It was an alarming sight for the bride and groom who happened to be taking wedding photos high up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, poised on the steps of a 106-year-old hotel. And then the wedding couple was approached by two very specific zombies: a pair dressed as a bride and groom, drenched in blood.
But while the invasion might have been sudden, it was no surprise. That weekend, the Stanley Hotel was hosting the 2015 Stanley Film Festival, a horror extravaganza complete with a zombie crawl. The Stanley’s management had asked the real bride and groom whether they wanted to change their reservation so as to not overlap with the festivities; they’d declined. In fact, the newlyweds later informed the Stanley that they loved how their wedding was made so memorable. They even invited the zombie bride and groom to join them in their wedding photos.
In many ways, the zombie-infested wedding is a perfect encapsulation of what the Stanley Hotel has become today: a curious mixture of tradition, elegance, horror and history. Since opening in 1909, the iconic hotel has attracted visitors from across the globe to its mountain perch in Estes Park, where it commands stunning views of nearby Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Stanley is on the National Register of Historic Places and is among Colorado’s most visited landmarks, with 430,000 people passing through the hotel’s doors each year — many drawn there by its reputation for being haunted, as well as the inspiration for Stephen King’s 1977 best-selling novel The Shining, later captured in a Stanley Kubrick film and TV miniseries.
Now the Stanley wants to become the worldwide epicenter of the horror-film industry. This goal involves an ambitious plan to construct a $24 million horror-film center — complete with a theater, conference spaces and a museum — which is being financed in part by an $11.5 million grant awarded by the State of Colorado.
Much of this action can be credited to the Stanley’s owner, John Cullen, for whom the hotel has moved far beyond a business venture. Depending on whom you ask, it’s become either his legacy — or his personal fantasyland. Not everyone is thrilled with what Cullen has done with the hotel, including some community members and professionals involved in past partnerships with the Stanley. But there’s no question that the Stanley is thriving in a way that its founder, Freelan Oscar Stanley, never could have imagined when he constructed the hotel over a hundred years ago.
“You can call me ‘Miss Sophie,’” says our tour guide, who is dressed in a theatrical assortment of early-twentieth-century garb including a vintage overcoat, a red hair bow and thick rimmed glasses. Miss Sophie is leading one of the hotel’s history tours, which run seven days a week and, with more than 80,000 paying guests per year, are one of its most popular attractions.
For nearly two hours, Sophie rattles off facts and jokes from a meticulously memorized script, highlighting some of the hotel’s most alluring history, especially the saga of its namesake, Freelan Oscar Stanley.
“Most people know F.O. Stanley for the ‘Stanley Steamer,’” Sophie says, referring to the businessman’s early brand of steam-engine cars. “But that was really just a hobby, not where he made his money.”
Born and raised on the East Coast, F.O. Stanley and his identical twin brother, Francis Edgar, were both brilliant entrepreneurs and inventors. In the mid-1880s, they made their break by mass-producing dry-plate technology for photography, which was a significant improvement over the wet chemicals then in use, which required photographers to prepare slides in portable darkrooms or tents.
By the mid-1890s, the Stanley brothers had become rich off their photography business and were upper-class socialites in Newton, Massachusetts. But F.O. Stanley’s success was tempered by a serious health concern: In 1903, he was struck by a life-threatening case of tuberculosis, and doctors advised that he treat his lung infection by relocating somewhere with clean, dry air. Because of its high elevation, Stanley set his sights on Colorado, and eventually found himself in Estes Park upon the recommendation of a Harvard physician.
At 7,500 feet in elevation, Estes Park did the trick. Over the course of just one summer, Stanley’s health improved dramatically, and he resolved to return to the secluded mountain valley every year. But Stanley also grew lonely during these sojourns; the more time he spent away from the East Coast, the more he longed for the company and culture that he was accustomed to in Massachusetts. So in 1907, he resolved to build a grand guesthouse in Estes Park — one with enough splendor and modern comforts to convince his wealthy friends to visit him in Colorado.
