Murder or Tragic Accident? The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam

Posted on February 25, 2014


Elisa Lam

“The ‘uncanny’ …  arouses dread and horror;” – Sigmund Freud

Occasionally, there are cases so eerie that they give us chills and provoke feelings of the uncanny. In the mysterious case of Elisa Lam, a conundrum of strange and familiar occurances makes us believe in something sinister. Sigmund Freud stated that we see the effect of the uncanny when our imagination (ghosts) interacts with reality (a malfunctioning elevator door). Then in that moment, our “infantile and neurotic elements” start believing in magical practises. As Freud points out, when faced with certain anomalies, we tend to focus on “psychical realities” and ignore the “material realities” of a case.

In 2013, Elisa Lam went on holidays. She stopped in at the Cecil Hotel on her way to Santa Cruz, California. On the evening of January 31, the 21-year old Chinese Canadian vanished without a trace. A few weeks later, the gruesome discovery of her body inside a water tank on the rooftop of the hotel.

Elisa Lam, Mysterious Death

Picture from Elisa Lam’s Facebook page

After guests complained of low water pressure (amidst unfounded rumours of black or foul tasting water), workers discovered Lam’s naked body wedged at the bottom of an unlocked water tank on top of the building. Ruled an “accidental drowning,” the coroner noted “other significant conditions: bipolar disorder” and no indications of bodily harm or trauma.

However, there is no explanation about how she got into the tank or how her bipolar contributed to her demise. Although rumours that her clothes disappeared was circulated, this is not true. In the autopsy report, there is a list of clothing items found at bottom of the tank. The coroner also listed the prescribed drugs in her system used to treat her, even though her parents (even today) deny her mental health issues. Yet, despite all these facts, wild speculations have continued to circulate about her mysterious death including weird coincidences, the unexplained access to the roof, a hotel with a sordid past and the strange security video footage of Lam’s last moments.

People are Strange

“People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down” — The Doors

The story goes that Jim Morrison went with Robby Krieger to the Laurel Canyon to watch the sunset when he was depressed. He then realized that “if you’re strange, people are strange.”  This seems to suggest that the song represents feelings of alienation, mental disturbance and the strangeness of people. Until his death in 1971, Morrison suffered from depression, severe alcoholism and died of a heroin overdose. After his death – much like Lam – wild speculations and bizarre conspiracies surfaced around his life, death and after-death. (Rumors, Myths and Urban Legends Surrounding the ‘Death’ of Jim Morrison by Thomas Lyttle).

Prescribed drugs Elisa posted on her Tumblr site

Despite those who wanted to turn these deaths into something supernatural, the fact remains that Lam’s (and Morrison too) behavior prior to her disappearance is likely due to other possibilities that we don’t want to accept or can’t comprehend. One possibility is that this young woman had a psychotic break with reality, began hallucinating, and committed suicide, or as the coroner reported, drowned by accident.

The security footage of Lam’s last moments in the elevator is disturbing and uncomfortable to watch. You do witness her acting very strangely, and yet, her behaviour looks exactly like that of someone who may be mentally confused or having a manic episode. The coroner found no drugs or alcohol in her system other than those she was prescribed. The real conundrum here is not a suspicious death, but that by way of unfamiliarity we are unable to recognize her behaviour as it relates to mental illness. Thus, we see her as acting “eerie” or “almost not human.”

In the video, she appears to be running from or hiding from someone, or something. Initially it is perplexing that the door stays open the entire time (nearly four minutes). However, after hitting multiple buttons, twice, it is likely that Lam also hit the “hold door” button. After some time, she then contorts into some frightening positions that are frankly, quite eerie to watch. Once she finally exits, the doors open and shut several times before the video ends. With no other visible explanation, many people attributed her odd behaviour as evidence of “possession” by a malicious ghost.

Some even suggested that the LAPD’s tampering of the video footage (slowing it down) was a conspiracy to hide evidence of a haunting. However, it more likely that slowing down the tape would increase the chances that someone would recognize her or shed light on her behaviour. The supernatural mythologies surrounding her death are surely a sign of our “repressed” fear or unfamiliarity with mental illness. Instead of accepting that people are often “made strange” by their mental illness, it is easier to make up stories about hauntings, ghosts or imagine she was the victim of a ritual killing.

Tanks, Dark Water and an Outbreak of TB

Some mysteries are not meant to be solved” — Slogan that appears on Dark Water movie posters

Water Tank Scene from Dark Water

Oddly, Lam’s tale  is eerily similar to that of the horror film, Dark Water. After moving into an apartment with her daughter Cecilia, mother Dahlia notices dark water leaking from the ceiling in her bathroom. She ultimately discovers that a young girl named Natasha Rimsky drowned in the building’s rooftop water tank, which caused the water to turn black. Dahlia sacrifices her own life to save her daughter by drowning herself in the tank to transform into the ghostly mother who takes care of Natasha in the after-life. At the end of the film, the apartment elevator malfunctions and the ghost of Cecilia’s mother braids her hair.

