Death of Elisa Lam
|Born||April 30, 1991|
|Disappeared||January 31, 2013 (aged 21)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Died||c. February 2, 2013 (aged 21)|
|Cause of death||Accidental drowning|
|Body discovered||February 19, 2013|
Stay on Main, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Hanyu Pinyin||Lán Kě'ér|
|Yale Romanization||Làahm Hó-yìh|
On February 19, 2013, a body was recovered from a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. It was later identified as that of Elisa Lam, also known by her Cantonese name, Lam Ho Yi (藍可兒; April 30, 1991 – February 2013), a Canadian student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She had been staying at the hotel when she was reported missing at the beginning of the month. A maintenance worker discovered the body when investigating guest complaints of problems with the water supply and pressure.
Her disappearance had been widely reported; interest had increased five days prior to the discovery of her body when the Los Angeles Police Department released a video of the last time she was known to have been seen, on the day of her disappearance, by an elevator security camera in the hotel. In the footage, Lam is seen exiting and re-entering the elevator, talking and gesturing in the hallway outside, and sometimes seeming to hide within the elevator. The video went viral on the internet, with many viewers reporting that they found it unsettling. Explanations ranged from claims of paranormal involvement to bipolar disorder, for which Lam took medication. It has also been argued that the video was altered prior to release.
The circumstances of Lam's death, once she was found, also raised questions, especially in light of the hotel's history in relation to other notable deaths and murders. Her body was naked with most of her clothes and personal effects floating in the water near her. It took the Los Angeles County Coroner's office four months, after repeated delays, to release the autopsy report, which reports no evidence of physical trauma and states that the manner of death was accidental. Guests at the Cecil, now re-branded as Stay on Main, sued the hotel over the incident and Lam's parents filed a separate suit later that year; the latter was dismissed in 2015. Some of the early Internet interest noted what were considered to be unusual similarities between Lam's death and the 2002 horror film Dark Water. The case has since been referenced in international popular culture. It was the subject of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, a four-part 2021 Netflix docuseries.
For her trip to California, Lam traveled alone on Amtrak and intercity buses. She visited the San Diego Zoo and posted photos taken there on social media. On January 26, she arrived in Los Angeles. After two days, she checked into the Cecil Hotel, near downtown's Skid Row. Lam was initially assigned a shared room on the hotel's fifth floor; however, her roommates complained about what the hotel's lawyer would later describe as "certain odd behavior" and Lam was moved to a room of her own after two days.
Built as a business hotel in the 1920s, the Cecil had significant financial difficulties during the Great Depression of the 1930s and never recaptured its original market as downtown decayed around it in the late 20th century. Several of Los Angeles' more notable murders have happened at or have connections to the hotel: in 1964, Goldie Osgood, the "Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square," was raped and murdered in her room at the Cecil, a crime that has never been solved. Serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez both resided at the Cecil while active. There have also been suicides, one of which also killed a pedestrian outside the front entrance of the hotel. After recent renovations, it has tried to market itself as a boutique hotel, but the reputation lingers. "The Cecil will reveal to you whatever it is you're a fugitive from," says Steve Erickson, a journalist who spent a night in the hotel after Lam's death.
Lam had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. She had been prescribed four medications – Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Seroquel and Effexor – to treat her disorders. According to her family, who supposedly kept her history of mental illness a secret, Lam had no history of suicidal ideations or attempts, although one report claimed she had previously gone missing for a brief period.
In mid-2010, Lam began a blog named Ether Fields on Blogspot. Over the next two years, she posted pictures of models in fashionable clothing and accounts of her life, particularly her struggle with mental illness. In a January 2012 blog post, Lam lamented that a "relapse" at the start of the current school term had forced her to drop several classes, leaving her feeling "so utterly directionless and lost." She titled her post, "You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life" after a quotation from novelist Chuck Palahniuk. She used that quote as an epigraph for her blog. Lam worried that her transcript would look suspicious with so many withdrawals and that it would result in her being unable to continue her studies and attend graduate school.
A little over two years after Lam had started blogging, she announced she would be abandoning her blog for another she had started on Tumblr, "Nouvelle-Nouveau". Its content mostly consisted of fashion photos, quotes and a few posts in Lam's own words. The same Palahniuk quotation was used as an epigraph.
Lam contacted her parents in British Columbia every day while traveling. On February 1, 2013, the day she was scheduled to check out of the Cecil and leave for Santa Cruz, her parents did not hear from her and called the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD); her family flew to Los Angeles to help with the search.
Hotel staff who saw Lam that day said she was alone. Outside the hotel, Katie Orphan, manager of a nearby bookstore, was the only person who recalled seeing her that day. "She was outgoing, very lively, very friendly" while getting gifts to take home to her family, Orphan told CNN. "[She was] talking about what book she was getting and whether or not what she was getting would be too heavy for her to carry around as she traveled," Orphan added.
Police searched the hotel to the extent that they legally could. They searched Lam's room and had dogs go through the building, including the rooftop, but the canines were unsuccessful in detecting her scent. "But we didn't search every room," Sgt. Rudy Lopez said later, "we could only do that if we had probable cause" to believe a crime had been committed. On February 6, a week after Lam had last been seen, the LAPD decided more help was needed. Flyers with her image were posted in the neighborhood and online. It brought the case to the public's attention through the media.
