Horror movies and scary books were a real problem when I was a tween. All my friends were plowing through Stephen King novels and going to flicks such as The Amityville Horror. But whenever I would try to do the same, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, terrified from vivid nightmares that even a night light couldn’t cure. I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a highly suggestible wuss.
So why did I watch The Shining? I actually had no control over that one. In high school, one of my teachers “rewarded” us at the end of the year with movies, and the Stephen King classic, with Jack Nicholson, was one of them. It had all the ingredients of a movie that would scare me silly: Indian burial ground curse, demonic possession, creepy children ghosts (plus my dad looked a little bit like Jack Nicholson in his younger days). I had insomnia for weeks because of that movie.
Fast forward 25 years. I knew that the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, was the grande dame hotel of Estes Park. Could I face my fears and stay a few nights? I wanted to try, even though I do seem to have a record of awakening the spirits in Colorado (see: my stay at the haunted Hotel Jerome in Aspen). A girl has got to grow up sometime, right?
Inside the Stanley Hotel
My friend Blair and I arrived at the hotel and found out that we’d actually be staying at the Lodge at the Stanley next door.
Formerly known as the Manor House, the renovated Lodge is designed to be a boutique hotel-within-a-hotel. The rooms and public areas are spacious, you have your own wrap-around porch to hang out on, and daily breakfast is included.
The hotel is hoping that the Lodge’s smaller size and relative privacy becomes a selling point for weddings and bridal parties; to that end, there’s a “man cave” suite of rooms unlike any I’ve seen at other major hotels (think antlers AND a flat-screen TV). While the main hotel features its historic past, the Lodge focuses more on Colorado, with old maps on the walls. It’s definitely quieter than the rest of the Stanley, so if you want the amenities of a larger property without the hubbub, you’ll want to consider The Lodge.
Our room on the third floor was part of a bridal suite that you could close off. Unfortunately, the Lodge wasn’t able to install air conditioning during the first stage of renovations. We were there during the hottest week of the year, and the room was stuffy, even with open windows and ceiling fans (a hotel rep told me that ac will be installed over the winter).
Luckily, we could grab a drink at the main hotel’s Whiskey Bar. Another new addition to the hotel, the bar itself is a 1909 Rothschild Bar that’s been installed in the venerable Cascade Room. With tin ceilings and photos of celebrity guests on the wall, not to mention the largest whiskey collection in Colorado, the bar is a comfortably casual place to grab a drink or light snack. (I loved the pheasant chowder). The bartenders specialize in classic cocktails and we were particularly delighted to sample Redrum Ale (actually brewed down the street at the Estes Park Brewery).
Nothing makes me happier than a grand old hotel that not only capitalizes on its history, but manages to stay modern. The origins of the Stanley date back to 1903, when Freelan Oscar Stanley – inventor of the Stanely Steamer auto – came to Estes Park to alleviate his tuberculous. He and his wife fell in love with the area, and opened the hotel in 1909.
The timing coincided with the beginnings of road tourism, and the hotel has enjoyed being the premier lodging in Estes Park/Rocky Mountain National Park ever since. (It doesn’t have much competition on the high end, as Estes Park doesn’t have any upscale chain hotels such as Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton or even a W).
Historic hotels often find themselves turning into period pieces. Not the Stanley. It plays up its haunted heritage with a variety of tours, including a night with a ghost hunter (I’m getting to that!) There’s a Facebook page where guests can upload photos of any spooky encounters captured by camera.
The hotel has a butterfly garden, manned by local high school students, aimed at replenishing Estes Park’s dwindling population, and releases take place every Thursday at 4 p.m. There’s also a sculpture garden where works by local artists are displayed and sold. Although most guests at The Stanley get up earlier to take advantage of local hiking and outdoor activities, the hotel gives you reasons to linger – smart marketing!
Stephen King and The Stanley
But no matter what the hotel adds, it will always be known for its connection to Stephen King and The Shining. Here’s how the story was told to me :
Early in his career, King had moved from Maine to Boulder. Late in the season, he and his wife attempted to drive up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, but early snows turned them back. So he checked into Room 217 at the Stanley Hotel at a time when the building was almost deserted.
