Films

A night in the most terrifying hotel on Earth

Thirty-five years on from “Here’s Johnny”, Jonathan Thompson heads to The Shining’s real-life haunted hotel to discover the truth behind the terror

It begins innocently enough: a frustrated writer takes his wife and son to an isolated hotel, looking for inspiration. Then things get very strange, very quickly.

This, of course, is the premise of The Shining – the masterful horror film starring Jack Nicholson, released 35 years ago this month. But it’s also what happened to the young author who penned the story: Stephen King.

Suffering writer’s block, King drove his wife Tabitha and their son into the Rocky Mountains one afternoon, trying to jump-start his imagination. But as night fell, they found their route blocked. They were forced to turn back to the foreboding property they’d passed earlier: The Stanley Hotel.

What followed is the stuff of horror fan lore. It was the last night before the eerie hilltop hotel shut for winter, and the King family were the only guests in the enormous 140-room property. After his wife and son retired for the night, King wandered the corridors alone, exploring the ballroom and drinking in the old-fashioned bar, served by barman Lloyd Grady – whom he later suspected to be a figment of his imagination.

After returning to his room (no217 – more of that later), King had a nightmare about a possessed fire hose trying to strangle his screaming son. When he woke, he was uncertain of what – or who – was real from the previous night. But he did have a clear idea for the beginning, middle and end of his next novel: The Shining.

More than four decades since that fateful evening, and 35 years since Stanley Kubrick’s seminal cinematic interpretation, The Stanley Hotel remains as historic, and haunted, as ever.

The Shining swiftly became a horror classic, in no small part due to its secluded setting. King rechristened it “The Overlook”, but it was clearly a copy of The Stanley – from its sprawling front porch and outmoded ballroom to its crisp Georgian architecture and even its year of completion: 1909. 

The film, including its crowning “Here’s Johnny” scene, where a deranged Jack Nicholson chops down a bedroom door while hunting his wife and child, was filmed almost entirely on set in London, but even this was a loyal recreation of The Stanley, from the sweeping staircase in the lobby to the Twenties-style bar. Since its release in November 1980, fans like me have flocked up here to Estes Park, Colorado, to experience King’s muse for themselves.

Haunted history

Today, The Stanley embraces its terrifying reputation, with daily ghost tours and The Shining playing continuously on the hotel’s Channel 42. There’s a colossal Halloween Ball every year, and an international horror film festival each May. But the real secret of its success – as any amateur ghost hunter will tell you – is that The Shining tapped into something, or somethings, that were already here. In other words, the hauntings began before Stephen King’s visit.

Spookily, The Stanley’s most famous phantom is said to haunt the bedroom where King dreamed up his novel: No217. In 1911, the hotel’s chief housekeeper, Elizabeth Wilson, entered the room to light candles without noticing a gas leak. She blew herself – and 10 per cent of the hotel – away, but her ghost is said to linger: folding clothes and packing suitcases.

The result? The waiting list to stay in room 217 is always months long. 

When it comes to the hotel business, the supernatural pound goes a long way. It’s something The Stanley’s general manager, Dave Ciani, isn’t complaining about. Even if it does perplex him.

“I’m a sceptic myself,” shrugs Ciani, “but there are some things I cannot explain. I’ve had clothes move in my room while I’ve been in the bathroom, and one in four guests report something unusual. That’s an incredible percentage."

In particular, Ciani has had one too many feedback forms mentioning the same thing: “We keep getting positive comment cards about the old man in the bowler hat who works the front door,” says Ciani. “We don’t have an old man in a bowler hat who works the front door."

The apparition in question is supposedly the hotel’s founder, FO Stanley, who built the property in 1909 and, many say, never left. At least he’s not lonely, though: his wife Flora is said to linger here too, playing the ballroom piano. Unsurprisingly, The Stanley’s reputation has attracted inquisitive celebrities over the years, as we learn on our own ghost tour of the property.

These have ranged from President Theodore Roosevelt and Emperor Hirohito of Japan, to Bob Dylan, Bruno Mars and Elijah Wood. But the hotel is no respecter of fame. In 1994, when Dumb & Dumber was being filmed here, Jim Carrey requested the infamous room 217 for the night. According to our tour guide Sophie, he lasted three hours before running to reception and demanding to be moved to another hotel. Carrey has never said what spooked him, but after that night he refused to go back inside The Stanley for filming until the last second, and ran straight out afterwards.

