Staying at the Overlook During a Pandemic
In mid-July I stayed a night at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Since 1927, the hotel has played host to many wealthy and famous people, including Queen Elizabeth. Many horror fans have seen the hotel — or at least parts of it — without realizing it. That’s because the front desk, the lobby and the main lounge were all copied by Stanley Kubrick’s set designers to create the ground floor interiors of the haunted Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror, The Shining (1980). The Native American decor of those parts of the Ahwahnee was copied right down to the candle sconces, wainscotting, chandeliers, and — most arrestingly — the red-doored elevators.
In the movie, Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance confesses to his wife, Wendy, that he’s felt a strong sense of “deja vu” since their little family moved temporarily into the Overlook. If you’ve seen The Shining several times, you too can get that feeling, by wandering around on the ground floor of the Ahwahnee. It’s especially effective if you go during a pandemic, when most of the hotel is uncharacteristically empty — as I did. To add to the experience, the Ahwahnee is near land that is allegedly cursed by a Native American chief, similar to the Overlook's bad mojo for being built on a Native American burial ground.
My husband and I had an entire floor to ourselves (to be fair, that doesn’t sound as impressive as one might think, since the Ahwahnee is a much smaller hotel than the Overlook appears to be.) I visited each floor and saw nary a soul at the time. No, there isn’t a Room 237 on the second floor, but I’m pretty sure the desk clerks get asked for it regularly. I didn't see anyone lurking in the shadows with an axe, although I did stare at an elevator bank for a long time, hoping to see a river of blood spew out of the sides.
Unlike the upper floors of Kubrick’s Overlook, at the Ahwahnee, the upper floors continue the decor and themes of the ground floor. In other words, the second floor doesn’t have hexagonal Art Deco carpeting, and there’s no Victorian chintz wallpaper floor either. I’m not sure why Kubrick changed the sets so markedly for the upper hallways of the Overlook, but I’m sure he had his reasons, as he did for everything in his films.
There are actually three hotels in the US that can claim to be “the” Overlook. In addition to the Ahwahnee, there’s the Timberline Lodge near Mt. Hood, Oregon, which supplied the distinctive exteriors of the Overlook in the Kubrick film (exteriors that don’t match up at all to the interiors — not that Stanley cared.) The Timberline, it should be noted, does have a Room 237, and it’s the hotel’s most requested room. The Timberline’s management is also looking into possibly adding a hedge maze to the grounds, according to their website.
And then there's the Stanley Hotel, the allegedly haunted Edwardian pile in Estes Park, Colorado, where Stephen King stayed in the mid-70s and which he credits as the inspiration for the Overlook in the novel. The “cursed” Room 217 (which became 237 in the film), is a popular pilgrimage site for King fans — you can find lots of great photo tributes on the web.
I plan to visit the other two hotels someday. Until then, I'm still kind of stoked about getting to stay in the Ahwahnee, with all of its familiar features, and experience it as spookily empty in many places — the closest I’ll probably ever get to seeing the Overlook as Jack and Wendy saw it. Sitting at a long table in the Great Lounge of the Ahwahnee (the original “Colorado Room”), I just needed a typewriter and a pack of Marlboros.