A Halloween-season visit to the century-old Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colorado, which inspired Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’
ESTES PARK, COLO. — It was raining as we drove into town, a cloud of mist hanging heavy over the mountains. GPS was spotty, but I was sure we would find the hotel without a map. Our inner voices would guide us there. Our shining, you could say.
Besides, this was no squat motel that sat along the roadside. This was the historic Stanley Hotel, which despite its spooky reputation was supposed to shine white like a wedding cake against the landscape.
I was right. A twist down a hillside and the Stanley showed itself, hulking in this quaint but bustling vacation town. It was inviting, almost regal, not at all foreboding.
Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, came to the Stanley (founded in 1909, as a rest cure for the co-creator of the Stanley Steamer) in 1974 as it was about to close for the winter. They spent a night in Room 217, which turned out to cure what for King was an equal sickness to F.O. Stanley’s: writers’s block.
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King, a tour guide told us, got somewhat blotto and experienced things. He dined in the empty dining room, talked to the hotel bartender. He saw a coiled fire hose and imagined it coming to life. He had dreams about his son running down the halls, screaming.
He got to writing. What ensued was “The Shining,” King’s legendary novel about an alcoholic writer and his family looking after a historic hotel for the winter.
The hauntings at the Stanley started long before King’s visit. According to Stanley lore, housekeeper Elisabeth Wilson walked into Room 217 in 1911 and lit a lantern. There was a gas leak, and an explosion followed. She lived through the blast, but is said to haunt the room to this day, tidying guests’ luggage.
A variety of other spirits may also haunt the place, including a free-spirited hippie girl and a cigarette-smoking maintenance man, little children as well as the spirits of F.O. Stanley and his wife.
The Stanley was fictionalized by King into the Overlook Hotel. For Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie version of “The Shining,” the outside scenes were shot in part at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, the inside on soundstages.
King disliked Kubrick’s movie and thought the sets captured none of the Stanley’s flavor. And in the movie, Room 217 became 237. There are theories about why Kubrick did that, but suffice to say 217 remains the Stanley’s most popular room. You can stay there, if you’re lucky enough to book it.
In 1997, a King-approved “Shining” remake featured the real Stanley. That miniseries might seem a more appropriate version for the Stanley to show on the hotel television 24 hours a day. Instead, the Stanley shows an uncut version of Kubrick’s movie in every room.
The hotel, where a poster of Jack Nicholson’s face hangs in the tour office, seems to struggle with its identity in relation to King. “The Shining” is not the Stanley’s movie, and yet there’s really no escaping it.
On the hotel’s nighttime ghost tour, we went into the Stanley’s concert hall, sniffed for wafts of perfume, waited for pianos to start playing themselves. We took pictures of ourselves in mirrors looking for uninvited guests. We sat in a billiard room where ladies once watched men play, looking for orbs in photos.
We ended the tour seeking F.O. Stanley’s face on various surfaces and getting an abridged download on the pop-cultural elements of the hotel. For instance, the guide said, when Jim Carrey was filming “Dumb and Dumber” at the Stanley, he got so freaked out that he checked out of 217 within hours.
A couple of skeptics, we didn’t really believe in the hauntings. Of course we didn’t. We sat there debunking how various creepy things happened on the ghost tour, deciding a mysterious door that kept closing had an uneven doorjamb because the floor had shifted.
When we got to our room, every channel on the TV was out except for Channel 42. The one that showed “The Shining.”