The ghost joined us early. As soon as we left home to drive up to Estes Park to stay in the Stanley Hotel.
He tried to kill us, derail us and keep us away. He posed for photos, got me all alone and then locked me out.
As Colorado natives who grew up on the Front Range, both my husband and I had long known the reputation of the giant, historical hotel perched on a peak above the small mountain town of Estes. We knew the history: that the Stanley had inspired Stephen King to write his horror novel, “The Shining.” We’d heard the ghost stories from people who stayed there as well as friends who worked there.
My best friend was a housekeeper after high school and I remember visiting her, although our exact whereabouts are a blur to me today. She brought me into the staff housing. Behind the scenes. We crawled through tunnels below the hotel, private staff staircases and into small passageways in her cramped lodging. With nooks and a small pet cemetery and a sprawling campus of white buildings, the property was mysterious and curious, paranormal activity aside.
They hated cleaning room 217, believed to be the most haunted room in the hotel. My best friend told me the numbers on the door constantly went missing. Whether it was by visitors or the ghosts living there, no one knew.
She never believed the hotel was truly haunted, even after the pipes on the haunted fourth floor burst and the water wouldn’t shut off, until it was dripping through the ceiling into the third floor where she cleaned. She regularly heard the clamor of running children’s feet, even when the fourth floor was empty. Once, she unlocked a room door and it locked again in front of her.
Coincidences, she reasons. Not ghosts.
I knew the legends and I grew up a short drive away in a small area called Masonville. Yet I’d never stayed the night in the Stanley Hotel.
Not until now.
We wanted to do Halloween big this year, as big as possible. So I pulled out my biggest Victorian ball gown and my husband fashioned a top hat with the biggest horns he could find, and we got tickets to the biggest Halloween party in Colorado: the Shining Ball at the Stanley.
We wanted to do it right, so we booked a night in the newly renovated Lodge, next door to the main hotel (we wanted to experience the improvements, plus we knew we’d need the complementary, farm-fresh breakfast the next morning, after a late night of ghost hunting, drinking and dancing).
I arrogantly didn’t put directions to the Stanley in my GPS because these were my childhood stomping grounds. The sun was slowly fading as we hit a roadblock: The direct route from Loveland that I was used to was closed for construction. I consulted Google Maps, hoping we didn’t have to drive all the way through Lyons. A shortcut, past Carter Lake, Flatiron Reservoir and up over the mountain.
My husband and I remarked how exciting it was to find this unknown back route to Estes Park with less traffic. No traffic, in fact. The sky melted to navy as our Camry snaked through the forest, past a handwritten stop sign that read “Woah” and past another sign that proclaimed “Smile Zone.”
That should have been a red flag, a signal to turn around. There wasn’t a house for miles. I got a knot in my stomach as my intuition began screaming, “This is a scene from a horror movie!” But just like a character from a horror movie, I ignored it and instead straightened my ball gown and my beast horn headband. Siri seemed confident: “Take a slight right turn onto Pole Hill Road.” So we trudged on, and the road became dirt, which became single lane, which became washboards, which became a steep pitch dotted by giant boulders and ditches.
The sky was black and no light seeped through the forest, as the tires on my very-much-not-four-wheel-drive family car fishtailed and sped out, pleading for traction. There was nowhere to turn around, not without plummeting off the cliff. We were going to get stuck. In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, dressed like horned beasts in formal wear, with no cell coverage and no way to get help.
A gate. The road was blocked off, but there was enough room to turn around.
I was simultaneously relieved and terrified at another hour on these roads; my phone scolded me, insisting we were almost to Estes Park and ignoring the gate and “private property” sign that clearly insinuated “all trespassers will be shot and their skin will be worn as thermal underwear in the winter.”
The ride back down was equally as terrifying, and the bumps in the road were so intense they dislodged several beads and sticks from my beast mask. But we were alive. We were far away from the “Smile Zone.”
By the time we arrived at the Stanley (it took three hours longer than usual), the buildings were glowing red for the party and the guests were flocking.
My husband waited in the car while I ran up the staircase into the Lodge to check in. Although the building next door was swarming with hundreds of elaborately dressed party-goers, my building was silent. No reception desk, no guests. The air was eerily still and abandoned.
The Lodge was the strangest building on the Stanley grounds, according to my friend who’d worked there. It had heavy, chilly air and an unsettling energy. She thought it used to be a tuberculosis ward and rumor had it that countless people had died in there. If anywhere at the Stanley was truly haunted, she said, it was The Lodge.
I retreated to the car in confusion. We drove around for a few minutes, looking for another check-in sign, but this had to be it. I decided to give it another try. I ran up the steps again and pulled open the door. A cheerful, bright light greeted me, filled with a reception area packed with costumed guests all chatting, laughing and taking photos. A blond woman sat at a reception desk and greeted me.
“Ms. Heckel, right?”
How did she know who I was? And how had this scene completely transformed in a matter of minutes?
“You will not believe what just happened,” she said, flashing a perfect smile. “Just five minutes ago, I took this picture — right here.” She held her cell phone up toward me. I leaned in. A photo of two people doing a presentation. I looked to my left and confirmed there was some kind of a conference in the side room. “See it?” she asked and tapped the screen. Right between the two presenters was a faint white outline of a person. “That’s one of the ghosts who lives here.”
“You just took this?” I confirmed. “Because I was here a few minutes ago and it was empty.”
She laughed. “That’s impossible. This is one of the busiest nights of the year at the Stanley. It’s been nonstop all month.” She handed me the key to my room. “He’s a nice ghost,” she added. “Quite a gentleman. Enjoy your stay.”
I grabbed my husband and my luggage and we wheeled it to our room. He ran out to park the car and I hauled the final round of luggage in. I flashed my key card, but the door glowed red. I tried it again. I was locked out. I walked down the creaky hallway and into the lobby.
Again, it was completely empty. As silent as a ghost town.
“Impossible,” I mouthed and turned back to my room.
When I got to the door, my husband was inside.
“It’s crazy here tonight,” he said. “I could barely find parking.” I nodded, speechless and confused. “Let’s get over to the party,” he added. “It’s time to get creeped out.”
But I already was.
I was living a real-life Shining Ball: isolated in a strange hotel and tormented by my own imagination. Or a list of freaky coincidences. Or a certain gentleman ghost. Nice but still unsettling.