Stephen King’s hotel of horrors

Colorado’s Stanley Hotel inspired Stephen King’s horror classic, The Shining. More than 30 years later, the hotel remains as historic – and haunted – as ever.

In 1974, famed US horror writer Stephen King and his wife Tabitha lived for a year in Boulder, Colorado. In late October, they spent a night in the mountain resort town of Estes Park, 40 miles northwest of Boulder. They checked into the historic 155-room Stanley Hotel – and found that they were the only guests for one of the last nights of the hotel’s season.

King’s imagination went wild as he wandered the abandoned hallways, ate alone in the grand dining room and talked up the bartender. By the end of the night, he knew he had enough material to start writing his next book.

The Shining, published in 1977, quickly became a horror classic, in no small part due its scarily secluded setting: a snowed-in hotel with a haunted history, hidden away in the Rocky Mountains.

Ghosts of the past
Though King called the hotel in his book The Overlook, the fictional Overlook and the real-life Stanley not only look alike, with sprawling front porches and crisp Georgian architecture, but both were completed in 1909. Founder FO Stanley, who invented one of the era’s best selling steam-powered cars, The Stanley Steamer, in 1897, came to the Rocky Mountains from Massachusetts in 1903 to find treatment for his tuberculosis. He and his wife Flora fell in love with the region and founded the hotel six years later. During its early heyday, the resort hosted celebrities including former US president Theodore Roosevelt, Titanic survivor Molly Brown and Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, the Stanley has retained many of its original features, including the entrance’s sprawling veranda, its founder’s favourite billiard room and the grand staircase that graces the lobby.

The Stanley’s original MacGregor Ballroom, with its raised stage and large windows showcasing expansive mountain views, was reincarnated in the pages of The Shining. Late one night, main character and hotel caretaker Jack Torrance finds himself at a magnificent masked ball attended by 1940s-styled guests – even though he, his wife and son are the hotel’s only inhabitants, and all the roads to the hotel are blocked by snow. 

Apparitions are nothing new for the Stanley’s ballroom. People report seeing the keys on the room’s piano being pressed with no one there, and hearing music fill the space. Hotel historians believe the musician is Flora Stanley herself: she loved the piano and often played it for guests.

Room 217
“It was a perfectly ordinary door, no different from any other door on the first two floors of the hotel,” King wrote. “It was dark gray, halfway down a corridor that ran at right angles to the main second-floor hallway. The numbers on the door looked no different from the house numbers on the Boulder apartment building they had lived in. A 2, a 1, and a 7.”

In the book, the room beyond door 217 turns out to be far from ordinary – it is the site of a gruesome haunting. In real life, it was the room where King stayed.

Long before King’s stay, the room had a history. In 1917, the chief housekeeper Elizabeth Wilson was lighting the hotel’s acetylene lanterns during a storm in case the electricity went out. When she went to light the one in what is now room 217, the lantern exploded, blasting out the floor beneath her feet and sending her falling down to the storey below.

She survived (albeit with two broken ankles). Even so, guests of 217 report her spirit stops by on occasion – usually to tidy things up, sometimes putting stray items away or unpacking a suitcase.

The hauntings, both the fictional and the ostensibly real, hardly deter guests. In fact, room 217 is usually booked months in advance. That said, the fourth floor rooms receive the most reports of unusual activity, from the sounds of children playing in the halls to lights turning off to faces appearing in windows.

Embracing its reputation as one of the United States’ most haunted hotels, the Stanley offers regular 90-minute ghost tours of its most supernatural sites. The hotel even offers a five-hour paranormal investigation, complete with specialized ghost-hunting equipment like EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors, once a month for die-hard ghost hunters.

Forget the film
Though a classic in its own right, the film adaptation of The Shining – directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson – has long been disparaged by King for not being true to his story’s characters.

The film does not feature any scenes from the Stanley; there was not enough snow in Estes Park at the time to recreate the snowed-in Overlook. The exterior shots instead show the Timberline Lodge in Mt Hood, Oregon. Even so, the Stanley plays the original movie on a constant loop for guests on its own channel 42. 

In 1997, King adapted his book into a mini-series. He shot it on-site at the Stanley Hotel as a tribute to his original muse.

True tragedy
In September 2013, King’ published Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining, which follows Jack Torrance’s son Danny, now in his 40s – all the way back to the site of the Overlook. The Stanley Hotel found itself in the spotlight once again.

But the excitement was overshadowed by the devastating floods that struck Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park that same September. The region received more rainfall over two days than it usually sees in an entire year; 11,000 people were evacuated and more than 1,500 homes destroyed. 

Thanks to its elevated location above the valley, the hotel itself suffered relatively minor damage. However, much of the US Highway 36, the main road between Boulder and Estes Park, was washed away, and with it went much of the tourism the town depends during its elk-showcasing fall months, when hundreds of elk descend from the mountains and make their mating calls near prime viewing areas (one of which is the Estes Park golf course).

The town of Estes Park has mostly recovered; most businesses have re-opened, though some have closed completely while others are still working to repair property damage. US Highway 36 also reopened in late November 2013, but construction is expected to continue throughout 2014, causing regular delays until its completion in 2015. The Colorado Department of Transportation has construction updates for those making the drive, and suggests visitors take the more northern US Highway 34 or Colorado Highway 7 entrances if possible.

Meanwhile, the Stanley, which is open year-round, has continued to draw visitors from around the country. As part of its effort to attract even more guests, the hotel is offering a special “Doctor Sleep Package” through the end of 2015, including copies of both The Shining and Doctor Sleep and possible upgrades to room 217 by request. Ghost sightings are not guaranteed – but in this hotel, and with one of King’s books in hand, a few scares certainly are.