For Stanley, this went beyond constructing a 48-room mansion overlooking the rustic mountain town; he also built municipal infrastructure like a hydroelectric plant, a water-distribution network, and roads that would accommodate his steam-engine motorcars.
When Stanley opened his vast colonial-style hotel in 1909, it was one of the only hotels west of the Mississippi River to feature both electricity and running water. Over the following decades, he added more buildings to the compound, all the while increasing his investment in Estes Park and its surroundings, which included what some consider Stanley’s greatest legacy: the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park with his friend, naturalist Enos Mills.
So dedicated were F.O. Stanley and his wife, Flora, to running their Estes Park retreat that following their deaths in 1940 and 1939, respectively, stories surfaced that their spirits inhabited the halls of their beloved
hotel. As the legends go, Flora can sometimes be heard playing her Steinway piano in the dead of night, and F.O.’s ghost has been spotted in the hotel’s billiards room, reputed to be his favorite spot in the building.
“F.O. Stanley was as frugal as the days are long. I make the joke: 'Have you seen the insulation that Stanley put in? Neither have I.'"
Today, rumors of hauntings and paranormal activity at the Stanley are one of the hotel’s central features. During her tour, Sophie enthusiastically explains some of the more infamous legends.
The most requested room in the Stanley is 217, where, following a 1911 power outage, a hotel employee named Elizabeth Wilson allegedly set off an explosion when she entered the suite carrying a candle to light backup acetylene gas lamps, unaware that there was a gas leak. “An explosion punched her right through the floor and into the ballroom,” recounts Sophie, adding that Wilson reportedly survived the accident with only two broken ankles and continued working at the hotel until the 1950s. “We like to say that she landed on her feet,” she jokes.
Some claim that Wilson still haunts the room, where she sometimes folds guests’ laundry or slips into bed between unmarried couples to try to force them apart. (Wilson was very disapproving of infidelity.)
The other reason that Room 217 is famous is because it was where author Stephen King stayed in 1974, when he got the idea to write The Shining.
According to King’s website, he was the only guest in the hotel that night:
“In late September of 1974, [my wife] and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley...Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect—maybe the archetypical—setting for a ghost story. That night 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 the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”
That book describes a writer’s descent into madness. Although King insisted the book was firmly rooted in fiction, the Stanley’s reputation as a haunted hotel exploded after The Shining’s release as a hardback in 1977. And that reputation only grew after Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson hit theaters in 1980 — despite the fact that the movie was filmed in Oregon rather than Estes Park.
The marketing potential of the Stanley’s reputation as a haunted hotel has not escaped owner John Cullen. He’s actively embraced the horror genre, which will be the focus of the Stanley Film Center that he plans to build over the next couple of years. In the meantime, it’s impossible to walk around the hotel without encountering some suggestion of The Shining. There are vintage posters of Kubrick’s film on walls, prop axes that allude to Nicholson’s famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene, and copies of King’s book showcased in multiple locations.
But Cullen didn’t set out to become a horror impresario, or even to own the hotel. As he tells it, his foray into the hotel business came not from an interest in hospitality or management, but from being a computer nerd. He graduated from Ohio’s Denison University in 1985, after having taught himself the ins and outs of a spreadsheet program made by IBM called Lotus 1-2-3, an early predecessor of Microsoft’s Excel. This knowledge came in handy when Cullen joined a real-estate company that did financial negotiations with large hotel chains. With his computing background, “I could do the math on new builds, debts and bankruptcies faster than anybody else at the Ritz-Carlton or Marriott or Hilton or Hyatt,” Cullen recalls. “So I’m negotiating and doing spreadsheet analysis faster than they could by sending the information back and forth to some IBM 36 in Atlanta.”
His love of numbers is also what helped him acquire his first hotel.
One night in the late ’80s, Cullen was in the lobby bar of a hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, when the manager sat down next to him and ordered a double shot of whiskey. Surprised, Cullen told him, “I don’t mean to say anything, but from what little I know of the hotel industry, I don’t think you should be wearing your name badge while drinking in your own bar.”
The manager took one look at Cullen and threw his badge down on the bar. “Well, that’s because I quit!” he declared, before sullenly revealing that his hotel was in trouble with the IRS and had been temporarily padlocked by tax collectors.
