A Killer Vacation

On The Shining’s 30th anniversary, a visit to the hotels that inspired Stephen King’s novel— and the Stanley Kubrick film he scorned

She will not show herself, the long-dead chambermaid. For hours I have waited in Room 217, sulking and dozing upon this hotel coverlet, my clothes flung around like a teenager’s, a sock here and a sock there. Downstairs in the bar they were telling me of her love for order. Sort of an anti-poltergeist, they said: modest, discreet. She tidies things. One young couple, who spent their wedding night in this room, swore that she gathered their shoes as they slept and placed them neatly under the bed. So will she pick my socks up? “Mrs. Wilson,” I say loudly. “Are you there, Mrs. Wilson?” Nothing. A well-upholstered silence.

Mrs. Wilson is one of the ghosts of the Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colorado. I have come here in search of Stephen King. Or to be precise, in search of the roots of The Shining, King’s 1977 novel about alcohol, fatherhood, creativity, and the spookiness of off-season hotels.

Built in 1909 by the high-rolling F. O. Stanley, co-inventor (with his twin brother, F. E.) of a steam-powered car known as the Stanley Steamer, the Stanley sits in lucid splendor, in Georgian incongruity, on the eastern rise of the Colorado Rockies. The hotel is welcoming and comfortable; the mountain air is thrilling. King stayed at the Stanley in 1974, the night before it shut down for the winter, and his muse was tickled. Old World fixtures and furnishings; a vibe of vanished gaiety, of cigar-chewing autocrats and good-time gals, parties and their orchestras, all sliding down into darkness, like the Titanic … And then the hauntings, for which the Stanley was already famous: paranormal poppings-in by domestics and scampering children, and also by the scandalous Lord Dunraven, who likes to goose ladies in the closet of Room 401.

In due course King wrote The Shining, the story of a blocked writer who goes bananas while caretaking a snowed-in hotel. It was his third novel, and his first hardback best seller. And with the 1980 release of Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation, starring a bestubbled and slavering Jack Nicholson, The Shining entered a psychic-folkloric zone in American culture. At the Stanley, the movie plays on a permanent loop on Channel 42. Room 217, where King stayed, is often part of the hotel’s official Ghost Tour. Mrs. Wilson frequents it, as mentioned, but its status as the imaginative cradle of The Shining adds a further shimmer of spookery: the idea that Stephen King himself might be haunting the room, perturbing it with leftover jags of his monstrous mental electricity.

Jim Carrey requested 217 during the filming of Dumb and Dumber, but checked out—so the story goes—after only three hours. “That’s a shady one,” says the hotel’s tour guide Kevin Lofy. “What happened to him in that room, we don’t know. He’s never spoken of it.” A fantastic, if apocryphal, image: Carrey the rubbery actor-medium, the channeler of presences, windmilling out of the Stanley in a post-ghost panic.

But if Stephen King haunts the Stanley, who haunts Stephen King? The answer is: Stanley Kubrick. King didn’t like Kubrick’s movie (“a Cadillac with no engine in it”); he didn’t like Jack Nicholson in the main role; years later, he readapted The Shining as an ABC miniseries; but nobody cares about that. The movie scared people silly, once and forever. Trance-like pacing, off-center dialogue, a weird molecular throb of menace—these Kubrickian effects are as much a part of The Shining as the original novel.

Video: James Parker demonstrates the divide between King’s story and Kubrick’s adaptation

The afternoon after my nocturnal non-encounter with Mrs. Wilson, I am contemplating the purple-white peak of Mount Hood, Oregon, through an upper window of the Timberline Lodge. Sky-smoke curdles, as if the mountain is on a slow boil; ski lifts labor up the escarpment. This was the location Kubrick selected for his towering opening shots of the cursed hotel. There’s a topographical dimension to insanity—“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins—and Kubrick evidently found the approach to the Stanley insufficiently suggestive of the chasms of madness. So he chose the Timberline, half a continent away, a magnificent pile at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. Daunting scale, grandeur flavored with desolation. (Kubrick’s interiors, visiting King fans are often dismayed to learn, were shot at England’s Elstree Studios.)

No spooks at the Timberline. Skiers, that noisome breed, fill the place. It seems that in preparation for the great downhill ski-swoop, one must become exaggeratedly bipedal, crunching and trudging and clanking around with all the gear and layers. The building itself, constructed in the 1930s with money from the Works Progress Administration, is a glorious timber-and-stone monument to the artisans of the Great Depression; wrought iron, stained glass, carved newel posts. Here The Shining is not on a 24-hour loop, although if enough guests express interest the lodge will screen it after 9 p.m. No Ghost Tour is offered. But the gift shop has Shining memorabilia (coffee mugs, fridge magnets), and barman Brad Stockli deals with King-themed inquiries every night. “Yup, I get that all the time,” he says. “People asking, ‘This is where they filmed The Shining?’ And they generally have all their facts wrong, so then there’s this internal dialogue: ‘Do I tell them?’ And of course some of the men use it for a little bit of leverage with the ladies, like ‘Ooh, are you scared?’”

Stockli himself is less a King fan than a Frank Herbert fan—he has read Herbert’s Dune series “seven or eight times.” How does he account for the persistent interest in The Shining? He pauses; he’s thought about this. “Well, we haven’t been here very long, y’know, in this country,” he says. “We’re fairly new at this heritage thing. So we’re hungry for these stories, and we’ll go a long way to get them.”