Only a few short years ago, in the always-on and always-moving city of Los Angeles, a 1920s-era hotel with a historic but violent past claimed yet another life in a long line of victims. The disappearance and death of University of British Columbia student Elisa Lam has confounded law enforcement and private detectives alike since the day her body was discovered in a water tank on top of the Cecil Hotel. Sadly, how Lam got into the water tank and the circumstances behind her death have never been definitively explained.
Built in 1927, the Cecil Hotel has a long history of murders, suicides and mysterious deaths associated with it. Lam’s death is by far the strangest, however. Video footage released by the LAPD five days prior to her body’s discovery in the water tank shows Lam frantically looking around an elevator, seeming to search for and talk to some mysterious entity which isn’t visible to the viewer. Strange stuff, indeed— but not nearly as strange as some of the theories that have popped up on the internet in the years since the footage went viral.
Many of the theories aren’t so far-fetched, either. The clip’s massive popularity has gone a long way toward fact-checking theories, and even some of the more unbelievable ones check out as possible and even likely. Here are various theories and facts about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam.
15. The Spine-Chilling Elevator Footage (Fact)
WARNING: the above video is disturbing and upsetting.
The footage, released by police, is vital to understanding Lam’s final hours, however, as she spent the final week of her life in the Cecil Hotel. In the video, Lam is seen acting incredibly strangely in some of her final acts. In the released video footage, she appears distraught, almost as if she’s playing hide-and-seek with someone (or something). No one else appears in the video, however, and things only get more bizarre as the elevator tape progresses.
Lam mashes elevator buttons, laughs, steps oddly about, gestures with her hands, even appears to converse with some unseen entity. She enters and exits the elevator many times, and finally leaves in the same direction from which she entered the camera’s view.
This footage was the best clue to whatever happened to Lam in her final days. It went viral upon release in 2013, and has undergone intense scrutiny since. Many theories have popped up and been debated in online communities. None have revealed a conclusive answer.
14. Lam Suffered From Bipolar Disorder (Fact)
The most popular theory surrounding Lam’s death is that it was caused, at least in part, by her lifelong bout with bipolar disorder. Toxicology tests performed as part of her autopsy revealed some traces of metabolites and prescription medicine along with common drugs such as ibuprofen. The “psychotic episode theory” seems to fit the scant evidence best, and has even been merged with other theories in an attempt to piece together a narrative of Lam’s time in the hotel.
Many watching the video footage have theorized that Lam may have been undergoing some sort of mental breakdown. Indeed, she seems to demonstrate behaviors indicating, at the very least, an offbeat and unusual mental state. While it’s certainly possible for Lam’s strange behaviors in her final days to be a result of her disorder, the evidence also works against this theory: Lam had no known prior episodes of an even remotely similar nature, and her parents have publicly stated that she’d had no history of either suicidal or self-harming tendencies. She apparently had once gone missing briefly, however, lending some credence to this theory.
13. The Elevator Footage May Have Been Tampered With (Theory)
The two-and-a-half minute elevator clip released by the LAPD after Lam’s disappearance has unquestionably been tampered with. The video’s timestamp is obscured in the bottom right corner, and Lam’s mouth is at times pixelated. Many have asked why the police department altered video released to the general public, with some even demanding for the original, unaltered video’s release.
Some users have proposed theories that are even more accusatory toward the LAPD. Many claim that the video evidence has been slowed down in some parts, with some even levelling an accusation of entire minutes being discretely erased and edited-out from the footage. Some believe the police department and hotel staff to have removed the presence of other hotel guests, who are presumed innocent and seem to have no relation to the case. Still, the transparency of the video’s editing raises far more questions than answers.
12. Could Lam Have Been Murdered? (Theory)
In the investigation following the discovery of Lam’s body, one question stuck out in the minds of police and public onlookers alike: how could Lam have gotten into the water tank that she would eventually drown in? The doors and stairs leading up the hotel’s roof are normally kept locked, with only janitorial and custodial staff holding keys and passcodes. The doors also were programmed to set off an alarm upon opening, clouding this theory. Many have theorized Lam may have crawled up the fire escape, which seems possible, though her motivation to do so is murky at best.
The video clearly portrays Lam hiding from someone in the elevator cab. She mashes buttons, one would assume, in an effort to move the elevator to escape something. Could Lam have been running from someone pursuing her? Her rape kit, performed as part of her autopsy revealed no evidence of sexual abuse or trauma. Again, some of the evidence supports the idea of Lam being pursued by a potential executioner, but altogether the existing information is inconclusive.
