In February of 2013, guests at the infamous Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, California began to complain of low water pressure and funny-smelling, black water that tasted horrible coming from the pipes. When maintenance man Santiago Lopez investigated the hotel’s water tanks at 10am on February 19, 2013, he discovered a naked, partially decomposed woman’s body floating face up, about a foot beneath the water’s surface. The body was identified as twenty-one-year-old Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam who had been missing for nineteen days.
Five days before her body was discovered, police released a disturbing security video from the hotel’s elevator of Elisa Lam on the day of her disappearance. In it, she is seen talking, seemingly to no one, and gesturing wildly. She quickly moves in and out of the elevator and seems to be “hiding” from someone standing outside of it. The elevator itself appeared to be malfunctioning as Elisa continuously presses buttons on the panel, presumably in a failed attempt to force the doors to close. This video went viral and many who have watched it describe it as “unsettling”. Several theories have popped up (some far more fantastical than others) in an attempt to explain her odd behavior. One interesting theory suggests she is playing the paranormal “Elevator Game” which originated in Korea. In this game, a person attempts to travel to another dimension by way of an elevator. Some even believe the Cecil hotel, with its dark past and connection to the Black Dahlia, Richard Ramirez, and Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, influenced her in her final days. Nearly four years later, the events surrounding Elisa Lam’s death remain shrouded in mystery.
Elisa Lam, also known by her Cantonese name, Lam Ho Yi, was the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong. Her parents owned a restaurant in the suburbs of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada where Elisa was born and raised. She had been attending the University of British Columbia but was not yet enrolled for the upcoming semester. Elisa suffered from mental illness and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression; In 2012 on her blog, ‘Ether Fields‘, she revealed she had relapsed and dropped several classes. She worried that dropping classes would adversely affect her future education, and specifically, diminish her chances of being accepted to grad school. Because of this, she said she said she was feeling, “so utterly directionless and lost”. The posts on her blog give an incredible insight into her mental state. In April 2012 she wrote, “I spent about two days in bed hating myself.”. Elisa talks about how difficult it was for her to leave the house due to her depression. She chastises herself for being “lazy” and having poor sleeping, eating, exercise and hygiene habits, saying she is “very disappointed” in herself. She also appeared to have difficulty maintaining relationships but praised the internet for providing her with an outlet to express herself. Her family wanted to keep her mental illness a secret, claiming after her death she had never displayed suicidal tendencies.
She announced on her Tumblr blog, ‘Nouvelle/Nouveau‘, she would be going on what she referred to as a “West Coast Tour” of the United States. She left for the trip in January 2013, planning to stop in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Fransisco. She mentioned she had also hoped to have time to visit San Luis Obispo but was unsure if she would. Elisa traveled alone on Amtrak trains, using inner city public transportation at her destinations. After making a stop in San Diego and visiting the zoo, which she posted about on social media, she left for Los Angeles. When she arrived on January 26, 2013, she checked into the Cecil, a budget hotel in downtown L.A. with a dark past.
Originally, Elisa was staying in a 5th-floor room with several others but after only two days, her roommates complained of “certain odd behavior” she was displaying. Elisa was then moved to a room of her own on the 4th floor. During her stay, she had visited a bookstore across the street from the Cecil to purchase books to take back to her family. The manager, Katie Orphan, said she seemed, “outgoing, very lively, very friendly.”. Katie became one of the last people to see Elisa alive; She said she saw her outside the hotel on the day of her disappearance. Katie, as well as hotel staff, say Elisa Lam was alone that day.
While on her “West Coast Tour”, Elisa had called her parents every day. But on January 31, the day she had planned to check out of the Cecil and leave for Santa Cruz, her family did not hear from her. Knowing something was wrong, they contacted the Los Angeles police department to report Elisa missing and immediately flew to the city to assist with the search for their daughter. Police searched the hotel as much as they were legally able, bringing in dogs to attempt to track Elisa’s sent. The dogs were even sent up to the roof where the water tanks were located, but they found no trace of her.
Most of Elisa’s personal belongings, including her watch, hotel key and the clothing she was wearing in the mysterious “elevator video” (which were coated in a
sand-like” particulate) were found floating next to her body in the hotel’s water tank. However, her cell phone was never recovered. Some found it bizarre that after her death, her Tumblr account continued to be updated. While it is entirely possible Elisa used the automated publishing feature and had posts scheduled in the queue, some believe the posts were made by whoever was in possession of her cell phone- someone who might be responsible for her death.
