BY COLIN DICKEY
On a stretch of road that was once the famous Route 66 in Monrovia, California, a small bedroom community 10 miles outside of Los Angeles, lies a mostly forgotten historic landmark: the Aztec Hotel. It’s known for its beautiful, Mayan-revival façade, an intricate layering of stucco and paint designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s contemporary, Robert Stacy-Judd. But since its opening in 1925, its fortunes have declined steadily: first Route 66 was rerouted, then made obsolete altogether by the interstate freeway system, leaving the Aztec a roadside attraction without much of a roadside. What followed were years of neglect and mismanagement as it became home to junkies and prostitutes and the colors of its edifice gradually faded.
Historic buildings, in particular those forlorn and neglected like the Aztec, have long attracted ghost hunters. Derelict but still standing, both alive and dead, they themselves seem ghosts, and paranormal stories ooze from the creaking doors, the echoing hallways, the dim corners and the cold spots. Some ghost hunters come to these places out of a sincere love of history, for the architectural legacy of the past and a genuine curiosity surrounding the paranormal. But others are looking for something else entirely: a good scare, perhaps, or notoriety.
For years the Aztec had stood by itself against the strip malls and gas stations, holding darkness within. But then the ghost hunters found it.
For Craig Owens, it began while staying at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, with noises like furniture being dragged across his suite. Originally a small hotel built in 1876 that’s grown to become a sprawling Spanish Revival monstrosity, the Mission Inn carries a long history and is also, as it happens, haunted. Owens is a smart guy: wireframe glasses, creases on his face that suggest a desert upbringing. For years he worked as a professional still photographer in the film industry; he calls himself an “Old Hollywood” guy. He’s interested in the city’s golden age of early cinema, of flapper girls and glamour — and he’s drawn to old hotels like the Mission Inn with their decaying beauty and complicated pasts. Throughout his stay he heard furniture being dragged across the room, footsteps around him, and what sounded like quarters being dropped on a wooden table. Other things followed: loud bangs, a water glass whose contents inexplicably swished back and forth in a still room.
The meetups peeled back a layer on Southern California’s history
After the events at the Mission Inn, Owens was terrified; he slept all week with the lights on. But he was drawn back and he started exploring other hotels in Southern California, documenting other experiences. Owens began making Electronic Voice Phenomena (or EVP) recordings: letting a recording device run while asking questions to a silent room, then playing it back and listening for voices on the tape. In the past few years EVPs have become the hallmark of paranormal investigations; any ghost-hunting group’s website will have a page devoted to EVPs they’ve recorded, which can sound like (depending on your perspective) angry whispers or incomprehensible static.
Not long after Owens discovered the Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles, or GHOULA. Founded by Lisa Strouss and Richard Carradine, GHOULA began hosting monthly “Spirits with Spirits” meetups in 2008, each at a different haunted location throughout Southern California. The events draw a diverse cross section of the city’s notoriously segmented population — college kids and retired historians, plumbers and producers, introverts and geeks, the casually curious to the hardcore enthusiasts. Meetups are sometimes sedate gatherings in quiet bars, attendees clinging to the walls until coaxed out by Carradine’s stories or Strouss’ encouragement. Other times they’re more animated gatherings at bowling alleys or restaurants, with the buzz of people testing out devices and taking photos of empty spaces hoping that traces materialize on the digital film. The meetups peeled back a layer of Southern California’s history, unearthing out-of-the-way places and out-of-the-way stories of their supposed hauntings — an alternative way of experiencing the city.
From the beginning GHOULA was meant to be a relaxed, nonjudgmental space where people could share their enthusiasm and their experience. “When Richard and I first met about GHOULA,” Strouss recalls, “we both remembered this group a long time ago called ISPR [International Society for Paranormal Research]. They used to do events at this theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and they were always like $60, $70.” Disappointed by the cost, she remembers thinking, “They’re totally ripping people off.”
The idea was that GHOULA would be free, that people could come for ten minutes or two hours, that there would be no pressure on anyone — and it worked. “There are people who came to GHOULA in the early days,” Strouss says, “who I had known for years, never heard a peep from them about ghost stories, and then they come to a meeting and just barf up this story … They almost get weepy.” As soon as it’s over they go back to their shell of logic, “but they feel relieved to get it out there.”
“It gives them reassurance somehow, hope,” she concludes. “It’s a comfort to hear this story, even if it scares you.”
He felt like he was trying to “crack a code, trying to get the building to start spilling out its secrets.”
