King and Kubrick

People long-in-the-tooth hover in pairs, waiting impatiently. Their scalps are coated with thick films of ever-drying Rogaine, and they scuffle around in orthopedic sneakers that hide gout-ridden feet. Ten million wrinkles stretch and compress in small talk. 

These people have planned a visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, and they have been promised a ghost.

Some simply came to stay the night at one of the most elegant hotels in Colorado, a historic site with four-star suites. They found it conveniently located just 10 minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park, and the beautiful view of the peaks piqued their interest enough to book a night’s stay.

Others, however, came to the hotel solely to stay in a room where reports of paranormal activity are common—events that could send adrenaline surging through even the most varicose veins. They see the hotel as a place where horror connoisseurs can flirt with the long lost. 

A few, though, are skeptics who hope to feel nothing and confirm once and for all that ghosts don’t exist. 

But even if guests don’t take an organized tour of the grounds or book a room for the evening, those at the hotel after dark encounter its ghosts. Out of thin air, the ghosts make self-proclaimed nonbelievers believe what cannot be explained. Every night is a full house at the Stanley, even when there aren’t any paying guests.

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The Stanley Hotel opened in 1909 as an elegant example of the then-popular Georgian architecture. From the moment it opened, the elegance of the hotel attracted famous guests such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Philip Sousa and the Emperor and Empress of Japan. Even more, the Stanley was especially impressive because it was the first hotel west of the Mississippi to have electricity. Although its haunted history dates from 1911 when a gas leak explosion killed one of the chambermaids, its reputation fully blossomed in the fall of 1974 when the up-and-coming novelist, Stephen King, checked in for the night. 

King, today considered the maestro of horror, was living in Boulder, Colorado at the time. He and his wife decided to go to Rocky Mountain National Park for a brief getaway, which King hoped would spark much-needed inspiration for his book, Darkshine. Headed for the park, they got to a section of Trail Ridge Road that was closed for the winter. Backtracking for a mile and a half, King and his wife found themselves in the hamlet of Estes Park, staring down a grand, white hotel that rose majestically above the pines. King wondered why such a resplendent hotel would be in such an unassuming rural area. 

The couple checked into the Stanley for just one night, having arrived the last evening before it closed for winter. Mr. and Mrs. King were the only paying guests in the hotel, so they were given the presidential suite, room 217. To King’s delight, their room happened to also be the most haunted—the room in which the chambermaid met her untimely demise.

When the couple went to dinner that night, the Stanley’s dining room chairs were placed upside-down on every table except for the one at which King and his wife sat. During dinner, a tuxedo-clad, formal orchestra played for the Kings, and the Kings alone. After dinner, the author’s wife went to bed while he visited the downstairs bar. A bartender named Grady served him several cold glasses of Heineken, his favorite beer. King drank until his brain was foggy and then meandered back through long hallways to room 217. Upon entering, he saw a claw-foot bathtub peeking through the bathroom door. It occurred to King that someone could have died in the macabre-looking tub. 

That night, King dreamt that a predatory, possessed fire hose chased his screaming son, Joe, down the hallway. He jolted awake, soaked in sweat and stepped out to his hotel room balcony to smoke a cigarette. He stared out at the dark outline of the Rocky Mountains. By the time he had stuffed the butt of his cigarette into an ash tray embossed with the Stanley Hotel logo, he had developed the skeleton of what would become his bestselling third novel, “The Shining.”

Once he returned to his apartment in Boulder, King began writing the book immediately, entering a 3,000-word-a-day trance. His first draft needed the least editing and rewriting of all the books he had previously written. 

King’s nightmare wound up breathing new life into the historic Stanley Hotel. Tourists expressed newfound interest in its history, especially after Stanley Kubrick released his 1980 film adaptation of the book. In fact, channel 42 of the Stanley’s guest room televisions plays an uncut, R-rated version of Kubrick’s film on a continuous loop.

Although “The Shining” is arguably Kubrick’s most beloved work, King neither understood Kubrick’s motives nor could fathom why film-psychonauts analyze it with such a fine-tooth comb. King hated it. Since the film’s release, the story of a little boy with psychic powers in an empty hotel was not King’s book; it was Kubrick’s movie.

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The building looks clean, elegant and less menacing than its counterpart, the Overlook Hotel, did in Kubrick’s movie. But upon entering the lobby, the dark-wooded interior produce a different impression. The Stanley breathes heavy sighs of cherry-blend tobacco and rose perfume—the characteristic scents of F.O. Stanley’s smoking pipes and Flora Stanley’s fragrance. A warm piano riff can be heard from afar, sending tingles down guests’ spines when they look in the music room and see the keys moving up and down on their own. Cold drafts of air waft through doorways that appear to open on their own. Although new people check in and out of the Stanley’s 140 rooms every night, the ghosts are perennial guests.

Even nonbelievers are reluctant to deny that there is at least some ghostly “presence” here. But what sets The Stanley apart from other haunted hotels across America is that most venues boast a single haunting or recurrent episode—say, one or two people who died a tragic death on the hotel grounds—whereas The Stanley boasts multiple entities and diverse episodes within its historic walls. The supernatural presence at the Stanley is so strong that psychics have allegedly entered the lobby and been so overwhelmed by the avalanche of paranormal phenomena that they had to run out of the building and off the grounds. Most people who have worked at the hotel admit to feeling the presence of at least 12 different supernatural personalities residing on the hotel grounds.

