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The Truly Bizarre Unexplained Death of Elisa Lam

In the world of strange disappearances and deaths, occasionally there is one particularly imbued with odd events and bizarreness that lurches out to capture the public imagination and lodge itself into the annals of the truly weird. These are the cases which surround themselves with nearly impenetrable clues, and taunt us with inexplicable details and strangeness that seem to get ever more deeply weird the more we look at them and try to understand them. One such unsolved death is the tragic case of a young woman who died under enigmatic circumstances and left behind clues that not only deepen the mystery but which continue to baffle and stir the imagination and debate to this day. It is a disappearance and death which has launched itself into the pantheon of the most amazingly mysterious, bizarre, and most talked about deaths in modern history, and which is shrouded in shadows of the supernatural, high strangeness, and disturbing synchronicity.

In January of 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, embarked on a solo trip around the West Coast of the United States. Her intention was to visit San Diego, then work her way up through Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and finally San Francisco, and she wrote extensively about her plans on social media sites such as Tumblr and Facebook, as well as her own blog. She travelled alone, using trains and buses to creep from one destination to the next, and all in all it seemed like a rather exciting adventure. During the first leg of her “West Coast Tour,” as she liked to call it, Lam regularly contacted friends and family, as well as posting photos online of herself in various locations, such as at the Sand Diego Zoo, and she finally arrived in Los Angeles on January 26.

Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam

Lam checked into the Cecil Hotel, a modest budget hotel located just a few blocks from the infamous downtrodden Skid Row area of Los Angeles. At this point, things were already taking a turn for the spooky, as Lam was originally intended to share a room with others, but was moved to her own room when the roommates complained of her “certain odd behavior.” Then, on January 31, 2013, Elisa Lam simply disappeared. Social media posts abruptly stopped and Lam’s daily correspondence with her parents inexplicably ceased. A search was organized and Lam’s parents flew out to Los Angeles to help with the search efforts as well, and disappearance would be widely reported in the news, yet no evidence was found and no one was sure of what had become of her. The police had the entire hotel searched from top to bottom as much as was possible, as well as the roof, and dogs were also used to go through the roof and each floor, but they were unable to pick up any trail of Lam and nothing was found at the time. It was as if she had just stepped off the face of the earth.

There were only a few scant clues turned up. Hotel staff reported that Lam had been alone that day but seemingly in good spirits, and a nearby bookstore employee claims that Lam came in shopping there and that she had been lively and very friendly. Other than that there was nothing. Increasingly frustrated authorities began posting flyers around the area imploring people to come forward with the missing woman’s whereabouts, and in the meantime came forth with what would be the first bizarre piece of the puzzle of one of the weirdest unsolved deaths in recent memory, in the form of a curious, creepy piece of elevator surveillance video footage which seems to be the last time anyone saw Lam alive.

The footage is bizarre to say the least. In the video, Lam can be seen entering the elevator wearing a red zippered hooded sweatshirt over a gray T-shirt, as well as black shorts and sandals. Her behavior is decidedly odd and erratic from the start. After getting on the elevator, she frantically presses some of the elevator buttons but nothing happens and the elevator doors don’t shut. She seems agitated about something and also wary, as if someone is following her. When the elevator doors fail to close, she peeks outside of the door several times, looks both ways, and then quickly moves to the wall of the elevator and cowers out of sight as she keeps her eyes fixed towards the outside hallway.

A still from the elevator surveillance footage

A still from the elevator surveillance footage

She also cautiously exits the elevator and seems to playfully hop before stepping back into the elevator and then out again. The whole time her hands are in her pockets. She then steps almost out of sight around the corner and pulls her hands out of her pockets to put them up to her ears before stepping back into the elevator and frantically pushing buttons again, seeming to methodically push them in a line up and down the panel. She paces about and puts her hands up to her ears, and goes out of the elevator again as if expecting someone. At this point she can clearly be seen to be talking to someone who is off camera, as well as making a series of strange gestures, rubbing her forearms together, moving her hands and twisting them about about in strange, almost arcane looking movements and gesticulations, wringing her hands together, and waving her arms out to her sides with fingers outstretched, and she also seems to bow and rock back and forth slightly. It should be noted that the elevator doors remain open this entire time. Lam then walks to the left and off camera. After a few moments, the doors finally close, almost as if on cue. This is the last time anyone saw her alive. You can see the whole creepy video for yourself here.

