Given all the haunted landmarks in Los Angeles, it's surprisingly hard to find ghost stories about the city's motels. When you dig for them, you uncover things of the flesh, not of the spirit: bedbugs, roaches, used needles, bloodstains on the box springs. But there are, of course, plenty of real-world crimes. In 2007, a homeless teenage girl was murdered at the Olive Motel in Silverlake. This summer, inside a Rosemead motel, a mother shot her teenage son at the crack of dawn, and didn't call the police until 10 AM. A young backpacker was found dead in a motel in South LA last year, with his blood all over the walls.
If ghosts ever lingered around motels, they'd do so in Hollywood, where some of the motels are so wonderfully seedy and old that they seem destined to be the backdrop for a haunting. Was there lore of ghosts in some of these buildings? What had the motel clerks witnessed late at night? Why are people drawn to spend the night in these decidedly creepy places? Photographer Michelle Groskopf and I decided to poke around and see if we could uncover some glimmer of the supernatural in Hollywood's motels.
Hollywood La Brea Motel
Simon has been working as the night clerk here for ten months. He's cheerful and utterly uncynical, which is surprising given that most of his trade takes place behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass. Also behind the glass: A large collection of Ronald Reagan paraphernalia and a handwritten phone number tacked to the wall on a note that says "coke."
The night shift is a lonely one, and Simon is happy to talk. In general, he likes his job—especially when the most minor of celebrities come through, like the Australian model who stayed there once and took a photo with the owner. Sometimes drunk people give him trouble, especially when they come to the motel to "do business" (when he says this, he gives me a knowing look). Recently, a couple of wasted locals broke their own motel window, which seemed to shake Simon—he called the police but, disconcertingly, they didn't come quickly enough. At some point during each shift, Simon walks around the motel, checking each room from the outside to make sure that everything is calm and safe. I ask him if there are any ghosts lingering around. "No," he says, and laughs.
A girl named Augusta, who stayed there in 2008, does believe in ghosts. Or bad juju. Or whatever the word is for "weird vibes that happen when there's blood around." She and her then-boyfriend checked into the Hollywood La Brea in anticipation of a raucous, booze-soaked weekend on Hollywood Boulevard. They had a fantastic time chugging overpriced drinks and soaking in the general scamshow, but whenever they were inside the room—which she describes as "squalor"—things went very wrong. Each and every time the door shut behind them, they fought. And these just weren't lover's quarrels, but exhaustive screaming matches of the I-hate-you-forever variety. Things escalated and escalated until, on their last night there, her boyfriend ended up sleeping on the floor just to avoid her. Augusta slept alone in the bed, and woke with the sheets askew and a strange, metallic smell coming from the mattress.
Upon opening her eyes, she noticed that the bare mattress beneath her was stained with old blood. Dark brown blood. Five feet long and two feet wide's worth of blood. For her, this explained their strange fighting. They slept on the blood of the dead, and bad energy crept into their bones.
Alta Cienega Motel
"Creepy concentrate," a man named P.A., who stayed here in 2014, told me. "Definitely a shortlist suicide destination."
The Alta Cienega is famous among those in-the-know because Jim Morrison used to stay in Room 32, when he was reeling from a drug binge or fighting with his girlfriend. Next door, there's an abandoned flower shop that used to be a strip club called the Phone Booth, which Morrison liked to visit. The room is a sort of ever-changing shrine: fans leave graffiti all over the walls, ceiling, door, heating vent, and windows, and the management occasionally paints it all over so that the process of veneration can start all over again. The grimy, claustrophobic experience can be yours for a mere $120 per night. Don't want to lay on the mattress and think about Morrison where so many others have lain and thought about Morrison? A quick viewing of the room will cost you $20. As Morrison himself once sang, "Motel, money, murder, madness."
The current owner is loathe to talk about anything but the prices of specific rooms, and his wife glares at me over his shoulder. They describe the night shift as "nothing special." No drunks? No crazed Morrison fans demanding a viewing during the witching hour? Room 32 is glowing softly, while the rest of the motel is dark and silent. It is impossible to deduce how many people are staying here, and what they're up to. After a few stilted exchanges, the wife picks up a key that reads "Jim Morrison Room." It's a plastic keychain that they sell for $10.
The business of marketing hot, young, dead celebrities is generally an icky one, and this unsmiling couple, selling Morrison paraphernalia under the sickly green glow of motel lighting, makes us feel uneasy. I suppose anyone can own a sliver of a rockstar's life if they buy the right piece of real estate and print out a dinky little sign to mark the door. But it seems wrong, invasive, disrespectful. Still, people keep coming. On the internet, girls check into Room 32 and take photos of themselves on Morrison's bed, naked. I suppose we all have our own forms of tribute for our particular ghosts and gods.
Like the mother in Psycho, the Holloway Motel looks nice from the back, but it's eerie from the front. If you drive up from the north end, you might note the pleasing quiet of the parking lot and the soft glow emanating from the office. If you drive up from the south end, you'll see a handful of darkened windows that look like empty eyes. None of them match up. These are the manager's rooms. One of his windows is lit by the soft glow of a red lightbulb.
The woman who works at the front desk is named America, and the American flag waves gently outside her office. America has long red nails and long black hair. Her desk is cheerful and organized, illuminated by a classic neon sign that says "Office." On the upper balcony, a girl in tight pink pants drops to the ground outside her door, fishes something out from underneath a mat, and then slinks inside.
"The phone rings all night," says America. "There's always little stuff to do. We do laundry. We do maintenance. People lock themselves out of their rooms, and we let them in."
