Chapter 2: Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall
The Nevele Grand Resort
I don’t remember the first time I watched it, but I remember the first time I heard about The Shining. My parents had taken my siblings and me to Estes Park, Colorado to stay at the infamous Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel of the same name, upon which Stanley Kubrick ultimately based his classic horror flick from 1980. While the novel served as an entry point into the mesmerizing story about a haunted hotel, from the start, it was the film that settled deep into my bones and never let go. I was probably nine or ten when my family ascended into the behemoth Rocky Mountains, some three-ish hours from our house in Colorado Springs, to commune with nature and crash for a weekend at the Stanley (aka the Overlook in The Shining).
We didn’t stay long.
In the middle of the night, my mom woke us up because the clanging elevator next to our room had kept her awake. We packed our bags and went to a more homogenous, commercialized hotel down the hill. Though we didn’t last a night, that stay at the Stanley planted a seed in my brain, egged on by the fear instilled in me by my father, who told us about the story of The Shining, about the ghosts of room 217, what they did to Jack Torrance and his family, who spend a winter as caretakers at the Overlook Hotel, where Jack, a writer, plans to finish his novel, only to descend, quickly, into madness.
Because, well, the hotel is super-duper haunted.
At the time of our failed stay at the Stanley, I knew nothing of the film or the book. I only had my father’s summary which rocked my imagination until middle school when I saw Twister starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton. There’s a pivotal scene in that film where an F4 tornado rips through an outdoor movie theatre, and the movie playing on the screen as the funnel rips through it is The Shining. (The choice to juxtapose the tornado pummeling through the outdoor movie screen in Twister as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance pummels through the door to his family’s apartment with an ax still remains as one of my favorite all-time movie script choices.) I recall seeing that footage, a film within a film, knowing that I needed to watch the real thing, despite its R rating and my mother’s strict rules against us kids being able to watch movies until the MPAA deemed us old enough, arbitrarily listing R-rated movies as only viewable by persons 17 and older.
When I finally did watch The Shining, well under the age of 17, it was right around the time my parents had gotten a divorce. The only reason I got to see it before I was technically allowed to was a direct result of my father’s “hooray, I can parent however I want now that I’m divorced” stance, having purchased a jumbo TV and stockpiled a library of R-rated DVDs, which he allowed my kid sister and me to watch, seemingly to spite my mom. This was also right around the time that I began to evaporate into the worlds of horror and the macabre, first by tearing through the complete library of Alfred Hitchcock, a mere gateway drug into the more comprehensive horror genre. At the top of my list of films I had been waiting desperately to watch? The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
I wish I could remember the exact details of my first viewing of The Shining, but they’re foggy. What I do remember is watching those credits roll at the top of the film and hearing the chilling rendition of the 13th-century Gregorian chant “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”) play on top of them. That opening title sequence pierced my subconscious forever. I became obsessed and spent the next 18 years of my life engaging with yearly (or more) viewings, only increasing the mesmerization effect of the dream-like film, inhaling watch after watch like a drug. Each time I sat through the 2 hours and 26 minutes, I would tumble further into Kubrick’s fantastical adaptation, frame after frame of cinematic dopamine that kicked my imagination into high gear, a feeling extremely comparable to that of my lifelong fascination of exploring abandoned spaces. I got lost in the wiles of Kubrick’s own visionary aesthetic, tone, and mood, studying every square inch of the set as if it were an actual place. I began to wonder about all the ways I could satisfy this growing hunger to have my own experience exploring the Overlook Hotel, as seen through the eyes of Stanley Kubrick. For years, I manifested a world where I could one day explore the Overlook of Stanley Kubrick’s imagination, knowing full well that likely, it would never happen.
And then I learned about the Nevele Grand Resort.
The Nevele, as the locals call it, is a stone’s-throw from my house, in the neighboring town of Ellenville, at the foot of the Catskills Mountains, and when I heard about it, the first thing that popped into my head was, “Holy moly. Is this my Overlook moment? Do I finally have an opportunity to fulfill this obsessive desire to explore the abandoned hotel from The Shining?” A totally different architectural layout, to be sure — and a totally different experience because, as far as I could tell during my initial phase of research, the Nevele didn’t seem to have a history of murder or haunting. Just its very own unique “how-the-heck-did-this-giant-resort-reach-this-crumbling-state-of-decay-and-sit-here-for-years?” kind of vibe that still gets me.
The car makes a left onto Arrowhead Road and begins its final stretch to the gates of the infamous Nevele Grand Resort, arguably one of the country’s most visited (and most notorious) American Ruins. Its size, stretching over 550 acres, has everything: pools, tennis courts, a vintage ski lift and snow-making equipment, rec rooms, banquet halls, a theatre, and hundreds of rooms. Add to that a complicated financial history of tax evasion and fraud, and it makes for a highly-sought-after abandoned space by urban explorers and thrill seekers alike.
