The Haunting of the Stanley Hotel
Today we're going to descend deep into psychological drama and horror, as we explore the facts behind one of America's most notoriously haunted hotels: the Stanley, in Estes Park, Colorado. Famous for its connection to the 1980 horror movie The Shining, the Stanley Hotel stands alone as one of the most infamous gathering places for spirits and all manner of paranormal entities. To hear them, the stories and the evidence seem impregnable to skepticism. But let's see what we can learn.
There's a popular belief that the Stanley's interiors were used for the fictional Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's movie The Shining. This is not true. The Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood, Oregon was used as the Overlook's exterior, but its interiors were all original and built on a sound stage at Elstree Studios in England, and were inspired by the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. The Stanley had nothing to do with the movie. Stephen King had stayed there once in 1974 and was inspired to write his novel, a fact that was popularized when the movie came out and made the Stanley famous. Somehow this grew into a popular misconception that the Stanley was used as the location for Kubrick's The Shining, but it never was. However, King, who never liked Kubrick's movie, made his own 1997 miniseries that more closely followed his novel, and this was actually shot at the Stanley. But the series never matched the Kubrick movie's popularity, and the movie is what pop culture has immortally intertwined with both the Timberline and the Stanley. So, ironically, one of the things the Stanley is most famous for never happened.
This is not too different from the ghosts that it's also famous for. The ghosts of the Stanley Hotel is typical of probably the #1 most common episode suggestion that I receive from people: here's some random ghost story, "Debunk this!" What makes this hard for me is that random old ghost stories are everywhere, and they're almost all purely anecdotal. And you can't debunk an anecdote.
Like, here is a random book off my shelf: Haunted Oregon by Andy Weeks. No disrespect to this author, but this is typical of countless books that are simply collections of random ghost stories, borrowed from each other back and forth. Rarely are any sources given. Most of the stories are just a few paragraphs, devoid of verifiable facts. You can find such books for every state, every country; all with similar titles: Spooky Oregon, Ghost Stories of Oregon, Oregon's Ghosts and Monsters. Some of the stories in this one are "The Restless Indian Spirit of Black Burial Canoe", "The Haunting of Fort Clatsop", and "The Monster of Devil's Lake." The nice thing about writing such books is that little research is needed; just grab three or four existing such books, find the stories in them you like the best, and rewrite them. There's no requirement to be accurate or to back anything up. Tweak the details to your artistic fancy.
I'm sure there is a section in any number of such books on Colorado called "The Ghosts of the Stanley Hotel." I'll bet you anything the Stanley's gift shop sells such books. My point to all this is that random old ghost stories are everywhere. They're in the air. And almost all of the time, they have nothing backing them up at all. So when a listener asks me to debunk the ghosts of the Stanley Hotel, or any other old story, they're asking me to take an unsourced or poorly sourced anecdote that's apocryphal at best; somehow determine that it's false and so can be "debunked"; and then prove that it didn't happen. Well, that's an exercise that's both pointless and impossible. Are there old anecdotal stories that a "white lady" glides down a particular hotel corridor? Who am I to be able to prove that nobody ever thought they saw such a thing?
It's this word "anecdotal" that's what's messing things up here. An anecdote is a story that cannot be tested. If you tell me you saw a Bigfoot, that's an anecdote, because I have no way to test whether your verbal account is true. All I can do is smile and say "That's nice." But if you saw a Bigfoot and grabbed a handful of its fur, then I have empirical evidence that can be physically studied and tested. Or even if you don't have that, but the Bigfoot walks by every day at 5pm, then we also have more than an anecdote: we have a replicable observation which can also be tested. The Stanley Hotel, and every other place in every one of those countless ghost story books, has a million anecdotal stories. Unless there is something empirical or replicable about them, we have cause to do little more than smile and say "That's nice."
I share this with you as it's a bit of insight into my process when someone hands me some random story or claim and says "Debunk that, Mr. Skeptic!" Well, no. Without any proof that anything ever happened, there is nothing that needs to be done. It's Hyman's Categorical Imperative: Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained.
With any story from any of those books, I am not sure that there is anything to be explained. And without knowing more, I'm not sure that there's anything to be explained at the Stanley Hotel either. But let's not stop with my supposition, and instead look at its history, and at the history of its ghost stories.
The Stanley Hotel was the creation of Freelan Oscar Stanley, who had made his fortune as one of the co-founders of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, makers of the famous Stanley Steamer steam-powered automobiles. In 1903 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and traveled to the dry climate of Estes Park, Colorado for his health. He liked it there so much that in 1907 he built the Stanley Hotel, a first-class, state-of-the-art resort for the wealthy. He even built a hydroelectric plant so the hotel — and the rest of Estes Park — would have electricity.
But it wasn't until 73 years later that the Stanley became an icon of hauntings. Once the movie was released, the story spread that Stephen King's 1974 stay there is what inspired his 1977 novel The Shining and Kubrick's 1980 movie based on it. Searching through Google Books and the Library of Congress, I found no mention of the Stanley in any books of Colorado ghost stories published prior to the release of The Shining, so we can confidently point to the book and movie — and not to any actual spooky histories — as the only reason the Stanley is considered haunted.