On February 15, after another week with no sign of Lam, the LAPD released a video of the last known sighting of her taken in one of the Cecil's elevators by a video surveillance camera on February 1. In approximately two and a half minutes of footage, Lam, alone, makes unusual moves and gestures, leaving the elevator at one point while its doors remain open, even after she appears to have pressed every button. When the doors fail to close after she returns, she leaves; the doors close later.
The video drew worldwide interest in the case due to Lam's strange behavior, and has been extensively analyzed and discussed. It was reposted widely, including on the Chinese video-sharing site Youku, where it got 3 million views and 40,000 comments in its first 10 days. Many of the commentators found it unsettling to watch.
Several theories evolved to explain her actions. One was that Lam was trying to get the elevator car to move in order to escape from someone who was pursuing her. Others suggested that she might be under the influence of ecstasy or some other party drug, but none was detected in her body. When her bipolar disorder became known, the theory that she was having a psychotic episode also emerged.
Other viewers argued that the video had been tampered with before being made public. Besides the obscuring of the timestamp, they claimed, parts had been slowed down and nearly a minute of footage had been removed. This could have been done to protect the identity of someone who otherwise would be in the video, either related or not to the disappearance.
Discovery of body
During the search for Lam, guests at the hotel began complaining about low water pressure. Some later claimed their water was colored black and had an unusual taste. On the morning of February 19, Santiago Lopez, a hotel maintenance worker, found Lam's body in one of four 1,000-gallon (3,785 L) tanks located on the roof providing water to guest rooms, a kitchen, and a coffee shop. Through the open hatch he saw Lam lying face-up in the water. The tank was drained and cut open since its maintenance hatch was too small to accommodate equipment needed to remove Lam's body.
On February 21, the Los Angeles coroner's office issued a finding of accidental drowning, with bipolar disorder as a significant factor. The full coroner's report, released in June, stated that Lam's body had been found naked; clothing similar to what she was wearing in the elevator video was floating in the water, coated with a "sand-like particulate." Her watch and room key were also found with her.
Lam's body was moderately decomposed and bloated. It was mostly greenish, with some marbling evident on the abdomen and skin separation evident. There was no evidence of physical trauma, sexual assault, or suicide. Toxicology tests showed traces consistent with prescription medication found among her belongings, plus nonprescription drugs such as Sinutab and ibuprofen. A very small quantity of alcohol (about 0.02 g%) was present, but no other recreational drugs. Investigators and experts have however noted that the concentration of her prescription drugs in her system indicated that she was under-medicating or had stopped taking her medications recently.
The investigation had determined how Lam died, but did not initially offer an explanation as to how she got into the tank in the first place. Doors and stairs that access the hotel's roof are locked, with only staff having the passcodes and keys, and any attempt to force them would supposedly have triggered an alarm. The hotel's fire escape could have allowed her to bypass those security measures; her scent trail was lost near a window that connected to it. A video posted to the Internet by a Chinese user after Lam's death showed that the hotel's roof was easily accessible via the fire escape and that two of the lids of the water tanks were open.
Apart from the question of how she got on the roof, others asked if she could have gotten into the tank by herself. All four tanks were 4-by-8-foot (1.2 by 2.4 m) cylinders propped up on concrete blocks; there was no fixed access to them and hotel workers had to use a ladder to look at the water. They were protected by heavy lids that would be difficult to replace from within. The hotel employee who found the body said that the lid was open at the time, removing the issue of how she could have closed the lid from inside. Police dogs that searched through the hotel for Lam, even on the roof, shortly after her disappearance was noted, did not find any trace of her.
Theories arose pertaining to the elevator video. Some argued that she was attempting to hide from a pursuer, perhaps someone ultimately responsible for her death, while others said she was merely frustrated with the elevator's apparent malfunction. Some proponents of the theory that she was under the influence of illicit drugs are not dissuaded by their absence from the toxicology screen, suggesting that they might have broken down during the period of time her body decomposed in the tank or that she might have taken rare cocktails of such drugs that a normal screen would not detect. The very low level of her prescription drugs in her system, and the amount of pills left in her prescription bottle, suggested she was under-medicating or had recently stopped taking her medication for bipolar disorder, which might have led to a psychotic episode.
The autopsy report and its conclusions were also questioned based on the incomplete information. For instance, it does not say what the results of the rape kit and fingernail kit were or even if they were processed. It also records subcutaneous pooling of blood in Lam's anal area, which some observers suggested was a sign of sexual abuse; one pathologist noted it could also have resulted from bloating in the course of the body's decomposition, and her rectum was also prolapsed. Even the coroner's pathologists appeared to be ambivalent about their conclusion that Lam's death was accidental.
Since her death, her Tumblr blog was updated, presumably through Tumblr's Queue option that allows posts to automatically publish themselves when the user is away. Her phone was not found either with her body or in her hotel room; it has been assumed to have been stolen at some time around her death. Whether the continued updates to her blog were facilitated by the theft of her phone, the work of a hacker, or through the Queue, is not known; nor is it known whether the updates are related to her death.