“Well, how bad is it?” Cullen asked. “What are the numbers?”
The next thing Cullen remembers was waking up the next morning with a hangover. He was also quite confused when the hotel manager called him and asked, “So when do we put the plan in?”
“What plan?” Cullen responded.
“The one we did on the napkin.”
Cullen reached into his jacket pocket and discovered a napkin with a detailed bankruptcy receivership plan, written in his own handwriting. Thanks to a few too many drinks the night before, he’d forgotten that he’d figured out a way to help the manager avoid bankruptcy by transferring ownership of the hotel to Cullen. The Maryland Inn “was my first big break,” Cullen says, explaining that it led to his acquisition of the management group Historic Inns of Annapolis and, in 1989, the creation of his current company, Grand Heritage Hotel Group.
Over the next few years, Cullen and his business partners expanded their company to manage hotels outside of Maryland, including properties in New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco and Nashville. Soon, they were invited to check out an old hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.
By 1994, the Stanley was a train wreck, Cullen says, having gone through more than twenty owners since its founder had passed away. Still, Cullen and his partners were enamored of the place, and agreed to help its then-owner manage the property by investing $90,000 in basic supplies like soap, new linens, pillowcases and bedsheets. “Now, I knew he was in dire straits, but not dire, dire, throw-in-the-towel straits,” Cullen recalls. Just three months after Cullen’s company began managing the Stanley, its owner filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Cullen remembers his attorney, Sander Mednick, coming to him at the time and saying there was good and bad news. The bad news was that Cullen was in danger of losing the entire $90,000 his company had invested, since it was underwritten with Cullen’s name.
“The good news,” Mednick continued, “is that you can now buy the hotel. So just put in a bid! It’s simple as cake.”
“What? No, the expression is ‘simple as pie,’ numbnuts,” Cullen laughed. “What law school did you go to?”
“Just put in a bid!” Mednick pressed.
“Okay, if I put in a bid, will you get the hell out of my office?” Cullen joked.
“Yeah, sure. What’s the bid?”
“I already gave you the number,” Cullen responded. “Pi — 3.14 million dollars!”
True to his word, Cullen made a bid to purchase the Stanley, putting a hundred thousand dollars into play as collateral, even though he never expected his offer to be taken seriously. “Which was fine,” Cullen says today, “because I didn’t have the other three million dollars I offered to close the deal.”
He was shocked when he won the contract. Despite coming in third during the bidding, the first-place bidder was disqualified when it was discovered that there was a federal arrest warrant out under his name.
Then the second-place bidder conceded after running into financing problems. Cullen got to work, and within days he’d raised enough money through high-interest loans to come up with the full “pi” figure of $3.14 million. Among his partners, Cullen ended up with a personal ownership stake of just over 7 percent.
Of course, securing the money was just the first hurdle; once Cullen and his partners started running the historic hotel, they learned just how dilapidated it was. “The first days of owning the Stanley were grim,” Cullen recalls. “It was much more like Stephen King’s book than anyone really understands.” Five of the fourteen buildings on the property still didn’t have electricity, and only one had a complete set of windows.
“It was a paper-thin hotel, never designed to be a 115-year-old hotel, and never designed to be a full-service hotel,” Cullen says. “F.O. Stanley was as frugal as the days are long. I make the joke: ‘Have you seen the insulation that Stanley put in? Neither have I.’”
But the Stanley’s need for capital improvements paled in comparison to some of the other problems the new owner encountered. Cullen vividly recalls his first meal at the hotel, when he entered the dining room and was depressed to find only four of the forty tables occupied. What really caught his attention, though, was how his waitress seemed different from all of the other staffers in the room.
“Miss, why are you the only person who doesn’t make a metal clinking noise when they pass me?” Cullen asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the waitress replied hesitantly.
The waitress bit her lip. “Well, I can’t tell you…”
“You have to tell me, I’m the owner!” Cullen demanded.
As it turned out, Cullen’s waitress was the only employee in the dining room who wasn’t on work-release.