Craig Owens was at a GHOULA meeting in April 2009 at the Eden Bar & Grill in Pasadena — a restaurant whose building was once a morgue and which is known for a variety of semi-playful ghosts and a strange, rotting corpse odor that does not dissipate — when he met Bobby Garcia. Garcia is a large guy from East LA, soft-spoken compared to Owens’ loquaciousness. Though they share an abiding interest in history, Garcia’s concept of the paranormal is vastly different from Owens’. “It has a lot to do with physics,” he explains, “and natural phenomenon — as natural as lightning.” Garcia hypothesizes it’s more about wormholes, rifts in time where voices come through: “More of a science thing than an actual religious or an actual mystical thing.”
They nevertheless managed to hit it off, making an almost perfectly paired odd couple brought together by a shared fascination with LA history. This kind of bond — across class, age, race, or geography — happens often in the paranormal community (Strouss and Carradine are another example). The thing about having a paranormal encounter is that if it’s happened to you, it can be intensely personal. You can’t talk to anyone about your experience; almost no one will believe you, and you have to assume talking about it just makes you sound crazy. Nearly anyone you tell will assume, naturally, that had she or he been there in the same circumstances, she or he would be able to rationally explain it away. Because of this fear of isolation, those who do believe you can quickly become intimate confidants despite surface differences or differences in belief, as in the case of Owens and Garcia.
Among the places that Garcia remembers suggesting to Owens as possible venues to investigate was the Aztec Hotel. Owens did what nobody else in the ghost community had at the time been able to do — he got the trust and friendship of the owner, Kathie Reece-McNeil. (“Craig was the one who pretty much set up everything,” Garcia remembers.) It had struggled for years, and by the time Owens and Garcia found the hotel it was barely hanging on. The Aztec has long been something of a pariah in its hometown, known as a home for junkies, prostitutes, and vagrants. The juxtaposition between its proud, baroque façade and its derelict upkeep gives it a tragic aura. All old hotels in Southern California have their ghost stories, but for Owens and Garcia, the Aztec offered something different. With the Aztec, Owens says he felt like he was trying to “crack a code, trying to get the building to start spilling out its secrets.”
Los Angeles has never had quite the association with hauntings that, say, New Orleans or London has, but it still has a fairly long history of ghosts. It’s famous for its haunted hotels in particular — the Biltmore, the Knickerbocker, the Roosevelt, the Ambassador — home to the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe, Rudolph Valentino, and Montgomery Clift among many other lesser-known ghosts. If the hotel has become emblematic of LA’s haunted past, it’s because the city’s history lies in transience: it’s a temporary city that depends on a constant influx of new dreamers, more than a few of whom end up ground up beneath the sidewalks and buried in the subconscious of Los Angeles. Such a place can’t help but leave behind a ghost or two.
At the Aztec, Craig Owens and Bobby Garcia went looking for those forgotten stories; they wanted to go beyond the Marilyn Monroes and Rudolph Valentinos. What evolved at the Aztec was a marriage between Owens’ charisma and Garcia’s expertise; together, along with a few other members of Garcia’s crew, they began spending more and more time at the Aztec Hotel. They’d show up in the evening, get the keys to the basement, and head down there. They spent three or four nights a week at the hotel, sometimes with others, sometimes not; then they’d go to their respective homes, go to work, listen to what they’d recorded, and come right back again. Owens discovered the name of one former Monrovia chief constable, James Scott, and one evening got the other investigators he was with to ask for him — only he screwed up the name and told them “Frank Little” instead. “When I listened to the audio,” he says, “I get this weird voice going, ‘Frank Scott’… so it’s like we were corrected. The mistake actually makes the evidence more compelling.” (The veracity of an EVP is often in the ear of the listener: Richard Carradine listened to Owens’ recordings and told me he’s highly dubious of Owens’ interpretation.)
LA is a temporary city that depends on a constant influx of new dreamers
Owens and Garcia spent most of their time in the basement, where they found the majority of the psychic activity, but most psychics and ghost hunters will tell you that the Aztec is haunted primarily in Room 120 by a ghost named “Razzle Dazzle,” a name divined by psychics who’ve visited the room over the years. According to the story, Razzle Dazzle was either a prostitute who was murdered in that room by her john or an aspiring actress, newly married, who fell on her wedding night and fatally hit her head on the heater. Searching the Monrovia city archives, Owens found no mention of any prostitute or actress killed at the Aztec. “The room does appear to be haunted, but her name was never Razzle Dazzle, if in fact someone died there,” he says.
