Brianna Wilson
Managing Editor

Warning: This article discusses death (suicide and murder) and bipolar disorder. Please read with caution.

We have just passed the eighth anniversary of her death, and we are looking at the day she was found dead in a water tank at L.A.’s Stay on Main Hotel, formerly known as the Cecil Hotel. Elisa Lam, a Canada native, was 21 years old when she traveled to L.A. with a group of friends from college. The day before she was supposed to return home, she vanished. Both the hotel and her family contacted authorities, but she was not discovered until some of Cecil’s guests complained about dark, funny-tasting water in the hotel. That is when a worker went to the roof to check on the tanks to find Lam’s body, naked (though her clothes were in the water, as well) and drowned in one of them.

Years later, no one knows what exactly happened to Lam, and people are still exploring theories. These range from foul play, to an unfortunate accident, to paranormal involvement, the lattermost of which was influenced by the video, taken by a camera in one of the hotel’s elevators, of Lam before her death. Because there is so much mystery involved in this case, her unexplained death and the accidental recovery of her body has, naturally, brought up a lot of questions.


How exactly did Lam get on the roof?

The fact that Lam was able to get up to the roof has been one of the biggest clues, for a long time, that there was foul play involved in her death. Getting to the roof from the inside of the building would have alerted someone, as the door leading to the roof would have set off an alarm. There is a way to the roof through the fire escapes, though, and a recent development concludes that she may have used this method to get there. Sniffer dogs taken to the Cecil Hotel tracked Lam’s scent to a window that led to a fire escape, but lost her scent once they were outside. Was this window in the room that Lam stayed in when she was in the hotel? Chances are, yes. Will we ever know that for sure? Probably not.

Netflix’s recent documentary on the case also revealed that the lid of the water tank was actually open when Elisa Lam was discovered. This is news to people who had been following this case before the documentary was released. Even the coroner had originally said that the lid was closed, and the worker who found her was often reported as saying the lid was closed, but the latch was undone. The water tank’s lid was around 20 pounds, which is not too heavy for the average person to lift.

One of the most sound theories came from an article by Beatrice Verhoeven, “Maybe, then, she saw the water tank as a place to hide, so she opened the hatch and jumped in. However, she then realized the hatch was the only way out and knew she had to tread water to stay alive. She undressed to lighten the load — leading to hypothermia as well.” Although there is no way to confirm this, it is, based on the evidence, most likely what happened to Lam.


Were there no cameras in the hotel besides the one in the elevator?

Seriously, where did Lam go after stepping out of the elevator? In the infamous video of some of her last moments alive, we see her step out of the elevator, remain just outside of it, gesturing to seemingly no one for just under a minute, and then walk down the hall, disappearing from frame. The elevator travels through a few floors, and then the video ends. The Cecil Hotel did not have cameras on every floor, and the floor that Lam was staying on happened to be one lacking that security. Surrounding the dates that Lam was missing, none of the cameras captured her; hotel staff said they did not see her exit the building from the lobby, so she must have remained inside the building that whole time.


On the topic of the elevator video: what on earth was going on in there? Was she trying to play the elevator game?

To the former question: we will never know for sure what she was thinking or doing in the elevator that day. To the latter question: this might not have anything at all to do with her death unless you believe in paranormal activity. See, the “elevator game” believes in the existence of another dimension that you can get to through any elevator. It originated in Korea and has extreme ties to paranormal activity, including a woman that you are not supposed to interact with under any circumstances. It is another one of those ‘bloody Mary’ type ‘games;’ they seem really ridiculous unless you actually believe in that kind of stuff. You can imagine that detectives in this case are not going to settle for what so many internet sleuths have tried to conclude as the cause of her strange behavior.

For those who are more grounded in reality, Lam’s movement was still very strange. At first, many speculated that she was running away from someone. She hid in the corner of the elevator and seemed frantic when she stepped out to look down the hallway. Then it came out that Lam had bipolar disorder and was off her medication, which sparked an influx of people assuming she was having an episode, and that her movements would remain unexplained. Still, she did look frantic and paranoid to many. Eight years later, though, we are still gathering new information and theories about this video. Body language analysis experts claim that, throughout the video, Lam was not consistently nervous or afraid. In fact, she was rather mischievous and even flirty at points. Does this mean she was not running away from someone? That would make sense, given no one else was captured on the tape.

There is a little more to it, though, in the form of another conspiracy theory: hotel staff may have tampered with the video. It is extremely blurry and grainy for something from 2013, but the Cecil Hotel has always been a cheap one, which we can just assume by the fact that not every floor had cameras. Some noticed, though, in examining the video, that there were strange cuts in it: 1:50 and 2:57 are the most obvious ones. People have speculated that there is an entire minute of footage missing. Amy Price, the former manager at the Cecil Hotel, disputed these theories, claiming that the hotel “cooperated with the police 100 percent. [ . . . ] There wasn’t even a chance to even look at the tapes myself, I just handed them over. I provided a room for them to review them and that’s exactly what they did.”


