The Stanley Hotel juts out from the landscape like some sort of gothic mansion, but upon arrival it felt like a white oasis of calm after driving through endless hairpin turns that Auntie Google claimed led to Estes Park, Colorado, but that I thought might never lead anywhere at all.
While speed limit signs often said 30 mph on these turns — and never more than 45 mph — the line of cars following me clearly disagreed with those limits. But my lead foot wasn’t budging. My vision was blocked by sheer rock walls on both sides, and I could not tell if anyone was coming around the bend on my side of the road.
There was no way I was going to risk going any faster than I already was.
As I continued the drive between the sheer rock cliffs that defined a narrow path of safety, I tried not to imagine these roads covered with snow and a blizzard coming down.
That was the kind of night that brought Stephen King to The Stanley Hotel on a fateful night in 1974, where a perhaps ghost-fueled nightmare gifted him the plot for what became the cult horror classic, “The Shining.”
Legends have it that King basically refused to leave The Stanley without booking a room, even though the hotel was shutting down for the season and almost entirely empty.
All the other Estes Park hotels were also shutting down for the season, so I could sympathize. Who would want to get back into a car and drive these kinds of roads in a snowstorm, trying to leave Estes Park?
King ultimately convinced them to rent a room by offering to pay in cash, so that no credit card was required. There was one room left that still had sheets. The Presidential Suite, the now infamous Room 217.
The very room I had booked for a one-night stay at The Stanley Hotel.
To sleep in that room, if I dared, and see if it’s haunted.
My Personal Ghost Story
The drive to Estes Park from Cheyenne is a short two hours, but still offers plenty of time to think.
I had seen the movie or read “The Shining” a long time ago, so I knew that “shining” referred to the psychic ability to see and hear things that others cannot, such as ghosts.
I don’t know that I have any of this “shining” about me, but I can offer a creepy story some have described as supernatural.
I was about 15 years old at the time. My grandparents lived five or so hours away, but I visited them every summer.
That particular summer, my kid sister, Leanne, decided not to go with me for our annual visit. She was about 5. When I got to grandma’s she showed me this child-sized doll she’d just bought at a yard sale.
She was mighty proud of this doll, but my immediate reaction was that the doll was horror-show creepy. I did not want it in my room, but It was a very beautiful doll. I said nothing, not wanting to disappoint my grandma.
The next morning as I was half awake eating my cereal, I had the distinct impression that my sister had just run up behind me, and then, laughing all the way, ran back to the back bedroom.
I jumped off my barstool and raced to the back bedroom to find her. But of course, nothing was there – other than that creepy old doll I’d had to spend the night with.
When I turned around, grandma was right behind me. I asked her why she’d run to the bedroom as well.
“Well, I thought I heard your sister,” she said rather sheepishly.
Of course, we both knew that Leanne had not come along for the summer trip. Yet both had reacted at the same time in the same way, thinking we’d heard her running to the back bedroom.
Grandma sold that doll not long after my visit, so I never had to sleep with it again.
I can’t say I’ve had too many other “shining” moments like that one. There was the time in college when I was struck by a sense of dread at the exact time my grandfather Jack died. My mom and dad always told me things like that are just “coincidences.” But now and then, I’ve had similar instances where I knew something I could not have otherwise known.
The Key To Room 217
When I finally arrive at The Stanley Hotel, I have a sense of overwhelming relief. The sun is shining, the breeze just cool enough to refresh, and happy, smiling faces are everywhere.
No more nightmare roads.
I left my luggage in the car, not sure where to check in, and walked quickly past all distractions.
Except the Lift Chocolates. I walked a little slower past that, only quickening my pace after promising to return. Soon.
At the check-in desk behind the clerk, my eyes were captured immediately by a lovely set of very old keys. Probably for my hotel room?
The clerk’s eyes widen a bit when I tell him my room number, but when he hands me two electronic key cards it’s my turn to be a little surprised.
Perplexed, I gesture to the lovely old keys behind him and say, “What are all those for?”
He tells me they are mostly replicas of the hotel’s original keys. But he adds, with a sly look, the key to Room 217 is among the few remaining originals. It’s hanging the opposite direction from the others, he tells me, because it won’t stop rocking back and forth if hung the wrong way.
“Oh really?” I say.
He switches the key around to demonstrate, and I watch and watch and watch for what seems an inordinate amount of time. Then I realize I haven’t been timing this, so I have no idea how long I’ve really been waiting.
Straight-faced, I tell him he simply must do that again so I can time it.
I laugh at his look of consternation. Tired of watching the key go back and forth anyway, I let him off the hook and say I was only joking.
Time to get my things and stop procrastinating. Time to enter Room 217.
Joining Club 217
The room I have booked doesn’t look vastly different to me from other hotel rooms. There’s the large bed with comfortable pillows, short-sheeted to ensure a wrestling match at bedtime.
