The body of Canadian tourist Elisa Lam was found on February 19, 2013, inside a sizable cistern on top of the Stay on Main hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, where she had been staying.
Her parents first reported her missing on February 1 after her last known whereabouts on January 31. A hotel maintenance worker looking into reports of flooding and low water pressure found her body.
The Los Angeles Police Department published security camera footage showing Lam acting abnormally in a hotel elevator on the day she was last seen alive on February 13, which sparked an increase in interest in her disappearance.
The video gained popularity. Although an autopsy conducted on February 21 was inconclusive in pinpointing the cause of Lam’s death, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office ultimately determined that bipolar disorder was a significant contributing factor and found Lam’s death to be an accident.
The incident led to lawsuits against the Stay on Main from guests and Lam’s parents later that year; the latter was rejected in 2015.
Early Internet curiosity brought up what was considered peculiar parallels between Lam’s passing and the 2002 horror movie Dark Water since references to the case have appeared in global popular culture and have inspired several works of art.
Background to the Disappearance of Elisa Lam
Elisa Lam, a student at the University of British Columbia who is the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, was enrolled in 2013, although she still needed to register.
Lam started a Blogspot blog called Ether Fields in the middle of 2010. She uploaded descriptions of her life, particularly her battle with mental illness, and images of models wearing trendy attire over the following two years.
In a blog entry from January 2012, Lam lamented having to abandon multiple classes due to a “relapse” at the beginning of the current academic year, which left her feeling “so utterly directionless and confused.” About a line from author Chuck Palahniuk, she used the title “You’re always bothered by the feeling you’re wasting your life” as her post title.
She utilized that passage as the blog’s epigraph. Lam was concerned that having so many withdrawals on her transcript would appear suspicious and prevent her from being able to continue her studies and enroll in graduate school.
Lam stated she would be leaving her blog for another she had begun on Tumblr, “Nouvelle-Nouveau,” just over two years after she first began to blog. Most of its posts were fashion photographs, inspirational quotes, and some of Lam’s writings.
The epigraph also featured a Palahniuk quote.
Both depression and bipolar disorder had been identified in Lam. She had received prescriptions for Wellbutrin, lamotrigine, quetiapine, Dexedrine Spansule, and venlafaxine to treat her mental health difficulties.
Lam had no history of suicidal thoughts or attempts, according to her family, who kept her mental illness a secret. However, one account suggested Lam had once briefly vanished. As Lam had a history of skipping doses of her bipolar meds, she frequently experienced hallucinations that led her to seek sanctuary under her bed.
At least once during one of these episodes, she was hospitalized.
Lam used Amtrak and intercity buses to travel alone to California. She went to the San Diego Zoo and shared images from her experience online. She arrived in Los Angeles on January 26. She stayed at the Cecil Hotel, close to Downtown’s Skid Row, for two days.
Lam was initially given a shared room on the hotel’s fifth floor. Still, after two days, her neighbors complained about what the hotel’s attorney would later refer to as “some unusual behavior,” Lam was transferred to a room alone.
Amy Price, who was in charge of the Cecil Hotel and Stayed on Main at the time of Lam’s disappearance, said that Lam was leaving “go home” and “go away” notes for her roommates and that she would lock the door to the room and demand a password to enter.
Lam attended a live taping of Conan in Burbank a few days before going missing, but security had to take her out of the building due to her behavior.
The Disappearance of Elisa Lam
Until the day she vanished, Lam made regular phone calls to her parents in British Columbia while abroad. Her family went to Los Angeles to assist with the search on January 31, 2013, when she was supposed to check out of the Hotel and depart for Santa Cruz.
When her parents did not hear from her that day, they contacted the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Lam was alone, according to hotel personnel who saw her that day. The only person who remembered seeing her that day was Katie Orphan, manager of The Last Bookstore, outside the hotel.
While receiving gifts for her family back home, “she was outgoing, very active, and extremely friendly,” according to Orphan, who spoke to CNN. Orphan explained, “[She was] discussing what book she was obtaining and whether or not what she was getting would be too hefty to tote around while she traveled.”
Police investigated the motel to the fullest extent permitted by law. Dogs were used to search Lam’s room and the entire building, including the rooftop, but they could not find her smell.
Sgt. Rudy Lopez later remarked, “But we didn’t check every room; we could only do that if we had a reasonable cause” to believe a crime had been committed. The LAPD decided that additional assistance was required on February 6, one week after Lam had been last seen.
She was featured on flyers that were distributed both locally and online. Using the media alerted the public to the situation.
Elevator Footage Of Elisa Lam
The LAPD published a video of Lam’s last known sighting, captured by a video surveillance camera on January 31 in one of Cecil’s elevators, on February 13 after another week had passed with no sign of Lam.
