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.
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.
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.