There’s a nightmarish beauty to being jolted awake in the dead of night inside the Stanley Hotel, the “haunted” Colorado mountain resort that spooked Stephen King into writing The Shining—where, legend has it, the souls of a century’s worth of dearly departed hotel guests still wander the hallways making things go bump in the night.
Add an extra dash of terror if you’ve been awakened by uninvited Satanic cultists who break into your room, shower you in animal bones, and shout deafening chants about bringing the dead to life before disappearing back into the night sooner than the sleep can leave your eyes.
But more on that in a bit.
I didn’t see any ghosts upon arrival at the Stanley Film Festival, the horror-centric weekend now in its third year of taking over the turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival manse and transforming it into The Overlook Hotel. That’s not to say there’s not an unmistakable, intangible presence permeating the place, where King and his wife spent one spooky night in 1974.
The power we give places we see in the movies can make buildings transcend their brick and mortar bones. Ghosts of the cinema come back to life as soon as the credits roll, as their lingering memories leap from the screen into our imaginations where they stay and wander near and far, but never really leave us.
The Stanley takes that cinematic aura and amplifies it to larger than life proportions. Wandering alone in the moonlight, it’s easy to imagine the spirit of Jack Torrance wandering the grounds and wonder if the hotel isn’t slowly drawing you into its shadows.
Over the course of the weekend The Stanley lent its “shine” to films, special events, and one live action immersive horror game that used the film festival as its setting and the hardcore attendees as its players. First came the clues, hidden throughout the hotel grounds: a mysterious ankh symbol placed in plain view, a fake construction company office erected just down the road, clandestine meetings in the basement beneath the hotel’s grandiose foyer.
Active game agents wandered the hotel like video game characters all weekend, disseminating clues and steering the players through a narrative involving ancient rituals, Egyptian mysticism, the Orion constellation, robed cult members seeking to bring an ancient evil back to life, and more clues hidden throughout the hotel and surrounding sleepy small town.
Signing up to play the game meant opting in for the full immersive experience, not that we knew what we were in for. For a few lucky players that meant getting a special visit in the middle of the night from the aforementioned cultists. I vividly recall the terror of being asleep and faintly hearing the soft click of someone else’s keycard moments before my hotel room door swung open. Blinking myself awake, I glimpsed an ominous hooded figure standing in the doorway just about where the ghosts of small children are said to run the hallways late at night.
The figure, backlit by the hallway light, paused a moment for dramatic effect.
Thoroughly disoriented and still half asleep I reached for the covers and for any nearby objects to wield as a weapon. But how do you smite the boogeymen who’s already looming at the foot of your bed? I settled for pulling the covers over my head, suddenly wishing I could unsee The Nightmare, the night terror doc that Room 237 filmmaker Rodney Asher had screened at the fest that evening.
Two cult members, maybe three, started shouting at the top of their lungs: “JOIN US. JOIN US. BIND YOURSELF TO HIM.” As my screams grew louder, they vanished. The next day, in the daylight, I found tiny animal bones littered across the bedcovers. A lovely parting gift from Stanley’s resident evildoers.
It seemed the game had reached peak infiltration into the hearts and minds (and sleeping patterns) of its players. And then, a filmmaker disappeared.
Director Garret Weaver had arrived from California on Friday night for the premiere of his short film Man’s Best, an intriguing enough premise about a sickly family pet who returns home miraculously healed. Less than 12 hours after arriving in Colorado and mingling with his fellow filmmakers, Weaver vanished into thin air in front of a hundred festivalgoers during a late-night magic show. A manhunt commenced on the spot as game players tore through the Stanley grounds in search of Weaver.
Weaver’s disappearance sent the late-night crowd into a frenzy. Some didn’t stop hunting for clues until the sun came up, while about 20 others accidentally took a 3 a.m. ghost tour of the haunted Concert Hall from a hotel employee named Randy who may or may not have been playing the Game.
A day and loads of curious gameplay later, Weaver popped up on his own website—bound and blindfolded and on video. By Sunday he was “dead,” his throat slit by cultists. We had failed to save Garret. Or had we?
By the time the 2015 Stanley Film Festival wrapped, Garret had come back from the dead—or, at least, he revealed that he had faked his death to get away from the cult.
Obviously, Weaver was in on the game, but the real story was even more insidious. Weaver doesn’t exist. At all. The festival had hired an actor to play “Garret Weaver,” and his film was an elaborate hoax, complete with a Twitter account. Still, while I felt the hunt to save Weaver had a strong start, I felt a little let down by how it all ended. It was an intensely immersive experience, however.
Before leaving the atmospheric Stanley Hotel, I snuck in one last encounter with the spooks that haunt the joint. Armed with an Ouija-like spirit board, a few candles stolen from the hotel restaurant, and a half-dozen open-minded friends and filmmakers, we set out to experience something real in one of the most haunted hotels in America.
It took less than an hour before that something started responding to us. She said her name was Ave, she was 9 years old, and had drowned in a lake. Oh, and one more thing: We were “all” in danger.
Sometime, right before midnight, our ghost told us to “follow” her to Room 324—one of the most haunted rooms in the Stanley, we later discovered. So, after signing off with the spirits, we trudged out the door and up the staircase. And that’s when things got really weird.
At the top of the third-floor landing, as the rest of the hotel slumbered quietly in the night, we ran headfirst into a young couple. Both were trembling in very recent shock, staring down one hallway with wide eyes and speaking tentatively of a presence they’d both just seen.
The two had been sitting at a table on the third-floor landing when, they told us in hushed tones, a specter had emerged from a few doors down. It then started moving toward them—a smallish figure that felt friendly, they explained to me—only to quickly disappear. Seconds later, we’d burst into the hallway and found the couple in their agitated state.
They couldn’t make heads or tails of what they’d seen. Neither could we. I still don’t quite know what happened to us in that room at the Stanley Hotel. The most apt explanation I know comes to mind courtesy of the great Scatman Crothers:
“Some places are like people. Some shine, and some don’t.”