In 2013, an eerie video from a Cecil Hotel security camera surfaced during an LAPD investigation.
The footage shows a distressed young woman named Elisa Lam acting erratically in the elevator of the downtown L.A. hotel. She was never seen alive again. Her body was found in the hotel’s rooftop water tank after residents complained of low water pressure.
Lam’s story is one of many from the Cecil that’s led it to be branded as the real-life version of “American Horror Story: Hotel.” Series creator Ryan Murphy even said at a press gathering this summer that he was inspired for this season by a video from an elevator at a downtown L.A. hotel.
But the mystery of Elisa Lam is only one of the ghostly stories to emerge from the Cecil over the years. Willing to sacrifice a night’s sleep for the story, I checked in to the hotel.
The mythology surrounding the Cecil makes every feature of the hotel seem more ghastly. In the lobby, the opulent stairway to the mezzanine felt like the site of a sinister act. The decaying metal air vents in my room seemed to hide prying eyes.
Walk the Cecil’s hallways and it’s hard not to think about the horrors that have taken place just beyond a doorway.
Built in 1924, the Cecil started out like any other hotel of its day.
L.A. Public Library Photo Archive
“As far as I can tell, in the '20s, it was very typical of a lot of hotels in downtown Los Angeles, catering to transient, salesman types,” Cooper says.
But the Cecil’s unremarkable origins would come to be filled with tragedy.
A ride in the hotel’s elevator is a trip through a dark history, each floor holding a different terror.
Seventh floor: Oct. 22, 1954. Helen Gurnee jumps from a window and falls to her death atop the hotel’s marquee.
Fourteenth Floor: Once home to the satanist serial killer Richard Ramirez.
“Here in town we knew him as The Night Stalker, long before we knew him under his own name because he committed this terrible spree of home invasion murders,” Cooper says. “And, at that point, the Cecil became notorious as a place where someone could be committing incredibly bloody murders in the San Gabriel Valley, come back in the late evening, strip off their bloody clothes, walk up the stairs and no one would notice.”
And the dreadful list goes on. In the '90s, yet another serial killer, Jack Unterweger, checked into the Cecil.
“Here in Los Angeles, he came under the guise of being a radio journalist,” Cooper says. “The police basically showed him where prostitutes were working and he ended up murdering a couple of people here in L.A. while he was staying at the Cecil.”
The roof was the sight of one of the Cecil’s most recent tragedies. It's where Elisa Lam’s body was found in the hotel’s water tank. Theories abound on how Lam died, with many suspecting that her own mental illness played a factor. After Lam’s death, the Cecil was rebranded as the Stay On Main. But the hotel can’t seem to escape its past. It’s still referred to as the Cecil and this season of "American Horror Story" has dredged the hotel’s dark past into present lore.
Mikel Koven is a senior lecturer of film studies at the University of Worcester in the U.K. He studies the intersection of television and folklore and says what "American Horror Story" seems to do is draw on a variety of different folkloric forms.
“You know, there’s — if I can call it that in quotation marks — ‘real folklore’: haunted houses and haunted mental asylums and even haunted hotels,” Koven says.
But Koven says "American Horror Story" also riffs on the pop culture references we’ve come to associate with haunted houses, asylums or hotels. So far in this season, Koven has spotted at least one reference to Stanley Kubrick’s classic haunted hotel story, “The Shining.”
“A completely random example that I noticed in the first episode of ‘Hotel,’ is that the carpet in the hotel looks very similar to the carpet in ‘The Shining,’” Koven says.
According to Koven, television shows like “American Horror Story,” “Supernatural” and the “X Files” not only take from our horror lore, they add to it.
“When we think about what we know about horror stories, the compendium of knowledge that we all carry around in our heads, it’s not just drawn from folklore, it’s drawn from all the popular culture that we encounter,” Koven says.
It remains to be seen exactly what, if anything, this season of "American Horror Story" will add to our modern lore of hotel horrors. But for now at least, as I checked out of the Cecil a staff member told me, they’re getting a lot more phone calls.