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The Stanley Hotel: An Investigation

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

December 21, 2009

Located at the foothills of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Stanley Hotel—the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining—has all of the qualifications needed to be considered haunted.

The Stanley Hotel is a majestic mansion in the scenic town of Estes Park, Colorado. Despite the hotel’s grandeur and opulence, it was probably destined to remain obscure until a famous guest changed its future—and its past.

Stephen King stayed in the atmospheric resort during Halloween 1974. An isolated, off-season evening spent in the already “haunted” room 217 motivated King to pen The Shining: his story of addiction, psychosis, psychic abilities, and ghosts.

Immersed in fame and folklore and plagued by invented and stolen history, is the Stanley Hotel haunted by anything more than its reputation?

Paranormal Claims Investigators

During an interview on Warning: Radio, hosts Bryan and Baxter invited me to attend one of their investigations. A few months later, the opportunity arose to investigate the infamous Stanley Hotel.

The investigation was conducted by Bryan and Baxter’s group, the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society (RMPRS). In the hunt for a neutral title that neither contains the perceived negative connotations of skeptic nor implies believer like ghost hunter, the members call themselves “Paranormal Claims Investigators.”

However, the group often finds itself in No Man’s Land. The word paranormal in their title is a neon sign portraying them as believers to skeptics, although it was adopted to keep from deterring believers by avoiding the label skeptic. Labels aside, they are investigators who adopt a skeptical, scientific approach to examining claims of the paranormal. Importantly, they do not dismiss claims a priori but rather assess and challenge them.

Striving for impartiality for maximum influence, they manage diplomatic relations across both the skeptical and paranormal movements. That is, except for the paranormalists who they doggedly pursue and expose, including Chris Moon, proponent of the “Telephone to the Dead” and alien aficionados Jeff Peckman and Stan Romanek, who are campaigning to introduce an E.T. Commission in Denver, Colorado.

Shhh… I’m Hunting Ghosts!

Stanley Hotel 2

A major criticism of paranormal groups is that they use scientific tools in an unscientific manner. Like the beautician wearing a lab coat and talking about “liposomes,” ghost hunters have all the (dubious) authority afforded by their electromagnetic field (EMF) meters, voice recorders, and thermometers. But no, they’re not about to test for electrical currents, record a voice memo, or check the temperature of the turkey. They’re hunting ghosts.

The RMPRS hunts the ghost hunters. Given the stereotype of the ghost hunter who views an EMF meter as a “ghost detector,” I was initially disconcerted to learn that the RMPRS use EMF meters, seismographs, and other seemingly irrelevant devices. However, the group uses this equipment against other groups. Rather than using an EMF reading to “prove” paranormal claims, the group uses EMF meters to disprove claims and provide natural explanations for any activity.

For example, they showed me footage from the TV special The Stanley Effect, where an EMF meter is waved over a man’s body. The device beeps frantically, and he swoons like he’s been struck by an evangelist. The group demonstrated that a human body emits a mild electromagnetic field; an EMF meter detects this, rather than ghosts or demonic possession. The group members receive formal training in the equipment they use, so they know what each instrument does and doesn’t do.

Complete with microphones and cameras, the team of Bryan, Baxter, Nitor, Stu, and “Trash” of the RMPRS were stationed on site between the hours of 7 pm and 5 am to record and monitor the Music Room, the Pinion Room, and the Billiards Room, where the phantom sounds of billiard balls dropping are heard, although there is no table there anymore.

“So, what do you expect to find on an investigation?” I asked. “Nothing,” Bryan admitted before adding, “We try to find explanations for what people claim to have found before.”

As the cameras recorded empty rooms, the group carried out their most important work: outreach.

From No Man’s Land to the Trenches

Stanley Hotel 3

The Stanley Hotel is more successful as a tourist destination than a hotel. The staff conducts daily ghost tours, attracting a staggering 500 visitors every day. These people visit for a haunting experience.

Equipped with cameras, these ghost-hunting guests eagerly snap images of unlikely subjects: stairwells, doors, chairs, and halls. When their images produce “orbs” in the dusty halls, or “ghostly footstep” are heard on the creaky stairs above, they have their supernatural souvenir.