Unfortunately, the investigation into her death was tragically inadequate. Although there were no visible signs of physical trauma or sexual assault, investigators did a “rape kit” on Elisa Lam’s body; The results were never analyzed. After interviewing all of the staff at the hotel, who all said Elisa had been alone earlier that day, the investigators who were originally so certain she was murdered just began to assume it was an accident- case closed. Many assume her body was not in the tank the entire time she was missing as trained police dogs failed to track her scent on the roof. However, police did not search every room of the hotel because they would have needed probable cause in order to do so. One plausible theory suggests Elisa was murdered by a hotel employee and her body was kept in one of the vacant rooms until the killer had an opportunity to dump her body in the hotel’s water tank. Many people even claim to see the feet of another person in hallway outside the elevator; They theorize she is actually interacting with an unseen person in the bizarre video- most likely a member of the staff who understood what could and could not be seen on the security camera. While this is a great theory, as a person who has intently watched the video numerous times, I have not seen the “mystery feet”.
While investigators interviewed the hotel’s staff, they did not question long-time residents of the Cecil. One long-term resident stated that following Elisa Lam’s disappearance, there was flooding in an upper-level room of the hotel. Another resident who lived on the 3rd floor of the hotel at the time said that on the last night Elisa was seen, he heard a loud thump, as if something heavy had fallen, come from the 4th floor where Elisa’s room was located. Unfortunately, police never looked into these leads. Despite the shoddy investigation, it is entirely possible, even probable, that Elisa Lam’s death was an accidental drowning with her bipolar disorder as a significant factor, as her autopsy states.
Many believed it would have been impossible for her to access the water tanks on her own but recently, that belief has been disproven. Hotel staff assured investigators, to get to the roof where the water tanks are located, one must pass through multiple doors which are locked; Only hotel staff have the keys and panel codes needed to access the roof. These doors are rigged with an alarm system and any attempt to open them by force would have triggered it. However, a tourist from China stayed at the Cecil Hotel in an attempt to learn more about Elisa Lam’s death. He was able to access the roof with no trouble; No locked doors, no alarms triggering and no security guards trying to stop him.
Other rumors have stated there is no way to access the top of the tanks without a ladder (there is), the lids are incredibly heavy (they’re thin, hinged sheet metal) and would have been impossible for her to replace once inside the tank (the lid was found to be open when her body was discovered). Some wonder, even if she had managed to make her way into the tank, how could she drown in a tank containing only three feet (less than one meter) of water?
The infamous “elevator video” may have spawned multiple false theories, but her behavior in it is the most solid piece of evidence to have come out of this mystery.
Originally, many believed her bizarre behavior in the “elevator video” was due to drug use. Although the toxicology report was limited as examiners were unable to do bloodwork, it found she had not recently consumed alcohol, nor had she taken any recreational drugs. In her system at the time of her death was Wellbutrin (antidepressant), Effexor (antidepressant), Lamictal (mood stabilizer), Seroquel (antipsychotic), and Dexedrine (stimulant), medications which were prescribed to manage her depression and bipolar disorder. Additionally, she had taken over-the-counter Sinutab and Advil. The levels of the medications found in her toxicology report indicate that although Elisa had taken at least one antidepressant that day, she had not taken the second, nor had she taken her mood stabilizer. It also showed she had not taken her anti-psychotic medication for several days (perhaps weeks) before her death. For patients with bipolar disorder, there is a strong risk of having a manic episode when taking antidepressants alone, as opposed to in conjunction with an antipsychotic. Symptoms of a severe manic episode can include paranoia, catatonia, delusions, hallucinations and psychosis. Another symptom of mania, called “psychomotor agitation”, is a series of unintentional and purposeless motions; These can include wild gestures, hand-wringing, pacing, and removing clothing. In the “elevator video”, Elisa Lam is not possessed or attempting to switch dimensions, she is displaying major signs of psychomotor agitation.
From Elisa’s assessment of her own behavior, which she wrote about extensively on her blog, one could assume she would be irresponsible about taking her medications, even if she was aware of the risks. A manic episode due to lack of self-care could also explain the “certain odd behaviors” her roommates at the Cecil complained of. It would also explain why she was discovered nude, and how she managed to drown in shallow water. While many questions remain unanswered, and the investigation could have been far more comprehensive, her death is not nearly as mysterious as some die-hard conspiracy theorists believe.
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