Inside the Haunted Hotels That Inspired ‘The Shining’
All of the hotels that inspired the iconic spots in the book and movie are still functioning and open for your haunted stay.
The Shining stands as one of the most beloved horror properties, but fans of the haunted Colorado hotel known as the Overlook are often torn between Stephen King’s original 1977 novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson as the deranged caretaker Jack Torrance. King himself famously detested Kubrick’s creative liberties with his source material while the director all but reveled in them.
While the Overlook itself is fantasy, it’s based on a real-life hotel in Colorado, represented in the film by a ski resort in Oregon, and modeled inside after a lodge in Yosemite National Park, all of which you can still stay at.
The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, marks the original inspiration for King’s novel. Living in nearby Boulder, he was referred to the hotel’s real-life pet cemetery (which would also be the inspiration for his 1983 novel Pet Sematary). Checking in on the final day of the season, Halloween 1973, he and his wife, Tabitha, found themselves the only overnight guests. At the time, the property was run-down and in poor repair. Staying in the fateful room 217, King claimed to cross ghostly children playing in the halls and a haunted dinner party in the ballroom.
King grippingly recounted the stay: "I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of The Shining firmly set in my mind."
Founded by steam engine magnate F.O. Stanley, the Stanley Hotel first opened its doors in 1909. Hosting the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and various Hollywood royalty, it long held a reputation of luxury and hauntings alike. The grand staircase is considered a focal point for apparitions, lined with unsettling framed paintings that seem to catch your glance through mirrored reflections. The fourth floor hallways near the old maid’s quarters are also said to be frequented by child-like spectres.
While Kubrick reportedly sent a scout team to the Stanley Hotel for several months, and even may have considered it for filming, it was ultimately not involved in the filming of his version.
Committed to his vision of the Stanley as the Overlook, King would return to the hotel to create the 1997 television mini-series he personally adapted, stylized as Stephen King’s The Shining, and starring Steven Weber as Jack Torrance. As part of securing the small screen rights, the tale’s original author had to agree in writing to temper his public criticism of Kubrick’s interpretation.
The Stanley may be just as well known for its place in the 1994 comedy Dumb and Dumber. You’re more likely to hear someone yell “We landed on the Moon!,” referencing the famous Jim Carrey line, than any allusions to the mostly maligned made-for-TV mini-series.
While a variety of ghosts are said to roam the grounds, Room 217 remains the most requested hot spot. The room numbers themselves are often stolen, leaving an unsettling scrawl on the exposed wallpaper. With hallways that seemingly stretch into darkness, The Stanley feels truly haunted.
In his frightening vision of King’s work, Kubrick cast the Timberline Lodge on Oregon’s tallest peak, Mt. Hood, just outside Portland, Oregon. Used for exterior shots in the film, for most viewers, Timberline most directly evokes the menacing Overlook. A still-functioning, popular ski-resort, the winding mountain roads to the snowy peaks create a claustrophobic embrace, reminiscent of the film’s chilling climax.
Completed in 1937, reports of ghostly hikers and skiers claimed by the mountain and now haunting the first aid room prevail to this day. The hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Portland to the Timberline Lodge differs from the approach depicted in the opening of the film. The scenes of the Torrances driving to the Overlook were actually filmed at Going-to-the-Sun Road, along Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana.
It’s rumored the Timberline Lodge requested Kubrick change the room number from 217 in the book to 237, a room they don’t have, in the film to avoid frightening away guests from booking room 217. Despite this, 217 remains the hotel’s most requested booking.
Differences between the book and the movie run deeper than changes to just room numbers. Kubrick marked the delineation in his film by including a shot of a red Volkswagen, the color Torrance drove in the book, crushed by a semi truck. In the movie, Torrance’s car would become yellow. A signal from the onset, the film version had become his vehicle now. Notable as well, there wasn’t a hedge maze in the novel, although there were haunted topiary animals. The fate of the Overlook itself also varies sharply between the two versions.
The exterior of Timberline Lodge was recreated at Elstree Studios in London, where the hedge maze was added. When the set burned down during production, it was meticulously rebuilt for the completion of filming.
Located in California’s Yosemite National Park, the Ahwahnee Hotel’s reports of real-life hauntings are fairly mundane but the Native American design offered a pivotal inspiration for much of the film’s most terrifying moments. The Great Lounge is depicted by the film’s wide open Colorado Lounge, where “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and the Ahwahnee’s unmistakable crimson elevator doors undoubtedly served as design inspiration for the stark river of blood that overtakes the Overlook’s lobby in the movie.
Interpretations for some of these motifs suggest allegories to genocide of indigenous peoples, including Native Americans and the Holocaust. Some theories go so far to suggest The Shining’s imagery secretly includes clues to Kubrick’s involvement in faking moon landing footage, as detailed in the 2012 documentary Room 237.
The shape-shifting environment of the haunted hotel was eccentrically designed by Kubrick using the Ahwahnee as a model. He explained, “we wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel,” in doing so it helped create an environment where the viewer’s perception was easily manipulated.
Writer Rob Ager has suggested anomalies were deliberately woven into the the Overlook’s layout in order to confuse the viewer’s spatial awareness. These contradictory set pieces pile up in the viewer’s subconscious, creating a dreamlike experience that is hard to shake.
Believing “The Shining is a film meant to be seen forward and backwards,” two cinephiles, John Fell Ryan and Akiva Saunders, discovered an experimental way of viewing Kubrick’s film. Their theory suggests screening it forwards and backwards at the same time, superimposed. A sort of self-mirrored take on the Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon / Wizard of Oz mash-up. The effect are some eerie coincidences with disparate scenes linking the narrative, and doorways seeming to physically connect as characters pass through. These possible discoveries upon rewatches decades later suggest there may have been a metaphysical interpretation buried as well.
In 2013, King revisited The Shining, penning a sequel titled Dr. Sleep. Now being released as a feature film, directed by Mike Flanagan and starring Ewan McGregor as the tormented Danny, the film’s synopsis explains: “years following the events of The Shining, a now-adult Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as the True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal."
Filmed in Atlanta, Dr. Sleep’s Overlook set was painstakingly recreated using original blueprints from Kubrick’s production that had been in storage at Warner Bros. Flanagan reportedly went to studious lengths, tracking down specific books on the shelves of the original film, and positioning props just the same as they had appeared.
While these three sites in Oregon, California and Colorado all maintain various claims, connections and inspiration to The Shining it’s their combined influence that have created the haunting, shape-shifting Overlook that continues to haunt even our most mundane hotel stays.