Then the visitors discovered that a “paranormal team” was conducting surveillance in the hotel. Like a cat bringing in a mouse, these visitors proudly displayed their orb photos to the group. But they didn’t anticipate the response they got. They expected confirmation bias from a sympathetic audience. Instead, they found skepticism. Countless times Bryan and Baxter repeated the mantra, “Orbs aren’t ghosts,” as they explained concepts including Occam’s Razor and pareidolia and provided rational, natural explanations for the phenomena reported by visitors.

This is grassroots skepticism. Bryan and Baxter acted as activists and ambassadors for skepticism, engaging in vital public outreach. They answered numerous questions with extraordinary patience, logic, and compassion for the budding paranormalists whose beliefs were being deflated gently and replaced with critical thinking skills.

These visitors all showed that they were observant and had inquisitive, questioning minds. But they also displayed a misguided curiosity for normal events and a distinct lack of skepticism for anything but skepticism. They were driven by a determination to unearth paranormal phenomena, even at the expense of fact.

Bryan and Baxter chipped away at the uncritical work of TV shows, sensationalist books, and the tour conducted by the hotel itself. They spoke with ever-materializing groups of visitors, and the last ghost hunting guests didn’t vanish until 4 am.

Stealing History?

Stanley Hotel 4

“Which rooms are claimed to be haunted?” I asked.

“That depends on which rooms are still available for the night,” quipped Bryan.

The Stanley Hotel is allegedly haunted by at least twelve ghosts, including the ghost of the founder, Freelan O. Stanley, who appears in the billiards room, resplendent in a tuxedo. There is a haunted piano that plays phantom music, a spectral party in the ballroom, and the ghost of several small children that haunt the hallways and stairs.

History is muddied by folklore at the Stanley Hotel. In an unwitting historical revisionism, elements of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel are pasted onto the Stanley Hotel. For example, it is believed incorrectly that character Jack Torrance was based on Stephen King, and that the book tells of his own cabin-fever experiences. Although the plot was conceived at the Stanley Hotel, it is not based on it. The mini-series was filmed there, but Stanley Kubrick’s original movie was filmed in Oregon and England. However, scenes from the movie Dumb and Dumber were filmed there.

The book’s fictional ghosts have also become the resort’s ghosts. But this is not the only history adopted by the Stanley Hotel. Close to downtown Estes Park is the lesser known Elk Horn Lodge. Bryan reports that a previous owner relayed the lodge’s ghost stories to an author who was penning a book about the Stanley Hotel and needed a few more tales to embellish the book. The owner was asked if these stories could be “borrowed,” and she agreed to the transfer of these tales. Some of the Stanley Hotel’s ghosts could be the legends of the Elk Horn Lodge.

The Stanley Hotel’s ghost stories appear to be a jumble of tales from the Elk Horn Lodge, local history blended with urban legend, staff anecdotes, and the creation of visiting psychics, guests, ghost hunting groups, and TV shows such as Ghost Hunters.

Busting Myths…

Stanley Hotel 5

What proof is there of these hauntings? Beyond anecdotal evidence, there is some video data obtained by Ghost Hunters Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. Their “evidence” of a “jumping table” and a “ghost thief” were captured in Rooms 1302 and 401, respectively.

Bryan and Baxter took me on a tour of these rooms, where they replicated the reputed phenomena and systematically debunked these stories and others.

The “Jumping Table”

Tables have been “haunted” since the table-tipping escapades of the spiritualism movement, but usually they put on a more convincing display.

Room 1302 contains an alcove with a round table and two chairs. In an episode of Ghost Hunters Grant Wilson is in a darkened room with a few cronies. Using black and white filming, the camera is focused on the fascinating floor, as we see part of a table slide suddenly into view and hear gasps. “Who’s in here with us?” someone demands of the thin air. They muse that the table is far too heavy to be moved by mere humans and conclude quickly of the unremarkable event, “Let’s chalk it up as a ghost.”

First, we tackled the claim that the table was too heavy to move. We took turns “levitating” the table by lifting it with our thumbs so our fingers could still be seen above the table top. This demonstrated that not only could someone pretend to levitate the table but that the table is sufficiently light in weight that two people can raise the table with minimum effort.

