The Spooky Story Behind Colorado’s Haunted Stanley Hotel

The outside view of the Stanley Hotel. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

In the fall of 1974, writer Stephen King and his wife stopped for the night at an old hotel overlooking the city. Once among the grande dames of the west, The Stanley had fallen on hard times and was a ghost of its former, Edwardian-era self.

Upon arriving, the Kings learned the hotel was closing for the winter and only a skeleton crew remained. Nonetheless, the couple was checked into Room 217, the Presidential Suite, as the only paying guests.

That night, the author had a nightmare in which he saw his young son being chased down the hotel’s long, empty corridors by a predatory, possessed fire hose. He woke drenched in sweat and stepped to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. By the time he stubbed it out, he’d worked out the “bones” of what would become his third novel, and first best-seller, “The Shining.”

The Spooky Story Behind Colorado’s Haunted Stanley Hotel

A look inside the Stanley Hotel. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

King’s nightmare turned out to be a sweet dream and breath of life for the historic landmark that served as inspiration for the fictional Overlook Hotel. The surge in spectrally motivated tourism after the book was published in 1977 still is going strong, thanks in part to a 1980 film adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson.

That movie, widely considered one of the scariest ever made, plays nonstop on a designated channel at the upscale hotel 90 minutes northwest of Denver. On the night of my stay, I could choose between King’s cinematic frightfest or the one playing out a few channels away, at the second presidential debate, while I waited for an 8 p.m. show by illusionist Aiden Sinclair followed by a ghost tour through the hotel’s darkened corridors, basements and off-limits areas.

In paranormal pursuits as in politics, fear is all about what you choose to pay attention to. The Stanley is a shining example of how – and where – to make you look.

Historic hotel’s history

The Stanley earned a reputation as a paranormal nerve center long before King’s arrival at the hotel, completed in 1909 as an elite, 420-room retreat by entrepreneur and inventor F.O. Stanley, co-founder of the Stanley Motor Carriage Co.

During the years since his death in 1940, the apparition of Mr. Stanley reportedly has appeared to guests checking in at the reception desk, and claims hold that the phantom of the late Flora Stanley, a pianist, sometimes can be heard tickling the ivories in the empty music room.

While some spots are more spiritually active than others, guests have reported strange occurrences – shadowy figures, eerie laughter, flickering lights and items moving on their own – in every room on the hotel compound, which includes a century-old lodge and concert hall. In recent decades, the campus has hosted countless paranormal investigations, including by teams from Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and SyFy’s Ghost Hunters.

Pros aren’t the only ones who get to play here. Overnight visitors opting for the “Ghost Adventure Package” are assigned a room on the infamous fourth floor, a pocket-sized electromagnetic field reader and other ghostly graft, including a mug bearing the chilling message “REDRUM” – murder spelled backward – that King’s novel contributed to the cultural lexicon.

“I always tell my tour group I’ve investigated castles, dungeons and buildings older than the U.S., and The Stanley is on the top of that list,” said author and part-time paranormal investigator Richard Estep, who leads ghost tours on weekends.

A native of Leicester, England, Estep grew up in a purportedly haunted house that never gave up the ghosts to him personally but left him with a spirited passion for the otherworldly. In 21 years of investigating for books and television shows on both sides of the Atlantic, Estep has spent time living in England’s oldest witches’ prison and a haunted hospital in Utah, and a new TV show covering some of his more intriguing cases is airing Sundays on Destination America.

“I’m convinced The Stanley is one of the more active locations out there,” he said.

‘They deeply love this hotel’

As hauntings go, the hotel is something of a phenomenon.

“Usually, haunted locations have a history with lots of blood and death, but The Stanley doesn’t have that, which often takes people aback,” Estep said. “They want to know how many deaths have occurred here, and it’s about as many as other hotels: not that many.”

The location certainly has seen trauma, however. In the 1920s, a gas leak led to an explosion in Room 217 that destroyed the second floor above the main dining hall and nearly killed a chambermaid, Elizabeth Wilson. She ultimately recovered and returned to her job, which she held until her death, at age 90, at her home in Estes Park. Soon after, the hotel started receiving reports of a spectral chambermaid hovering and walking through closed doors in the rebuilt guest quarters. Unmarried couples sharing a bed complained of an invisible force wedging them apart as they slept, and single men woke to find their bags had been packed and left outside the door.

“Mrs. Wilson does what she wants, to who she wants,” Estep said.

Despite numerous reported sightings of spectral youths on the hotel’s fourth floor, and erstwhile attic space, records show no child ever died there.