The ghost tours attract everyone from curious Boulder and Denver day-trippers to obsessive ghost hunters from further afield. On my tour, a number of patrons have ghost-hunting apps on their phones, while some are packing full-on EMF meters – ghostly GPS devices that look like a cross between an outsized remote control and a Star Trek tricorder. We spend a surreal two hours taking pictures in mirrors to see if apparitions appear (Sophie has a terrifying assortment of successful efforts from previous guests) and trying to snap phantasmal orbs (“if it has legs it’s not a ghost; it’s a bug on your lens").

Apart from an inexplicable door slam or two, the most exciting thing I capture on camera is a black bear gorging from a dustbin outside the ballroom. The bear is clearly no respecter of spectres, but there’s one woman on staff who has made a 30-year career out of them: The Stanley’s resident psychic, Madame Vera.    

“In the winter, when the hotel is empty, this place really gets the imagination going,” says the clairvoyant. “There’s definitely a strange vibe, but a lot of people find it very creative, too: we get plenty of artists and writers coming up here seeking inspiration: I guess you could say Stephen King started that as well."

According to Madame Vera, the fourth floor, not the second, is actually the most haunted. Here, where children and their nannies were roomed in the early 1900s, there are frequent reports of spectral laughter and the sound of running, often accompanied by lights flashing on and off. 

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“There’s a lot of residual energy up here,” she says, as we tour the floor and its most haunted rooms: 401 and 428. “You can be walking through the corridors and all of a sudden you get little electrical shocks all over your body.”

It’s reminiscent of the moment at the start of The Shining when Dick Hallorann, The Overlook’s extrasensory chef, meets young Danny Torrance and explains that some of what has transpired in the hotel previously has left behind “traces” that people with the psychic ability to ‘shine’ can detect.

So what is the reason for the strangeness at The Stanley? Like the Bermuda Triangle, there are a number of theories. Some cite the extremely high levels of quartz – a powerful conductor of energy – in the rock beneath its foundations, meaning it’s built on top of an enormous natural battery. Others reference the fact that it sits next to a Native American ‘vision quest mountain’ called Old Man, which has been sacred to the Ute and Arapaho for centuries. Throw in the altitude – 7,500ft – and you have a heady mix.

The theories are legion, but one thing The Stanley does – like The Shining itself – is transcend time. And while that remains the case, guests will keep coming here. As the years go by, people’s dread for, and perverse interest in, The Shining, and The Stanley, grows and grows: a recent CBS News survey found that 48 per cent of Americans believe in ghosts.

New horrors

Stephen King has been back to his favourite haunt many times, too – including in 1997 to shoot his own TV miniseries of The Shining – to put right a number of Kubrick’s perceived slights to his novel. Chief among these is the denouement, which initially involved an exploding boiler rather than the maze chase, which was Kubrick’s invention. In September 2013, King published his long-awaited sequel, which follows Danny’s return to the hotel a generation later: Dr Sleep.

It’s a fitting title, because Estes Park is a restful place, too. FO Stanley originally came up here to recover from tuberculosis, before deciding to build the hotel. That’s the direction in which Dave Ciani is trying to go: more than $25m has been invested to rebrand The Stanley as a health and fitness retreat – to literally bring it back from the dead. A wellness centre is coming in 2016, which is apt because, as Ciani quips, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy".

For now, it’s paranormal business as usual. And in a move sure to antagonise King himself, the hotel added a maze this summer. (“We were getting sick of people asking where it was, and having to explain that we never had one,” says Ciani.)   

Yes there is an oddly charged atmosphere at The Stanley. Yes, the rooms creak and groan; yes your imagination can run riot here. But it’s an old hotel, and draughty. The doors don’t hang properly and it gets windy up in the mountains. As I check out, there’s no old man in a bowler hat. But I see Sophie welcoming a new arrival. “You’re staying in room 217?” she asks, eyes widening as she helps with luggage. “I should say good night, but I’ll say good luck."

Double rooms at The Stanley Hotel start from £140 per night (stanleyhotel.com). See visitestespark.com for more. Direct flights to Denver from Heathrow start from £562 with British Airways. To plan your trip see visittheusa.com