“So every single other person in the dining room was part of a prison-release program and had ankle bracelets on. That’s what made the clinking noises,” Cullen says.
“The previous owner basically took on felons to make payroll,” he continues. “And so I realized that, not only do I have a hotel that’s empty and employees who are willing to withhold things from me, but some portion of them — larger than 50 percent — are actual felons.”
As Cullen spent more time at the Stanley, the bizarre discoveries continued. One night when he was staying at the hotel, he was offered “turn-down service,” which usually refers to hotel staff prepping the bed for the night, a service offered at luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. Curious as to what “turn-down service” could mean at the Stanley, Cullen let a maid into his room when she knocked on his door.
“She then takes the bedspread off the bed and puts it over the two nails on the window because there were no curtains…and that was the ‘turn-down service!’” Cullen recalls. “So at this point, as an owner, I’m definitely thinking, ‘What have I done?’”
Then Cullen and his partners got a major break when Stephen King decided to film a television miniseries version of The Shining at the Stanley, which aired on ABC in 1997. “Thank God for Stephen King, who saved the hotel not once, but twice,” Cullen says. “When he showed up with his trailers and unlimited budget to renovate the hotel space with carpenter shops and electricians and plumbers...it was like Christmas in July. I’ll bet he probably put in a million dollars’ worth of infrastructure.” King was also meticulous about having the hotel match the aesthetic of his story, even going so far as to commission custom wallpaper.
King’s investment was just the boost that the Stanley needed; with the building improvements and added publicity from the miniseries, guests started showing up in droves. “Suddenly we had an environment with boilers and a heater and things that make it livable year-round,” Cullen recalls. “Our VP at the time joked, ‘I can’t wait to get back to the Stanley now that it’s no longer indoors camping.’”
But the problems weren’t over, because the partners disagreed about what direction they should take with the Stanley. According to Cullen, the flash point was whether to offer more history tours, which he saw as a draw but his partners viewed as unbecoming to a luxury hotel. That dispute only intensified when Cullen’s partners told him that he could no longer invest in new projects. Cullen was insubordinate. One day, while meeting with the hotel’s general manager in a basement conference room, Cullen asked an engineer to bring him a sledgehammer.
“Mr. Cullen, your partners have told me no more capital projects,” the manager remarked.
“I know. I actually agree,” Cullen said.
He then took the sledgehammer and whacked a hole into the wall.
“Now it’s a repair job.”
“We created the tour department later that morning,” Cullen remembers. “My partners were not amused, but they just couldn’t see the potential, because it doesn’t fit inside a normal hotel box.”
Finally, in 2008, Cullen was able to trade his ownership stakes in hotels in San Diego, New Orleans and Nashville to his partners in order to become the sole owner of the Stanley. “That was the last turning point that allowed a new level of creativity,” Cullen says. Today the tour department brings in $2 million a year, he proudly points out.
The challenges didn’t disappear with sole ownership, however. In 2013, floods took out three of the four roads leading into Estes Park, a catastrophe that “should have killed the Stanley,” Cullen says. The Stanley was spared major physical damage because it sits high on a hill, but it only avoided bankruptcy because many guests kept their reservations, sparing over $480,000 in refunds. “I really felt the spirit of the Stanley when people said, ‘We don’t care if we just have to drive 45 minutes longer,’” Cullen says.
"We've got all kinds of different spirits up there. They are primarily workers and employees who, I think, just loved the place.”
With the hotel’s future secured — at least for a while — Cullen could return to advancing the hotel’s new focus: horror. While the Stanley had long offered ghost tours and themed events like its Shining Ball around Halloween, in the spring of 2013 Cullen had introduced the Stanley Film Festival, a horror extravaganza that got its start in a beery conversation.
“Once again, I’m dangerous with a couple beers in me,” Cullen admits. “I started my hotel company on a couple of beers. And Donald Zuckerman, the state film commissioner, was up at the Stanley one night, and we had one beer, two beers, three beers…and when we missed the start of a film he was showcasing at the hotel that night, we said, ‘Let’s have a couple more.’”
