten, sagging skin. She cackles madly while reaching for him with outstretched arms. Stunned, Jack staggers out of the room, locking the door after him.
When he reports back to Wendy, Jack denies anything amiss in Room 237. Wendy suggests they take Danny to a doctor. Jack becomes irate, lecturing Wendy on her thoughtlessness and blaming her for everything that's gone wrong in his life. Insisting that they can't leave the hotel because of his obligation to his employers, he storms out, returning to the Gold Room, which is now the scene of an extravagant party with guests dressed in 1920's fashion. Lloyd serves him a drink and Jack strolls through the crowd. He doesn't get far when a butler carrying a tray runs into him, spilling advocaat on his jacket. The butler convinces Jack to come into the bathroom to clean up.
The butler introduces himself as Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). Jack remembers the story Mr. Ullman told him about a former caretaker named Grady murdering his family and confronts Grady with the information. Grady denies that anything of the sort took place and furthermore insists that Jack has "always been the caretaker." Jack is confused, but seems to accept Grady's story. Grady goes on to tell Jack that Danny has "a great talent" and is using it to bring an "outside party" into the situation, referring to Dick Halloran with a racial slur. Grady advises Jack on how to "correct" Danny, and how to deal with Wendy if she interferes.
Back in Florida, Dick has had no luck contacting the people at the Overlook Hotel. Worried about Danny, he books the next flight to Colorado.
At the Overlook, Wendy arms herself with a baseball bat and looks for Jack, intent on leaving the hotel with Danny whether or not Jack agrees to come. Entering the lounge, she spots Jack's manuscript left unattended next to the typewriter. She reads what Jack has been writing: hundreds of pages of repetitions of a single sentence: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." She realizes that Jack has gone mad.
Jack approaches from behind and asks sarcastically, "How do you like it?" Wendy shrieks with alarm and wheels around to face him. A confrontation ensues as Jack demands to know her intentions regarding leaving the hotel with Danny, while Wendy retreats, brandishing the bat. She screams at Jack not to hurt her, and he swears that he will not; instead, he intends to kill her. Wendy hits Jack on the head with the bat at the top of a flight of stairs, causing him to lose his balance and tumble down the staircase, injuring his ankle in the process.
Wendy drags Jack's limp body to the pantry and locks him inside, just as he regains consciousness. Jack tells her he has sabotaged the radio, as well as the snow cat, stranding them all there. She goes outside to check on the snow cat, and confirms what he told her.
A few hours later, Jack is roused from a nap by the sound of Delbert Grady's voice. Grady expresses disappointment and a lack of confidence in Jack, but Jack assures him he can get the job done if given one more chance. The pantry door then suddenly unlocks.
Wendy has fallen asleep in her room. Danny is in a trance, carrying a knife and muttering "redrum" repeatedly. He takes Wendy's lipstick and writes "REDRUM" on the bathroom door. He begins shouting "REDRUM," which wakes Wendy. She clutches him to her, then sees the reflection of the bathroom door in the mirror. Reversed, it reads: "MURDER." At that instant, banging sounds start coming from the door to the hallway.
The sound is Jack swinging an axe at the locked door. Wendy grabs Danny and locks them in the bathroom. She opens a tiny, snow banked window and pushes Danny out; he slides safely to the ground. She tries to get out the same window, but cannot fit. She tells Danny to run and hide.
Meanwhile, Jack has chopped his way through the front door and calls out "Wendy, I'm home!" Jack then knocks politely on the bathroom door. Wendy holds the knife and tries to steady herself as Jack begins chopping into the door. After chopping away one of the panels, he sticks his head through and screams "Heeeere's JOHNNY!" (a reference to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962)). Jack sticks his hand through the door to turn the lock. Wendy slashes at him with a knife, cutting Jack's hand and sending him recoiling in pain. Jack continues to hack at the door with the axe until they both hear the low rumble of an approaching snow cat engine. He stalks out.
The snow cat driver is Dick. Inside the hotel, he calls out, but gets no reply. Jack, hiding behind a pillar, leaps out and swings the axe into Dick's chest, killing him. Danny, hiding in a kitchen cabinet, screams, revealing his location. He clambers out of the steel cabinet and runs outside.
Meanwhile, Wendy has ventured from the bathroom and begun to search for Danny. The hotel has sprung to life and now even Wendy encounters its ghosts, sights that shock and horrify her. At the same time, axe-wielding Jack turns on the outdoor lights and follows Danny into the hedge maze.
Danny realizes he is leaving a trail of footprints in the snow for Jack to follow. He carefully retraces his steps, walking backwards in the same prints he'd just created in the opposite direction, then covers the rest of his tracks and hides behind a hedge. When Jack arrives, he sees that the trail of footprints ends abruptly, giving him no clue as to which direction Danny took. He chooses a path and lurches deeper into the maze. Danny comes out of his hiding spot and follows his own footprints back to the maze's entrance.
Wendy makes her way out of the hotel just as Danny emerges from the maze. Relieved, she flings down the knife and embraces him. Jack bellows his frustration from within the maze. Danny and Wendy waste no time escaping in the snow cat that Dick used to get to the hotel. Jack, hopelessly lost in the maze, freezes to death.
Right before the end credits, the camera slowly zooms in on a wall in the hotel full of old photographs that chronicle the hotel's history. An old recording of "Midnight, the Stars and You" echoes in the empty hallway. In the center of one picture is a young Jack. The caption reads, "Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball, 1921."