11. The Water Tanks Present A Problem (Fact)
Others have asked how Lam could have crawled into the water tanks. Each tank was covered with a heavy plastic lid that would have been tremendously difficult to replace from the inside, though it would be much easier from the outside. The tanks stood 4’8” and were popped up on concrete blocks, requiring the hotel’s staff to stand on ladders to see inside. A potential murder suspect, it would seem, would have a much easier time replacing the tank’s lid than Lam would on her own.
Lam’s body was found floating in the tank when hotel patrons complained of a dark liquid in their shower and toilet water. Many patrons left the hotel, expressing revulsion that they’d been unknowingly drinking water contaminated by a decomposing body. The 1000-gallon tank Lam’s body had been found in needed to be cut open for firefighters to remove the body, as the existing opening was too small to fit the necessary equipment. How could Lam have entered the tank on her own without anyone to help her inside?
10. She’d Been Traveling Alone (Fact)
As a student at the University of British Columbia, Lam had posted to her blog that she’d “relapsed” from something and had been forced to drop many of her classes. Expressing her worry about how the incomplete courses would look on her college transcript to potential graduate schools, she instead decided to take a semester off. At the time of her death, Lam wasn’t registered as a student; instead, she was embarking on what she referred to as her “West Coast trip,” a solitary jaunt down the California coast.
Traveling by Amtrak and cross-city buses, Lam made her way through San Francisco down to Los Angeles. One of the few people to specifically recall Lam on her travels was a bookstore worker who reported Lam to be full of spirit and positive energy as she purchased a new book. Still, few pieces of evidence have been found to trace Lam’s travels.
9. The Murder Resembles A Film Chronicling The Cecil Hotel (Theory)
A 2005 movie starring Jennifer Connely and John C. Reily bears a freaky and peculiar resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Lam’s death. In Dark Water, a mother-daughter duo move into a drab apartment building.
The film contains certain plot elements that bear an uncanny similarity to Lam’s case. The room they live in becomes flooded with dark, messy water, which in Lam’s real-life case was caused by her body’s disintegration in the water tank, which hotel guests later complained turned their shower water black. The film also locates a dead girl on the top floor of its hotel’s water tank, the girl having gone missing a year earlier. Reports from those staying in the real-life Cecil Hotel around this time have indicated that there was significant flooding on the top floor around the time of Lam’s disappearance, though these have remained unconfirmed.
8. Was Lam Assaulted? (Theory)
The city coroner’s office, which performed an autopsy on Lam’s body, found no evidence of rape or sexual assault on Lam’s body after it had been found in the hotel’s water tank. Lam’s body was found partially decomposed, green-colored and with some obvious marbling on the woman’s skin. The autopsy released by the LAPD in the aftermath of Lam’s body being located mentions nothing of the rape and fingernail kit that had been administered, however, and questions remain as to a central observation released as part of the report: does the pooling of blood in Lam’s anal area suggest sexual abuse?
Most qualified examiners attribute the blood’s pooling to a natural bloating effect that comes from submergence in water, but others still question the logistics. The clothes that Lam had been wearing in the elevator video were also found floating in the water tank next to her, coated in sand-like specks, along with her room key and her watch. If Lam was indeed murdered, could there be a sexual motive behind her killing?
7. Her Blog Kept Updating After Her Death (Fact)
Lam maintained two blogs during her lifetime: one she called Ether Fields on Blogspot, and later another on popular micro-blogging site Tumblr. Lam posted personal stories detailing her lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and expressed her doubts about her own lifestyle and life choices. She posted about her favorite literary writers, even copying favorite quotes from one blog to the next.
What’s truly creepy, however, is that her blog continued to update even after her death. Seemingly due to Tumblr’s queue function, which allows users to compose posts that will be released at a specified time in the future or which will recycle old posts, many have speculated on alternate explanations for the continued online presence. Could the newer, post-humous postings be related to Lam’s death? Could they be an attempt to communicate from beyond the grave? History may never provide an answer.
6. The Cecil Hotel Has A Very Violent Past (Fact)
The hotel in which Lam died, where the elevator footage was taken, has a dark and mysterious past that stretches far beyond the mere disappearance of one traveling girl. With hundreds of guests coming through lobby doors each month, hotels are bound to be the sites of accidents, mistakes, and even violent crimes. But the Cecil Hotel seems disproportionately prone to murders and suicides. Foremost among the Cecil Hotel’s claims to fame is its status as the final stop of Elizabeth Short, the victim of the Black Dahlia murder. Short was found dead, with her body severed at the waist, and the perpetrator of her murder was never found. It remains one of Los Angeles county’s most famous unsolved murders, and has spawned generations of TV and film mimicry.
