American Horror Story Hotel is pushing the limits of TV gore and sex while it’s music-video style storytelling delves into a trove of American fiction, legends, and true stories surrounding vampires, serial killers, and spooky hotels.
The Hotel Cortez has not-so-subtle nods to the Overlook from The Shining (the carpet, the creepy twins in the hallway, decaying people in the bathroom, etc.) but it’s also a nod to L.A.’s Cecil Hotel. Cecil, built in 1924, started off as a nice hotel, but crumbled over a serious of neglected decades. It became known for a seedy nightlife plagued with prostitution, drug use, and the desperate people of “Skid Row.” So many people have killed themselves in Cecil Hotel it became known on the streets as “The Suicide.”
It’s not just suicides and junkies that the hotel is known for, however. It’s housed two different serial killers while they were in active killing phases: “The Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez, and Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger.
Ramirez felt at home in hotels. As a young teen growing up in Texas, he found it easy to abuse his access as a hotel employee to steal from guests. He fled Texas after he was caught assaulting a woman and was able to get off because she was unwilling to travel back to Texas to press charges. Once in California, he began a horrifying killing spree. During his stay at Cecil from 1984-85, he committed 13 murders. Five years later, Unterweger killed three women while staying at the hotel.
The hotel has recently renamed itself Stay on Main, but it can’t escape its ties to death. February 2013 a young woman named Elisa Lam‘s body was recovered from a water tank on the top of the hotel.
Besides the Cecil Hotel, Hotel Cortez (the namesake of Spanish conquistador) has another major influence: the Murder Castle of “America’s First Serial Killer” H. H. Holmes.
Last week’s AHS episode “Chutes and Ladders” gave a background story to Hotel Cortez’ builder: a young 1920s oil baron named James Patrick March. A mix-up of the likes of non-murderous but quirky entrepreneurs like Howard Hughes, H.L. Hunt, and the 19th century Chicago monster H. H. Holmes, James March came west to build a complicated hotel of horrors using his trove of new money. Plans for his hotel involved secret hallways with no rooms, chutes, and hidden passageways to help depose of bodies, and asbestos-lined walls to mute the screams. “It was a perfectly designed torture chamber, an engineered alibi,” Kathy Bates’ character Iris explains.
Her story is a little off, though. She describes the wife as being forced to watch March’s murder mayhem while the flash-back dramatization shows a blonde whispering to March in a voice that sounds like Lady Gaga that she likes the screams. Iris also implies that the wife turned her husband in so she could get all he cash. It’s heavily implied that Lady Gaga’s character Countess Elizabeth is March’s wife, but it’s unclear exactly what her role was in his actions and his demise. In the end, his wife got all his money. One theory could be that she had been contracted the blood virus before she met March and drove his lunacy in a bit to construct the murder hotel for herself. When it was done, she could have easily set him up so she could live in her dream house with hordes of cash.
The real Hotel of Horrors was just as terrifying as anything American Horror Story can dream up. Herman W. Mudgett was known in his Chicago community as Dr. H. H. Holmes. He constructed a sprawling “castle” in the heart of the city using different builders so no one would suspect his true plans. The hotel, which included retail space for several shops, was presumably built in anticipation for the World’s Fair of 1893, the wondrous event that gave electric light to the world. It was, but the true intention was not to house the visitors but torture and kill them. There were walled-off rooms, secret passageways, hallways and staircases that led to nowhere, and chutes to the basement where he would dispose of his victims.
The former medical student operated under multiple identities and began murdering as a way to get rich on insurance policies. For some people who murder for money, the killing is the means to an end, but Holmes seemed to like the murdering and torturing even more than any financial pay-off. While his lust for swindling was ravenous, his hunger for blood was insatiable. One of his schemes involved selling water from a water main exposed in his basement as a “cure-all” tonic. When the water company threatened to sue him over this quackery, he put the hole in his basement to more sinister use: it became a quicklime pit to help him dispose of the bodies the unsuspecting visitors he had poisoned, beaten, gassed, and strangled in the secret chambers above.
To learn more about H. H. Holmes, there’s a compelling documentary about him, and an excellent book called The Devil in the White City that’s currently being adapted into a film staring Leonardo DiCaprio.
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