The Strange Case of Elisa Lam

There’s no shortage of deaths that can’t easily be explained as murders or suicides. Sometimes if the individual in question acts strangely or erratically, people will suggest a mental illness is at fault. Other times when it occurs in a building with a dark history people will suggest there was a paranormal influence. One situation involving a woman named Elisa Lam is one such case with no clear answer, although unlike other unexplained deaths this particular instance has video evidence.

Elisa Lam, prior to her disappearance
Elisa Lam, prior to her disappearance

Elisa Lam was a Canadian student from the University of British Columbia whose parents were Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong. At the age of twenty-one, she announced on Tumblr that she would be going on a tour of the U.S. West Coast on January of 2013. In particular, Lam stated that she wanted to visit San Diego, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Los Angeles and traveled by herself using buses and Amtrak. When she reached Los Angeles, she stayed in a hotel called the Cecil Hotel (which has since been renamed Stay on Main) located in Downtown Los Angeles. Throughout her entire journey, Lam maintained contact with her parents and informed them that she would be checking out of the Cecil Hotel on January 31st. Unfortunately, she was last seen on January 31st, 2013.

At first it seemed strange that Lam did not call her parents on the day she intended to check out of the hotel, so they contacted the Los Angeles Police Department and later came to LA to help aid in the search. Lam’s room at the Cecil Hotel was searched, and dogs were brought in who searched the building and the roof for her scent but found nothing. Hotel workers who were questioned stated that Lam had been by herself, but other then that no one was able to determine what had happened to Lam.

The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles
The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles

After a while, residents at the Cecil Hotel began noticing strange things with the water. A British woman stated the water tasted funny, but that she and her husband simply assumed that was how the water tasted there. She also stated that when she turned on the water, it would run black for a few moments then return to normal. Other guests made similar complaints about the taste of the water, but others also claimed that there were issues with the water pressure; one man even claimed the water seemed “plugged up.” Eventually maintenance workers were sent to the water tanks on the roof to determine what the issue was, and it was inside one of the tanks that they discovered the naked body of Elisa Lam who had been decomposing for roughly two weeks in the same water people were bathing in, drinking and brushing their teeth with.

Why was Elisa Lam dead? Had she killed herself, or had someone murdered her? It was known that Lam had suffered from bipolar disorder and depression (for which she was prescribed four medications) so many suggested that she had experienced an episode which led her to drown herself, even though Lam’s family was well aware of her illnesses and stated that she had never had suicidal ideas or attempted suicide before. The one person who recalled interacting with Lam on the day she disappeared was a nearby bookstore manager named Katie Orphan who stated the Lam was purchasing gifts for her family and that “She was very outgoing, very lively, very friendly.”

Eventually, the official cause of death determined by the coroner on February 21st was that Lam had died from accidental drowning and that bipolar disorder was most likely at fault, as there were no signs on her body of physical assault and no traces of recreational drugs or alcohol. The coroner’s office did rule out the possibility that Lam’s death was a suicide. What was discovered were traces of the prescription medications that Lam was taking. If it was discovered that Lam had been taking her medications, then how could it be assumed that her bipolar order (which she was treating at the time) had caused her death?

Poster for Elizabeth Short from the FBI
Poster for Elizabeth Short from the LAPD

Some suggest that there may have been more malevolent forces involved in Elisa Lam’s death. Mainly, the history of the Cecil Hotel itself. The hotel first opened in 1925, although its prime was very short-lived. There were a series of murders that occurred in the Cecil Hotel throughout the 20’s and 30’s, a woman committed suicide in the 60’s, and a few murderers have taken up residence there at one point. The burglar, serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez, also known as the “Night Stalker,” frequently stayed at the Cecil Hotel during the 80’s when room costs were as low as $14. It’s been claimed that Ramirez resided in a room on the 14th floor while he murdered 14 people. The Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger also stayed at the Cecil Hotel sometime during 1991, and it has been reported that murder victim Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia, was seen at the hotel sometime before her death in 1947.