“Places get ghosts for different reasons, such as tragedy or bloodshed, but also people tend to haunt places where they were very happy during their lifetimes,” Estep said. “I sense we’re seeing people coming back because they deeply love this hotel.”

Generally speaking, wherever you find people, you find ghosts – and vice versa.

Danielle Moon, 11, and her parents traveled to Estes Park from Fort Morgan to see the famous elk and hear their loud, distinctive bugling. They came to The Stanley for some sightseeing of a different nature. Hoping for a paranormal experience, the family set out to wander the hotel when they met a member of the cleaning staff, who shared insights about the place’s noncorporeal guests.

“She said they don’t like vacuums,” said Moon, who struck up a conversation with me in the audience before the illusionist show. She leaned in and added, in an excited, stage whisper, “The ghosts hate it when vacuums are on so they turn them off.”

All things considered, I replied, these sound like my kind of spooks.

‘All a matter of perception’

An avowed skeptic and “America’s Got Talent” alum, Aiden Sinclair joined The Stanley as a regular headliner in early 2015 with his show “Illusions of the Passed: A Theatrical Seance.” In it, he weaves history and illusion with ghost stories, inspired by a changing lineup of “haunted historical artifacts,” many of which once belonged to famous, early hotel guests.

On the night I attended, the collection included a bosun’s whistle carried by an ill-fated Titanic crew member and a pearl from a necklace beloved of turn-of-the-century soprano Eva Cavalieri.

“It’s all a matter of perception,” Sinclair said. “If you believe in the paranormal and you’re holding a key that you know opened the gate of the cemetery where the victims of Jack the Ripper are buried, that has power and meaning to you.”

His goal isn’t so much scares but amazement and backstory so his audience “can walk through the lobby after the show and appreciate those who walked there before them,” he said.

Appreciating the ghosts of The Stanley requires an understanding of who they were in real life.

“It’s a really magical place in that sense . where people experienced some of the happiest moments of their lives: Weddings, engagements, soldiers back from the war, sitting on the porch drinking whiskey with their friends,” he said.

An admirer of escape artist and spiritual-debunker Harry Houdini, Sinclair says that like Houdini he considers himself an “open-minded” and inquisitive disbeliever, especially after his stint working at the hotel.

“Interesting things happen at The Stanley Hotel,” he said. “And at a certain point, if all the experiences are the same, when so many witnesses have had the same experience and they’ve had no contact and don’t know one another, that’s an intriguing thing.

“At what point do the numbers validate the reporting???

Hoaxing is a fireable offense at The Stanley, so if you witness something strange, you know who not to blame.

Estep is quick to explain that many supposed ghostly encounters are simply the creaks, tics and quirks of the grand lady herself, still settling after more than a century atop her Rocky Mountain bedrock.

“The first thing to think of is all the old doors and old frames in this hotel. You step on just the right spot, you close the door,” he said. “The second thing is wind.”

Other times, rational explanations don’t come so easily.

Rational explanations?

It comes as no surprise that the hotel’s most requested room, 217, is the one where King stayed on that fateful visit more than 40 years ago, a space that allegedly drove Jim Carrey to flee in the middle of the night, never to return, when the actor was on location filming 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber.”

The Stanley’s true ghost central and most notoriously active locale is two floors up, however.

When King visited, he supposedly had the run of the empty hotel and wandered up here when it was a wide-open attic stretching from dormer to far dormer, dimly lit and filled with sheet-draped furniture. Today, it holds 25 guest rooms including mine, Room 413, at the peak of the hotel’s southwest corner with views of the front grounds.

It was after midnight by the time the ghost tour ended and I made my way back upstairs, past the second-floor landing outside Room 217, where a group of adults sat cross-legged on the floor, heads bent over cellphone cameras and EMF meters.

They looked up, I nodded a “good luck with the ghosts,” and continued on to my room at the top of the stairs.

In true historic fashion, the main house of The Stanley is not air-conditioned, so first thing I’d done after arriving earlier in the stuffy top-floor space was open the windows. Surely a gust through one of them is what swept the door closed behind me, with a soul-jarring slam.

And there’s certainly a practical and rational explanation why, a few minutes later, I heard a quiet click and turned to see that same door sloooooooowly opening on an empty hallway.

As Estep said, it’s an old building: no straight lines.

I rewatched a few scenes of “The Shining” for good measure, killed the TV and must have finally drifted off. That is, until a blood-curdling shriek ripped me back awake, prickling with adrenaline.

The scream came again, echoing through the sleeping valley outside my windows. It sounded like a child – a child in terror for his life.

And I wonder if Stephen King heard the elk, too?

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