Lam acts strangely by herself in a little over two and a half minutes of video. She seems to push every button on the elevator control panel, looks into the hallway, and then occasionally exits the elevator while its doors open. She comes back, and when the doors don’t close, she goes; they do so later.
Due to Lam’s peculiar behavior, the video generated considerable analysis and discussion of the situation. It was widely circulated and received 3 million views and 40,000 comments on the Chinese video-sharing website Youku in its first ten days.
To explain her conduct, various explanations have surfaced. One of them was that Lam was attempting to maneuver the elevator vehicle so she could flee a person who was pursuing her. Some speculated that she might be using ecstasy or another party drug, but none were found in her system.
As her bipolar diagnosis was made public, the idea that she was experiencing a psychotic episode also gained traction.
Some viewers contended that the video had been altered before it was released. They asserted that in addition to the timestamp being obscured, some of the videos had been sped up, and nearly a minute had been cut out.
It’s possible that this was done to conceal the name of someone who would otherwise appear in the video, whether or not they were connected to the disappearance.
Discovery of Elisa Lam’s Body
Guests at the hotel started to gripe about the weak water pressure while Lam was being sought. Some people afterward said their water was dark in color and tasted strange. They mentioned that while they were in the shower, the water would come out putrid black for the first two seconds before changing to a normal color.
Santiago Lopez, a hotel maintenance worker, discovered Lam’s body on the morning of February 19 in one of the four 1,000-gallon (3,785 L) tanks on the roof and supplied water to the hotel’s guest rooms, kitchen, and coffee shop.
Lam could be seen face-up in the water through the open hatch. Since the maintenance hatch was too narrow to fit the tools required to remove Lam’s body, the tank was drained and cut open.
The Los Angeles coroner’s office announced on February 21 that the victim had drowned accidentally, with bipolar disorder playing a significant role. Lam’s body was discovered naked, and clothing that resembled what she was wearing in the elevator footage was floating in the water, coated with a “sand-like particulate,” according to the full coroner’s report, which was made public in June.
She was also discovered with her watch and room key.
Lam’s body was bloated and slightly decayed. Most of it was greenish, with some marbling and skin separation visible on the abdomen. No signs of physical harm, sexual assault, or suicide were present.
Testing for prescription pharmaceuticals found in her possessions and over-the-counter medicines, including Sinutab and ibuprofen, were detected. There was only a minor amount of alcohol (approximately 0.02 g%) and no other recreational substances.
According to investigators and specialists, the concentration of her prescribed pharmaceuticals in her system suggested that she was either under-medicating or had recently stopped taking her meds.
Investigation into the Death of Elisa Lam
Although the investigation had established how Lam had passed away, it had not previously explained how she had entered the tank. Only staff members have the passcodes and keys to the locked doors and stairs that go to the hotel’s roof, and any attempt to force them would ostensibly have set off an alert.
Her scent trail was lost close to a window that led to the hotel’s fire escape; she might have been able to get past those security measures there. The hotel’s roof was easily accessible via the fire escape, and two of the water tanks’ lids were open, according to a video uploaded to the Internet after Lam’s passing.
Some questioned whether she could have entered the tank independently in addition to how she got on the roof. There was no fixed access to the four tanks, so hotel staff had to use a ladder to view the water. Each tank was a 4-by-8-foot (1.2 by 2.4 m) cylinder raised on concrete blocks.
Heavy lids that would be challenging to replace from the inside served as their protection. The claim made by the hotel worker who discovered the body that the lid was open at the time resolves the question of how she might have closed the lid from the inside. It was never closed.
Soon after her disappearance was reported, police canines scoured the hotel for Lam and even looked on the top, but they could not locate her.
She may have taken unique combinations of such substances that a typical screen would not pick up on, or they may have broken down over the time her body decomposed in the tank, according to proponents of the argument that the elevator footage demonstrates she was under the influence of illegal narcotics.
The number of pills still in her prescription bottle and the shallow level of prescription medicines in her system suggested she was either under-medicating or had recently stopped taking her bipolar disorder medication, which might have caused a psychotic episode.
The autopsy report and its conclusions were also questioned based on the lacking details. For instance, it is not specified whether the fingernail and rape kits were processed or even the results of those kits.
Footage also shows subcutaneous blood accumulating in Lam’s anal region, which some observers believed indicates sexual assault. However, one pathologist commented that it might have been caused by bloating during the body’s decomposition. Moreover, her rectum was prolapsed.
The pathologists for the coroner had mixed feelings about their determination that Lam’s death was an accident.
Her Tumblr blog has been updated since her passing, most likely thanks to Tumblr’s Queue feature, which enables entries to go live automatically when the user isn’t online.
Neither her corpse nor her hotel room included her phone, which was missing. It is unknown whether the ongoing changes to her blog were made possible by the theft of her phone, a hacker, or the Queue. It is also unknown whether the updates are connected to her passing.