If such a coincidence isn’t chilling enough to inspire tales of the supernatural, shortly after the discovery of Lam’s body, there was a deadly outbreak of tuberculosis in a “Skid Row” area near the hotel. It wasn’t the outbreak, but the name of the test kit, LAM-ELISA, that fanned the conspiracy claims. And then another odd connection. Apparently, while staying at the Cecil Hotel, Alastair Crowley wrote a poem about Jeptha, a judge of Israel who sacrificed his own daughter. The name of his daughter? Seila, which is an anagram of ELISA. But let’s face it. None of these events, as eerie as they might be, is relevant to the case.

Alistair Crowley

Other rumours seem to indicate that the “locked” rooftop area and water tanks seemed an impossible task for a petite young woman. The tanks are about 10 feet tall, 4.5 feet wide and hold at least 1,000 gallons of water pumped up from city pipes. Since the water tanks are on a platform at least 10 feet above the surface of the roof, a person would have to go to the top floor of the hotel, take the staircase to get to the roof, pass through the locked door without setting off the emergency alarm.

However, the police report also states that the water tank in which Lam was found had “unlocked openings.” Despite the memes going around on social media that said otherwise, the water tank that Lam entered was unlocked. Conveniently, left out of the story, was the fact that many visitors who subsequently “investigated” the hotel discovered just how easy (and undetectable) it was to access the rooftop and the tanks. By simply an unlocked, unalarmed fire escape, anyone can climb to the top of the tank with little effort, especially a fit 21 year-old woman.

The only mystery surrounding the tragedy is why the hotel  didn’t ensure that access to the rooftop and water tanks was secured to keep people out. In fact, it was reported in September 2013 that Elisa’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hotel’s owners. The Lams are seeking unspecified damages as well as compensation for the burial costs of their daughter. The lawsuit claims that the Cecil Hotel operators had an obligation to make the premises safe for Lam and “inspect and seek out hazards in the hotel that presented an unreasonable risk of danger to (Lam) and other hotel guests.”

A Sordid Past

The Cecil Hotel has an intriguing and haunted past. Elisa Lam’s performance in the “spooky” elevator resurrects its malodourous memories, undisturbed, but never put to rest. An historic budget destination on the edge of skid row in down town Los Angeles, the hotel opened in 1927. Inside its walls lurk the shadows of a terrible past, the home of murder, sex offenders, multiple suicides and the one-time residence of serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker).

“Richard Ramirez, labeled “the Nightstalker”, was living at the Cecil Hotel in 1985, in a top floor room.  He was charged 14 dollars a night.  In a building filled with transients, he remained unnoticed as he stalked and killed his 13 female victims. Richard Schave, said “He was dumping his bloody clothes in the Dumpster, at the end of his evening and returned via the back entrance.”

Jack Unterweger, was a journalist covering crime in Los Angeles for an Austrian magazine in 1991.  “We believe he was living at the Cecil Hotel in homage to Ramirez,” Schave said.

He is blamed with killing three prostitutes in Los Angeles, while being a guest at the Cecil.

In the 50’s and 60’s the Cecil was known as a place that people would go to jump out of one of the hotel’s windows to commit suicide.

Helen Gurnee, in her 50s, leaped from a seventh floor window, landing on the Cecil Hotel marquee, on October 22, 1954.

Julia Moore jumped from her eighth floor room window, on February 11, 1962.

Pauline Otton, 27, jumped from a ninth floor window after an argument with her estranged husband, on October 12, 1962.  Otton landed on George Gianinni, 65, who was walking on the side walk, 90 feet below. Both were killed instantly.

There was also a murder of one of the residents.  “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood, a retired telephone operator, known for protecting and feeding pigeons in a nearby park, was found dead in his ransacked room on June 4, 1964.  He had been stabbed, strangled, and raped.  The crime still remains unsolved.” — James Turnage, Las Vegas Guardian Express, Elisa Lam, Morbid History Of Two Serial Killers Unfolds At “Cecil Hotel”

A Tribute to Elisa Lam

“I want to believe in time travel / That one day I’ll come back to you”

The ZolasOn January 24, 2014, the Huffington Post did a feature article on the Vancouver based pop duo, The Zolas, who created a song, Ancient Mars, inspired by Elisa Lam. In the music video we see a young woman wandering through the streets of a big city, taking in the sights and snapping photographs.

Frontman Zach Gray never met Lam, but says they both attended the same university for a brief time, and shared a mutual friend.

“It’s not as easy to write her off as just another missing girl who got herself into trouble. It bugged me how tidily people explained away her disappearance with drugs or mental illness. 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.”Huffington Post, Elisa Lam Case Inspires The Zolas’ ‘Ancient Mars’ Music Video

May you rest in peace Elisa Lam.

The song is a beautiful tribute to a young girl who met a tragic end. Sadly, no evidence can provide precise answers, our tendency is to make up far-fetched stories. Freud would tell us that her mysterious death renders it uncanny because we can’t make sense of its strangeness. But fabricating such outlandish tales dishonours Elisa Lam’s memory and her struggle with mental illness. Her story is tragic – but rather than turn her memory into a freakish tale, we should honour her life by opening our minds to the facts and showing compassion.

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