As the car pulls close, I notice that the active, neighboring resort Honor’s Haven has a security gate with two guards standing — ish — at the ready. I have no shame, so I hop out and approach them, mask up, ready to ask the big money question:
Are you going to tattle if I break into your neighbor’s enormous property?
Much to my gleeful surprise, not only does the young woman assure me that neither she nor her colleague will call the cops, but she also shows me exactly where to slip through the fence and onto the property. That’s all the information I need, and just like that, I’ve maneuvered around a giant hole in the barrier between the outside world and the Nevele and begin my approach up a long driveway.
I don’t know where to look first. The centerpiece of the property is a ten-story tower whose dodecahedron-al spire beckons all curiosity-seekers to come forth and explore. I decide this is the main course of this abandoned expanse, and I’m going to dive right in. I trust that I will eventually wind up on top of the tower at some point, somehow. It’s a sight for sore eyes. Massive chunks of crumbling concrete, still very much intact, despite a decade or so of decay, leading up to the welcome pavilion. My senses are in hyperdrive because I keep hearing Shelley Duvall in the back of my mind on her initial tour of the Overlook on move-in day:
Boy, I betcha we could really have a good party in this room, huh hun?
The main concourse of the resort loops up and around past a giant courtyard surrounded by what appears to be five buildings. While Darling Do, as I’ve taken to calling the Dodecohedronal Tower, feels the most appealing, I am determined to start my tour the way Shelley Duvall starts hers in The Shining: check-in and registration. (Except I’m desperately hoping to avoid ghosts and/or a possessed/ax-wielding husband.)
The entrance is a visual symphony of shattered glass, and the spring light bounces off the colored shards covering the ground. I see my face in the fragmented reflections, and it shows how I’m feeling at this point in the pandemic, which has been raging for about two months: scattered, all over the place, jagged, but full of color and light, or hope. I drift through the doors into the main registration hall, passing the threshold from the real world into the late 1960s, amidst the decline of the Borscht Belt era, when Catskillian resorts of Herculean size and stature began slowly to lose relevance and economic steam.
Contextually, the Borscht Belt (or the “Jewish Alps”) had a dark history of its own anti-semitic making. In the 1920s, anti-Jewish marketing was on a sharp rise in the United States. Despite our eventual 1941 entrance into World War II, the US of A has a complex history of antisemitism. In the 1920s, many vacation spots across the country actually barred Jewish people access to their resorts, hotels, and casinos. Advertisements often read, “No Hebrews or Consumptives.” This harsh reality led many Jewish communities to build their own vacationlands. The allure of the natural beauty of Ulster, Orange, and Sullivan Counties, all gateways to the Catskills, with their fixed 90-minute proximity to NYC, incited a resort revolution, becoming a destination for many Jewish travelers from the 1920s until the late 1960s when tourism trends shifted and the culture saw a visible, steep decline in antisemitic thinking.
I am aware of this compounded, painful history as I begin wandering through the crumbling hotel. I offer a prayer of thanks to the people whose history I’m time traveling through, bearing witness to centuries of anguish and hate. Instantly, I smell mold, but because we’re in a pandemic, I always have a mask on me. The expanse of the lobby is overwhelming. As a highly popular spot for abandoned and urban explorers, graffiti, as it does so often in these abandoned sanctuaries, covers the walls, decades boasting beautiful and intricate design work. I’m immediately caught by a large wall, floor to ceiling, of carved stone at the foot of a grand staircase leading up to the main lobby where a lengthy registration desk stands. The light entering the premises is heavenly, considering the cave-like quality of the abandoned structure. I’m able to photograph most of it with ease because of how much sunshine pours in. I picture Jack Torrance’s initial visit to the Overlook, his strange conversation with Mr. Ullman who walks him through the caretaker responsibilities of running a summer hotel during the winter, complete with its all-too bloody history.
I giggle to myself because I realize that none of this actually applies to the Nevele, which had a rich history of positive vibes for Ulster County. For years, it served as a point of pride for many area residents. All you have to do is scour the Facebook page for the current owners (who claimed to be reopening the resort as a sports complex in the spring of 2020, lol) and read the comments from folks who have fond memories of visiting the hotel for various family, school, social, and work functions — or better yet, former employees of the Nevele who, despite its extreme financial difficulties and eventual tax evasion, speak highly of their time working there. I hop behind the registration desk and find pay stubs, tax documents, and weekly schedules for employees dating back to the final days of the resort before it officially closed, without warning, after 4th of July Weekend, 2009. I wonder if any of these people know that their personal information is sitting here this openly.
