I don’t believe in ghosts. Well, there was that one paranormal investigation when I saw a table tip and move across the room (with me holding on to it) and I swear to God I heard something exhale in my ear during a midnight pee in an old cabin in the Highlands once. But other than that, I have absolutely no belief in the supernatural. None whatsoever. Which is why I had no problem accepting the invitation to stay a night in one of America’s most haunted hotels.
Then I saw it.
Located high on a hill overlooking the town of Estes Park, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, The Stanley Hotel looks like something from a gothic horror story: a sprawling Georgian Revival mansion with ghost-white panelling, blood-red roofs and creepy attic windows. Inside, narrow corridors with burgundy, floral carpets wind around a grand staircase. There are flickering lights and warped mirrors on every floor.
But what’s really scary about The Stanley is what it inspired. The Shining is, quite simply, the film that ruined my childhood, and the idea for it was born here, one winter’s night in 1974. When horror writer Stephen King and his wife found themselves to be the only guests at the 140-room hotel, the seed was planted for a terrifying tale about one man’s descent into psychosis while working as the winter caretaker at a remote mountain lodge. If you know what I’m talking about, I need only say ‘redrum’ to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. If you don’t, read that word backwards.
And because I’m masochistic (and stupid) I said yes — not just to staying in one of their most haunted rooms, but to actually go looking for the buggers on a ghost hunt first.
As we explore the hotel later that night, K2 electromagnetic field meters buzz in our hands; we visit the ballroom where music suddenly starts up all hours of the night when nobody is there. From there, we call in at room 217, Mr and Mrs King’s suite that winter night, and also the scene of a gas explosion in 1911 that shot chambermaid Elizabeth Wilson through a wall. Although she wasn’t killed, the room has become a hotbed of paranormal activity (Jim Carrey stayed in it while filming Dumb & Dumber and lasted just three hours before running away). Then there’s my room, 418, where I lay awake that night picturing the twin little girls with brown hair and blue pinafore dresses who haunted this very bedroom in The Shining.
Did I sleep with the light on? Yes. And, OK, I admit it, when some joker ran past my room in the middle of the night and yelled “Here’s Johnny!” at the top of their lungs, I did need a swift visit to the lavatory.
It may have been the inspiration for Hollywood’s most frightening film, but I find it intriguing that The Stanley was, in its heyday, a world away from its on-screen incarnation. It was the ultimate rich person’s playground: members of the East Coast elite would flock here for summer-long parties filled with music, wine and Rocky Mountain air. People had the time of their lives. Perhaps that’s why the ghostly presences are, in reality, rather more benign.
Elizabeth Wilson still tidies bathroom accessories and — shock horror — people come back to their room and find their socks neatly folded. The twins, well — forget elevators of blood, the most you’ll get from them is some ghostly giggling. One woman on my tour swore she was visited by a lady in Victorian dress the night before. Apparently, it was just to offer some fashion advice.
Plus-size short shorts, it seems, were a faux pas back then.
I still don’t believe in ghosts. But if I did, I wouldn’t mind being haunted by The Stanley’s. Who needs The Shining when you can have neatly arranged socks? Part of me thinks Stephen King got it wrong. These ghosts aren’t bad, they’re just having too good a time to leave.
Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)