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Why is Cecil Hotel, where Elisa Lam was found dead, known as the 'Death Hotel'?

Hotel Cecil via Getty Images

The case of Elisa Lam was bizarre enough. The 21-year-old Canadian student vanished during a stay in Los Angeles in 2013, only to turn up dead in a water tower on a hotel roof.

This post originally appeared on Written by Gina Tron.

But the fact that the case unfolded in an establishment dubbed the "Death Hotel" made it even more chilling.

Lam, who was also known by her Cantonese name Lam Ho Yi, had been residing at Stay on Main, which touted itself as a trendy yet budget-friendly hotel and hostel. However, Stay on Main was merely a rebranding from its previous incarnation as the Cecil Hotel, located in Los Angeles' notoriously dangerous Skid Row.

Lam mysteriously vanished during her stay and was later discovered dead inside one of the water towers located on the building’s roof. While her death was ultimately ruled accidental, her case became a source of conspiracy theories, including some involving the supernatural.

There were several reasons why Lam's disappearance and death drew attention. She had a heavy online presence through Tumblr posts detailing her musings and struggles with mental health alike. Then, eerie elevator footage of her in the hotel, which may have documented some of her last moments alive, was released showing her moving and behaving erratically before her disappearance. 

But, one of the most peculiar elements about the circumstances of her death was the fact that it occurred at this particular hotel, which has an infamously morbid and checkered past.

Netflix's new docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel doesn’t just detail the strange circumstances of Lam’s death, but it gives a grim history lesson of the 700-room building. 

The landmark building, which opened in 1927, was once a hotspot for the rich and famous. But strange occurrences began happening almost immediately. Two years after the hotel’s opening, a 33-year-old distraught woman named Dorothy Roberson wandered around the hotel for three days, after unsuccessfully trying to poison herself with prescribed barbiturates, KCET reported in 2015.

From there, the hotel became home to a series of suicides and murders. Before 1940, newspapers reported various suicides, including at least one person who took a fatal leap from the structure. Soon enough, long-term residents began referring to the building as “The Suicide,” KCET reported. 

The hotel’s reputation as a desirable destination had dwindled toward the end of the 1940s. It was during this era that the hotel was even linked to one of Hollywood’s biggest mysteries: the “Black Dahlia” case. Elizabeth Short, dubbed the “Black Dahlia by the media, was rumored to have been drinking at a bar in the Cecil Hotel just days before she was murdered in 1947, KCET reported.

By the 1950s, the hotel’s reputation continued to decline as crime began to rise in the surrounding area. The hotel also became a home for people down on their luck due to its inexpensive rates. 

There were several suicidal plunges in 1962, including a leap made by 27-year-old Pauline Otton; when she jumped, she also killed an elderly pedestrian below.

There were murders, too. As the new docuseries details, a popular resident of the hotel named Goldie Oswood, was found dead in her room in 1964. She had been sexually assaulted and violently slain. Her death remains unsolved.

Then, as Skid Row was established in the 1970s as an essential containment zone for transients, crime in the area skyrocketed. Former residents and investigators alike recount some of the more disturbing deaths in the docuseries and how it came to be known as the "Death Hotel." They essentially referred to it as “ground zero” for violence, a place that became a dumping ground for criminals and the vulnerable alike: from convicts to sex workers to people going through mental health crises. 

The hotel also attracted serial killers, including Richard Ramirez who reportedly made one of the hotel rooms his temporary home during his 1980s killing spree. Then, in 1991, Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger rented out his own room in the hotel. During his time there, he murdered at least three sex workers. 

While Lam’s death was ruled accidental, the mysterious circumstances surrounding it only added to the hotel’s reputation for strange deaths. 

The hotel is currently closed, citing renovations.

However, it's still going strong as a creative inspiration, if hauntingly so. Season 5 of “American Horror Story” is based on the hotel, Screen Rant reported last year, due to all the deaths and the rumors of hauntings. 

Inspired specifically by Lam’s mysterious demise, “Ghost Adventures” investigated the hotel for paranormal activity last year. Zak Bagans, the show’s host, claimed there were rumors that Richard Ramirez conducted Satanic rituals on the roof where Lam’s body was found, People reported last year. He also claimed to have seen a water faucet turn on by itself in the room Unterweger stayed in.

"When you are walking through those floors and nobody is there even with the lights on, you could feel these spirits move through you, around you, they’re watching you," he said. "There was just something about this building."

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