Why were so many details so fuzzy anyway?

The true crime cases that remain unsolved are full of various details that just do not make sense together, and, unfortunately, it is likely that the pieces will never fit together. A lot of the mystery surrounding Lam’s case seems to boil down to miscommunication and the hotel being terrified of another tragedy (which we will discuss briefly later). One discrepancy that was not previously discussed is the timeline of Lam’s disappearance. Many sources cite that she was last seen alive on Jan. 31, but the elevator video was taken on Feb. 1 — the same day she was reported missing by her family — and her date of death is officially cited as Feb. 2. Granted, Jan. 31 is likely the last day she was seen outside of the hotel, and it is likely that she remained in her room, which was found in disarray.

The time between the elevator video and her death does not make sense, though, unless the video was taken very late at night, and Lam somehow remained in the wind up until that point. It is still a very odd timeline, though, given that the hotel’s check-out time is 12:00 and red flags were raised by hotel staff when she failed to check out on Feb. 1. That leaves us with at least 12 hours where Lam was entirely unaccounted for. Unless the date of her death is off, which is very possible given the difficulties investigators faced in examining her body, the timeline is pretty wonky.

Following Netflix’s documentary, which cleaned up a lot of the foggy details of the case, it is looking more and more like Lam’s case was a very unfortunate accident surrounding her mental state. This does not completely rule out foul play, and, for some, paranormal activity is still on the table. Who knows? At this point, it could be a combination of every conspiracy theory about the case.


Were people drinking and showering in contaminated water for over two weeks? How did no one notice before that?

This is a big part of the reason that Elisa Lam’s case is so famous: she was in the water tank for 17 days, supposedly, which means a decomposing body was contaminating the hotel’s water for that amount of time. Patrons of the hotel said it smelled, looked, and tasted funny, but these complaints only came to the hotel staff’s notice on the day she was found, allegedly, which is what prompted a staff member to examine the tanks. After finding out the cause for the strange water, guests were mortified. The hotel released do-not-drink orders for the water and went through the necessary precautions to assure that the facilities were properly sanitized.

Another sketchy detail in the recovery of her body is the fact that police failed to check the water tanks in the initial search for Lam, despite claiming that the search was extensive, and that search dogs were present at the time. Internet sleuths took this detail to mean that the police were also covering something up — though leaving her body in a water tank, where it will inevitably be discovered, does not make much sense. It is possible, but highly improbable, that this was the case; messy police work seems to be the most likely culprit.


Why is this case so popular on the Internet, and why is this harmful?

The Cecil Hotel is home to many tragedies. Richard “the Night Stalker” Ramirez and Jack Unterweger stayed in this hotel; an abnormal number of people have overdosed or committed suicide while residing there; adding Elisa Lam to the list of tragedies only amplifies the odd glorification of this ‘true crime hot spot.’ There are also some very odd coincidences connecting to Lam’s death that people are highly fascinated by.

Elisa Lam’s case is particularly unique because the details of it were taken very hastily and spread so rapidly that they became jumbled, so no one really knows which details are true, and which are baseless rumors. To add to the examples throughout this article: many questioned why no rape kit was run on Lam despite her autopsy clearly stating that the coroner found no evidence of trauma. People have simply dug into any detail of this case to try to make a conspiracy out of it, desperate to sell Lam’s untimely death as entertainment.

No matter what truly happened, it is important to remember that Elisa Lam was a person. Her life does not dwindle down to one instance of possible paranormal activity or a hotel being shady. What happened to her was extremely tragic, whether or not it was just an accident. She had a list of books she wanted to read, and music she wanted to learn on piano. She was just a college student, with a blog on Tumblr, who wanted to go see L.A. with some peers, and something went horribly wrong. She had a family that has to live without her, now. Her case is not something to obsess over, or glorify; the only reason we should be diving deeper into it is to finally get the facts straight, and to try to find out if someone else was involved in her death so authorities can act accordingly.


Featured Image: Courtesy of allthatsinteresting


  • Brianna Wilson

    Brianna Wilson is an English major who has been with the Quaker Campus since her first year at Whittier College. In-between work and school, Brianna loves journaling, working out, and watching YouTube videos (mostly from the gaming community).

Brianna Wilson is an English major who has been with the Quaker Campus since her first year at Whittier College. In-between work and school, Brianna loves journaling, working out, and watching YouTube videos (mostly from the gaming community).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Post

See Your Voices in Color in The Greenleaf Review