The Terror Tourist: The Ghosts of Colorado

Episode 187: The Old Ones Heavy Leather Horror Show

The Terror Tourist is my occasional segment on the Heavy Leather Horror Show, a weekly podcast about all things horror out of Salem, Massachusetts. (Segment begins at 12:12, but you’ll enjoy the whole thing!)

Hail and well met, travelers! I am your guide, your troubadour of horror, for The Terror Tourist — an itinerary of dark destinations, a travelogue of dread, a must-see list of ghastly locales worldwide. Each episode we’ll explore a new place — real or imagined, geographical or psychological.  With these surveys of the macabre as inspiration I encourage you to strike out and blaze your own trail through the darkness!

Today our journey takes us through the state of Colorado, a rectangle of diverse vertical and horizontal lands in the Mountain West of the United States. While your association between Colorado and horror may begin and end with the music of John Denver, I assure it is so much worse. Let’s go for a hike!

Millions of years before it was known as Colorado this land was covered by a great inland seaway plied by the most terrifying creatures ever to make water their home. Take Xi-PHAC-tin-us, the 24’ long angular death machine the inside of whose serrated maw would be the first you ever saw of it and the last sight of your sorry life. Or the fierce mosasaur, a 50’ long monstrosity whose thirds were essentially giant crocodile, whale, and eel — and which even the largest sharks gave a wide berth. None of these creatures survived the meteor impact of 66 million years ago, you may be grateful to know, but their fossilized skeletons — and teeth, so many shed teeth! — form a rich, literal foundation of terror beneath your hiking boots in this land we now call Colorado.

You might have noticed the signpost at the trailhead for all the supernatural destinations upcoming. We’ll get there soon enough, but, sadly, there are plenty of waypoints of real life horror I want to note here for your future exploration:

In the 19th century colonizing settlers waged a genocidal campaign against the native inhabitants of the lands here, culminating in the atrocity known today as the Sand Creek Massacre. I will not provide detail except to say 1) This slaughter was actually praised in histories and monuments as an act of near-inevitable nation-building until shockingly recently and 2) The belief in Manifest Destiny has justified more horrific acts than the sum of every movie this podcast has or ever will review. (As an optional detour, I point you to the film Blood Quantum, which centers the Native American experience during a zombie apocalypse. Though set in Canada rather than Colorado it is a most creative reimagining of the concept of an Indian reservation.)

You’re not cold are you? You did dress in layers for this hike, right? See, it’s not just human behavior to fear here. The state itself seems to have it out for you. The most 14,000 foot-plus mountains in the continental US of course delivers brutal cold, blinding snowstorms, avalanches, piercing winds, and deliriously low levels of oxygen at altitude. Oh it’s also super dry, so you’ll dehydrate if all the other things don’t get you first. 

Did you hear that? That rustling in the underbrush? Don’t panic. Apex predators have mostly been sacrificed at the altar of industrialized agriculture, but we do have bears (sorry Ken, no grizzlies though!) and just recently the gray wolf was reintroduced as an experiment in ecological rebalancing. Moose and elk can kill you by sheer size, but they don’t necessarily want to kill you. Actually moose might. The tip here is to walk noisily. Most animals don’t want anything to do with you … unless you sneak up on ‘em and they get startled. 

You may think we’re hiking through the middle of nowhere. But a lot of these places were once raucous somewheres. Only to eventually become ghost towns. Hundreds of ghost towns, from piles of rubble barely discernible in the brush to actual towns full of rotting structures seemingly frozen in time, dot the landscape. Of course ghost towns are spooky, full of memory and loss — ready set-pieces for tales of actual ghosts. Surprisingly few films to my knowledge have actually used these locales at least in Colorado. 

For me, what’s more interesting to ponder is why these booming burgs went bust. Usually it’s some sort of sudden resource scarcity — like the gold veins went dry, or the silver market crashed — or a technological change — a new rail line bypasses the town or a new road with a better grade makes it easier to get someplace else. The idea of these places grimy with miners, entrepreneurs, charlatans, prostitutes and barkeepers one day — and then nothing virtually overnight is the real scare for me. Our market economy is a cheery midwife and a merciless executioner. 

There are two can’t miss destinations coming up before our journey ends. 

Let’s walk back in time to the mid 19th century on the outskirts of the booming new city of Denver. About 160 acres of land is set aside as Mount Prospect Cemetery just southeast of the central business district and what would become the state capitol. And just as Denver is swelling with people coming to the Rockies looking for gold, silver, and a new life, the city cemetery is swelling with those who instead found disease, bullets to the head, and death. By 1898 there are about 5,000 bodies in the dirt here, but times are changing in urban design and this is era of the City Beautiful movement where parks, leafy boulevards, and neoclassical design are all the rage in proving that your city is to be taken seriously. So Denver wants to turn the cemetery — no longer on the outskirts of the growing city — into a beautiful new park. Surely you see where this hike is headed, fellow traveler. 