But he did find something else: when the hotel opened, the local Elks Lodge operated an illegal monthly night of gambling and drinking in the hotel’s basement; those monthly parties, Owens learned, had an informal name. They called them Razzle Dazzle Nights. (“No one would know that,” he says, “unless they went through those darn Monrovia papers.”)
At the time Owens and Garcia were both still actively involved with GHOULA, and because of Owens’ close contact with the owners of the Aztec he was able to arrange a GHOULA “Spirits with Spirits” event in June 2010 at the Aztec Hotel. It was by all accounts a circus, but according to Lisa Strouss, “It was so much fun, it was like a big party … all these LA people running around — in this building which is so forgotten and so cool.” To Owens, on the other hand, it was agony. “We had way too many people … They were walking in on people in their rooms.” He’s no longer bitter at Strouss or Carradine, but it’s clear that the memory still rankles. “I was having to do damage control with the hotel afterwards because they were very upset.”
For GHOULA it was one of their best events ever. For the Aztec, though, it was the beginning of the end.
Los Angeles may be notable for its haunted hotels, but there’s another aspect that makes the city unique. Its status as the mecca of movies and television has guaranteed an explosion of near-identical outfits trying to imitate the crews on TV: LA Ghost Patrol, LA Paranormal Association, Ghost Interactive Investigations, Paranormal EXP, Darklands Paranormal, California Society for Paranormal Research and Assistance, and so forth. These groups range from the serious to the absurd — at the latter end of the spectrum is perhaps the Paranormal Hot Squad, an all-female group consisting of several models and exotic dancers whose motto is, “We’ll scare you stiff.” Owens calls all these various groups “parawhores”: “They’re like the Monkees, or the Archies. They’re in the guise of a paranormal group, but they’re not in it for the right reason.” Rather than treating ghost stories as a means to approach the history of place, its legacy and its secrets, these groups often treat hauntings as an excuse to party, or style themselves as something akin to big game hunters. Asked why they do what they do, the LA Ghost Patrol’s lead investigator told Fox News 11, “We want proof … We want to be the ones that capture it and prove to the world that this stuff does exist.”
We tend to think of fan culture as thoroughly resilient, and quite often driven by film and television (think Trekkies), but the saga of LA’s paranormal community reveals the opposite: how fragile a fan community can sometimes be; how easily a pop-culture fad can uproot a more nuanced and dynamic subculture; and how television, money, and the lure of fame can eclipse earnest, solitary searchers. The early success of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters led reality show producers to flood the market with spin-offs and copycats, and nearly every paranormal investigator in the country saw a chance to get famous. Starting in 2008, just around the time GHOULA formed, shows started appearing on basic cable channels like SyFy, the Discovery Channel, and the Learning Channel — shows called My Ghost Story, Ghost Hunters International, Ghost Hunters Academy, Most Haunted USA, Paranormal State, the Othersiders, Celebrity Paranormal Project, and on and on and on.
Nearly all of these shows follow a basic routine: a “crew,” usually consisting of three or four guys and one woman, fetishizing the K II short-range electromagnetic field detector meters and other useless gadgets popularized on these shows, repetitively hunting for places that might offer some unambiguous “proof.” Bobby Garcia has strong thoughts about the current crop of consumer electronics marketed to ghost hunters — he finds the K II particularly useless. “It’s unshielded, for one, which means that car radio over there will set it off. Anything in the walls will set it off and you don’t know where it’s coming from … People like it because they see it on TV, plus it has flashy lights.”
“We want proof… We want to be the ones that capture it.”
As ghost hunting has gotten more popular, more and more groups have begun offering “ghost-hunting events” and other meetups that can charge anywhere from $25 to $100 a head for the privilege of running around in the dark with a K II meter. “I associate hauntings with the pain and suffering of somebody,” Owens says. “Why capitalize on that to make a buck?” This entrepreneurial approach isn’t new, but it does represent a major shift from the kind of open conviviality of GHOULA. “The second you take money,” Strouss says, “people want to see ghosts, and I can’t produce a ghost for you.”
More importantly, it has changed the attitude towards the hotels and other landmarks throughout the city. In order to make money off of ghosts, you first need a haunted house of some kind, and unless you happen to live in one yourself, you need to hold your events in public spaces. The various ghost-hunting groups that have sprung up all over the city are vying, more or less openly, to claim the rights to various haunted locales, particularly ones open to the public. They want, in other words, to be the ghost hunters most associated with a given locale so TV producers will go to them first. Rather than simply exploring these spaces, many investigators are now seeking to claim them.