There’s a comfortable sofa and two chairs on either side of the bed, as well as an armoire and dresser for my clothes, and a spacious bathroom with walk-in shower.
The only real difference from any other hotel room is a bookcase facing the end of the bed, with a row of Stephen King novels on top. They’re stuffed with notes written by former guests. Club 217 members, I discover, have all kinds of ideas for meeting the ghosts of Room 217.
I follow them all.
I drop shoes at random on the floor with mismatched socks on top of them. I toss a pair of pants on the floor for good measure.
Supposedly, the room’s ghostly occupant, a former chamber maid named Elizabeth Wilson, will come along and fold the pants for me and tidy up my shoes.
I unzip my suitcase but leave it unpacked. If I can get some ghost to unpack it for me, more power to her. Less for me to do.
Then I go sit in the chair to the “right” of the bed, where I’m supposed to feel someone poking me in the arm.
So, I go sit in the other chair, too, because what if to the “right” of the bed was actually while in the bed, rather than facing it?
Nothing happens there either.
Before heading down to dinner, I linger a bit at the foot of the bed, trying to feel the rumored cold spot.
Truth to tell, the room is suffocatingly hot. I would have welcomed a chill about then, even a ghostly one. I had to open the windows instead — those that haven’t been nailed shut or painted over. That’s when I discovered the balcony where King famously smoked a cigarette after having a nightmare in this room no longer opens. No late-night balcony scene for me.
Well, I thought, watched pots never boil. Ghosts might be the same.
I headed downstairs to shop for souvenirs and settle on a tour.
Straight From The Bartender
The gift shop offers plenty of “The Shining” memorabilia for sale, as well as very cute, very expensive clothes. I settled on a coffee mug with gold letters and a replica of the 217 room key, also gold. And I bought a couple of local books about The Stanley Hotel and the ghosts that residents say inhabit both the hotel and Estes Valley.
During dinner, I read a few of the ghost stories and chat up the bartender, Bill Medina. Bartenders always have the best stories, so I asked him if the hotel’s ghosts are real or just tourist hype.
He had no hesitation saying he’s a believer that the hotel is haunted. Very haunted.
“Really?” I ask between bites of a perfectly prepared strip steak, some cheese-topped asparagus and fluffy mashed potatoes.
“I’ve absolutely seen bottles just fall off the shelf for no reason,” he told me.
“Well, that’s creepy,” I said, then followed up with the obvious question you’d ask someone who should have been terrified away.
“How long have you been working at the hotel?”
When he said 10 years, I had to ask why he’d want to work in a haunted hotel for so long.
The ghosts, he told me, don’t really scare him. He likes that everyone in the hotel has a story or two to tell about the odd things that have happened to them at The Stanley. It’s just one of the “cool” things about working at the hotel.
If he says so …
To finish off my meal — and make up for missing out on the Lift chocolates – I ordered a chocolate old fashioned, the Rigor Morticia.
The other bartender tried to warn me off of this, telling me it’s very strong, but I order it anyway, and I’d definitelyrecommend it to anyone who likes chocolate. It’s perfect for sipping, even if an old fashioned is not normally your drink. And it’s a great consolation spirit in case you wanted to see some ghosts, but you’re not seeing them after all.
After dinner, I peek into my room to see what I might see.
My discarded shoes are still where I tossed them, as was the rumpled pair of pants.
Nothing had touched my suitcase either.
Not one item unpacked.
The Almost Fall Of The Stanley Hotel
As the tour guides tell it on the “The Shining” tour, The Stanley Hotel was in terrible shape when King arrived in 1974 for his famous stay in Room 217. Think “Fall of the House of Usher” bad here. Eight of The Stanley’s 11 buildings had been condemned.
When King arrived, the dilapidated hotel was clearly on its last leg, and the truth is, “The Shining” saved her.
King has written various accounts of his stay, all of them a little different. In one version, he heard some ghost stories from a bartender and knew the hotel would be a great horror story. In another, he was wandering the empty hotel, particularly the fourth floor, and it was creeping him out. That’s when he knew he had a real winner.
In the most commonly told version, King had a nightmare in Room 217 of his son being chased by one of the hotel’s old-fashioned firehoses which, at that time, hung from the walls.
When he woke, King was an inch from falling out of bed. He got up and lit a cigarette, which he smoked on the balcony. By the time the cigarette was done, he had the bones of the story firmly set in his mind.
Perhaps all of these things happened to an extent, making one story no more true than another, which is honestly perfect for a ghost story.
One thing about the tour guide’s version does stand out.
At the time of King’s visit, employees were forbidden to talk about any of the supernatural happenings at the hotel for fear it would drive customers away. The bartender who told King his ghost stories was breaking all the rules.