The strange, rather disturbing video immediately went viral as soon as it was released, with its spooky, unsettling imagery and almost horror movie-like quality. What was the meaning of Lam’s odd behavior and gestures and why didn’t the elevator doors close the whole time until after she had stepped off camera for good, as if intentionally timed that way? In light of the mysterious disappearance a lot of theories made the rounds at the time. One was that she was trying to escape some unseen pursuer who was following her, which would explain her clearly evasive behavior and apparent desire to hide. Another was that she was high on some kind of party drug such as ecstasy. It would later become known that Lam had long suffered from depression and bipolar personality disorder, and that maybe she was having some sort of breakdown or psychotic episode in the footage. No one knew, indeed we still don’t, but the video would take an even more urgent, sinister quality when coupled with the gruesome discovery that would be made not long after.

A few weeks after Lam’s strange disappearance, hotel residents began to complain of low water pressure, and strange-tasting, discolored water, and on February 19, 2013 a worker was sent to check out the hotel’s water tanks, which lie suspended 10 feet over a heavily secured area with alarm systems in place. When one of the water tanks was opened, inside was found the waterlogged corpse of Elisa Lam, finally found nearly 3 weeks after she had mysteriously disappeared. She was completely nude, covered in a sand-like substance, with her clothes and belongings bobbing about in the murky water beside her. It was later determined that she had been floating about and decomposing in the fetid tank for weeks.

The Cecil Hotel

The Cecil Hotel

This was very odd on its own, because the rooftop was fairly well secured, with a myriad of alarm systems, none of which had been set off. Furthermore, the tank was in a difficult to reach spot and there was no ladder at the scene, meaning that the slight 5.5ft, 121 lb. Lam would have had to have gruelingly hauled herself up to the tank, undress, and then plunge herself in along with her stuff. It seemed strange that she would have been able to get into the water tank to begin with and no one could figure any of it out. Speculation and questions at the time raged. How could such a slight woman have managed to get past the security measures, drag herself up into the water tank, and then close the heavy door to lock herself in to drown? Why had she taken off her clothes, yet taken them with her into the tank? Did she do this on her own or was this foul play? The strange circumstances in which Lam’s body was found would only propel the case further into the realms of the bizarre, and the mysterious death began to draw around it a cloak of various strangeness and spooky synchronicity.

First was that weird surveillance footage, which took on a new, menacing quality with the macabre discovery of the body. With the finding of the body, the odd elevator video footage was once again thrust into the limelight and subjected to intense scrutiny. For some, it merely showed a frustrated young woman trying to get the elevator to work, with the exiting, reentering, and weird hand gestures merely a way to try and get the elevator’s sensors to register her so the doors would close, and her agitation normal for someone having technical difficulties with a machine. However, if this is the case then why does she clearly seem to be hiding from someone and who is she talking to off screen? Also, why does the door appear to work only after she has left and not in the several minutes we see her on video?

A still from the footage showing strange gesticulations

A still from the footage showing strange gesticulations

Another idea is that this was some sort of breakdown or episode related to her ongoing depression. Lam had long been struggling with mental health issues, which she often lamented online in her blog, which had as its slogan the haunting quote by author Chuck Palahniuk: “You’re always haunted by the idea you’re wasting your life.” Lam had been taking several different medications for her condition, including Wellbutrin and Lamictil, and seemed to be coping well for the most part, but at one point she claims that she had had a “relapse,” although it is unclear what sort of relapse she is talking about. Her blog offers other clues to her mental condition as well. Her tone seems to fluctuate wildly from happy and outgoing to morose, brooding, and self-deprecating depending on the day and sometimes even within the same post. She also mentions having been raped at one point, and the way she breeches the subject of her assault seems to be eerily detached, matter-of-fact, and peppered with dark humor. As for her actual trip to California, she seemed to be very upbeat and excited about it, often gushing to friends and family about all of the places she planned on seeing.

