Shining at the Stanley

“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 firehose.” —Stephen King, author of The Shining

By Sam Baltusis, author of Ghost Writers

Surrounded by props from the made-for-TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s The Shining, I’m sitting in a dark room located in the bowels of the haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. There’s a Big Wheel bike that little Danny Torrance famously rides through the empty hallways of the fictional Overlook Hotel, an old-school typewriter with the “all work and no play” line typed over and over into reams of paper and a creepy movie still from Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic featuring the murdered Grady girls who begged the tormented boy to come play with them.

   “Wendy, I’m home,” I said to myself as my ghost tour guide, Olivia, flicked the lights on and off to get the group’s attention.

A Front View of the Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

   “Are we excited for some spirit action tonight? I know it’s late but bring that energy for the full seventy-five minutes because that’s going to help you have your interactions tonight,” Olivia announced to our small but enthusiastic group. “Our spirits can’t go to Starbucks to get that motivation, alright?  Keep an eye on your electronic devices because you may see them do some bizarre things. Yes, your battery levels may go up and down and your phone may take photos that you necessarily didn’t intend to take. Most importantly, pay attention to your personal energy. If our spirits like you they may borrow a piece of your energy.”

   Olivia’s approach to the Stanley Hotel’s ghost tour seemed oddly like a paranormal pep rally. I was waiting for the perky, twenty-something guide to start an impromptu, spirit-squad cheer. We got spirits, yes we do. We got spirits, how ‘bout you?

   “If you notice your energy drop, the spirits may be trying to connect with you. However, if you feel completely drained it may not be what you’re thinking,” she explained. “No, you’re not being possessed. It’s most likely elevation sickness. But if you do feel a possession coming on, let me know. I don’t want anyone to pass out on my tour.”

   Despite the dark subject matter, Olivia’s enthusiasm was infectious. An overnight stay at the Stanley Hotel has always been high on my bucket list. Finally, I was able to tour the hotel that inspired The Shining after a haunting late September visit back in 1974. 

   I was giddy with excitement. Or was it elevation sickness?

   My first taste of horror master Stephen King was the movie version of Carrie. I remember identifying with the bullied protagonist who painfully dealt with a dirty little secret. While battling her religious zealot of a mother and the gum-smacking sadism of cruel teenagers, Carrie White unsuccessfully tried to control her burgeoning ability to move things with her mind. Like White, I didn’t quite fit into the status quo of the 1970s. Unlike King’s cursed anti-hero, I didn’t have latent telekinetic powers.

   But I did have a secret. 

   There was something about King’s The Shining that tapped into my darkest childhood fears. I remember riding the school bus when I was younger and waiting for my friend to recount the eerie stories that unfolded in his archetypal ghost story. I was so terrified that I wasn’t able to actually read the book until high school, which was long after I watched the movie.

   Why was I scared? Like the young Danny in The Shining, I was dealing with the unnerving ability to detect spirits. I could also pick up on the lingering energy at haunted locations. At the time, I had no idea what was going on with me. What did the spirits from my childhood want from me? I didn’t view the ability as a gift. It was a curse.

   When chef Dick Hallorann explained to the troubled boy why the disembodied souls from the Overlook continued to linger, it helped me understand what I was experiencing as a kid who also had empathic abilities. “I don’t know why, but it seems that all the bad things that ever happened here, there’s little pieces of those things still laying around like fingernail clippings,” Hallorann warned. Past traumatic events like murders and suicides can leave a psychic imprint on a building, according to the telepathic chef. 

   “Some places are like people: some shine, some don’t,” Hallorann continued.

   Much like its fictional counterpart in The Shining, the Stanley closed during the winters until 1983. When King and his wife Tabitha stayed at the hotel in late September 1974, the Estes Park hideaway was preparing for hibernation mode.    

   “We were the only guests as it turned out,” King recalled on his website. “The following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect setting for a ghost story.”

   The horror writer was inspired by a dream he had while staying in the notoriously haunted Room 217. “That night 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 firehose,” King continued. “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 the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

   Before flying out to the Rocky Mountain location that inspired King, I reached out to my fellow ghost writer and friend, Richard Estep. Originally from the United Kingdom, he’s armed with more than twenty years of investigating the paranormal on both sides of the pond. Estep, currently based in the Denver area, is the author of several historical-based ghost books including Haunted Longmont and In Search of the Paranormal. He’s also a part-time tour guide at the Stanley Hotel.

   “When I applied for a tour guide job at the Stanley three years ago, I was somewhat skeptical of the hauntings,” Estep told me. “It didn’t take long for me to learn firsthand that the hotel is genuinely paranormally active, and is a truly fascinating place to work and visit.”

    Why are locations like the Stanley more haunted than other structures? “Hotels see the entire spectrum of human life, good and bad, and that leaves an imprint of some kind that we cannot yet explain,” Estep said.

   Opened on July 4, 1909, the hotel was the brainchild of the Yankee steam-powered car inventor, Freelan Oscar Stanley. Suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, F.O. Stanley spearheaded the forty-eight room grand hotel as a health retreat for New England’s uppercrust seeking the curative air of the Rocky Mountains. Stanley’s wife, Flora, relocated with her husband and the duo spent their summers entertaining in Estes Park, Colorado. He sold the hotel in 1926 and purchased it again 1929. In 1940, Stanley died from a heart attack in Newton, Massachusetts one year after his wife passed. 

