When I arrived at The Stanley Hotel, made famous as the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, I was more than a little skeptical about the whole haunted-house notion. Yet there I sat, my hand down, when our Ghost Tour guide, Abbey, said, “Show of hands: Who here does not believe in ghosts?” For the next 90 minutes, our group wandered The Stanley’s main building and concert hall (ranked one of the world’s most active sites for paranormal phenomena) on an active ghost hunt.
“A lot of the ghosts in this building are young,” Abbey explained to the group. “They love high energy—so when you are happy and excited, they become excited.” She passed out “trigger objects” to entice the ghosts into communication: “paranormal pencils” and lollipops that you place, sucker-side down, on your palm as a means of communication for the ghosts. (Check out this guest video.) “I’ve seen lollipops lift up and spin around, rock back and forth,” Abbey said. “I’ve even seen them launch out of someone’s hand.”
But I wasn’t there just for a tour: I was there to spend the night, in search of the ghosts that inspired Stephen King’s novel (later adapted into the famous film by Stanley Kubrick) and to learn about how The Stanley’s haunted reputation plays into its business today.
As the legend goes, one night in 1974, King and his wife were passing through Estes Park, a Colorado town 70 miles from Denver, when snowy road conditions forced them to find a place to stay. The Stanley—at that time “on the shabby side of shabby-chic,” a second guide told us—was the only hotel around, and the Kings were its only guests. After his wife went to bed, King wandered the long, empty corridors and had a drink with Grady (a bartender who has never been proven to exist), before turning in for the night. There, in room 217, he was woken by a nightmare about his son being chased down the hallways by a possessed fire hose. Before dawn, King had the premise of The Shining, which transformed The Stanley from rundown hotel to one of the most popular (and iconic) destinations for ghost hunters and Stephen King–junkies alike. (And the hotel wholeheartedly embraces its theme—see slideshow.)
While The Shining may have put The Stanley on the map, the hotel was known locally as a place of paranormal activity decades before King checked in. In the summer of 1903, American inventor Freelan Oscar Stanley and his wife, Flora, headed to the Rockies in an effort to cure Freelan’s tuberculosis. The fresh mountain air did wonders for his health, and by the end of that summer, the couple had purchased a chunk of land in Estes Park. They started construction on the hotel in 1907.
There are a few theories about the source of the hauntings—some point toward the Ute and Arapaho tribes, upon whose land the hotel was built—but the most common belief is that the spirits who wander the halls today are the Stanleys and their loyal employees, who remain eternally faithful to the hotel. Take Miss Wilson, for example: In 1911, the hotel’s chief of housekeeping entered room 217 (the room King stayed in) with a lit candle; its flame caught a gas leak, causing an explosion. Wilson survived, however, and continued to work in The Stanley well into her 90s—and beyond. Apparently, her ghost still tends the east wing.
While touring the concert hall, Abbey told us about other ghosts, including Eddy, a smelly middle-aged man who’s known to replace lightbulbs; Lucy, a girl who dislikes having her photograph taken (hers was the only room guests were asked not to take photos in); and Paul, the night watchman who loves cigarettes and booze and tells hotel guests to get out of his room when it’s past curfew.
As I walked into Lucy’s room, lollipop in palm, I alternated between feeling silly (I pictured the Stanley staff joking about gullible guests who would do anything to see a ghost—including walk around holding a lollipop) and feeling creeped out (I imagined innocent Lucy, waiting patiently for everyone to leave her bedroom so we could have a private chat). I mindlessly pulled out my phone and snapped a photo, then immediately realized what I had done. I felt queasy—did I just give a ghost a reason to be mad at me? I apologized out loud, to an empty room that I now felt unsafe in.
I left Lucy’s room and stepped into Paul’s room, an unmarked space across the hallway that looked like a storage closet and smelled just as musty. I was standing in front of a dresser mirror when suddenly my chest began to feel heavy, as if someone was sitting on it, and I couldn’t breathe. I left quickly, and after I told Abbey what had happened, she shared that Paul had died of a heart attack, and that most guests experience chest pains when they step into his room.
Minutes after the tour had ended, I soothed my nerves with a stiff drink at the hotel’s Whiskey Bar (it has a collection of more than 900 bottles), feeling thankful not to be staying in the main building but in The Stanley’s newest addition, the Aspire Residencies. My only worry, I thought, was mastering the hand-wave to get the new automatic-flush toilets to work. But Lucy had a different plan for me. I fell asleep easily, but at 3 a.m. I felt something brush past my right side. I saw a flash of bangs, brown eyes, and a big smile rush by, and then a teddy bear smacked me in the face. Had I dreamt it? I spent the rest of the night wondering if my accidental photo had inspired Lucy to take revenge and replaying all the terrifying scenes of The Shining in my mind.
At 10 the next morning, I joined my second tour, the more historical Stanley Tour, led by DD, a woman who had clearly had her coffee. I, on the other hand, was exhausted—and I just couldn’t shake off my brush with Lucy.
The tour led us to the fourth floor. I was the last one to reach it and, as I walked around the corner into the longest hallway in the hotel, I noticed how quiet the group had become. After gently pushing my way through a small crowd, I saw them: two girls, holding hands and walking toward us. They were uniform in height, hairstyle, and blank expression, and as they walked, they whispered, “Come and play with us. Come and play with us forever, and ever, and ever. . .” For a brief moment their invitation echoed throughout the hallway—and then the group dissolved into laughter.
It was a reenactment of the infamous Grady twins scene from the movie, but as I watched my fellow tour-goers taking selfies with the stand-in twins, I couldn’t stop thinking about how ready I was to hit the road and leave all ghostly matters behind. Would I have raised my hand if DD had asked the group if we believed in ghosts right then? Absolutely.