Let me be clear about this: I hate anything scary.
From the time I was a kid, I’ve hated scary things. Grimms' Fairy Tales? Blueprints for nightmares. Ghost stories around my Cub Scout campfire? Please, no. On sleepovers, while the other kids were in the basement watching Halloween, I was upstairs telling the parents, “I’m too smart for that kind of stuff.” Scary movies, scary stories, scary situations—even scary-looking people or scary-sounding places: Count. Me. Out.
So what was I doing, a grown middle-aged man, home alone on a Thursday afternoon, watching The Shining in broad daylight—one hand holding the remote, the other clutching my phone, ready to call my wife at the slightest freak-out? Here’s what I was doing: dreading the fact that I’d stupidly agreed to spend a night at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. The Stanley is the hotel in the Colorado Rockies that, almost 40 years ago, inspired a young Stephen King to write The Shining.
Let me backtrack.
Here’s the deal: a few weeks ago, I was having lunch with an editor from Travel + Leisure. Afterward, I sent him an email to thank him, along with a link to a story I’d recently read about the Stanley. Recently, the hotel had decided to install a hedge maze at the foot of the its grand entrance. (Stanley Kubrick shot the movie’s iconic maze sequence, which was not a part of King’s vision, on a London soundstage.) I sent my editor a note that said very clearly: “I don’t like scary stuff, but you should send a writer to check out the maze and spend a night.”
He responded: “You should go.”
And because I am a writer (i.e. a person who cannot say no), I wrote back: “Okay.”
So a few weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon in October, there I was, 90 minutes northwest of Denver, walking into the lobby of the Stanley. I had expected to see the place like Jack Torrance found it in the movie—shutting down for the season; carpets being rolled up; windows being boarded. Instead, it was swarming with guests. I walked to the front desk to check in. There was a young guy, about 25. As he looked for my reservation, I said, “So, all these people here for Shining stuff?”
“No. Most of them are here for the elk.”
“It’s elk season. They come down from the mountains and pass through town on their migration. People come from all over to see them. It’s big stuff. Well, and weddings, too. Got three weddings here today.”
He went back to clicking at his computer.
“I don’t see a reservation.”
I told him I had made one. He didn’t respond. A colleague next to him, who had hair swept forward over his forehead in one giant Bieberesque coif, stared silently at me. He had dead eyes and looked kind of evil.
“I talked to your manager when I made the reservation.”
“We’ll find something. We’re just pretty full with all the elk people.”
“Oh, I understand,” I said, not really understanding.
“I can give you room 1302.”
“Cool,” Evil Bieber said with a smile. “One of our most haunted.”
“You say that about all the rooms,” I said, trying to laugh it off.
“No,” Evil Bieber said. “It’s haunted. Bad.”
I went silent. And a bit cold. Then I said, “How do you know that?”
“Ever seen that show on TV? Ghost Hunters? Those dudes spent the night in the room. They saw a table levitate. And a ghost walking along the wall. Weird stuff.”
I am not too proud to say that every part of my brain was screaming, Don’t be a scaredy-cat. Wait—you are a scaredy-cat! Ask for another room. You have no pride. Don’t be an idiot. Ask!
“Cool,” I said to Evil Bieber, wimping out on my desire to wimp out.
“Two keys?” his buddy asked.
“Sure,” I told him. “I’m traveling alone, but I might as well make it as easy as possible for the ghost to get in. Maybe leave one outside the door.”
“That’s the spirit,” Evil Bieber said.
“Clever,” I said.
“Spirit. What you said. ‘That’s the spirit.’”
I took my key. It was then that I saw this: just inside the front door, the hotel had created one of those fun-house things you see at a carnival or a circus where the likeness of someone or some creature is painted on a board, but then a hole is cut for you to insert your face. It was a painted panel of the two flaxen-haired sisters from The Shining. Powder blue dresses with white aprons. No faces. Just two holes. And then two faces filled the voids: a perplexed-looking young girl and her laughing mother. Someone took their photo.
This was going to be a long day. And night.
I stood at the threshold of my room and turned on all the lights. It was 2 p.m. but I couldn’t have it bright enough. It was a big room with its own sitting area. I walked to the windowed cubby area where the levitating table sat. The table was not levitating. But on the carpet around it I found six dead flies. I walked to the window on the other side of the room. Four more dead flies.