As they drank, they talked about setting up a film festival at the Stanley that would compete with the legendary Telluride Film Festival, which has been around since 1974. Recalls Cullen: “And that’s when we realized: Let’s make it just about horror films.”
By its second year, people were calling the Stanley Film Festival the “Sundance of horror films.” It was drawing big names from the indie horror world, like Eli Roth, Mick Garris (who frequently works with Stephen King) and Elijah Wood, who has his own horror production company called SpectreVision. By its third year, the four-day festival had become its own scene, with costumed fans making mayhem throughout the Stanley’s hallways, taking part in activities like zombie crawls and geeking out over premiere screenings.
But there was no festival in 2016.
With success has come growing pains. While complaints about hotel events drawing crowds to Estes Park aren’t surprising, a sizable number of the town’s residents also believe that Cullen has bought his way into favorable land-use deals. This was evident in December 2015, when over fifty people filed letters in opposition to a request by Cullen to the Estes Park Board of Trustees, asking the town to ease standard height restrictions so that he could construct a fourth story on a new building.
“The thirty-foot height limit is very important to the community, and to grant an exception to that appeared to most of the public as a special privilege that almost no one else in town gets,” says Rebecca Urquhart, a local land-use attorney.
While Urquhart says that “99 percent of the public comments” opposed Cullen’s request, in January Estes Park mayor Bill Pickham broke a 3-3 tie between the trustees, swaying the vote in Cullen’s favor.
Editorials in the local newspaper, the Trail Gazette, defended Cullen by highlighting the economic benefits that he and his projects are bringing to the community. But some members of the community say they don’t trust the Stanley’s owner and promise more land-use battles on the horizon.
But perhaps Cullen’s trickiest sticking points arise from relationships he’s terminated with former collaborators at the hotel.
One of those was ghost hunter Karl Pfeiffer, still smarting over Cullen’s sudden decision in April to suspend all paranormal investigations. This included five-hour-long ghost hunts that Pfeiffer and the “Stanley Paranormal Investigative Team,” which included members of the Syfy Channel’s Ghost Hunters crew, had offered paying guests since 2010.
“For years we had a very harmonious relationship,” Pfeiffer recalls. His team would not only do tours, but conduct their own investigations.
While Cullen is not a particularly strong believer in ghosts — he calls himself a “science guy” — he’s careful not to discredit those who do believe. “I have not seen any ghosts, but many of my guests have, so who am I to judge that?” he says.
As a professional paranormal investigator — someone who actually makes a living by conducting ghost hunts — Pfeiffer has no doubts that the Stanley is haunted. “We’ve got all kinds of different spirits up there,” Pfeiffer says. “They are primarily workers and employees who, I think, just loved the place when they worked there and so they’re staying there now as spirits.” The Stanley “is your quintessentially haunted location,” he adds. “You’re up in the middle of nowhere, because Estes Park doesn’t have the big Colorado ski town thing going on. It’s got an isolation vibe.”
But even so, investigations could be “a total crapshoot,” Pfeiffer recalls. “If all of the 97 rooms [in the main building] are booked up, the spirits could pick any of them on a particular night. So we would only get activity with those odds once every couple of months.”
Still, when paranormal activity did occur, Pfeiffer says it was significant. His team watched furniture move, lamps get knocked over, doors slam and lights flicker. Shadows would communicate with them, he adds.
Although “the main hotel building is the most notorious,” it was frequently booked up, so Pfeiffer says the team would often do ghost hunts in the separate concert-hall building. There, he says, they regularly communicated with three distinct spirits: Lucy (a runaway girl from the 1970s), Paul (a maintenance man who “still is very much just doing his job” after he passed away in 1995), and Eddie (a playful guest who showed up “out of the blue” a couple years ago).
Pfeiffer says he had a particular affinity for Eddie, whose communication and antics amplified over time, “almost like he was figuring out how to be a ghost.” As time passed, Eddie became more confident: One night he even kissed a ghost-hunt guest on the cheek. “We put his whole story together, and once we figured out that Eddie wasn’t trying to upset our guests but just tell us about himself, we put him on the tour,” Pfeiffer explains. “He had a very full story arc throughout my time at the hotel.”