When “The Shining” was made into a movie by Stanley Kubrick, The Stanley Hotel insisted the famous movie director change the most haunted and dangerous room number in the Overlook Hotel from 217 to 237. Even though a different hotel was used for filming, they feared no guests would want to rent The Stanley’s presidential suite anymore.
Obviously, the hotel’s managers of old were not marketing geniuses. Ghosts, real or imagined, have brought thousands of guests to The Stanley since King wrote “The Shining” and Kubrick made his movie of the same name. Room 217 is the most requested room — even if, as I learned during my stay, it’s not the most haunted.
For that, I’m told, guests go to the fourth floor, which used to be a staging area for the children of guests and their nannies. Many guests report hearing giggling children on the fourth floor, long after most children should be asleep.
Becoming A Believer
When my tour guide Ella Witcher came to The Stanley Hotel to work, she was a paranormal skeptic. She became a believer her first night at the hotel.
The photo that changed her mind was taken by one of her tour participants, near the end of the hotel’s Spirited Tour, in the tunnels that run underneath the hotel.
It’s a grainy photo, but the face in it is pretty unmistakable.
My first reaction, though, isn’t to be creeped out by the face.
“There are tunnels under the hotel?” I ask, wide-eyed.
“They’re closed off,” she said. “So, the only way to get in is if somebody lets you in, or if you’re going through the employee entrance.”
That’s how she knows the face in the photo taken during her tour doesn’t belong there. It can’t be someone who just happened to casually wander by, because it’s a restricted-access area.
“There was just nobody on my tour who looked like that,” she said. “And I had people panicking about this, and I was honestly kind of panicked too.”
To her, the photo is absolute proof of paranormal activity.
“I can testify in court, before God, whatever, with a gun to my head,” she says. “That face was not anyone on my tour.”
Since then, Witcher said she’s interacted with ghosts often at the hotel.
She has good luck getting them to rearrange her candies, she tells me. The most frequent times seem to be early mornings and late evenings, when there are fewer people at the hotel.
Catching A Ghost – Maybe
Something intriguing did happen while I was in the McGregor Dining Room, where chamber maid Elizabeth fell after a gas explosion destroyed a wing of the hotel during its early years.
Wilson had been lighting lanterns in the evening because the electricity at the hotel was not always reliable. Unbeknownst to her, there was a gas leak in Room 217. When she opened the door, a candle in her hand, everything in that room and that wing went boom.
Newspaper accounts offer different stories about what happened, and to whom. Some even claim that the chambermaid actually died at the hotel. Others give the chambermaid completely different names and cannot agree as to how many guests were eating in the McGregor Dining Room.
Witcher claims that a whalebone corset saved Wilson’s life, and that she lived to a ripe old age before dying in the 1950s. She didn’t die at the hotel, though. She just never quit coming to work, even after dying.
Guests she likes will often find clothes folded and shoes tidied, Witcher said, while those she doesn’t like might find their unpacked belongings re-packed and their bags in the hallway — much to the anger of the guests in question. People can request a new room – and have – if they’re unhappy with their ghost.
Or, in the case of “Dumb and Dumber’s” Jim Carey, some guests have sought a completely different hotel. Carey lasted a mere three hours in The Stanley. For the reprisal of “Dumb and Dumber,” the actor even had it stipulated in his contract that he would not have to stay at The Stanley while that movie was filmed.
I suppose all this puts me somewhere in the middle. I’m neither liked nor disliked by the room’s ghost.
That might be an ideal spot to be.
Oh, but I started out to tell you about something interesting in the McGregor Room, and I see I have gotten off-track.
As we were leaving the room, I heard a man named Joe Pirrone call out, “Hey, look at this!”
Of course, I did look. In the photo in question, there are four, nondescript green lights floating under the window in the carpeted area of the room. I look over there with my own eyeballs and see no lights.
“Those weren’t there when I was taking the photo either,” he tells me then.
It must be some trick of light, I think, so, I have him lead me to the spot where he took the photo to see if I can reproduce it by taking the same shot.
I get nothing. Just a room. No quaint, green, floating lights.
We agree that we will both take a shot at the same time of the same spot and compare our photos.
At first, we think there are no green lights in either of our photos. But later, after he emails me his photo, I see two faded green dots similar to those under the window. They appear to have simply moved to the strip of wooden floor between the two carpeted areas.
I told him about this discovery in an email. He wrote back to tell me that his original photos on his phone, which were like a miniature video taking several frames in a fraction of a second, show that these lights are moving rapidly in both his first frame and the last frame he took side by side with me.
I look at mine again, but still see nothing like that in my photos at all.
The Lady With A Limp
After the tour, I realize I’ve forgotten to lock my car and left my credit card in the console. As I’m walking to the car, it’s dark and most of the crowds have cleared out for the night. There’s this one woman coming toward me wearing lilac sweatpants.