The city undertook the task of moving the 5,000 graves, but the effort was bungled from the start. The movers were paid by the coffin so enterprising gravediggers would dismember corpses and shuffle parts into smaller, more numerous child-sized boxes. When the city discovered this, they dismissed the whole crew and admitted they were out of money to move the remaining 2,000 bodies. The city gave family members a few weeks to claim bodies, but as many of these graves were of the indigent and unclaimed victims of crime, few people came forward. So, the park conversion continued, bodies still in the ground. (Sidenote: the segregated far southwest of the cemetery filled with the corpses of Chinese immigrants who came to help build the transcontinental railroad was dutifully disinterred by the small Chinese community here and all bodies shipped back to China.) 

Walk with me over here and, if our location and the angle of the sun is right, you can still make out divots in the rolling hills of the park where the graves have ever-so-slightly subsided. Every day, not two blocks from my house people lounge and dogs run about oblivious to the corpses beneath the picnic blankets and volleyball nets. Part of the former cemetery, now called Cheesman Park, was given over to create the Denver Botanic Gardens whose construction expansions over the years continue to unearth graves and corpses — most recently in 2022. Ghost stories in this park, unsurprisingly, are plentiful. I’m willing to believe.

There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that the unmoved graves and subsequent development of this park was an inspiration for Poltergeist. Who knows? What is substantiated is the story behind the 1980 film The Changeling, which takes place in a mansion that directly sat on Cheesman Park. Starring George C. Scott trying his hardest not to be irascible, this classic haunted house film was inspired by a story written by a composer named Russell Hunter who was renting the Henry Treat Rogers House in 1968. His recounting is nearly identical to the story in the film: bouncing balls in hallways, a sealed-over door leading to a hidden room, the discovery of a diary from a person locked away from public view, a psychic medium, and ultimately the revelation of the child-swap. The Denver Public Library has tried to verify any part of this tale — to no avail. But it made its way to film and a great one at that! The mansion was demolished in the 70s for a sad high-rise condominium building. Poltergeist and The Changeling — this park has something for everyone, I tell you!

The final stop on our hike brings us to the unavoidable importance of Colorado to Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s very separate masterpieces called The Shining. Up in the mountains here in a small town called Estes Park is a gorgeous old hotel called The Stanley. Originally created as a retreat for wealthy Easterners suffering tuberculosis and other ailments, the hotel eventually became a high-end stopover for tourists on their way to Rocky Mountain National Park, established in 1915. Given the massive amounts of snow at elevation the hotel was only open in the summer months (until 1983). But back in 1974 the author Stephen King, coincidentally, happened to book a room at the Stanley the day before it was being shuttered for the winter. He roamed the halls of the near-desolate hotel, had a drink at the bar with a bartender named Grady, and spent the night in room 217. The rest is mostly history, though of note to those who know the sizable differences between the book and the film, The Stanley did actually partially explode in 1911 due to a gas build-up. Clearly King learned this during his stay, providing him with the novel’s conclusion. 

The hotel itself is in no way scary. I’ve stayed there several times and it is just a beautiful, Federalist-style set of buildings that seem more at home on the east coast than the mountain west. If you’ve seen the terrible 1997 miniseries of The Shining directed by King (or the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber) then you have seen The Stanley. No hedge row labyrinth, no art deco ballroom, really nothing but the original bar that evokes dread. For decades the ownership of the hotel shied away from its associations with the book and film, especially since none of the latter was filmed there. But eventually they came to embrace the notoriety, planting their own very short hedge maze, offering Shining tours, and even now throwing an annual Shining Ball (which I have attended). But hotel management is all in now: in a partnership with the horror film production company Blumhouse the hotel is building out a 80,000 square foot film center and museum devoted to horror cinema. It should be open in a few years. I want to work there.

As for the other Stanley, Kubrick, he didn’t have much use for Colorado in his film. Not only was it not filmed here but even the one location-specific reference in the film — the story of the Donner Party that Jack recounts to his family on the ride up to the hotel — takes place in California. There’s a brief establishing shot outside the Torrance’s Boulder apartment — still there looking the same right next to the University of Colorado — but that’s it!

As terror tourists, however, you will likely care to know that Kubrick did use much of the mountain west as inspiration. He cribbed the design of the lobby and Native American iconography from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California (for real, like down to the location of individual light fixtures), gathered exterior shots from the Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood in Oregon, filmed the opening title sequence at Going-To-The-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, and maybe even stole the red bathroom from the Biltmore Hotel outside Scottsdale in Arizona. That said, 98% of the film was shot on a soundstage at Elstree Studios north of London.

This is where I leave you to hike on your own, listeners. There are plenty of other sights for you to explore of course. I’ll note the excellent The Black Phone from 2021, set in 1970s Denver, the Day of the Dead remake from 2008 which isn’t awful, and the unrated Snowbeast from 1977 set in Crested Butte, Colorado. This film is awful in the very best way possible. I highly recommend it. 

Good luck on your travels. Remember to hydrate and stay wary!