With this tremendous amount of supernatural energy, it is no wonder Stephen King was inspired to write his famed horror story here. But why is this area so active? Why is the Stanley Hotel one of the most haunted sites in America rather than some venue with a more violent past? 

“Old Man Mountain is probably where you want to do your research,” said tour guide Travis Mace, who has worked at the Stanley for three years. He claims Old Man Mountain is “the most energetic and metaphysical thing we know of in the town beside the hotel.” Mace thinks of Estes Park as one big energy bowl, a sort of supernatural satellite dish—and Old Man Mountain is the antennae at the center. 

F.O. Stanley hiked up the mountain every morning to meditate during the peak of his tuberculosis. After just a few days of this morning ritual, his tuberculosis was inexplicably cured. Mace believes that the tuberculosis was so bad that, “Stanley’s doctor even brought up a coffin from Denver.” Having hiked up Old Man Mountain himself every day when he worked as a security officer on the hotel grounds, Mace said he’s experienced this healing power firsthand. His face lit up when he spoke about Old Man Mountain. “The mountain talks to you,” he said. “It’s magical.”

According to Mace, “The Ute Indians were the longest standing caretakers” of Old Man Mountain. The Utes “were sun worshippers. Hence, ‘The Shining,’ I think, sometimes.” In King’s book, “shining” is Danny’s ability to detect spirits and see the past, present and future. However, Mace interprets the power in a more literal sense that recalls rays of sunlight shining down on those who stand on top of Old Man Mountain. He wonders if King was touched by this energy when he visited the hotel, and if his experience gave him the idea of receiving supernatural messages from above. Although Mace does not have evidence that King trekked to the top of Old Man Mountain during his 1974 stay at the hotel, he thinks King may have subconsciously tapped into the energy of the Estes Park area. 

It’s interesting, Mace said, that a pet cemetery sits behind the Stanley Hotel, nestled up against a sacred rock formation and vision site he calls “Sitting Indian.” In King’s book, “Pet Sematary” (spelling intended), a cemetary sits adjacent to a native sacred site. Even stranger, in Kubrick’s movie, the Overlook Hotel is located on an Indian burial ground. 

Mace believes Kubrick had a reason to include the sacred burial ground in the movie. He believes Kubrick “saw something in King’s story, and used that as a touchstone, then fictionalized from there.” 

Mace claims he can understand why the hotel may have been so inspirational to King. The event that turned him on to believing in supernatural entities was stumbling upon an “impenetrable, green mist, like CGI green fog in ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’” that disappeared as soon as he pulled his camera out of his pocket to snap a picture.

Paranormal experiences like Mace’s are not singular. One afternoon, another one of the hotel’s employees, Shelby Munch, was with an engineer who had accidentally spilled gasoline all over his clothes. He reeked. Munch claims, “all of a sudden, I could smell this very prominent rose perfume, which was [Flora’s] favorite scent.” She could no longer smell the gasoline because the rich aroma of the rose perfume had overpowered the stench. Meanwhile, the gasoline-covered engineer claimed he did not smell the floral perfume at all. Lost in the smell, Munch was startled by “someone slid[ing] their hand on the piano…and there was no one else in the concert hall.” She believed it was the spirit of Flora, who “loved to play the piano…and hang out in the concert hall.”

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The clientele of the hotel seems to mostly consist of elderly folks who would be able to redeem a senior discount on ghost tours. Perhaps this is because the hotel’s overnight prices are upwards of $150, or because the hotel possesses a certain aura that connects elderly guests to the memories and essences to which they had special connections growing up.

Upon entering the lobby of the Stanley Hotel, guests are taken back in time. The historic hotel embodies auras of the early 20th century, “allow[ing] travelers to discover, explore, and connect with the past,” says Lawrence P. Horwitz, the executive director of Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide.

Historic hotels provide meaningful connections to the past and those with whom it was spent. Those memories play with the imagination, allowing one to be a person from a different era, or mingle with those long passed.

Ghosts are a thrilling feature of historic hotels because they are out of the ordinary and toy with the imagination. Today’s travelers are focused on collected experiences rather than material things. For them, staying on historic property is tantamount to having an authentic experience, and the level of authenticity in historic hotels is deeper than in more modern establishments. Historic hotels allow guests to insert themselves into a place where history has been written and continues to be written—if only fictionally, as Stephen King did in “The Shining.”

Perhaps it is the unordinary energy of Old Man Mountain that brings the ghosts to the hotel. However, what must make the ghosts stay is the constant music, lights and life of the coming and going guests, moving in and out of the hotel’s wooden-framed, glass-windowed doors. Mace believes, “ghosts gravitate toward music and [they] like to turn on and off the lights.” So, as long as there are guests and visitors living in the hotel’s rich history, the spirits of the Stanley Hotel will provide the haunting and inspiring entertainment. After all, according to an experienced Stanley worker, “They like to perform.”


Part of the Ritual Issue