It is speculated that this depression and mental instability had spiraled into full blown bi-polar disorder and psychosis, and that Lam ended up killing herself in a fit of madness. Perhaps she had gone off her medication and finally lost her grip on sanity, and what we see in the video is her finally losing her hold upon it. However, many friends and family have pointed out that she had been very happy and well-adjusted during her trip, and that she had been looking forward to going back to school. She also mentions in one blog post that she was in love with someone. Although she had obvious mental health issues and was battling depression, and there was the matter of her original hotel roommates complaining that she was acting strangely, there don’t seem to be any red flags that mark Lam as being particularly suicidal throughout her blog posts and contact with her friends and family prior to and during her travels.

Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam

Also, if it was a suicide, then again, how did she manage to get herself into that water tank? Access to the tank was very restricted, with various barricades barring entry and alarm systems that were later determined to have been in perfect working order at the time of Lam’s death, yet they had not been set off. The water tank lid was also extremely heavy, being difficult for even one grown man to budge, let alone a slight woman like Lam, making it seem highly unlikely she could have gotten into the tank on her own. By all accounts the tank was intentionally difficult to access for the very purpose of keeping people from wandering in and contaminating the hotel’s water supply. Indeed, the water tank was so difficult to to that authorities ended up cutting it open to reach the body. Even now no one is quite sure exactly how Lam had gotten to the roof and managed to get into that tank.

There are other theories to Lam’s death as well. It has been suggested that she may have been under the influence of some sort of drug, yet this theory is hampered by the fact that toxicology reports turned up no signs of drugs or alcohol in her system, and Lam had absolutely no history of drug or alcohol abuse to begin with. The whole story of Lam’s autopsy report itself also has a rather sinister undercurrent. From when the body was found, it took 4 months and many delays before the report was finally released, even though it was originally announced that it would be released the week after Lam’s death. Additionally, authorities were strangely nontransparent, evasive, and uncooperative with press during the entire ordeal. In the end, it was officially announced that there had been no signs of trauma on the body and no evidence of foul play or drug overdose. Lam’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, and it was surmised that she had gone to the tank on her own, possibly in a mentally unstable state, and then either entered and could not get back out, or jumped in to commit suicide. It was also speculated that the tank might have been full when she entered and that the water level had dropped through water use to the point that she could not have gotten out again even if she had wanted to.

The Cecil Hotel water tanks

The Cecil Hotel water tanks

So, the question is why did it take 4 months and numerous delays for authorities to come up with that? It seems like something that could have been determined rather quickly, so why all of the major delays? Also, why were authorities so evasive and obscure about Lam’s death in general? Several residents of the 4th floor of the Cecil Hotel, where Lam had been staying, later claimed that the police had not once interviewed them while the investigation was taking place. That certainly seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? This has all caused some to consider that perhaps there was some sort of cover-up being perpetrated, and that there is a conspiracy permeating the Lam case. This has further been bolstered by claims that the elevator video footage has been tampered with and edited. Indeed, it has been pointed out by some astute amateur sleuths that the original, full video appears to have been discreetly replaced with a shorter version missing a minute of footage, and that some parts appear to have been slowed down or changed in some way. There is indeed a time jump that can be seen in the video, which seems odd. If any of this is true, then why was the video altered? Was it to hide something and if so, what? No one really knows.