On the TV show, the sliding table became known as the “jumping table,” and the action of its subtle movement became the table “jumping two feet into the air.” Next, Bryan replicated the table’s performance. While Bryan’s hands were placed demurely on the table and he bantered casually, the table moved abruptly and violently! “The table danced almost completely out of the alcove!” commented Baxter for effect. Bryan’s hands on the table removed the possibility of using them for trickery—but not of using his feet to kick the table, a movement that was obscured by the camera angle.

In the Ghost Hunters footage we need to consider the dim lighting and the awkward camera angle that obstructs vision for both the attendees and the viewer. In all likelihood, the “jumping” was caused by one of the crew bumping the table accidentally, or someone pushing the table deliberately to liven up an otherwise dull episode.

A video of the reputed evidence and the replication can be viewed on YouTube.

The “Ghost Thief”

Room 401 is reputedly haunted by a troublemaker known as the “Ghost Thief.” This is the ghost of a man who appears at the end of the bed and allegedly steals or moves guests’ possessions.

Ghost hunter Jason Hawes spent the night in this room and was tormented by a series of mundane events, including a closet that opened and closed and a glass that cracked.

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to construct plausible explanations for these phenomena. Bryan and Baxter used a seismograph to demonstrate the almost constant ground vibration that could cause subtle movement. Moreover, the room lies flush against the elevator; a slow, creaking lift that emits a low rumble. As the elevator rises and falls, it shakes the floor and walls gently. This movement is sufficient to reposition guests’ belongings and rattle furniture, including opening and closing a closet.

As Hawes was lying in bed, a glass on the bedside table cracked, which he blamed on paranormal activity. After the show had aired, Bryan raised the topic with Hawes in personal correspondence. The ghost hunter admitted that there was a simple explanation for the incident. The glass in his room was dirty, so he ordered a clean one from the kitchen. When the replacement glass arrived, it was still hot from the dishwasher. He poured chilled water with floating cubes of ice into the piping hot glass, and in an unwitting (?) physics experiment, the glass fractured. The unseen forces were thermodynamic, not paranormal.

Sometimes ghost stories are not about what is told but what isn’t told. Hawes hasn’t provided this explanation publicly, and his fans and viewers have been fooled into thinking that this ordinary, predictable outcome was a paranormal event.

A Load of Schist

The Ghost Hunters came up with the pseudoscientific theory of “residual hauntings” to explain this supposed hotbed of paranormal activity. They claim that there are large deposits of quartz underneath the Stanley Hotel and that unnamed, unsourced “researchers show us” that this mineral “causes hauntings” by “storing” and regenerating the event. Hawes asserts: “We did a lot of research on the Stanley Hotel. One thing we did find is that the mountain it’s built on actually contains a lot of quartz stone; and one of the theories that we’ve been working with for a long time is residual hauntings, they seem to have a lot of quartz and limestone deposits within the area of what activity is going on.”

Wilson adds: “When you take some of the stories you’ve accounted to us, such as the children running down the hallway, the party in the ballroom, things like this, they all have the feel of a residual haunting, which is just captured energy that gets released under the right circumstances.”

Hawes concludes: “A residual haunting you can think of it like a tape player that keeps on rewinding itself and playing itself over and over again. So when it comes down to it, a lot of quartz stone under the building, it really does fit into our theory.”

The Ghost Hunters also stated that the Stanley Hotel was built upon “a large deposit of magnetite.” These assertions are testable. Bryan and Baxter researched these claims, which have also been made by other paranormal groups, but they weren’t able to locate the source or the facts. They contacted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who expressed interest in the project since no soil survey had previously been undertaken on the premises.

A team of scientists arrived at the Stanley Hotel, where they conducted a two-day soil survey of the site, accompanied by Bryan and Baxter. The examination included an Electromagnetic Induction (EMI) survey to assess for patterns of electromagnetic energy.