In September 2013, Lam's parents filed a wrongful death suit, claiming the hotel failed to "inspect and seek out hazards in the hotel that presented an unreasonable risk of danger to (Lam) and other hotel guests" and seeking unspecified damages and burial costs. The hotel argued it could not have reasonably foreseen that Lam might have entered the water tanks and since it remained unknown how Lam got to the water tank, no liability could be assigned for failing to prevent it. In 2015, the suit was dismissed.
In popular culture
The circumstances of Lam's death have been compared to plot elements in the 2005 horror film Dark Water. In that film, an American remake of an earlier Japanese film of the same name based on a 1996 short story by Koji Suzuki, a mother and daughter move into a rundown apartment building. A dysfunctional elevator and discolored water gushing from the building's faucets eventually lead them to the building's rooftop water tank, where they discover the body of a girl who had been reported missing from the building a year earlier.
As life had imitated art with Dark Water, the creators of films and television shows used the Lam case as inspiration for their own works. In May 2013, the episode "Watershed" aired as that year's season finale of the ABC series Castle, in which a New York police detective and the title character, a mystery novelist, investigate crimes. In "Watershed," the duo pursue leads in the death of a young woman found dead in the rooftop water tank of the "Cedric Hotel" in Manhattan; among the evidence is a surveillance video of the woman taken in an elevator. Ultimately she is found to have been posing as a sex worker in order to investigate another guest at the hotel.
Another ABC series, How to Get Away with Murder, had a similar story line. Over a series of flashbacks spread out across the first season, which began airing in 2014, it is revealed that a sorority girl missing at the start of the season was murdered and that her body has been hidden in the water tank on the roof of the sorority house. Similarly, her body is only discovered when a maintenance worker is called to the house to address a water pressure issue.
In Hong Kong, from where Lam's family had emigrated to Vancouver, filmmakers were also inspired by the case. Nick Cheung, an accomplished actor in Hong Kong films, made his directorial debut in 2014 with Hungry Ghost Ritual, a horror thriller that includes a scene in which a ghost terrorizes a young woman in an elevator, shot to look like security-camera footage and believed to have been inspired by the Cecil's Lam footage. In mainland China, director Liu Hao announced a year after Lam's death that he would be making a film based on it; he went to Los Angeles himself and stayed for a few days at the Cecil doing research. Chinese media have reported that actress Gao Yuanyuan may be interested in playing Lam.
In March 2014, a little over a year after Lam's death, brothers Brandon and Philip Murphy sold a horror script, titled The Bringing, that uses the investigation into it as a backstory for a fictional investigating detective's slowly unraveling sanity. They were widely criticized for doing this so soon after the death. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was originally slated to direct the film, but in August it was announced that Jeremy Lovering would direct the film for Sony Pictures whenever production began.
The 2014 video for Vancouver pop duo The Zolas' "Ancient Mars" is meant to be an idealized representation of Lam's last day, showing a young woman exploring Los Angeles and taking in simple pleasures. "It bugged me how tidily people explained away her disappearance with drugs or mental illness," said singer Zach Gray, who attended UBC around the same time and had a friend who knew Lam. "Though it's mostly fiction we wanted people to see it and feel like she was a real girl and a familiar girl and not just a police report." Later that year, the American post-hardcore band Hail the Sun wrote "Disappearing Syndrome," also inspired by Lam's story. "It's such a chilling and eerie case," said the band's guitarist, Aric Garcia, in a Reddit Ask Me Anything.
In 2015, the media speculated that the fifth season of American Horror Story was inspired by Lam's death. In late spring, creator Ryan Murphy said the next season would be set in a hotel in present-day Los Angeles. He was inspired, he added, by a surveillance video of a young woman who "got into an elevator at a downtown hotel ... [and] was never seen again." He did not use her name but it was believed he was talking about Lam. In 2017, Sun Kil Moon released the songs "Window Sash Weights" and "Stranger Than Paradise" as part of their album Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood (2017); the songs specifically reference the event and promote the idea that it was a hoax. Band member Mark Kozelek said in an interview "I've come to the conclusion that nobody died in the water tank. There’s no way to identify the girl on the elevator, as her face is pixelated."
Lam's case was incorporated into the plot of the 2018 horror film Followed, which shows the elevator footage, but instead has the body being found in a hotel's basement. Her behavior in the elevator was explained in the film as her playing "the Korean elevator game", in which pressing buttons in a certain order summons ghosts of people who died in the hotel.
In 2019, the studio ACKK, creators of the video game YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, mentioned Lam's death as an inspiration during a Reddit AMA, saying that "Her suffering was influential in the development in the game." The game featured an animated recreation of the elevator surveillance video, with a main character from the game taking the part of Lam. The developers faced criticism for making use of elements of Lam's death in a way that was perceived as exploitative.
- Deaths in February 2013
- List of drowning victims
- List of Internet phenomena in China
- List of unusual deaths
- Geetha Angara homicide, unsolved 2005 New Jersey case in which the victim drowned in a water tank
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Is Lila Stangard inspired by Elisa Lam?
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