Driving into the Rocky Mountains, towards the Stanley Hotel, is not unlike experiencing, in real life, the opening sequence to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror The Shining. Beautiful and majestic, a sense of dread grows as the road winds further up and away from the familiarity of civilization, towards Estes Park, home of the infamous Stanley Hotel and . . . ghosts?
Not surprisingly, the place is a paranormal hot spot. According to legend, at least, as well as the assessment of hundreds of psychics, who consistently place the Stanley in the top ten most haunted places in America. Surely, hundreds of psychics can’t be wrong. Or can they?
To answer that question, I made the journey up to Estes Park with artist and psychic Sonja Lessley. Our intention – to conduct our own investigation and see what findings we could add to the paranormal lexicon regarding the hotel that inspired the book and movie The Shining.
In 1974, writer Stephen King, still unknown at the time, was hunkered down with his typewriter and family in room 217 of the Stanley Hotel, working on his breakout bestselling novel The Shining. The book would be based on King’s own personal experiences as a writer and struggling alcoholic.
Some places, undoubtedly, have a certain magnetism, a presence, if you will. The Stanley Hotel is one of these places. But how did King, a resident of Maine, end up living at this secluded lodge? Literary legend puts it that King, after churning out Carrie and Salem’s Lot, both set in small towns, wanted a change of pace, to give his next novel a different background. So he pulled out a US atlas and randomly pointed to Boulder, Colorado.
Were the spirits of Estes Park already working on King who, as we all know, is a conduit, and spokesperson for, the spirit world? Whatever the case may be, King and his wife checked into the Stanley Hotel on the eve of Halloween – October 30, 1974. They were given room 217, which features prominently in The Shining and, like King’s own doppelgänger of said novel, writer Jack Torrence, arrived at the hotel just as it shuttered for winter.
“When we arrived,” King told George Beahm in Stephen King – America’s Best -Loved Boogeyman, “they were just getting ready to close for the season, and we found ourselves the only guests in the place – with all those long, empty corridors.”
That first evening, King and his wife Tabitha, had dinner alone, in the grand dining room, with canned orchestral music piped into the room to add an ghostly old-world ambiance to their supper.
“Except for our table,” said King, “all the chairs were up on the tables. So the music is echoing down the hall, and, I mean, it was like God had put me there to hear that and see those things. And by the time I went to bed that night, I had the whole book in my mind.”
There is a rumor that the two returned, after dinner, to their room, only to find their suitcases unpacked and clothes put away. When they had left the room earlier, their bags were still packed. That’s just one of many paranormal reports that have come from room 217, and indeed, the entire hotel is chock full of strange happenings.
The Stanley Hotel was built in 1909 by Freeman Oscar Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer motor car. Back in 1903, F.O. Stanley came down with tuberculosis and was advised by his doctor to seek out the dry, fresh air of Rocky Mountain Colorado, so he and his wife Flora made the move to Estes Park, Colorado. Stanley made a full recovery from his illness and decided he really liked the area. He first built a home there and soon after, his eponymous luxury hotel.
Maybe there was something about the place from the start, as grumblings amongst the hotel staff at the time attest to occurrences and strange goings on, going on at the hotel – the odd disembodied voices, objects moving of their own accord, that sort of thing. And perhaps the matron of the house – Flora Stanley herself, had an inclination something was amiss, when she penned the words to her Unnamed Poem, which include the lines:
The ghostly rap
And knock and tap
Of Branches and wind and rain
Call answering ghosts
From Memory’s hosts
I strive to stay in vain.
Flora, a manic depressive who dressed as a gypsy and told peoples fortunes at the Estes Park Women’s Club, would herself become, after her death, one of the more “popular” ghosts reportedly haunting the hotel.
It strikes us as an odd coincidence that the hotel’s name is shared by the two men most associated with the hotel – one Stanley made the hotel, the other, Stanley Kubrick, made the classic horror movie that would forever memorialize the hotel in celluloid. But then again, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. This story is filled with doubles, twins and doppelgängers.
The most famous of these doubles is, of course, the Grady twins, the daughters of Charles Grady who, in the storyline of both the novel and the film, were murdered by their father whilst he was caretaker of the hotel. The spooky scene depicting the two dead girls standing side by side in the hotel hallway is one of the most iconic images of the entire horror movie genre.
Curiously, that iconic image also has a double, found in Diane Arbus’ photograph entitle “Identical Twins.” Despite attention paid to the similarities between these two images, Kubrick’s widow says the director did not purposefully model the Grady twins on the Arbus photograph.
Another “double” regards the hotel itself – there are two. In the story, the hotel is named Overlook Hotel. Stephen King based The Shining on the Stanley Hotel but, much to King’s chagrin, Kubrick chose Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon as the setting for his film. The reason given for this decision was lack of sufficient snow and electricity at the Estes Park location.
There are two hedge mazes in the film – the large one outside of the hotel, where the character played by Jack Nicholson eventually dies, and the miniature model of the maze, located inside of the hotel.
There are two men with the name Grady. One is Charles Grady, the caretaker who murders his family at the Overlook, and then there is Delbert Grady, the ghostly butler who introduces himself to Jack Torrence, the protagonist/antagonist played by Jack Nicholson.