Obviously, with all of the facts concerning the difficulty in accessing the water tank, the bizarre surveillance video, the delayed autopsy report, and Lam’s mental state at the time, there are many who absolutely do not buy the official report, and the case only gets weirder from here. Another piece of evidence that has turned up is another piece of hotel surveillance footage that shows Lam entering the building with two men under mysterious circumstances. One police detective on the case described the footage thus:

We did see her come in with two gentlemen. She had — they had a box, gave it to her. She went up into her — to the elevator. We never saw them again on video.

This has led to the idea that perhaps these men had something to do with Lam’s demise, but there is no hard evidence to that effect and the footage remains merely an odd curiosity. The main piece of evidence is overwhelmingly the final elevator footage of Lam, and of course the extremely odd behavior displayed in the video has led to ideas that Lam was not suffering from a mental breakdown at all, but was rather in thrall to some supernatural force or trying to escape from one. This is where things take a turn from inexplicable and odd into downright bizarre territory, as such a far-out, supernatural explanation doesn’t seem so incredibly absurd in light of the Cecil Hotel’s rather dark and ominous history.

The Cecil Hotel, Los Angeles

The Cecil Hotel, Los Angeles

The Cecil Hotel originally started as a moderately upscale hotel in the 1920s for business clientele, but when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s the area around it deteriorated and the hotel devolved into a cheap accommodation for a variety of riffraff, transients, and unsavory characters. Among the shady characters who came through the Cecil Hotel’s doors were two of history’s most notorious serial killers, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez and Jack Unterweger. Ramirez stayed in a room on the top floor of the hotel in 1985, at a time when he was very active, claiming 13 victims during his stay here. After his grim work, allegedly Ramirez would come back to the hotel to dump his bloodied clothes in the hotel dumpster and then enter through a back door. Unterweger was an Austrian serial killer who went on a murderous rampage across several countries killing prostitutes, and he also stayed at the Cecil Hotel in 1991, during which time he killed three prostitutes in the Los Angeles area; a Shannon Exley, Irene Rodriguez, and Sherri Ann Long, who he beat, sexually assaulted, and strangled with their own bras. Authorities believe that Unterweger chose the Cecil Hotel specifically because Ramirez had stayed there.

There is also a long history of numerous suicides at the Cecil Hotel, especially during the 50s and 60s, when it was a popular spot for people to end their own lives by jumping from the windows of the upper floors. In one instance, a Pauline Otton, 27, hurled herself out of a 9th floor window and landed on a passerby, George Gianinni, 65, with both of them killed instantly. In addition to all of the suicides was the murder of one of the hotel’s residents, a “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood, so nicknamed because he often fed the pigeons at a nearby park. On June 4, 1964 he was found dead in his hotel room after having been beaten, raped, stabbed, and strangled, not necessarily in that order. No perpetrator was ever found and his murder remains unsolved to this day.

Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker

Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker

Another famous rumor is that the Cecil Hotel was one of the last places where Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, stayed before her grisly unsolved murder in 1947, although LA crime historian Kim Cooper has said that Short in fact never stayed at the hotel and that this story is just a rumor. In her murder, Short was found dead in Leimert Park, Los Angeles and had been drained of blood, cut in half at the waist, mutilated, and had had a smile cut into her face with a knife. Although the horrific crime has never been solved, it is thought to have perhaps been a ritual killing.

Considering this sinister history, it has been speculated that Lam could have been under the influence of, or even full on possessed by, some sort of malevolent supernatural force inhabiting the hotel. This could explain her erratic behavior on the final surveillance footage taken of her, as well as the fact that the elevator door wouldn’t close. Alternatively, she may have been trying to escape some entity that was stalking her through the halls. According to these theories, Lam was eventually killed due to being in thrall to, possessed by, or captured by these forces, and that is how she was able to end up in the tank. Many have even claimed that if you look hard enough you can see a shadow or ghostly form in the video. Of course there is no concrete evidence really that there was any supernatural aspect to Lam’s death, but the strange video footage, the Cecil Hotel’s menacing history, and the weird circumstances under which Lam’s body was found certainly make this a spooky theory to be sure.

