Set in Downtown Los Angeles, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL is the story of the Hotel Cortez, a 90-year-old hotel built by serial killer James Patrick March. But there’s a real story behind this dark and twisted location, the story of The Cecil Hotel which was the real life inspiration for the current season of AHS.
The Cecil Hotel opened in 1924 as a 700-room upper class hotel in what was considered at the time a swanky section of Downtown, Los Angeles. During its early years, it enjoyed great success as a tourist destination and as a residence for middle class Angelinos. However, by the 1930s this would rapidly change as the Cecil became known as a budget hotel for traveling salesmen and other transients. Series co-creator Ryan Murphy had said in numerous press conferences that the Cecil Hotel was the main source of inspiration for this season of AHS, specifically the recent strange case of Elisa Lam, as well as the hotel’s lengthy history of brutal murders, crimes, and strange occurrences.
Elisa Lam, a 21 year-old student from Canada, was staying at the Cecil when she was reported missing on January 31st 2013. Two weeks later, with the case going nowhere, the LAPD released a video of Lam. Taken from one of the hotel’s elevator security cameras, the video shows a frightened woman acting eratically as though being perused by someone off camera. It wasn’t until hotel guests began complaining about poor water pressure and the odd taste and color of the water coming out of the taps that the mystery of where Elisa Lam went was finally answered. On February 19th, employees attempting to repair one of the rooftop water tanks found deceased Elisa Lam floating face up in the tank. Elisa Lam’s official cause of death was ruled a drowning, however, the mystery that surrounds it had only added the legend of the Cecil.
Elisa Lam was by no means the first victim of the Hotel Cecil, just the most recent. Back in the 1930s, shortly after the hotel opened, with the onset of the Great Depression and a growing Skid Row homeless population just outside its doors, this once lavish destination began to decline. The Cecil was the end of the road for many of Skid Row’s residents and consequently has been the scene for a number of suicides, prompting some residence to call the hotel “The Suicide”. The first of many deaths occurred in 1931 when 46 year-old Manhattan Beach resident W.K. Norton intentionally overdosed on pills after checking into the hotel. Several more suicides would follow. Then in 1962, after arguing with her estranged husband, 27 year-old Pauline Otton jumped from her 9th floor window. Before hitting the ground, she managed to land on 65 year-old George Gianinni, who just happened to be walking by at the time. They were both killed instantly.
Over the years the Cecil has housed a few killers as well as victims. From 1984 to 1985, the people of Los Angeles lived in fear of an active serial killer known as the “Night Stalker”. The Night Stalker was sought in connection to several home invasion robbery/ homicides occurring throughout the Los Angeles area as well as a few in San Francisco. It wasn’t until his capture in 1985 that the world learned the killer’s name, Richard Ramirez. During his killing spree, Ramirez took residence at the Cecil. When night fell Ramirez would exit the hotel in search of victims. Returning to the hotel covered in his victim’s blood, he would go around back to the alley where he would shed his clothing, toss them in the dumpster, then return to his room in his underwear. Apparently, it was not unusual for a resident of the Cecil to return to his room half-naked and bloody, nor did the residents or staff ever report it.
In 1991, serial killer Johann Unterweger (a twisted serial killer homage to Ramirez) also used the Cecil as a home base. Unterweger was an Austrian visiting Los Angeles under the guise of a true-crime writer researching prostitute killings in the United States. Unbeknownst to his employers, Johann had already killed seven prostitutes before coming to America. Johann used the LAPD as unwitting accomplices, as they took him on ride-alongs through LA’s red light district. Later, Johann would return to these same spots to seek out his victims, and then return to his residence at the Cecil.
Of course, the Cecil has always had a surplus of well-known victims as well. On January 15, 1947 a nude female body was found in a field on south Norton Avenue between coliseum and West 39th Street. The body had been cut in half at the waist and exsanguinated (drained of blood). The corners of her mouth had been slashed all they way to her ears. She also had multiple cuts to her thighs and breasts. With no name to put to the body the press gave her a moniker taken from a popular film noir of the time. She would be known as the Black Dahlia until later being identified as Elizabeth Short. One rumor surrounding this infamous killing was that the Hotel Cecil was the last place anyone ever saw Short alive. (I’m not too sure if this rumor will enter into this season of AHS considering the Black Dahlia already made an appearance in the first season of the series.)
One infamous murder that wasn’t just an alleged rumor is the still unsolved murder of Goldie Osgood. Known as The Pigeon Woman, Goldie was found in her room at the Cecil robbed, raped, strangled, and stabbed on June 4, 1964. A retired telephone operator, she was known to spend her days at nearby Pershing Square, where she would feed the pigeons. Next to her body they found a paper bag filled with birdseed.
Then there are ample just plain strange occurrences at the Cecil. In 1976, Jeffery Thomas Paley, a 26-year-old former mental patient from Oakland, purchased a rifle from a Hollywood gun shop for $63. He then climbed to the top of the Cecil and fired fifteen rounds at the street below. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the shooting. When he was captured, Jeffery claimed he did not intend to shoot anyone he just wanted to prove a point – just how easy it was for a former mental patient to purchase a gun and become a sniper.
Being in existence for over 80 years, you’re going to have your fare share of strangeness. However, the Cecil seems to be unique in its ability to attract an abundance of peculiarity. The new owners have attempted to distance themselves from the past by renovating the hotel and renaming it The Stay On Main. However, to its tenants and neighbors, it will always be The Cecil, and to AMERICAN HORROR STORY it will also be known as the prime influence that created the mysterious Hotel Cortez.