The hotel was accused of failing to “inspect and search out risks in the hotel that constituted an undue risk of danger to (Lam) and other hotel guests” in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Lam’s parents in September 2013.
The suit asked for unspecified damages as well as burial expenses. The hotel contended that it was still unclear how Lam gained access to the water tank, so no blame could be placed on it for failing to take reasonable precautions to prevent Lam from entering. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2015.
Elisa Lam in Popular Culture
There have been comparisons between Lam’s death and certain scenes in the 2005 horror movie Dark Water. In that movie, a mother and daughter move into a dilapidated apartment building, an American remake of an earlier Japanese film by the same name based on a short story by Koji Suzuki written in 1996.
They arrive at the building’s rooftop water tank, where they find the remains of a girl who had been reported missing from the building a year earlier after being led there by a broken elevator and tainted water flowing from the building’s faucets.
Creative works have drawn influence from the Lam case. The ABC drama Castle’s season finale for that year, “Watershed,” featured a New York police detective and the episode’s titular character, a mystery author, as detectives, aired in May 2013.
The two detectives in “Watershed” look into a young woman’s death after being discovered in the rooftop water tank of the “Cedric Hotel” in Manhattan; one piece of evidence is security footage of the woman captured in an elevator. She was ultimately discovered to have investigated another hotel visitor while pretending to be a sex worker.
How to Get Away with Murder, another ABC program, has a comparable plot. It is revealed via a sequence of flashbacks that span the first season, which debuted in 2014, that a sorority girl who went missing at the beginning of the season had been murdered.
Her body had been placed in the water tank on the sorority house’s roof. Similarly, it’s not until a maintenance person is called to the residence to fix a water pressure issue that her body is found.
The story also influenced filmmakers in Hong Kong, where Lam’s family had roots. The 2014 horror flick Hungry Ghost Ritual, directed by Nick Cheung, had a scene in which a ghost terrorizes a young woman in an elevator.
The sequence was staged to resemble security camera footage, much like the footage of Lam in the elevator at the Stay on Main. A year after Lam’s passing, filmmaker Liu Hao stated in mainland China that he would be developing a movie based on it.
Liu Hao personally traveled to Los Angeles and spent a few days at the Cecil conducting research. Gao Yuanyuan, an actress, has reportedly expressed interest in playing Lam in Chinese media.
A little over a year after Lam’s death, in March 2014, brothers Brandon and Philip Murphy sold The Bringing, a horror script that uses the investigation into it as the background for a fictional investigating detective’s increasingly deteriorating sanity.
They received harsh criticism for carrying out this action soon after the tragedy. The movie had previously been set up for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Still, in August, it was revealed that Jeremy Lovering would take up directing duties for Sony Pictures once shooting got underway.
The 2014 music video for “Old Mars” by Vancouver pop group The Zolas is meant to be an idealistic depiction of Lam’s final day, depicting a young woman taking in the sights and sounds of Los Angeles.
Singer Zach Gray attended UBC simultaneously with Lam and had a friend who knew Lam. “It upset me how tidily people explained away her absence with drugs or mental illness,” Gray said. “Even though it’s primarily fiction, we wanted people to view it and feel like she was a real girl—someone they knew—rather than just a police report,” the authors said.
The media conjectured that Lam’s passing inspired American Horror Story’s fifth season in 2015. Creator Ryan Murphy announced in late April that the upcoming season would take place in a hotel in modern-day Los Angeles.
He said that a security film of a young woman who “went into an elevator at a downtown hotel… [and] was never seen again” was his inspiration. Even though he omitted her name, it was assumed he was referring to Lam.
The tracks “Window Sash Weights” and “Stranger Than Paradise” from Sun Kil Moon’s 2017 album Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood expressly mention the incident and advocate for the theory that it was a hoax.
In an interview, Mark Kozelek, a band member, stated, “I’ve concluded that there were no fatalities in the water tank. The girl in the elevator cannot be recognized because of the pixelation on her face.”
BuzzFeed Unsolved investigated the case in March 2016, with hosts Ryan and Brent staying at the hotel and traveling to crucial locales.
The story of the 2018 horror movie Following, which has the elevator footage but has the body being discovered in a hotel’s basement, incorporates Lam’s case. The movie portrayed her actions in the elevator as part of “the Korean elevator game,” in which hitting buttons in a specific order conjures the ghosts of hotel guests who have passed away.
Based on Lam’s case, the industrial rock group SKYND published the single “Elisa Lam” in 2018. The music video recreates the security footage from the elevator.
A two-hour special on the Discovery+ program Ghost Adventures that premiered on January 4, 2021, looked into Lam’s death.
Crime Scene: The Disappearance at the Cecil Hotel, a four-episode docuseries that analyses Lam’s death, was announced by Netflix on January 13, 2021. It debuted on February 10, 2021.
RIP Elisa Lam.
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