America’s Most Haunted Places: The Cecil Hotel

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The horror movie marathons are upon us, and Halloween is almost in full swing. But that doesn’t mean you need a Netflix account or a ticket to the nearest haunted attraction to dive into the action. The scariest stuff Halloween has to offer is firmly rooted in the real, and doesn’t need to hide behind Hollywood magic, paid performers, or special effects. For a true taste of the unsettling, draw the curtains, dim the monitor, and give yourself a taste of the terrible terrors that are right there in plain sight.  

Use fiction to ease yourself into it. Take a show like American Horror Story. The critically acclaimed series which is currently airing its 5th season gets the job done when it comes to frights. But what you might not know is the new run, dubbed Hotel, was inspired by real events and a very real hotel in downtown Los Angeles; specifically The Cecil. The Cecil, already well known within the LA community for a grisly past, became downright notorious after the arrival, disappearance, and death of Elisa Lam.

Lam was a Canadian college student who set off on a solo west coast tour in 2013. Tragically, The Cecil would be her final destination, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her demise remain unresolved. The incident began when Lam went missing on January 31st after checking into The Cecil. When police were called in to investigate, they found no trace of her. Her case received national attention when the police released the last known sighting of her, an eerie elevator surveillance video of her acting erratically while possibly interacting with someone or something off screen or unseen.  

It only further fueled speculation when the hotel’s grisly history came into the spotlight which is one that involves many of the most notorious murders in Los Angeles. It was the last known destination of Elizabeth Short, a Black Dahlia slaying and perhaps the most famous unresolved LA killing in addition to the site of the unsolved murder of Goldie Osgood. Multiple serial killers have made The Cecil home including Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) who were both active during their stays.

Weeks after Lam’s disappearance, guests at The Cecil began filing complaints about the water quality in their showers and at their faucets. They complained of low pressure, discoloration, strange odors, and an unpleasant taste. On February 19th, nearly a month after her disappearance, prompted by ongoing water complaints, maintenance workers checked a rooftop water tank only to find the naked, decomposing body of Elisa Lam.

Lacking anything in the form of clues, suspects, or evidence, Lam’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, yet investigators offered no insight into why, or even how, Lam could have found herself on the roof of The Cecil, past multiple locked doors and gates that she would not have had access to, and in the tiny 8 foot water tank. Furthermore, the door to the top of the tank – which was sealed when Lam’s body was discovered – was not easily accessible, and would have been quite difficult to close from the inside of the tank.

Her mysterious death only added scrutiny to the already released elevator footage. Many noted that Lam appeared to be fearful of an unknown pursuer as she poked her head in and out of the elevator. Others observed her behavior to be whimsical as if she was pretending to hide or play a game which raises an important question – of with whom – considering the sinister end. Many were disturbed by Lam’s odd body movements as she raised her hands to cover her ears multiple times and outstretched her arms and hands while waving her fingers through the air as if she were in an entranced state. Some dismissed this behavior as possibly drug or alcohol induced which could also help explain her fate. Yet, no alcohol or drugs were found in her system other than normal levels of prescription medication Lam had been taking for depression. Also noteworthy was the fact that the elevator malfunctioned. Despite pressing multiple floor buttons, the doors did not close which appeared to exasperate Lam.

Police were quick to point out that if Elisa Lam met her horrible end as a result of foul play, no evidence was found to support it. There were no signs of assault or injury on her body or her clothes, which were floating next to her in the tank. However, her cell phone was missing  and never recovered. Lam also had water in her lungs which supported the conclusion that she had died in the tank, but does not answer the question of how or why she got there.   

The County Coroner’s office concluded that Lam’s medical past of both depression and bipolar disorders likely played a role, yet she had no history of suicidal thoughts, actions, or tendencies. Witnesses who saw her the day of her death reported her to be “outgoing, very lively, very friendly,” as she purchased gifts for her family.  

Authorities did not label her death a suicide, but, lacking the ability to draw any other conclusions, Elisa Lam’s passing was ruled an accidental drowning. To this day, the details and circumstances that led to her death remain unresolved, and will likely never be uncovered. The Cecil Hotel has since been rebranded, but its twisted legacy lives on. From prolific killers, disappearing persons, and odd discolored tap water, The Cecil, now called Stay on the Main, will likely never escape its ominous DNA. It will certainly live on in lure and now in pop culture thanks to the creators of American Horror Story.  

Show creator Ryan Murphy was questioned if American Horror Story Hotel was influenced by the Cecil and the story of Elisa Lam. Murphy admitted that he was indeed inspired by the events; specifically the elevator footage.

“When you check into a hotel, there are certain things beyond your control… Other people have the keys to your room; they can come in there. You’re not exactly safe, it’s a very unsettling idea,” said Murphy.   

Life may imitate art, or so goes the expression. But reality is definitely stranger, and much more terrifying, than fiction.