In Stephen King’s novel The Shining, the Overlook Hotel is an expansive structure with a dark past, located in the remote Rocky Mountains. Despite its opulent beginnings, the hotel becomes a place where brutal murders occur, madness sets in, ghosts lurk, and evil itself is a permanent occupant.
Relocate King’s Overlook to Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and you have its closest real-world equivalent: the Cecil Hotel. The hotel’s checkered history, and lore involving curses and ghosts, has made it a dark tourism landmark situated at the crossroads of true crime and paranormal fascination. But despite lots of interest on the internet, the Cecil, since rebranded as Stay on Main Hotel, has never officially permitted cameras inside for a paranormal investigation.
Until now. Enter Zak Bagans.
(Disclaimer: I have previously worked with Zak Bagans on television shows, and currently appear as an expert on the Travel Channel series Paranormal Caught on Camera.)
Executive producer and star of Ghost Adventures, the long-running paranormal reality series on Travel Channel, Bagans leads his team of investigators on an exploration of a location he calls “spectacularly frightening” in Ghost Adventures: Cecil Hotel, a two-hour special streaming exclusively on the new Discovery+ service.
For fans of the ghost-TV genre, Ghost Adventures: Cecil Hotel boasts evidence of scratches, disembodied voices, light anomalies, a faucet seemingly turned on by an invisible force, and more. But regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the unexplained, the special lives up to its hype of a “first time ever” examination of the infamous hotel.
Bagans tells Den of Geek the special is also a culmination of a decade-long pursuit that began “before Elisa even died.”
The “Elisa” that Bagans refers to is Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student with a kind, sarcastic sense of humor who loved fashion and Harry Potter; she frequently blogged observations about guys she liked, figuring out a place in the world, as well as her own insecurities and mental health struggles. Lam was a daughter and sister, and a real person on a journey of self-discovery before her life ended too soon, and she made the Cecil internet famous.
While on a solo trip to California in 2013, she went missing and died while staying at the hotel. An elevator surveillance video showed the young woman acting erratically as she pushed buttons, paced in and out of the elevator, and even appeared to be hiding from someone. Her body was discovered in a rooftop water tank weeks after she disappeared. Despite her death being ruled accidental, with her bipolar disorder deemed a contributing factor, questions remained as to how Lam could have gained access to the roof or closed the lid to the tank from within.
But before that two-and-half minute viral video made Lam a popular topic for podcasts — and before American Horror Story: Hotel drew inspiration from the landmark’s past — the Cecil’s reputation was more tied to tragedy than travel despite its beginnings in 1924 as an LA destination, complete with a grandiose lobby.
Multiple suicides took place at the Cecil as well as infanticide and the unsolved murder of Goldie Osgood in 1964. Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, was reportedly seen in the hotel bar in the days leading up to her murder in 1947, and two serial killers are known to have stayed there – including Richard Ramirez, who committed a murder spree in the 1980s, and the investigation of whom is the focus of the Netflix documentary series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.
“I knew the history of Richard Ramirez there, and the deaths, and knew it was a big creepy building,” Bagans says.
Although prior attempts to gain permission to film there had been rejected, he thinks maybe the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdowns convinced the hotel’s owners to allow it because of the location fee paid by production. “Or maybe they had things happening to themselves and had enough of it,” Bagans says.
Either way, Cecil fits neatly into Bagans’ pursuits, and it comes as no surprise that the hotel has long been on his bucket list. He has a fascination with the darker sides of this world — as well as the next. When not investigating the paranormal on television, he collects and exhibits haunted dolls and possessed possessions, along with “murderabilia” from serial killers, such as drawings by Ramirez.
“I collect his things. I have his death row TV, his sketches, his clothing,” says Bagans before adding, “I study these people.” Bagans says he even visited the Concordia cemetery in El Paso, Texas, where Ramirez “got started” and was said to practice satanic rituals.
As a result, Bagans believes that Ramirez was engaged in a “top-tier possession” with the horrors he was committing ultimately in the devil’s name. Bagans doesn’t give a pass to the murderer but does theorize that the serial killer was generating more negative energy and entities at the hotel.
Saying he believes the Cecil is “saturated with dark energies,” he thinks Ramirez’s satanic rituals added an evil residue to the building. Interestingly, however, Bagans also thinks there’s something supernatural about the grounds upon which the building stands.
Though he references The Shining, he says he also thinks of the Cecil like the vampire-infested strip club in From Dusk Till Dawn. In the final shot of the film, it’s revealed the club sits atop an Aztec temple. Bagans equates the hotel to this, saying it’s part of some ancient “machine.”
“I’ve been to a lot of places throughout the world, but when you walk through the doors of the Cecil Hotel, you know there are other doorways to other worlds,” he says. “If we were to see deeper dimensionally, you would see all these other doors and rooms, and I believe it goes way down into the earth and draws a lot of energy through the earth. It is then magnified by the dark energy and criminal activity of Skid Row, and amplified by the rituals [serial killer] Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez did.”
For the Discovery+ special, Bagans says he wanted to be delicate when discussing the circumstances of Lam’s death. He references the hotel’s history of suicide, and murder attributed to temporary insanity, and believes malevolent energies fed off her mental illness and influenced her.
It is admittedly a problematic theory for skeptics and non-believers of the paranormal, but Bagans — like many with lingering questions about Lam’s strange death — looks to her past behavior as telling. Lam had previously disappeared and required treatment but wasn’t known to have suicidal ideations. There were no unusual drugs detected in her system and the initial cause of death was deemed inconclusive.
“It didn’t make sense she was having a manic episode,” he says. “From my research, no one was able to say she had had a manic episode this bad before. If she was having an episode and acting that bad, how could she have taken such a calculated journey to end up in that water tank under that manic sense?”
While Bagans strives not to diminish Lam’s death, he says, “that building has the power to mess with your mind.” During the investigation he says teammate Aaron Goodwin was overcome with feelings of rage, and that his interviewees, including a crime scene photographer, were so disturbed they often needed to leave the hotel.
“You don’t know what you’re feeling there. There’s too many spirits, too much energy.”
Indeed, during the course of the special, the Ghost Adventures crew believe they encounter several spirits, including those of Lam, Ramirez, Osgood, and more.
For Bagans, investigating Cecil, or even conducting interviews about it, only serves to charge the battery of this machine. But, quoting his favorite film, 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he says, “there is much to be learned from beasts.” Bagans is seeking to understand the unknown despite the risks.
Whether or not viewers of Ghost Adventures: Cecil Hotel choose to share his paranormal theories about the building — or simply view it as a strange nexus of true crime — Bagans says there is no denying its inescapable reputation.
“You can renovate it, change the name, or paint it a different color, but you’re never going to erase the darkness of the Cecil Hotel.”
Ghost Adventures: Cecil Hotel is available to stream on Discovery+.
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