As I pass through the corridor next to the check-in arena, I see a giant open lobby where skylight glass has caved in and emits the glow of the vitamin D rays tumbling in from above. I’m grateful that I’ve become so accustomed to wearing my mask in day-to-day life as the pandemic continues to rage all around us. Because at this moment, seeing the sheer volume of mold and mildew from floor to ceiling in this crumbling mountain resort reminds me of the importance of my mask in here — and out there.
I tighten the straps as I glance to my right and see an adjacent door cracked open to “The Stardust Room.” My mind begins to fill with the sounds from The Gold Room in The Shining, and the soundtrack featuring Al Bowlly, Ray Noble, and His Orchestra, bellowing sweetly, “Midnight, The Stars, and You” as it echoes through the many hallways of the hotel and will continue to for the remainder of my expedition here. I enter the theater. It’s empty and enormous, two levels, sweeping towards a modest stage, where the curtain, musty and dusty, hangs on by the skin of its teeth, somehow still fixed to the ceiling behind the proscenium after all these years.
As I walk down the stadium-style space towards the front, I hear the laughter of the guests. Apparently Jerry Seinfeld, not yet the brand “Jerry Seinfeld,” just told a really good joke. I don’t think it’s very funny, but to each their own. Applause erupts, and I look closer.
Mr. Seinfeld has evaporated, and in his place stands Lena Horne. She’s just finished another stunning rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String.” I join in the applause as I hop onstage to join her. I turn to face the audience. There’s a single chair left in the entire theater. I bow to it. Not that I’ve done anything worthy of a bow. Ms. Horne starts an encore:
I’ve got a song that I sing
I can make the rain go
Anytime I move my finger
Can’t you see?
I’m in love
which begins to blend with Al Bowlly who also appears:
Midnight for the stars and you
Midnight and a rendezvous
Your arms held a message tender
Saying, “I surrender,
“All my love to you…”
A shiver tumbles down my spine. Ms. Horne, Mr. Bowlly, and their pianist stare at me. I nod and head backstage, walking through piles of sheet music covering the floor like dust. This space may not be like The Shining, evil lurking in the shadows, but there are ghosts in this hotel. Thousands and thousands of them. In the bedrooms, in the pool, on the courts, seated in the banquet halls. There is joy, a lot of joy. A tale of survival, of making one’s own lot in life. I wander through backstage and out to the kitchen, where parts of the floor are caving in. No matter what, Mother Nature always has the final say.
I make my way down a series of passageways until I reach a delivery entrance all the way at the back of the resort. A broken chair sits resolutely in front of a giant spray-painted message:
I stare at it, through it, taking in how ominously appropriate it is. At this moment, I close my eyes and let the ghosts of The Nevele cradle me in their arms. They’ve granted me sanctuary today, permitting me to explore their memories and honor the lives they led as they walked the halls in search of serenity, quiet, and safety. The only places I feel safe these days are my own home and these abandoned refuges. I peer up at the Shawangunk Ridge, the backdrop of the hotel, a foothill to the grander Catskill Mountains. I remove my mask and breathe. Another moment of gratitude for my own sense of serenity, quiet, and safety amidst the global chaos where so much is unknown. I feel the mountain air shroud my face in its gentle, delicate breath.
It’s May. We’re over two months into the pandemic. I wander into a giant barn that’s filled, floor to ceiling, two stories, with boxes full of employee records, marketing postcards dating back to the 1950s, costumes from past stage productions in The Stardust Room. Lives lived, thoroughly, of their own volition, aiming to survive. I feel Wendy and Danny Torrance next to me. They’re determined to get out of this alive too.
They lead me to a roof spot, atop one of the main blocks of rooms in the hotel. We clamber from a ghastly room covered in penis graffiti through a still-functional window. I invite the sun to cocoon my skin like a warm blanket and stay there, quiet, for what feels like hours. I’m officially hooked. This is only my second outing to an abandoned space, but there’s no stopping now. I make my way through the rest of the resort, photographing every moment, every square inch of the place. I want to remember, and I want to return.
Wendy and Danny lead me around to see more of the hotel. The kitchen, covered in shattered dishes, where I pretend I’m Wendy Torrance, locking Jack in the pantry. Elevator bays, double-doored, where I imagine the rush of blood pouring out. Employee housing, broken TVs and old hairdryers, where I pretend I’m Wendy and Danny trying to escape the madness of Jack’s possession. Or, today, the madness of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As I make my exit through the poorly-constructed chain link fence, I turn around and stare back at the property. It’s dusk. “Midnight, the Stars, and You” begins to crescendo, louder, more ominously. Wendy and Danny are in the snowcat behind me, even though it’s mid-spring. They tell me I can come back another time. “The Nevele isn’t going anywhere,” they say. “And neither are we.”