This is an important point that bears repeating. Until The Shining came out, The Stanley Hotel had not been considered haunted.
But it is today. So now let's have a look at just a few of the most common haunting claims. There are six or eight that regularly appear in the books; we'll talk about the three most popular. Starting with:
The Fourth Floor
Originally the entire fourth floor of the Stanley was a single open attic space, but later it was converted to more hotel rooms. Several of the rooms are considered haunted: 401, home of a closet that supposedly opens and closes itself; 407, where some say it feels like someone sits on the bed in the middle of the night; and 428, where the story goes that the apparition of a friendly cowboy might appear. Throughout the fourth floor, it's said that you can hear the sound of children running and laughing, and of footsteps on the floor above — even though there is no floor above. Unfortunately there are no stories of anything special happening in these rooms that might explain why they're haunted, so there's nothing for us to track down. The only evidence of anything happening comes from heavily fictionalized and sensationalized TV ghost hunting shows, so that's not usable as evidence. Unfortunately all the stories of the Stanley's fourth floor amount to no more than "That's nice."
The Grand Staircase
Online you'll find a handful of photographs taken, mostly by tourists on the popular ghost tour at the Stanley, showing a person on the staircase — a woman or a girl in a white dress, often blurry — always with an anecdotal claim that the photographer did not remember any person being there when the photo was taken. Well, that's nice. This is the main reason that, when you go on a ghost hunt, one thing you should always do is take a clear photograph of every single person who's there. That way, when you have unrecognized figures turn up in photos when you look at them later, you have a master photo set of actual people to compare them to. None of us remembers the clothing and all the movements of all the other strangers on a tour we've taken. We have no reason to conclude that anyone shown in any Grand Staircase photos is anything but a normal person who was there.
The superstar of Stanley ghost stories is room 217. It's the room Stephen King stayed in when he had a frightening experience, it's the room involved in an infamous gas explosion in 1911, and it's the room where people report all kinds of strange experiences. These include a woman's voice or laughter, and the room being mysteriously tidied up during the night while guests sleep. The neat thing about the haunting of room 217 is that its story includes two factual claims that we can verify.
First is Stephen King's experience. In 1974, he and his family stayed at the Stanley. According to him, they were the only guests as it was the last night of the season, and 217 is the room they were assigned. He says he had a horrible nightmare in which a firehose out in the hall came alive and was chasing his son around; a nightmare from which he awoke, lit a cigarette, and conceived much of the story for his famous book The Shining. The hotel no longer has records that can confirm this, but room 217 is where King has always said he stayed, and we've no reason to doubt it. But not even King has ever said the room is what caused the nightmare. He had a nightmare, it made no difference what room he was in.
Second is a terrible gas explosion in 1911, said to have been sparked in room 217. In 1911 the electricity was having trouble keeping up, so they decided to use an auxiliary acetylene gas lighting system, installed the previous winter but never yet filled with gas or used. The story goes that as the pipes filled, a chambermaid named Elizabeth Wilson went into room 217 to light the lamp, but ended up sparking a gas explosion. It destroyed some 10% of the hotel, blew a large hole through the floor and into the dining room immediately below, and injured many people. Elizabeth's ghostly presence is said to be responsible for the voices and laughter, and the nightly room cleanings — sometimes even making the bed while people sleep in it.
I did verify that room 217 is above the dining room, by calling the Stanley and asking; but so are other rooms. It's above a space that's currently unused, but at the time was the MacGregor dining room. The most authoritative account of the explosion was published in the Fort Collins Weekly Express on June 29, 1911, and it does not give the room the chambermaid was in when the explosion was triggered, but we've no reason to doubt that it was 217. According to the article, damage totaled $10,000. Only three people were injured: two waiters in the dining room who were only slightly hurt, and the chambermaid herself who suffered two broken ankles. Her name was actually Lizzie Leitenbergher — if you read anything that gives her name as Elizabeth Wilson, dismiss it as unacceptably poorly researched. That name originated as an error in the very first reports, and was soon corrected in later ones.
So outside of the purely anecdotal stories of voices and tidyings, all that's interesting about room 217 is that it's probably where Stephen King stayed and probably the spot where an errant match set off some acetylene gas. There have probably been lots of nights that there was only a single occupied guest room at the hotel, and any one of them might happen to have been the same one where the explosion was sparked. This is a minor coincidence that doesn't even seem to matter. Certainly it doesn't suggest any cause for supernatural activity in the room.
And really, we can say virtually the same thing about all the other ghost stories at the Stanley. No justification for them, no evidence, and pretty weak anecdotes. The Stanley Hotel is a beautiful historical structure that offers a fascinating insight into one of America's early barons who was creative, successful, and forward thinking. It's also a wonderful place to stay in a town often cited as one of the nation's most scenic. There is every reason to visit the Stanley Hotel, and none of them require dumb haunting stories. Would I pay a premium for their package allowing me to stay in one of the allegedly haunted rooms? I probably would, but only for the novelty of it and the value of a fun Instagram post. Also it would be a shining example of my courage.
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