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The Ghosts of Downtown LA

In a city of almost perpetual sunshine they've got a surprising number of dark corners.

by Wendy Syfret
30 October 2018, 11:01pm

Image via DiscoverLA 

Los Angelenos are excited for Halloween. Discount stores are taken over with decorations and pop up costume vendors and rentals punctuate Hollywood Boulevard. Griffith Park is transformed into haunted hayride, and tourist favourites like Universal Studios and Six Flags are crawling with ghouls. At first it seems strange. Halloween belongs to cooler climates, or at least ghosts do. They favour long dark nights and rainy days, but in LA it’s sunny almost 300 days of the year. But despite the blue skies, LA is haunted too.

Even the most iconic buildings have uneasy pasts and secrets. The Hall of Justice in the heart of downtown housed the autopsies of both Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe only a few years before Charles Manson, a self-styled messiah, walked its corridors. Below it lies an intricate tunnel system of almost 18 kilometres that once served as passageways for bootleggers moving illegal booze during prohibition. They’re also said to have been central in a scrambled plan from the Manson Girls to rescue Charlie during his 1970 trial.

hotel cecil LA los angeles
The infamous Hotel Cecil. Image via Wikipedia.

With no majority ethnic population, most LA residents are from somewhere else originally, and they all need somewhere to stay. As a result hotels challenge the Hollywood sign as the real symbols of the city. While the Roosevelt, Knickerbocker, Biltmore, and Chateau Marmont are all said to house famous ghosts (Monroe and Elizabeth Short among them), none can compare with Hotel Cecil on Main Street.

Within years of its 1927 opening, it has a reputation for guest suicides. Locals quickly stopped referring to is as The Cecil, nicknaming it The Suicide instead. Things only got more disturbing across the century. During the 80s and 90s two serial killers, Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger, made it home during their sprees. They apparently appreciating the residency’s habit of not insisting guests give a name at the front desk.

Despite being rebranded the "Stay on Main" earlier this decade, perhaps the most disturbing story from the Cecil took place in 2013 when Canadian student Elisa Lam went missing during her stay. The last sighting of her was security footage from the hotel’s elevator. She is seen looking frightened, and appearing to hide from an unseen presence. Weeks after her disappearance, other guests began complaining about the appearance and taste of the tap water. Elia’s body was found in the building's rooftop water supply cistern when investigating the issue.

But LA knows how to spin a bad turn. Less than a decade on, the hotel has become a dark tourism hotspot. Serial killers have been replaced by ghost hungry guests, hoping for a sighting.

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The Palm Court ballroom where Rudolf Valentino worked as a dancer. Image via Wikipedia.

Not all specters are chilling, though. Valentino is said to haunt the Alexandria, a nearby hotel where he once lived and worked as a dancer at the famous in-house Palm Court ballroom. Woman have claimed his spirit is still charming them, drawing them upstairs with an overwhelming supernatural compulsion to venture into his old room.

Down the road at Clifton's, a famous bar whose iconic design and interior inspired Walt Disney, another love story extends beyond death. In 1958, founder Clifford E. Clinton met single mother Terri Richmond. Despite being married, he fell instantly in love and the couple slipped into an uneasy, but congenial, triangle with his wife Nelda. They spent time and even holidays together until Clifford’s death in 1969, at which point Nelda took the opportunity to reorder her life. She told Terri she never wanted to see her again, going as far as to ban her from Clifford’s funeral.

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Clifton's houses ashes in the walls. Image via Discover LA.

When Terri died 42 years later, her love and the pain of rejection was still fresh. With all members of the trio now gone, it fell to her children to set things right. Her sons took advantage of large renovations and restoration work underway at Clifton's at the time and snuck into the property to spread their mother’s ashes inside the walls. Her ghost is now a regular sighting, but it's said to seem deeply happy with how things eventuated. She’s like most people who come to LA looking for something: slow to give up on what they want, even in death. It doesn't matter if it’s fame, love, a home, revenge, or in the case of Valentino, a date.

Down the road at Clifton's, a famous bar whose iconic design and interior inspired Walt Disney, another love story extends beyond death. In 1958, founder Clifford E. Clinton met single mother Terri Richmond. Despite being married, he fell instantly in love and the couple slipped into an uneasy, but congenial, triangle with his wife Nelda. They spent time and even holidays together until Clifford’s death in 1969, at which point Nelda took the opportunity to reorder her life. She told Terri she never wanted to see her again, going as far as to ban her from Clifford’s funeral.

The writer of this story was a guest of Discover LA . You can learn more about the city here, and go on your own ghost tour with Downtown LA Walking Tours.