   Estep said that King and the Stanley are now inextricably intertwined in the public consciousness. “His influence is still felt at the hotel to this day, from the annual ‘Shining Ball’ to the throngs of visitors who visit the Stanley because of its connection to King and The Shining,” Estep explained. “Room 217 is the hotel’s most popular room—and its most infamous—and generates a regular stream of seemingly inexplicable experiences.”

   Before my overnight stay at the Stanley, I had a spirit communication with a female ghost that appeared to be associated with the hotel. Based on an unnerving dream that I had at my brother’s house in nearby Highlands Ranch the night before my visit, she was waiting for me. When I woke up, my ankles mysteriously started to hurt. 

   When I asked Estep about the spirit-induced dream, he said that I possibly connected with the hotel’s former housekeeper, Elizabeth Wilson, who was injured in a freak accident in 1911. “Miss Wilson was a chambermaid caught in the gas explosion of Room 217,” Estep told me. “She didn’t die in the hotel, but was injured, and returned to the Stanley after her convalescence, where she spent many happy years working there.”

   Believe it or not, but Wilson broke both of her ankles during the turn-of-the-century blast. 

   Estep said that the acetylene gas explosionaccidentally caused by Wilson when she walked into the suite with a lit candlemay have psychically imprinted itself on the Stanley. “I believe that she is still connected to the hotel after her death because she was so attached to the place during her physical lifetime,” he said. “One disrespects her at their peril.”

   According to legend, Wilson worked at the Stanley until she passed in the 1950s. Her lingering spirit supposedly unpacks and folds the clothing of unsuspecting guests. She also has an issue with unmarried couples sleeping in the same bed. Wilson’s ghost reportedly doesn’t like improper behavior in the hotel. In fact, the former chambermaid has forceable tried to separate unwed couples by creeping in between them in the wee hours of the night.

   When I checked into my room at the Stanley, I was somewhat relieved that I was assigned to Room 213. It’s not haunted, right? When I mentioned to my tour guide Olivia that I was a few doors down from the infamous Room 217, she laughed. “All of the rooms in that wing were part of the presidential suite,” she said. “So, Room 217—as well as 213, 215 and 219—had all been one giant suite.”

   It happened again. I was put into the haunted room. Why was I not surprised?

   Our first stop on the ghost tour was the Concert Hall. I was warned by my author friend that the Stanley’s music venue, originally an entertainment complex called “The Casino” which also had a subterranean bowling alley, was teeming with ghostly activity. “Paranormally speaking, the Concert Hall is the most active part of the entire hotel,” Estep continued. “Both Paul and Lucy are said to reside there.”

   During the tour of the Concert Hall, I saw what looked like a shadow figure dart by the stairwell next to the stage and I heard a female spirit say “open” when I headed down to the basement. According to Estep, I may have encountered the spirits of Paul, who passed while shoveling snow outside of the performance space in 2010 and Lucy, a young woman said to have been a squatter who died from hypothermia somewhere around the Stanley. 

   While there’s no evidence to corroborate the existence of Lucy, Estep believes he has encountered Paul. “During one tour in the Concert Hall, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps stomping across the wooden floorboards below me,” Estep said, adding that he was up in the balcony at the time. “All twenty people on my tour heard the footsteps too. Thinking that I may have been punked, I took two visitors down to the basement with me, in case somebody was banging on the ceiling above. The basement was deserted.”

   During the ghost tour, a woman from the Midwest said she saw a shadow figure dart behind me in the basement around the time that I heard the female spirit say “open.” According to Olivia, the room is often frequented by the mysterious stowaway spirit. When I walked into Lucy’s hangout, a closet door slowly creaked opened. 

   Yes, I was legitimately creeped out by the cellar dweller. However, that brief moment was probably the most spine-tingling paranormal activity that I experienced during the entire investigation. I’m still not sure if it was Paul or Lucy that I was communicating with in the Concert Hall’s basement. In hindsight, it could have been F.O. Stanley himself or his wife, Flora.

   The ghostly husband-and-wife duo have been spotted roaming the halls and the lobby of the hotel, “making sure that everything is running properly,” reported Where The Ghosts Live blog. “One year prior to F.O.’s death, his wife, Flora had a stroke in the lobby of the hotel. Having been a very accomplished piano player, it is said that she will still have a seat and plays a piece on the piano for her guests.”

   As our tour was coming to an end, I was waiting for the ghost of Flora to manifest as our group investigated the MacGregor Ballroom. Phantom piano music? Nope. However, I did have an uneasy feeling as I walked up the stairs and came face-to-face with the painting of the hotel’s matriarch leering at me as I quietly retired to my room. But that was it.   

   While I would say, without hesitation, that the Stanley lives up to its haunted reputation, I had to rethink my irrational fears of an ax-wielding Jack Torrance barging into my bathroom or a late-night visitation by those gruesome Grady girls. 

   I didn’t have a “redrum” moment.

   “Contrary to the contents of King’s excellent novel, the Stanley has no dark or violent history,” Estep told me. “It has more than one hundred years of happiness and joy, for the most part, and I believe that some of that positive emotion has remained behind after all these years and is behind many of the paranormal phenomena that visitors report.”

   I ended up having a peaceful night sleep. I especially enjoyed the little touches, like having my clothing neatly unpacked and folded when I returned to my supposedly haunted room. I even woke up tucked into my bed even though I fell asleep on top of the duvet. The hotel’s chambermaid, Elizabeth Wilson, sure knows how to make guests at the Stanley feel right at home.

   Next time, however, I’m going to sleep with the lights on.

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