The movie itself wasn’t shot at The Stanley. Director Stanley Kubrick used The Timberline Hotel on Mt. Hood for the exterior and the interior was created on sound stages. Apparently Stephen King didn’t like this adaptation of his work, and when he re-bought the rights to The Shining, he filmed his own mini-series version and set it at The Stanley. King is apparently working on a sequel to The Shining that follows young Danny into adulthood, so the original book will no doubt be back in the spotlight again when that’s released.
So what’s the deal with Room 217 anyway? The story goes that Elizabeth Wilson, the hotel’s chief housekeeper, was injured in a lantern explosion in the room. Since her death, guests have reported “extra housekeeping services” in the room. Their things might get put away or unpacked. She’s also been known to get in the bed between unmarried couples, upholding the morality standards of her day.
Allegedly, Jim Carrey also had a paranormal experience in Room 217. At the hotel during the filming of Dumb and Dumber, the actor apparently only lasted three hours in the room before he bolted, vowing not to come back.
Other haunted areas of the hotel include the fourth floor, where people are most likely to hear children laughing or running in the hall, the music room where Flora still sometimes plays her piano or the ballroom where apparitions have been spotted. I was a bit chagrined to find that in the Lodge, we were right next to a haunted room (but more about that below).
If you want a haunted room, you’ll pay for the privilege: The rooms where spirits lurk com with a premium of at least $100 per night. Room 217 is booked months and even years in advance for events such as The Shining Ball, held every Halloween.
Hanging with a Ghost Hunter
The hotel set us up with a session with Lisa Nyhart, the hotel’s in-house paranormal investigator.
While the hotel has shorter 90 minute ghost tours, Lisa is in charge of the more in-depth ghost hunts, where guests are introduced to the specialized ghost hunting equipment that you see people using on TV shows such as Ghost Hunters. She says that paranormal activity occurs on “most” of the tours she runs.
While $60 might seem like a lot for a tour, the price makes sense when you realize that it goes on for five hours (from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.) During the last hour, people are allowed to use the hotel’s ghost sensing equipment and go hunting on their own. If you’re into the paranormal, that’s money well spent.
During our abbreviated session, held within the property’s Concert Hall, Lisa told us about Lucy, a homeless girl who took refuge at the Stanley, and Paul, a former cranky caretaker. These spirits periodically manifest themselves through spirit boxes, or by turning flashlights on and off.
But things didn’t get weird until she pulled out the dowsing sticks.
Dowsing rods have been used since the Renaissance to find water, metal and other substances. Paranormal fanatics use the metal rods to ask spirits questions; if the rods cross, the spirit is saying yes. If it goes outward, it means no. The rods can also stand still.
I held the rods and asked Paul a few questions. “I hear you’re from New Jersey, Paul,” I said into the air, feeling self-conscious. “Do you like the Phillies?” To my surprise, the rods swung outward. I swear I didn’t move them. “Um, so you’re more of a northern New Jersey guy. The Yankees?” The rods stood still. “The Mets?” Ding, ding, ding! The rods crossed affirmatively. A little freaked out, I handed them back to Lisa quickly.
Lisa held the rods and told us that she was picking up something a little unusual. “Did a spirit follow one of these women here?” she asked. I got goosebumps as the rods crossed. Please, not me. Not me. Luckily the rods stood still when Lisa called out my name. But they crossed “yes” for Blair.
I told Lisa to give Blair the rods. I felt that if she was going to talk to a spirit, she might as well be the person holding the reins. Lisa cautioned Blair not to ask who the spirit was, but my friend, who has lost several important family members in her life, couldn’t resist. “Is it Mildred?” No response. Blair’s voice shook. “Is it Daddy?”
Yes, the rods said.
For an emotion-packed 45 minutes, Blair used the dowsing rods to ask her father a variety of questions, ranging from advice to more personal matters. I admit, we both cried at times. Whether or not the rods were really enabling communication with Blair’s dad almost didn’t matter. What mattered was at that time, on that day (did I mention it was Father’s Day?), Blair believed that she was talking to her father for the first time in nearly 30 years. To say it was intense is putting it mildly.
That night in our room, Blair slept soundly. I was a wreck, though. I woke up several times, and not just because our room was warm. Twice when I awoke, I saw red flashes of light around the room. And another time, I sat up with a start because I thought I heard someone say “Room 217? in a deep voice near my ear.
The ghost hunting app I bought didn't make things easier
Now I know that most of these “occurrences” were no doubt psychosomatic. It goes to show that no matter how old I get, I’m still capable of being scared sleepless.