The mysteries of the Stanley hotel, the hotel which inspired Stephen King’s Shining.7 min read
“Any big hotels have got scandals [sic]…Just like every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go. Sometimes one of ‘em will pop off in his room, heart attack or stroke or something like that. Hotels are superstitious places.”
Stephen King, The Shining (1977)
In October 1974 Stephen King, at the time the rising star of horror literature, spent one night with his wife Tabitha in a rather disturbing old hotel, at the bottom of the Rocky Mountains during their brief residency in Boulder, Colorado.
With the cold and the snow coming, the hotel was about to close, and Stephen King and his wife were the only guests. After having dined in a large and empty dining room, with all the chairs stacked on the tables, except theirs, and having walked along the endless deserted corridors, a new novel began to take shape in the writer’s mind.
After Tabitha went to bed, Stephen King roamed the halls and went down to the hotel bar, where drinks were served by a bartender named Grady. When he returned to his room, the 217, his imagination was fired up by the hotel’s remote location, its grand size, and its eerie desolation. And when King went into the bathroom and pulled back the pink curtain for the tub, which had claw feet, he thought, “What if somebody died here? At that moment, I knew I had a book.”
In another retelling, King says, “I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of The Shining firmly set in my mind.”
The Shining was published in 1977 and became the third great success of King’s career after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. The primary setting is an isolated Colorado resort called the Overlook Hotel which closes for the winter. In the front matter of the book, King tactfully states, “Some of the most beautiful resort hotels in the world are located in Colorado, but the hotel in these pages is based on none of them. The Overlook and the people associated with it exist wholly in the author’s imagination.” The Stanley Hotel is never mentioned.
However, the book has completely changed the fate of the Stanley Hotel. What was a faded remnant of ancient splendor was reborn, and is now nicknamed “The Shining Hotel”.
The famous entrepreneur/inventor Freelan Oscar Stanley finished building the hotel in 1909. Six years earlier his doctor ordered him to spend a few months in a place where clean mountain air was breathed in the hope that this could improve his tuberculosis. Arriving in Estes Park for a vacation, Stanley fell in love with the area, and promised to come back every summer.
Stanley built the hotel on land he had purchased from the Earl of Dunraven (in photo below), an Irish nobleman. Today, ghost seekers claim that the spirit of Dunraven infest room 407: the lights go out by themselves, and its ghostly face is often seen framed in the windows of the room.
Many of the Stanley’s original features, including the veranda, the billiard room (one of owner’s favorite places), and the grand staircase – are still the original ones.
Stanley accepted only high society clients, excluding those who were not part of it. During the First World War, when tourism was reduced to almost nothing, Stanley sat personally in the lobby, and refused customers considered unsuitable, even though the hotel was almost empty.
In its heyday, at the beginning of the 20th century, decades before becoming “The Shining Hotel,” the Stanley hosted public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and the Emperor of Japan Hirohito.
When Stephen King came to the Stanley in the 1970s, the hotel had fallen into disgrace, but regained its former glory after a change of management, also thanks to Stephen King’s novel, and to Stanley Kubrick’s subsequent film.
Room 217, centerpiece of the novel, (later changed to 237 in Kubrick’s film adaptation), is the one in which King slept that night, and is now almost a place of worship, extremely popular with guests of The Shining hotel, to book months in advance.
Long before Stanley became The Shining Hotel, room 217 had an interesting story. In 1917, chief housekeeper Elizabeth Wilson, fearing that a storm would blow up the electricity, started lighting the hotel lanterns. While trying to light one in what is now room 217, the lantern exploded, causing the floor to collapse under the woman’s feet, which fell into the room below.
Even though the housekeeper broke her ankles, she survived.
For the paranormal investigators, however, Wilson’s story is more disturbing than it may seem, because the newspapers of the time reported very different versions of the event, and provided different names for the woman in question. Since employee records are now dispersed, and there is no photograph of “Elizabeth Wilson”, some believe we will never know who was really in that room.
The American actor Jim Carrey asked to occupy room 217, while he was shooting the movie “Dumb Dumber” at the Stanley. The story goes that after only three hours he wanted to change it. “What happened to him in that room is not known. He never talked about it, “one of the staff members reported.
Many ghost hunters say that room 401 is actually the most haunted room in the hotel, inhabited by the “phantom thief”, who wanders around, and also steals guests’ personal belongings. Others point out that the rumble caused by the adjacent elevator, which plays a central role in the film, is sufficient to shake the nerves of the guests.
In addition to room 401, many ghost hunters believe that the entire fourth floor of the Stanley is the center to paranormal activity. Many claim to have heard the ghostly giggles of children running up and down the corridors.
Another of the spirits most often reported to the hotel is that of a former maintenance worker, named Paul, who died of a heart attack while shoveling snow out of the hotel in 2005. Tourist guides claim that Paul interacts with guests during night visits to the facility.
Despite its connection with Stephen King’s novel, the Stanley Hotel has little to do with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation. The inspiration for the interior sets (erected at Elstree Studios in the UK) came primarily from the Ahwahnee Hotel (built 1927) in Yosemite National Park.
Since there was not enough snow in Estes Park at the time of filming, Kubrick did not use the Stanley, but the Timberline Lodge, near Mt. Hood in Oregon. The management of the Timberline Lodge, fearful that guests would refuse to stay in their Room 217 if it were featured in a horror movie, insisted that Kubrick change the haunted room in the film to Room 237.
However, when Stephen King (who notoriously does not like Kubrick’s film) adapted the book for a TV mini-series in 1997, he filmed at the Stanley.
Since 2013, the hotel has hosted the Stanley Film Festival (complete with red lighting), which features independent horror movies and special events. On Halloween, the Stanley truly becomes The Shining hotel, as it hosts an annual dance, attended by hundreds of people wearing 1920s dresses, such as those in the movie.
The hotel attracts large crowds, with its four types of daily excursions, designed for those seeking an experience in a haunted hotel. Tens of thousands of people sign up for these tours every year.
Although the hotel ballroom plays a rather creepy role in Shining, the Stanley MacGregor Ballroom is, today, a popular place for wedding parties. That said, amateur ghost hunters, who ate in the room, claimed to have heard the sound of the piano of Flora Stanley, the owner’s wife, long dead.
While Mrs. Stanley allegedly haunts the ballroom, the hotel guests, as well as the staff, claim to have spotted her husband several times, both in the billiard room and in the bar.
While both the novel and the movie portray a hotel frighteningly isolated from civilization, the Stanley is actually just outside the center of Estes Park, a popular summer resort, near Denver.
Although a hedge maze is of great importance in the movie, the Stanley has never had one until 2015. At the end of June, after choosing from over 300 project proposals, the Stanley finally inaugurated a maze open to the public, which definitively established it as “The Shining Hotel”.