What really makes the situation involving Elisa Lam so strange is the fact that there is surveillance footage taken on the day she went missing from an elevator in the Cecil Hotel. The full video can be viewed here, and is extremely unusual. First, Lam can be seen entering the elevator and presses several of the floor buttons. However, the elevator doors do not close and remain open for a few minutes. During this time Lam nervously looks out into the hallway several times and cowers in the corner, as if she is expecting someone to come along. Then she steps back into the hallway and remains there for several seconds, before returning to the elevator at roughly the 1:30 mark, and then begins to hit multiple floor buttons seemingly at random. Again, the elevator doors do not close. Afterwards at 1:52 she walks back into the hallway and starts waving her arms around strangely as if she were having a conversation with someone. This lasts for about forty seconds until Lam walks off into the hallway and disappears, as the elevator doors finally close at about 2:57. The elevator then goes to all the floors that Lam had apparently hit the buttons for without interruption.

Footage of Elisa Lam in the elevator
Footage of Elisa Lam in the elevator

Obviously Lam’s behavior is very strange, as first she appears to be afraid of someone, then acts surprised a few times as if she suddenly saw someone. Then she seems to have a conversation with someone who can’t be seen, before walking off-camera. Also of note is the elevator: why didn’t the doors close? Lam hit multiple door buttons and the doors didn’t close, and then she hits multiple door buttons a second time and still the doors remained open. Yet a while after Lam disappears, the elevator doors close and it operates as normal, visiting every floor that Lam hit the button for. It couldn’t be a resident hitting a button on a different floor, as every floor the elevator visits is empty.

There is also the matter of how Elisa Lam died. As stated above, her naked body was discovered in one of the Cecil Hotel’s water tanks, with her clothes floating next to her. But as can be seen in this KTLA news reports of the incident, even that aspect of her death is extremely odd. In order to remove Lam’s body, the water was drained from the tank first. However, firefighters had to cut a hole into the tank in order to retrieve the body because the lid was extremely heavy and difficult to open. How had Lam managed to fit inside the tank, open the lid, and close and seal it behind her if she was having an episode? Then there is also how in order to get onto the roof in the first place, the door is locked and only accessible by hotel staff. Yet it appeared that Lam had managed to unlock, open, close and lock the door behind her without setting off the alarm. Even the tanks themselves are located on large cement blocks that are difficult to access, and Lam had somehow accessed the roof, accessed the tanks, and locked both of them behind her.

One theory as to what happened to Lam was that she had been playing the Elevator Game, an urban legend that possibly started in South Korea but is also known in Japan and China. The game states that you must enter an elevator with at least ten floors, and that if you follow a series of steps (usually pressing a floor button, pressing a different button once you reach that floor, etc.) the elevator will deposit you in either some ghost dimension or Hell, although some refer to it as the Otherworld. Other sources also say a young woman may enter the elevator on the fifth floor, although it is advised that the participant not look or speak to her. Of course the Elevator Game is just a ghost story, but some have suggested that it may explain why Lam appeared to hit so many buttons at random and why she appeared to be afraid of someone or seemed to talk to an invisible entity.

Firefighters on the roof of the Cecil retrieving Elisa Lam's body
Firefighters on the roof of the Cecil retrieving Elisa Lam’s body

Now there’s plenty of other theories as to why Lam acted so strangely. One individual suggested that Lam’s behavior in the elevator footage suggested that she was under the influence of ecstasy, although the autopsy found no evidence of any recreational drugs or alcohol. Her behavior has also been suggested as showing her having an episode brought about by her bipolar disorder, although the autopsy showed she had been taking her medications prior. Others suggest that a ghost or demonic presence was involved. There are some who suggest that a staff member at the Cecil Hotel may have been behind the murder, although no one was ever suspected of anything and Lam’s body had no evidence of being assaulted or murdered.

Then there is the matter of a personal blog Lam maintained before her death. Since the event, Lam’s blog continued to post updates for a few months afterward. There is an auto-posting feature which may be the cause, although Lam’s cell phone was never discovered, while the rest of her clothes and personal belongings were. There are also those who suspect that the elevator footage was tampered with, since the time stamp is very difficult to read and some parts seem to feature gaps. And as can be seen in the news clip featured earlier by KTLA, a resident in the Cecil Hotel stated that he heard an explosion that was loud enough to knock him out of bed, which interestingly some paranormal experts claim that demonic activity is sometimes preceded by the sound of a loud explosion.

Likely, the death of Elisa Lam will never be solved. The LAPD never connected anyone to the murder and found no evidence to suggest anyone was a suspect, and even though Lam was dealing with mental illnesses she had medications for them. Perhaps strangest of all is the footage of Lam’s final moments before her death, which shows behavior no one can explain and possibly lends credence to the possibility that there were more paranormal influences at work.

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