It would also be accurate to surmise that Jack Torrence is the doppelgänger to Jack Nicholson, but it is equally true that Jack Torrence is Stephen King’s own double. Let’s not forget that, in the closing scene of the movie, the camera zooms in on a photograph taken on July 4, 1921, and in it is the character Jack Torrence himself. The question arises – did Jack transport himself through the space/time continuum to appear in two places at once?
Numerous such paradoxes exist in the movie and, outside of the movie. Suffice to say, there’s something unusual going on in the Rocky Mountains. Could it be that the Stanley Hotel sits on an energy vortex which opens into a portal through time and space? Let us then, consider some of the evidence and testimonials that may point us towards a paranormal explanation for the odd circumstances surrounding this building.
Most locations which consistently rank high on yearly “most haunted” lists, like prisons, abandoned hospitals and insane asylums, have a dismal history filled with violence, suffering and death (read: the Cecil Hotel). Not so with the Stanley Hotel. In fact, the gruesome is conspicuous, at the Stanley, due to its absence.
Unlike its depiction in fiction, the Stanley is bereft of murders, suicides and violent episodes. The single documented death on site was that of a transient female who, attempting to escape the cold of winter, froze to death in the basement after crawling in through one of the windows of the Concert Hall basement. The local’s peaceful history, however, does not equate to a paranormal free environ. Indeed, the place is, to coin a phrase, haunted AF.
The Stanley Hotel management is well aware of its own haunted reputation and, in fact, fully embraces the weirdness. They even have their own in-house ghost tour, run by one Scary Mary. On Mary’s tour, you will be taken to the base of the 2nd floor staircase wherein is located “The Vortex,” a supposed swirling center of cosmic energy coming out through the surface of the earth and considered to be the center of paranormal activity, or a “rapid transit system” for ghosts, if you will.
Another hot spot is the Concert Hall, well known haunt of Paul, a ghost who, during his earthly existence, was a jack-of-all trades around the hotel. Playful by nature, Paul has been known to give hotel visitors a friendly nudge and even flicker a flashlight for tour groups.
Flora Stanley, erstwhile matron of the Stanley is herself known to frequent the Concert Hall. That would most likely be Flora tinkling the piano ivories in the middle of the night, a habit of hers since the times she was still incorporated inside a physical body.
Other weirdness includes sightings of Native American spirits walking through the Billiards Room, and then through the walls. And of course, there is numerous photographic evidence of those darn ubiquitous orbs. Or is that – just camera flash on lens?
Estes Park is quite idyllic, perched, as it were, like an eagle’s nest amongst the rocky cliffs. “What kind of vibe do you get from the place?” I asked Sonja as we drove into town, “it strikes me as kind of peaceful.”
“I don’t know,” Sonja replied, “Yes, it’s beautiful but, there’s something creepy about it. I sense something sinister, something hidden.”
“I see what you mean,” I answered, “there is a Twin Peaks quality to the place. As if the town is keeping a dark secret from outsiders.”
What that secret is, we may never know. What we do know about Estes Park is that Europeans didn’t settle there until after the 1850s. Up until that time, the area was frequented by a number of Native American Indian tribes. The Arapaho Indians would camp there during the summers, calling the valley “the Circle.” There were battles there as well, between the Arapahos, the Apaches and the Utes, who used the land to hunt big horn sheep.
Perhaps then, we have discovered the source for the sightings of Native American spirits, often seen on the hotel premises. There is no evidence, however, that the hotel was built on an ancient Indian burial ground, even though, many horror films from the 1980’s were.
“I feel a presence,” Sonja tells me as we enter into the lobby of The Stanley Hotel. “It is a strong presence but, it is inviting. It feels like a female energy.”
I trust Sonja’s sensibilities. She has a strange relationship with energy. “I have a history of killing watches,” she has told me on another occasion. “They just stop working. Dead. For no reason. And electronics. I have a lot of trouble with iPhones. I’m always having them repaired.”
Now here’s the tricky part. We are on a ghost hunt, to be sure. But what is a ghost? In the opinion of one person, ghosts are energy. Well, everything is energy, really. Physical objects are just one form of energy, slowed down to give form, like ice, giving form to water. But, there are other forms of energy, most you can’t see with your eyes.
If ghosts are energy, then it would be reasonable to conclude that they can interact with energy, such as, the energy found in electricity or radio waves. With that in mind, we brought along a device, an interface if you will, by which one could possibly communicate with the dead. That device is Frank’s ghost box.
The ghost box scans AM radio frequencies and, if ghosts exist, there is a chance they can manipulate the AM signal and answer back, through this EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon).
Sonja and I set to work with the ghost box in the Billiards Room, well known for its paranormal activity. We turned on the device and I asked the ghost box: “If there are any spirits here, please communicate to us. Tell us, what name you go by.” Almost immediately, a clear and discernible female voice could be heard saying “Sonja.”
It was a WTF moment, for sure. I’ve worked with the ghost box on many occasions, to negligible results. This was different. This was an audio anomaly. Something weird was afoot.
We repeated the question, but to no avail. There were more questions, and experiments conducted throughout the hotel but, that first result was the most striking. Could it have been the ghost of Flora herself? I’m open to that explanation. You can listen to the audio of that recording here, and decide for yourself.
Story by Andrew Arnett, Photographs by Sonja Lessley