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To top off all of this strangeness and talk of haunted or cursed hotels are the myriad strange coincidences and instances of synchronicity surrounding Lam’s death, to the point that it is hard to even know where to start. One such case concerns an outbreak of a drug resistant form of tuberculosis that rampaged through the seedy nearby Skid Row area around the time of Lam’s death. In a chilling display of startling synchronicity, the field screening kit used by medical personnel during the outbreak was called the LAM-ELISA test, or Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent assay. Tuberculosis probably had nothing to do with Lam’s death, but it must be noted that one of the drugs used to treat the disease, called Isoniazid, has the possible side effect of confusion and abnormal behavior. Whether TB had anything to do with Lam’s death or not, it is hard not to be at least a little spooked by this coincidence.

Another coincidence that has made heavy rounds in the debate of Lam’s death is the similarity between this death and the 2002 Japanese horror movie Dark Water. In the film, a young girl dies when she falls into the water tank of a run-down apartment building while trying to retrieve her dropped bag. She drowns and the water from the tank leaks down into the building below to haunt it with her spirit. The movie saw an American remake in 2005, which stars Jennifer Connelly and Dougray Scott. The American version further adds to the weird coincidences with two of the characters’s names. In the film, one of the characters is named Dahlia, like The Black Dahlia said to have stayed at the hotel, and another character is named Cecilia, similar to the name Cecil Hotel. Both movies also contain scenes of mysteriously malfunctioning elevators. Is this all just weird coincidence or is there anything more to it? Who knows?

Japanese poster for the original Dark Water film

Japanese poster for the original Dark Water film

Other bits of weirdness that have come out of the woodwork as the video is relentlessly picked apart and studied is the sequence of buttons Lam pushes in the elevator, which many observers agree seem to be “14, 10, 7, 4, B and Block/Hold.” Several posters on forums on the matter claim that Lam is playing an urban legend game, called “The Elevator Game,” that is supposedly popular in South Korea and in which a person is said to be able to travel to different dimensions if they follow a set of rules and an order of button pushing while riding an elevator. A perhaps even weirder theory is that these numbers correspond to the John Chapter 4 and then verse 7, 10 and 14 of the New King James Version Bible, which read as follows:

(John 4:7) A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her “Give me a drink” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.

(John 4:10) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of god, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.

(John 4:14) but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.

DEMONIC-WOMAN

Again, is this just simple coincidence or people reading too much into things? After all, people all over the Internet have found amalgams of the name Elisa Lam hiding in everything from the Bible to Greek Tragedies and writings by Plato, to works by the infamous mystic Aleister Crowley, but it seems that if one looks hard enough they can find an amalgam to any name in anything, and make whatever connection or assign any importance they want to it. Is there any meaning to these coincidences or just the meaning people give them? Or is there really no such thing as true coincidence and real meaning is to be found buried here if one is able to find it?

One last strange little mystery to the case of Elisa Lam is that her Tumblr account continued to post pictures up to 6 months after she died, and there was an update to her blog after her death as well. While certainly creepy, authorities have speculated that this is probably just because she had set up her account to automatically post images for a given amount of time. Whether that’s the case or not, it is definitely an eerie detail.

The Elisa Lam case has become one of the most haunting, debated, and intensely picked apart mysterious deaths in recent memory, and for good reason. What brought this young woman with such a promising future to this hotel? What happened to her in that video footage? Are we looking at a woman having a psychotic breakdown, or is there something more ominous and malevolent going on? Was her death a suicide, a murder, or something even more mysterious? How did she find herself in that water tank and why? And what of all of the disturbing coincidences and unsettling synchronicity orbiting her death? Just what in the world happened to Elisa Lam? These are questions that we will likely never know the answers to, and Elisa Lam’s bizarre death will probably remain forever mysterious and unresolved to any satisfactory degree.