She walks slowly, I notice, with a limp.
After she passes me, I can’t help but think what this would probably look like in a Stephen King movie.
My head turns back to look, but she is gone. Already passed the corner? I think, even though the corner was too far away for someone who is limping to have already passed.
OK, I think to myself, nothing strange to see here. Move along.
And I did move along — much faster than before — noticing every little eerie night sound along the way.
Finally the car is locked, the credit card secured, and I have reached the safe haven of Room 217, where I am apparently neither liked nor disliked by my ghost, and glad of it. Even if it means unpacking my suitcase myself.
Perhaps Ms. Wilson simply gets tired of all the slovenly guests in Room 217 throwing their clothes around. I certainly would. Imagine decades of that in your afterlife.
After I’m done, I look around the room for a corkscrew to open the wine that came with the room. There’s none to be found. Most expensive suite in the hotel, and they forgot the corkscrew. Really?
I find no pen, either, to write my own note to put in the Stephen King novels that face the foot of the bed. That’s a little odd, too, because I always have a pen in my purse, and in my backpack. But all I seem to have at the moment are two broken pencils.
The Cascades Bar has already closed and there’s no room service either. I give up on opening the bottle of wine or adding a note to the 217 Club tonight.
I have one last trick to try and catch a ghost. Watching “The Shining” at midnight.
Halfway through, though, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. I close down the iPad, and Ms. Wilson does nothing to wake me.
One More Hair-Raising Moment
I rounded out my Stanley Hotel experience next door in The Lodge with breakfast from Brunch & Co.
The Lodge is where the hotel owner’s wife always insisted that young unmarried men stay. Flora Stanley had a firm opinion that unmarried women and unmarried men could not stay under the same roof together.
That makes me wonder a little bit if it isn’t her that’s actually the ghost of Room 217, given the number of reports stuffed into the Stephen King novels from unmarried couples whose sleep was disturbed — as if something cold had wedged itself between them, in the words of one guest.
After my waitress brings me a “Here’s Johnny” sandwich and a Redrum Mimosa the color of blood — both of which are quite delicious — we chat a little about the hotel and her own “hair-raising” experience on her first day at The Stanley.
Candice Hyman was walking along the fourth floor with her husband when she felt a hand grasp her neck.
Was this the ghost of Dunraven, the original owner of the land? He’s said to have a fondness for the ladies, especially lovely long hair, though why he’s perched on the fourth floor, instead of the ground floor, is rather mystifying to me.
Hyman told her husband about this sensation of someone grasping her neck and, when he looked over, he saw that strands of her very long hair were standing up on end. Literally floating up into the air.
He took a photograph, and it looks like the craziest case of sudden static electricity that I have ever seen.
Later that day, while on a tour of Rocky Mountain National Park, I meet other Stanley guests who also reported paranormal experiences on the fourth floor whilst I was soundly sleeping in Room 217.
In short, I guess I can, in good conscience, neither confirm nor deny the rumors that The Stanley Hotel is haunted.
I can only confirm that the hotel is indeed special. It has sat in the cradle of the Rockies for more than a century now. It’s survived all sorts of things in that time, even coming back from near death.
If that hasn’t given the hotel a deserved bit of the shining, then I suppose nothing ever will.
Visit if you dare — because if the stories I heard are true, the ghosts at this particular hotel don’t necessarily even have to die there to haunt its halls forever more. Your soul could be in peril from just a single visit.
All Photos Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily:
Gallery 1, Room 217: After taking the ornate staircase, the door to Room 217 is like any other door in The Stanley Hotel. There also are great views from the dining room; Room 217 at The Stanley Hotel includes the usual short-sheeted bed with comfy pillows; The 217 Club – people who stay in Room 217 at The Stanley Hotel – leaves notes for future guests in the pages of Stephen King books in the room; Put your clothes in the armoire if you dare, but be warned that scratching sounds may occur afterward from the formerly sleeping ghosts.
Gallery 2, The Keys: Most of the keys at The Stanley Hotel are replicas of the originals; The original key to Room 217, where Stephen King is reported to have stayed at The Stanley Hotel and was inspired to write "The Shining.”
Gallery 3, Looking Outside: The view from Room 217 is picture perfect; The Stanley Home museum is available for tours.
Gallery 4, The Food: A case full of Lift Chocolates at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado; The Here's Johnny sandwich and Redrum Mimosa, plus coffee, available at The Stanley Hotel's dining room; More Lift Chocolates; The Stanley Chocolate Factory doesn't make any of its own chocolates, they're made by Lift Chocolates.
Ella Witcher, who guides The Shining Tour at The Stanley Hotel, talks about the "Shining Suite" at the hotel.
Fresh flowers greet guests of The Stanley Hotel.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com