But then the hotel pulled the plug last spring.
“To this day, [our paranormal team] has never really gotten a reason for what happened in April,” Pfeiffer says. “It was all very sudden. We’d always heard some rumors that, if [the management] had the option, then ghosts wouldn’t be a main feature of the hotel. They were always much more interested in the historical side and the horror side of it, and as non-believers, they always saw the ghosts as kind of tacky.”
Pfeiffer thinks the decision might have been tied to a sudden surge of attention after a Houston man named Henry Yau published a panoramic photo that appears to show a ghostly woman standing at the top of the Stanley’s main staircase. National outlets like Esquire, People, CNN and Fox News picked up the story. According to Yau, the hotel lobby and staircase were empty when he took the photograph; he only noticed the woman when he reviewed the photograph the next day.
One Houston commenter suggested that the whole thing was a hoax, a total setup, and that the Stanley “probably needs publicity now that The Shining is getting old.”
Did all the attention — good and bad — inspire the Stanley to cancel its ghost hunts? That’s what Pfeiffer thinks, but Reed Rowley, vice president of Cullen’s company, has a different explanation. “We’re not a haunted house,” he says. “We’re still a four-star hotel at the end of the day, and we need to provide an experience that caters to all of our guests. We want to make sure there’s proportionality between all interests, including those who come for the love of the paranormal side of the hotel.”
Even before the paranormal team got the boot, the Stanley had canceled its 2016 film festival, instead electing to host a planning symposium to discuss its upcoming film center. When the festival returns next April, it will no longer be produced by the Denver Film Society, which organized the first years of the festival.
“What fourteen- to eighteen-year-old kid wouldn’t want to tweet that they're being chased around by Jack Nicholson?”
JoAnna Cintrón, communications manager for the DFS, wouldn’t elaborate on why the organization has cut ties with the Stanley, but she did say that the DFS was proud of the role it played in creating the festival. “Although we will no longer be producing or presenting this festival, nor do we have a role in the planned Stanley Film Center, we look forward to watching the hotel grow and deliver unique entertainment and education within the genre,” she adds.
Zuckerman, Colorado’s film commissioner and a friend of Cullen’s, says he wouldn’t read too much into the Denver Film Society not being invited to participate in the film center. “I don’t know that anybody has made the decision that the DFS will never be a part of this,” he says. “It’s just that the Stanley is trying to figure out exactly what [the film center] is going to be, and they have to arrange the financing to get it up and running, which is not something that the DFS would be a part of anyway.”
Just as Zuckerman played a supporting role in the launch of the Stanley Film Festival, he’s helped make the Stanley Film Center possible by introducing Cullen to key partners. These include Rowley, who used to work in Governor John Hickenlooper’s office managing the Colorado Health and Wellness Initiative, and Frederic Lahey, who founded and ran the Colorado Film School for twenty years and is now in charge of developing the Stanley Film Center.
Both hires were part of an expensive bid to turn the Stanley into a year-round horror mecca. “The place is already a great attraction,” Zuckerman notes, “and by adding the film center, I think that it will be the center of the horror universe.”
As initially conceived by Cullen and Rowley, the center will be a 43,000-square-foot facility that will hold classrooms, an artist-in-residence program, a horror museum and a 500-seat theater. “It should be where every horror film premieres,” says Lahey, who joined the Stanley team in February. “We’re trying to become a resource and focal point for the entire industry.”
He envisions the Stanley hosting an annual awards ceremony — Oscars for horror films — that would bring international filmmakers together. While cities like Los Angeles have hosted international horror conferences, Lahey notes that none are investing in a permanent, innovative space at the level of the Stanley project.
That’s the message that Cullen and his team used when they persuaded Colorado’s Economic Development Commission to award the hotel $11.5 million in Regional Tourism Act money in late 2015 — beating out six other communities throughout the state. The victorious “Go Northern Colorado” bid also includes a resort in Windsor and two recreational parks in Loveland.
