Gloom Service: A Night at the Cecil Hotel, Where Serial Killers and Eerie Deaths Abound

The downtown hotel has witnessed more than its share of death

Crime, Film Comments

From the bed in my room at the Cecil Hotel, I see four locks on the door—a bolt, a button, two latches. Did they add the last after a 21-year-old tourist was found dead in the hotel’s water tank earlier this year? Did they add the third after “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez slept at the Cecil by day and terrorized the city by night in the 1980s, murdering at least 13? Maybe it was when another resident, paroled Viennese “journalist” Jack Unterweger, strangled at least three prostitutes (and some undetermined number of earlier victims). Was the second lock installed half a century ago when 5th Street, a block and a half away, became skid row’s main drag, or when the Depression rendered the Cecil a transient way station, advertising weekly rates still emblazoned across 15 floors of the building’s brick side? 

Actually I can see the door locks from any place in my room because from any place in my room except the shower—at a rate of $98 a night, this is one of the hotel’s premium accommodations—I can see any other place in the room. A bed, a chair, a stool, and a small TV are the amenities at the Cecil, so old that when the front desk gives you a room key, it’s a key. At 6th and Main the hotel has become the locus for the downtown L.A. of the imagination as well as hub for all my memories of a hundred black-and-white B-movies and Dragnet episodes I watched when I was a kid in the Valley; this is the Nameless Downtown that stands in for all the anonymous downtowns flickering in the projection room of the collective conscious. Walk in the front doors that opened in 1924, through the marble foyer breathless so long ago with high hopes, and you come out the other end of a metropolitan rubble one or two recollections on the far side of forsaken. The dungeon of Angeleno cultural archaeology, the Cecil is to urban L.A. what the Chelsea is to Manhattan’s nether regions, halls inhabited not by junkie rock stars but prowled by strange men counting something on their fingertips, lips moving but silent.

Elisa Lam hides in the Cecil’s elevator on January 31, 2013.

I steal a DO NOT DISTURB sign from my neighbor and put it outside my room, because when someone knocks on your door at the Cecil, it isn’t room service. I have a soundtrack to keep me company within my room’s barren walls: Miles Davis’s “Générique” and the Touch of Evil score by Henry Mancini, David Raksin’s theme from The Bad and the Beautiful and Julie London singing It begins to tell round midnight, round midnight, I do pretty well, till after sundown. In the evening when I head out for Cole’s around the corner, a saloon (or “public house,” as a sign still calls it) opened in 1908, the hotel’s halls and downstairs mezzanine are filled with other languages, a reminder of how much noir L.A. was founded by exiles—middle-aged failures, desperate ingenues, Germans on the run from Hitler. If you aren’t at the Cecil to hide, or to look for the city you’ve occupied but never known, you’re probably a foreign traveler stranded by expectations, inconsolable for a glimpse of Hollywood or the beach that the travel guide promised is only “minutes away.” The Cecil hasn’t been minutes away from anything worth being minutes away from for decades. When I return from Cole’s, “my” DO NOT DISTURB sign hangs on another door down the hall; this is the floor’s most coveted item, as though the premises’ current psycho du jour will be diverted like the Angel of Death passing Egyptian doors marked with lamb’s blood. 

“It had to have been someone who works here,” a woman whispers to me in the elevator. She means whoever may have been involved in the accidental drowning of young Canadian Elisa Lam, missing three weeks and found in one of the four rooftop tanks only when guests complained about the drop in water pressure. She was last seen on a videotape in this same elevator pressing buttons—absently in a daze? or frantically in flight?—to close the door. “You can only get to the roof from the 15th floor with a key,” my fellow passenger elaborates between the eighth floor and the ninth, though there’s speculation Lam got there by the fire escape. The Cecil will reveal to you whatever it is you’re a fugitive from. Over the years women have leaped from these rooms to their deaths, one landing on the marquee, another on a pedestrian strolling by below, killing him; even the sidewalks of the Cecil are dangerous. Bolts and latches on the door will not only keep everyone else out but trap you within, where there are no locks at all on the windows, beyond which the siren city beckons. 

Steve Erickson, the film and TV critic for Los Angeles, is the author of nine novels, including 2012’s These Dreams of You.

Photographs: Top, AP Photo. Inset: Los Angeles Police Department.

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  • Bob

    Here is my experience at The Cecil on YELP. The 14th floor is the one to stay away from. Also that poor little girl. I been to the op floor. The lock on the door to get up to the roof is a joke, it’s a high school locker pad lock and I doubt they have an alarm system attached to that door, if you see it you will know what I mean. Anyways here is my experience there on yelp:

  • Nichole

    I watched the video of Miss Lam in the elevator. It’s creepy to watch her erratic behavior… and then I got to wondering… why didn’t the elevator doors close until much after she exited and didn’t return? Even for the long periods where she was standing out in the hall, seemingly talking with someone? Odd right? Elevator doors are not known to stay standing open for long periods of time like that. I’ve never been a believer in the paranormal, but sometimes, there are things that we see that just defy explanation… and they give even the most staunch non-believers a run for their money.

  • ryan

    Great article! I stayed here with my girlfriend last winter around Christmas time. Without reading yelp we booked the room through a very misleading Expedia offer after a night of bar hopping.

    It was a very strange night on the 14th floor. Many of the details in this article are spot-on, from the misguided tourists, to the 4 locks on the door and the one lacking on the window. Now knowing that the Nightstalker lived on that floor it makes some occurrence that night seem extremely unsettling. I remember three times throughout the night the door being knocked on and no one was there when I opened it. Screams and sirens from nearby skid-row were consistent. I strangely want to go back and investigate what occurred that haunting night.

  • joeflowers

    I stayed in this hotel in the summer of 2005 for about 5 days even though I’d planned on staying longer. Yes there were many shady people staying and the staff seemed desensitized with blank expressions. It came to head the last night when I Iwas getting ready to sleep. I knew no one in the building and no one really knew I was staying there but I here a knock on my door. This gets creepy. I ask who it is by yelling ‘Yes!’ to which I get no response a few seconds pass and I hear the knock again three times, but this time it gets louder. Now I’m 5’10” 225 lbs of painting contractor muscle so I’m not scared to aproach the eye hole to see if some one, a kid or something, was playing a joke but I couldn’t see anyone. The knocking shortly turned from laud knocking to banging all the while I didn’t know what to think. I thought if I open the door I could possible get over taken by who knows how many people were on the other side or if they were armed, which could have been true. I stay in my room and turn the cable on (yes they have cable) and after ignoring it for a while it ends. Let me tell you I’ve to this day ever had such a feeling of helplessness such as that since or before that incident. You couldn’t pay me to stay there today. Beware that place is not safe!! The only thing that I think was on my side that night was the fact that the seemed to be an original door and pretty thick and heavy otherwise what ever it was could have opened the door. I’ve always wondered if anyone else stayed and had any similar experiences at that place.

  • Houtex77

    Now that it premiered on American Horror last night, the Cecil will be one of L.A.’s hottest tickets and tourist attractions. I would love to stay there for a night.