At least 15 murders and suicides have been reported in the Cecil Hotel or its surrounding area since its opening in 1924. Most recently, a 28-year-old man was found in 2015 after having apparently jumped from the hotel in an act of suicide. Indeed, the hotel certainly has maintained a reputation over its history as a site of some pretty weird, haunting acts of violence.
5. Was Lam Only On Prescription Meds? (Theory)
Police have publicly stated, based upon an autopsy report taken from Lam’s body after its recovery, that the only drugs in her system at the time of her death were prescription medicines for her bipolar disorder. The elevator footage, however, resembles the actions of someone under the influence of some sort of stimulant or mind-altering substance.
A body-language expert even suggested Lam might have been under the influence of ecstasy, based upon the elevator footage. Lam touches her right arm to her head and walks with jerking, unnatural motions. She rubs her forearms together, stares ahead awkwardly and seems to hide in the corner of the elevator with eyes level and unmoving. Some sort of hallucinogenic and hallucinatory drug remains within the logical scope of reasons behind Lam’s death, especially considering the toxicology test Lam’s body underwent in the autopsy process may not have tested for every conceivable substance.
4. The Elevator In The Video Footage Was Malfunctioning (Fact)
None of the investigators and online theorists have been able to sustain an explanation regarding how and why the elevator malfunctions in the mysterious video footage. Despite Lam pressing and mashing a variety of buttons, the elevator’s doors don’t close regularly and seem to be operating in a way that suggests some sort of outside influence. While Lam certainly could have accidentally pressed some sort of “emergency-stop” button that would prevent the elevator from moving, the seeming randomness and franticness of her presses suggests she didn’t have a clear destination in mind.
The elevator malfunctioning fits into some other theories on this list, many of which are both bone-chilling and terrifying. Could someone have modified the elevator to not move in an effort to keep Lam on her floor as part of an imprisonment?
3. Could There Have Been An Extensive LAPD Coverup? (Theory)
Police dogs searched much of the hotel, though they lacked probable cause to search every room on its premises. They even made it to the hotel’s roof, though they had no reason to search the area of the water tanks and therefore missed Lam’s body, which was likely already there at the time of the search. Some questions remain regarding the LAPD’s involvement in the case, however. Administrative errors have only clouded the picture.
What was the motive behind editing out certain aspects of the released video footage, such as the camera time-stamps and Lam’s mouth, which appears at times to be pixelated? Surprisingly little information was released by police following the body’s recovery, with some speculating that this may have been an intentional and coordinated effort to mislead the public about the situation of Lam’s disappearance. What could the LAPD have been trying to hide from the public? Once again, the mysterious conduct of the police in the weeks after Lam’s death have troubled even the most trusting of onlookers.
2. Could Lam Have Been Playing The Elevator Game? (Theory)
Popular on internet forums around the time of Lam’s death in 2013 was the “Elevator Game.” Originating in Korea, the elevator game only gained notoriety when it became coupled with Lam’s case, which seems to perfectly illustrate its principles. A truly bizarre concept, the elevator game posits elevators in certain buildings with the ability to literally transcend dimensions, to cross over and cross back with the click of a button. The point of the game is to reach the tenth floor, a dimension in which nothing exists but the player.
Players in the Elevator Game are free to traverse any floor they’d like, encountering different characters along their way. While this explanation is highly unlikely, it does seem to fit Lam’s case oddly and unquestionably well. Many scientists believe in alternate dimensions and realities. Could Lam have travelled to an alternate world and come back with an altered mind state because of her experiences? Or is the Elevator Game theory just an internet formulation, spread over and over through misinformed commenters and wildly-theorizing dramatists?
1. Was There Paranormal Involvement In The Case? (Theory)
Lam’s actions in the released video footage clearly indicate at least the possibility of some paranormal being’s presence. What many fail to notice in the footage, however, is that the elevator itself seems to be malfunctioning while Lam is hiding, gesturing and talking. What explanation could possibly account for the elevator doors remaining open, even as Lam mashes buttons frantically? This can’t really be explained by the evidence the video camera presents. Notice that no one enters the scene, and that the hallway remains empty. Could the mysterious behavior of the elevator be explained by the some sort of ghost, spirit or paranormal activity?
Many credit Lam’s death, along with others that occurred at the Cecil Hotel, to abnormal and metaphysical beings influencing either Lam herself or someone/someplace around her. Indeed, because explanations adhering strictly to fact and evidence-based reasoning fail to adequately explain Lam’s disappearance, paranormal explanations begin to seem more and more likely and believable. Could some sort of sprit have infiltrated Lam? Could she be the victim of some chilling, supernatural presence?
No matter which theory you subscribe to, good luck proving it. For now, Lam’s death is still classified as an accident, and it’ll likely stay that way.