This may seem relatively innocuous, and it is for the most part. But the proliferation of these groups hoping to make their name or some money off of a building’s haunted past can have unforeseen effects on fragile historical buildings. On the night of Thursday, November 21st, 2013, seven paranormal investigators broke into the historic and uninhabited LeBeau Mansion just south of New Orleans. The former plantation has long been considered haunted: a young woman in white, many claim, would appear at night in the upstairs porch, casting out a light from an unknown source. Built in 1854 it weathered everything from the Civil War to Hurricane Katrina. But the ghost hunters who broke in that night, according to police, became frustrated at some point when no spirits appeared, and, drunk and high, decided to set fire to the house. The mansion burned to the ground; all that’s left now are its chimneys and a small interior brick wall.
“I associate hauntings with the pain and suffering of somebody. Why capitalize on that to make a buck?”
Even those groups not vandalizing old places still can have overly cavalier attitudes towards these spaces. After the GHOULA event, Strouss says, the Aztec was on everyone’s “turf radar” — in particular on 3AM Paranormal’s, a group run by a man named Joe Mendoza and his wife Rebecca. Like many recent groups, 3AM (which didn’t respond to interview requests) charges for events though their reputation is particularly tarnished, since, by Joe Mendoza’s own admission, they spent years illegally breaking into buildings at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital looking for ghosts and charging attendees for the privilege. Sometime after the initial GHOULA event, 3AM Paranormal hosted an event with Boyle Heights Paranormal Project at the Aztec Hotel: $20 a head, payable in advance, none of it going to the struggling hotel. The management decided to bar 3AM from showing up, but on September 24th, 2010 they arrived anyway, bluffing their way past the desk clerk. Video posted on YouTube from the night shows them in the hotel’s hallways, conducting sessions and discussing their findings — it looks very professional and respectful, and watching it you’d never know that it was done without the permission of the hotel itself. After that, the Aztec’s owner, Kathie Reece-McNeil, disgusted, called off all investigations at the hotel, and what meager income the legitimate hunters were contributing to the failing hotel dried up.
Owens spent a great deal of time and personal investment trying to come up with a plan to save the hotel. He tried to help Reece-McNeil file bankruptcy to shield the hotel and had developed a plan to bring in paranormal investigators formally, charging them for the privilege (“None of that going to me,” he insists), while restoring parts of the hotel to capitalize on its nostalgic appeal. On the day he arrived to share his plan she was packing up; the bank had foreclosed.
What the TV shows often miss is a far more interesting aspect of hauntings: the way a ghost story can open up the history of a place — particularly a forgotten history, a history that would never otherwise be known. Take for example the mystery of Room 120 in the Aztec, the supposed home of Razzle Dazzle. Owens’ discovery in the Monrovia archives, that a name pulled out of thin air by some psychic may have had some basis in some long-forgotten parties in the hotel’s basement, may perhaps hint tantalizingly at some proof of the paranormal. But this proof, even taken as such, obscures as much as it reveals: for what, if anything, does it tell us about the Aztec? It will never lead to a clear, complete narrative of events — anyone who might have been able to tell us about what happened during those Razzle Dazzle nights is dead now. There’s never a final answer to these stories. You get fragments that suggest histories but have nothing definitive to offer, fragments that ultimately stare dumbly back at you.
Ghost stories can open up a history of a place, a history that would never otherwise be known
Owens and Garcia, meanwhile, have stayed in touch, but are no longer ghost-hunting together — the sudden interest in the paranormal community has frayed these fragile relationships. Going to a GHOULA event had come to feel like showing up at Haight Ashbury after the ’60s or CBGB’s after the ’70s. There was a brief moment in time, it seems, when a remarkable — remarkably weird, remarkably thoughtful — collection of passionate oddballs came together and found each other. With the paranormal community in Los Angeles one gets the sense that almost as soon as it had begun, it was co-opted and commodified, and the truly thoughtful individuals all scattered to the wind. Perhaps this is why, as of December 2013, GHOULA’s monthly Spirits with Spirits have been on indefinite hiatus.
For the past two years the Aztec has sat unused, its new owners transforming the property into a boutique hotel. For at least some of that time, the hotel has sat in disrepair, and spray-painted Satanic images have lingered in guest room closets for months — though soon much of this will be erased by new fixtures in the lobby, flat-screen TVs on the wall, and iPod docks beside the beds. But it won’t be just the spray-paint that vanishes; the new owners are hoping to leave the hotel’s old history behind, effacing its troubled past behind the sheen of luxury amenities.