Unlike other motels, the Holloway's front office is not open all night, but the manager lives on-site. His sleep is often interrupted by people ringing the doorbell at 2, 3, 4 AM, demanding a room. These people are almost always turned away. "We're not even interested in business at that time," says America. "It's mostly drug addicts and transients and bar people."
The building has been around for decades, though a postcard from the 1920s shows that the motel has been unravaged by the passage of time. "This place is old, so there have been a few souls that have left here, if you know what I mean," says America. She assures me, however, that their spirits haven't stuck around.
Highland Gardens Hotel (formerly the Landmark Motor Hotel)
Back when this place was just a humble motel, Janis Joplin lived in Room 105. She died there, too, of an overdose on heroin, and was found face-down beside the bed, with change from the cigarette machine still clutched in her hand.
There is nothing rock-and-roll about the former motel today, though. The lobby is sparkling and sterile. The pool is nestled, demurely, amid California greenery and soft white lights. It is very quiet. This is partly because Highland Gardens is situated in a nicer part of town, and partly because many of the occupants actually live there, like Janis did. They moved in decades ago, got a killer weekly rate, and never moved out. Now, they live in a luxurious corner of Hollywood for less than the price of a regular apartment.
This clerk, like many of his midnight brethren, does not want to talk. He does not want to discuss disruptive guests, or Joplin fans on crazy missions, or ghosts. In fact, he's in the middle of saying, "It's quiet, and everybody minds their own business," when two flamboyantly dressed older women burst in from the courtyard. One of them is wearing a sparkling black hat. She yells, "There's somebody locked in the pool area with dogs!" and vanishes into the night. The clerk does not move to let out the person locked in the pool area with dogs. That person is a regular, says the clerk, and he'll be just fine.
But something about this commotion has warmed up the clerk, and he turns to us with a glint in his eye. He has decided to tell us one good secret.
There is a man who books Janis Joplin's room two to three times a year, for several months at a time. He knows the clerks by name; "he's a calm fellow, he doesn't bug anyone." He books Room 105 because he has a "connection" to Janis Joplin, and stays there for great, silent lengths of time. We beg for details—a former lover? a faithful friend?—but that is all the clerk will say.
Many of the rooms in Highland Gardens have been redone over the years, but Room 105 has remained basically untouched. "Some of these rooms are stuck in time," says the clerk. He gets off at 11:30 PM, and so is not around to witness whatever ghosts come out after midnight.
The outside is pink; the lobby is mirrored. The black mat on the floor gives away the Inn's former identity: "Econolodge." The door is supposed to be locked at night, but Michelle and I waltz right in.
After a few minutes, Farhad emerges from the back of the building. We speak through the bulletproof glass, both of us leaning on the candy pink counter. He tells me that when he started working here, a year ago, he was concerned about the safety of the night shift. After all, the motel is situated in a rougher part of Hollywood, and the very presence of the bulletproof glass made him nervous.
"If you are there now, and reading this, do not leave your room at night."
"I'm the only person working," says Farhad. "There's nobody with me, except the guests." And at these hours, the guests are mostly invisible, except for a man with a bitter expression who leaves and then comes back 20 minutes later, empty-handed.
A.G., who likes to stay in sketchy motels, slept here in 2014. He left a cryptic review on Yelp, citing rats, bugs, overcharged credit cards, vomit, urine, and mold, adding that this particular Rodeway Inn "can be a scary experience for those unlike me."
"If you are there now, and reading this, do not leave your room at night," ran his review.
Farhad says the most important thing is to be vigilant: "Watch who enters. Watch the security cameras." He says that drunk people will wander by the Rodeway at night and, spotting the sign for the breakfast bar, will bang on the locked doors, desperate for food. He also tells me that he gets tired. That he gets bored. The fight to maintain a secure motel involves not just vigilance against external factors, like drunk men banging on your occasionally-locked front door, but internal factors, like your own mortal weakness. To be a good night clerk, you must deny certain parts of your own humanness: your desire for sleep and for company. You must face off against the night alone.
Saharan Motor Hotel
It's hard to know who to trust at the Saharan Motor Hotel. The décor is consistent with the vague "desert" theme: palm trees wrapped in lights, a pool, lots of blue and orange, a smattering of white roses. In the parking lot, a driver waits in a shiny black SUV. He tells me that he has no connection at all to the motel, though he's clearly waiting for someone inside. Across the street, you can shop to your heart's content at Tobacco Grand: Discounted Cigarettes.
You wouldn't know it from standing in the lobby, but the Saharan has appeared in plenty of films, like the 88 drama Cop and the 95 movie Species, as well as, most recently, an episode of Southland. Patrick Swayze considered the motel his first home in Los Angeles. When he moved to the city in 1978, unknown and unbooked, he and his wife checked into the motel for a week.
The man at the front desk is wonderfully kind, but refers me to another worker, who gives me the runaround and sends me back to management. Motels like these have two faces: one is the shiny brochures and the well-kept pool and the slightly aggressive parking lot signs and the peppy management; the other is the online reviews, where guests post photos of cockroaches and complain about heartless management. Which face is real? Is it possible that they both coexist?
Motels like the Saharan are "Micky Mouse" compared to others, according to A.G. Sure, these motels can be creepy and weird, but they aren't swarming with cops. A.G. cites the Olive Motel in Silverlake, the East West Hotel in Koreatown, and the Snooty Fox Inn in Vermont Square as the real hotspots, places with the "constant sound of ambulance sirens," places where "you could get killed by not minding your own biz."
I guess we're looking for something a little bit different in these eerily quiet Hollywood motels, though. We're not trying to uncover crime, or catch some business guy from the suburbs with his pants down. We're looking for the frisson, for the lore of these places. But as the motels start to run together and the clerks answer my questions with smiling assurances that nothing bad ever happens there, the idea of ghosts starts to feel murky and distant.