They soon had the dirt on the Ghost Hunters’ claims, as the USDA concluded formally that the soil is primarily metamorphic rock known as schist. This rock can contain minerals, such as talc, graphite and quartz, although the survey found that there were no “large deposits of magnetite or quartz under the property.” The USDA report of the EMI survey concluded: “There did not appear to be any ‘unexplainable’ spatial patterns of apparent conductivity or ‘mysterious’ anomalous features resulting from the EMI pedestrian survey or the EMI mobile survey completed near the Stanley Hotel. All observable features associated with changes in apparent conductivity were thought to have reasonable explanations.”

From Busting Myths to Birthing Myths

While Bryan and Baxter were busy putting out paranormal fires, the supernatural treadmill was busy birthing three new myths; the “Haunted Rocking Chair,” “The Vortex,” and “The Ghostly Bacon Smell.”

Folklore formed before our very eyes.

The “Haunted Rocking Chair”

On the front porch of the hotel entrance is a curious rocking chair that rocks unaided.

The story began when a female staff member noticed the chair rocking when no one was sitting in it. Anecdotally, this was in the middle of the day and there was no wind. Alarmed, the woman approached the chair, strangely asking it, “Do you want me to go?”According to the woman, the rocking sped up. She took this as a sign that the chair “wanted” her to leave, so she left in fear. It was soon believed that this was the ghost of F.O. Stanley, who enjoyed sitting in his rocker on the porch.

The RMPRS hypothesized that the rocking was caused by either the wind or the residual kinetic energy after someone had sat in the chair or rocked it by hand. Further to this, a guest reported seeing the original event occur, just after someone had walked into the hotel foyer. Presumably, this visitor had sat in or rocked the chair beforehand. Baxter tested this theory by sitting in the chair and observing that upon standing, the chair continued to rock for about three minutes. To test the possibility that wind had been the culprit, they attached toilet paper to several chairs nearby, using this as a wind sock to detect movement. As predicted, the wind rocked the chair as the toilet paper fluttered in the breeze.

“We’ve officially made toilet paper a ghost hunting tool!” observed Bryan.

The “Vortex”

Bryan and Baxter were called upstairs to witness “something weird” that was occurring at that very minute. A group of people had gathered around a very unassuming door built into a stairwell. “The door knob is haunted!” exclaimed a woman with a digital camera. She had been taking a photograph of the door, as one does, when she noticed red, blue and green lights appearing on the door knob. Bryan, Baxter, and Stu identified this as “artifacting” caused by the low quality of the display on the camera’s live view screen. This was hardly paranormal.

Despite the natural explanation, this became known instantly as “The Magic Door Knob,” and the site became “The Vortex”, a hub for orb photographs, mysterious lights and…phantom smells.

Cooking Up a Ghost Story

The kerfuffle over the flash issue was interrupted by the sudden pervasive scent of bacon. Someone mused that the kitchen was nowhere nearby; by default explanation, it must be ghostly bacon! The story morphed like olfactory pareidolia, and the smoky bacon scent was re-interpreted as cigar smoke, probably to fit in with common claims that ghosts produce scents associated with their lives, such as perfumes or pipe smoke.

Out of either curiosity or hunger, a few people went in search of the smell. They tracked it down to a room where a family was using a hotplate to cook bacon cheeseburgers, avoidng the prices in the Stanley Hotel’s restaurants. But the damage was done, and visitors were already chatting excitedly about the “ghostly bacon smell” and the “ghostly cigar smoke.”

Don’t Give Up the Ghost

During the investigation, The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society researched popular beliefs and claims; they solved some mysteries, they performed valuable outreach, and they maintained the historical integrity of the Stanley Hotel. However, they didn’t discover any anomalous phenomena. They found a leak in the ceiling but no ghosts. But this is no reason to give up the ghost (investigations).

There is great merit in the assessment rather than immediate rejection of claims. There is value in employing the scientific method when examining claims rather than the uncritical methods employed by ghost hunting groups. There is worth in solving mysteries rather than claiming a site is “haunted” or that an activity is “inexplicable.” There is importance in educating the public; this is what skepticism is all about.

Faced with seemingly “unsinkable ducks,” the popularity of the paranormal, and the continual creation of legend, it is tempting for skeptics to become despondent in our mission. Some skeptics are simply fed up with treating these “classic” paranormal themes, but the task of disseminating critical thinking is nowhere near complete.

Skeptics shouldn’t give up the ghost until the public does.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.