Following the grant’s approval, the team wasted no time in announcing plans for the Stanley Film Center; last October, Rowley sent out a release that he claims was seen by as many as 300 million people after it was picked up by such wide-reaching publications as the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
That announcement may have been a bit premature, though; over the past year, there have been significant delays with all of the “Go NoCo” projects. One reason for the Stanley’s holdup is that the state is requiring a nonprofit board to sign off on all of the center’s construction requests — but also stipulates that the board’s composition has to be approved by the Economic Development Commission, which has been slow to act, much to Cullen’s dismay.
There are also various education requirements that the Stanley has to fulfill in order to receive the $11.5 million grant, which is one reason that the hotel is teaming up with the University of Colorado Boulder to host a literary retreat in January to mark the fortieth anniversary of The Shining. (The retreat will feature CU professor Stephen Graham Jones, the subject of “Werewolves of Boulder,” our May 5 cover story.)
While no one doubts that the state money will ultimately come through, “public-private partnerships are always tricky,” Lahey says. “The hand with the cash is there, and the [state EDC] has said, ‘We are your partners,’ but we still have to liberate the cash from the fingers, so that is an ongoing process.”
Until the cash is liberated, Cullen’s crew is reticent to estimate when construction of the Stanley Film Center will begin (much less be completed), though Lahey does say he hopes to break ground by the next Stanley Film Festival.
But the team has no problem describing some of the ideas they’re developing for the center’s horror museum. “It’s going to be highly interactive,” promises Lahey. “And I see it switching between being family-friendly during the day to what I’m calling ‘Fear Haus’ during the night.”
Much of the museum-going experience will be rooted in hands-on and creative experiences, using new technologies like virtual reality. “I’d love to see resident film-school students interacting with guests, like having a green screen to insert people into fourteen seconds of a movie,” Cullen says. “What fourteen- to eighteen-year-old kid wouldn’t want to tweet that they’re being chased around by Jack Nicholson?”?
Lahey takes a more academic approach. “To me, horror is the genre of our time,” he says, explaining why he joined the Stanley project. “Horror is speaking to what is going on socially and politically. It’s the zeitgeist. We have not seen terror woven fully into the fabric of our society until now.
“That means that we have to look deeper and harder into what fear is. And the best way to explore the human mind is through film.”
Although it may be years before the Stanley Film Center is completed, Cullen is not sitting idle. He says he’s investing $50 million in the property in 2016 and 2017, spread between projects large and small. This year, for instance, Cullen opened a new building with forty luxury condominiums, revamped a Shining-inspired hedge maze and commissioned a statue of F.O. Stanley. He plans to unveil a 220-seat amphitheater before the next Stanley Film Festival and is completing construction of a wellness center on the Stanley campus in partnership with the Estes Park Medical Center.
To make it all possible, Cullen is selling his last holdings in Miami and Telluride. “Soon, the Stanley will be my only property,” he says. And with a concert series launching this November and CU’s education retreat in January, he’s well on his way to creating a self-contained cultural universe in Estes Park.
“Am I happy and excited?” Cullen muses. “I’m ecstatic. But am I satisfied? No — I don’t think I’ll ever get there. We have miles to go before we sleep. In my 22 years [of ownership], I’m not sure which one of us has matured more — the hotel or me.” But he recognizes his role as the steward of a landmark, and the responsibilities it carries.
While on a flight from Frankfurt to Denver, Cullen opened up his iPad, and the German man seated next to him noticed that there was a picture of the Stanley set as the background.
“Shining hotel!” the man said.
After Cullen responded that he was the owner, other passengers within earshot took an interest. “I basically shut down the dinner service of business class of Lufthansa as eight people stood around me and not only listened to my stories, but told me their stories of the Stanley Hotel!” Cullen recalls.
“And being able to tell those stories in an authentic fashion to your friends — that’s the new luxury!” he continues. With hotels, “luxury is no longer 600-thread-count linens; it’s being redefined to authentic experiences.”
That’s why he wants to make the Stanley more like a cultural community than a standard, high-end hotel.
After all, it means so many different things to so many people — from the zombie bride and groom to fans of The Shining.
“Just name me any other hotel in the United States that can shut down the dinner service of a 747,” Cullen challenges.