Redrum | Inside the Hotel Which Inspired The Shining
From their rooms to their pet cemetery, we look at the hotel that scared Stephen King into penning some of his most influential works
If These Walls Could Talk… takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. This week, we’re stepping into one of America’s most culturally important, most historic, and most chilling, hotels: The Stanley, which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining.
The Stanley Hotel: The Legend
The Stanley Hotel was born with its founder Freelan Oscar Stanley near-death. In 1903, the 54-year-old inventor of dry plate photography and The Stanley steam engine was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Because it was believed that fresh air would slow the disease – or, more realistically, provide a pleasant backdrop to his last few days – Freelan (affectionately known as FO) and his wife Flora were sent to Colorado: first to Denver, and then, on the suggestion of his doctor, to the wild outpost of Estes Park.
FO defied expectations, gained weight, and lived through the summer. Sold on the powers of a summer retreat, he and Flora decided to return yearly. But this was true wilderness. Rocky Mountain National Park wouldn’t be recognised until 1915, and Estes Park wouldn’t officially become a town until 1917. Used to the social life of East Coast elites, they would have to design a retreat in their image.
“After a visit in 1974, Stephen King used the property as inspiration for The Shining“
In 1909, their 100-room, East Coast colonial-style “house” was unveiled. A two-thirds scaled-down second lodge was finished a year later. (While this might seem ambitious, it’s worth noting the top floor was dedicated exclusively to children and nannies.) It was an invite-only gathering place for friends, and haut monde of the time. John Philip Sousa, the renowned former US Military composer, directed the band at the house’s opening. His autograph on the bottom of Flora’s piano, which Sousa tuned himself, was mistaken for graffiti by a tuner in the 1990s and removed.
Harry Houdini performed in the ornate concert hall; the trapdoor he used for his famous escape act still exists onstage. And while the men shot pool and drank, the women would gather for various letter writing campaigns. The whiskey bar – now one of the state’s largest – provided a common ground between the sexes.
In 1930, FO sold the buildings to a corporation who transformed the property into a hotel. With the nearby national park still growing, their success was minimal. After attempts at a revival, the property was sold to John Cullen in the mid-1990s. Budgets were so stretched that at the time of the sale, the turndown service comprised of the top bed duvet being placed on nails across the window because they couldn’t afford drapes.
“Our owner, he thought it was pie in the sky that he was going to get this,” Reed Rowley, The Stanley’s Vice President of Business Development tells me. “So, he bid $3.14 million (£2.41 million). He bet pi. Lo and behold, the first two guys dropped out and he ended up with it.”
The property could have continued that way, a decaying vision of opulence, if it wasn’t for an assist from Stephen King. After a visit in 1974, the horror author used the property as inspiration for his book The Shining. (The on-site pet cemetery would later spark the inspiration for Pet Cemetery). Unhappy with Kubrick’s interpretation of his iconic work in 1980, he wanted to invest in a cinematic do-over, staged at The Stanley. Cullen agreed, and production trucks rolled in, bringing with them the McGregor ballroom stage, wallpaper, and heavy upholstered furniture that still decorates the hotel.
Of course, the subject matter of The Shining brings up the biggest question of all: Is The Stanley haunted? Guests seem to think so. In 1911, an explosion in room 217 sent chambermaid Elizabeth Wilson through the floor with two broken ankles. She survived (and had her medical bills paid for), but many believe she still haunts the halls. Likewise, guest lodgers have, over the years, continually reported the appearance of a ghostly figure on the fourth floor with a description loosely resembling Flora Stanley.
Stephen King counts himself among the believers. On his website, he attributes The Shining’s inspiration to an otherworldly presence.
“I dreamt of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming,” he writes. “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 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.”
Although individual employees are hesitant about making definitive statements on the subject – I heard a lot of variations of “We like guests to make up their own mind” – The Stanley doesn’t shy away from their reputation as one of America’s more haunted hotels. Next to the Steamers Café on the basement level, there’s a poster with helpful tips for determining if your iPhone snap contains a spectre. Onsite Halloween festivities – many of them Shining themed – are legion.
There are multiple daily “spirit tours” (One caught the daily news cycle last year when a guest supposed photographed a ghost.) The hotel website offers special booking for 401, 407, 428, and of course, room 217 – the number plate for which the management estimates gets stolen about once a week. And if that isn’t enough to scare the supernaturally bashful, Madame Vera, their on-site psychic, is available for consultations.
“Other people have talked about feeling a weight of someone sitting down at the end of the bed, and then looking up to find no one there”
It isn’t enough to convince Mick Garris. Although Garris directed The Shining mini-series, and has made a career mining inspiration from the otherworldly and macabre, the auteur is still a skeptic – even after spending an unusual night in room 217.
“I fell sound asleep at like 10 o’clock,” he recalls of his night in the infamous room. “And at exactly midnight I woke up, wide awake, for no reason. That’s a mild, supernatural kind of thing that could be interpreted as more… Other people talked about feeling a weight of someone sitting down at the end of the bed, and then they turned and looked up and no one was there. That didn’t happen to me. If it had, I might had been more willing to embrace the idea of the haunted hotel.”
It is interesting to note that The Stanley was also the filming location of the incomparable 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle, Dumb and Dumber. However, the only haunting resulting from that particular production is the litany of film quotes still bandied around nightly by tipsy patrons in the hotel bar.
The Stanley Hotel: The Location
Located on a hill just above Estes Park, The Stanley’s large white buildings, immaculately manicured lawn, and red roofs are a study in old-world opulence. It’s an impression of high society that only grows with its red-carpeted interiors, dotted with heavy-framed mirrors, portraits, and grand, sweeping stairways. The “Aspire” annex across the road features more modern architecture, kitchenettes, and – as Garris diplomatically points out – more soundproofing than the thin walls of the original buildings.
While The Stanley doesn’t lean exclusively on their Stephen King connections, there are tiny tributes here and there. The basement level of the Hotel displays various film props, and their front lawn is adorned with an intricate hedge maze, much like the one at the fictional Overlook Hotel.
Its location, six minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park, makes The Stanley prime territory for nature lovers. However, the wild has been known to come directly to the hotel’s doors. Herds of elk often wander through the grounds in Disney-cartoon levels of density. In August of 2018, a bear found its way into the main lodge, rearranged a few chairs, and then let himself out.
The Stanley Hotel: The Lowdown
In line with its founders’ intentions, The Stanley continues to import entertainment for its guests, staging boutique weekend concerts with a series of bands that have included Murder By Death, DeVotchKa, and Graham Nash. For food lovers, there’s also a monthly series where visiting chefs curate a multi-course dinner. (The lineup has included several previous Top Chef contestants, and an episode was once filmed on the premises.) They also offer curated half- and full-day expeditions into the Rocky Mountains. It can, in short, accommodate a wide array of interests, without compromising its core identity or values.
“[The Stanley] has a life of its own, partly because of what was suggested by Stephen King, and partly because of the fact that it is over 100 years old,” Garris agrees. “It is such a place of its own that you rarely run across that.”
Room prices vary depending on the season, but average $230 a night. Advance booking is suggested for the more popular “spirited” rooms.
Laura Studarus is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Keep up with her on Twitter.