Great, I thought. This isn't The Shining. This is Amityville.
I called housekeeping and asked them to come up and vacuum. And then I left the room.
In the lobby, I found 20 people about to leave on a tour of the Stanley. For the next 90 minutes, a young and funny dude named Andy took us through the hotel and the grounds of the century-old property, which he curiously referred to as “America’s fourth most-haunted hotel.” (He never told us first, second, and third.) We saw the long hallway that inspired King. We saw the door for room 217—the room King and his wife stayed in, which became 237 in the movie. The door remained closed, as Andy informed us someone was staying there. But I know I was not alone in imagining myself dropping an ax through the door and shoving my manic mug through the splintered shards to say, “Honey, I’m home…”
King, it turned out, wasn’t the only famous guest to stay in the room. The hotel, Andy explained, was used as a setting for Dumb and Dumber, and during filming, Jim Carrey stayed in 217. “However, Jim Carrey didn’t last long," Andy added. "In the middle of his first night, he came down to the front desk and demanded to be moved to another room, saying something had happened and he did not feel safe in the room. When we told him the hotel was fully booked, he fled, presumably to another hotel in town. To this day, no one knows what Jim Carrey saw in that room that made him flee in the middle of the night.”
We all murmured until Andy moved us along. A few minutes later, we arrived at the hedge.
Or, what the Stanley called a hedge.
If you are picturing Kubrick’s towering topiary terror, all I can tell you is that you will be disappointed. (Or, in my case, relieved.) Here’s what the Stanley has installed: on a small plot of land in front of the hotel, a maze is etched out in bits of broken stone that have been planted with juniper trees.
Unlike the disorientingly high shrubs in the film, these are more on the scale of that Lilliputian Stonehenge replica in Spinal Tap—no more than a few feet tall. Note to the Stanley Hotel: you cannot get lost in a maze if you can see over the top!
I wanted to leave the hotel for dinner. But, I figured, in for a penny, in for a pound. So I made my way to the hotel bar. The bartender was a nice guy, but unlike in the book and the movie, he was not doting and attentive. He also didn’t know my name. (“Good to see you, Mr. Torrance. What’ll it be?”) He was slammed with wedding guests and elk enthusiasts eager for drinks. I wanted to linger longer at the bar. Not to drink. To tell the truth: I dreaded going to my room.
Here’s the thing: I’d like to think I am a logical, rational man of the 21st century, but the power of suggestion—the suggestion, for example, that Jim Carrey (okay, not the world’s most balanced man, but still) fled the hotel in the middle of the night for mysterious, possibly supernatural reasons—well, the power of suggestion can make a man do strange things.
Like go back to the room and turn on every light.
And open every closet door.
And leave them all open.
And look under the bed.
And turn on the TV.
And get into bed.
Shoes included—in case I needed to execute a “full Carrey” and flee in the middle of the night.
I turned on the TV. First thing I came upon: the hotel’s house channel, which plays a continuous loop of The Shining. I quickly clicked past that and settled on something more soothing (but I’m sure just as scary to some people): The Proposal, with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. (Did I mention that I have no pride?) Then I tried to fall asleep. Trying to sleep with the TV blasting and every light in the room on—it’s not easy. Every so often I would hear the sounds of drunken wedding guests stumbling through the garden below my window. And then, too, every so often I’d see the table out of the corner of my eye and think, Please don’t be levitating… please don’t be levitating…
Some time after 3 a.m., I fell asleep. I woke up just after 5. I half-expected the TV to be going all Poltergeist-static on me, but it wasn’t. Just Bullock and Reynolds. I looked at the table. It was still politely obeying Newtonian laws. I sat on the edge of the bed and took off my shoes for the first time in 24 hours, then took a quick shower. By the time I got dressed, the sun was breaking over the Rockies, so I decided to walk outside and take in the view. It was then that I got what amounted to the biggest fright of my entire time at the Stanley: when I came upon the maze, I discovered two elk standing amid the juniper shrubbery. They lifted their heads for a minute and regarded me. Except for the slow chomping of their jaws, they were motionless. Small pieces of evergreen boughs hung from their wet, black lips. I stopped in my tracks, wondering if I was about to be charged and end up like Scatman Crothers: split open. Not by an axe but by their racks.
After what seemed like minutes, the two elk decided what I always have known about myself: I scare no one and nothing. They returned to munching on the paltry maze.