Every city has a haunted hotel. Some cities have several. And the goings-on in these hotels is the stuff of paranormal blogs and occasionally, news segments.
The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, California is no different. Built in the 1920s and hit hard during the Great Depression, it has a long history of associations with victims and killers, murders and suicides alike.
Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia, was said to have frequented the hotel before her death. In 1964, the “Pigeon Woman of Pershing Square” Goldie Osgood was raped and murdered in her room at the Cecil in a case that has never been solved. Serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez both resided at the hotel for a time during their active periods.
The halls are drenched in ghost lore and invisible bloodstains from terrible things long past. Journalist Steve Erickson said that, “The Cecil will reveal to you whatever it is you’re a fugitive from.”
This was the hotel’s reputation when Elisa Lam checked in.
The University of British Columbia student was on an adventure, traveling along the Pacific Coast alone. But when she arrived at the Cecil, strange things began to occur. And then, she disappeared.
Only to be found in an unlikely and terrible place.
Who is Elisa Lam?
Also known by her Cantonese name Lam Ho Yi, the 21-year-old student arrived in Los Angeles on January 26, 2013, having traveled by bus and train to get there. She checked into the Cecil on January 28, initially being assigned to share a room on the third floor.
However, her roommates complained to hotel staff that Lam was behaving strangely, and she was moved to a room of her own.
She contacted her parents every day during her trip until January 31 – she had been scheduled to check out of the Cecil Hotel and continue on to Santa Cruz, but no one heard from her and there is no record of her checking out.
No one saw her outside of the hotel except for the manager of a nearby bookstore, who didn’t see anything amiss with Lam while she was there, buying gifts for her friends and family. Her parents, worried when she didn’t contact them, called the police.
Los Angeles police officers searched the hotel as much as they could, including Lam’s room, the public spaces of the building, and the rooftop. Scent dogs were brought in but could not track her. Individual hotel rooms could not be searched at the time, because that would have required probable cause. Flyers were posted around the neighborhood on February 6, but there was no sign of Elisa Lam anywhere.
The Shocking Video
On February 15, after several weeks with no sign of Elisa Lam, the LAPD released surveillance video taken from one of the hotel’s elevators that is believed to be the last time Elisa was seen alive.
The video’s strange contents has been picked apart by armchair detectives and experts alike, and its release drew worldwide attention. The video is taken from a camera that has a view of the elevator’s interior as well as some of the hallway outside.
In the video, Elisa enters the elevator and appears to press the buttons for several floors. When the doors don’t close, she pokes her head out of the door briefly to scan the hallway before returning to the back wall and then the corner nearest the buttons. She enters and exits the elevator several times before pressing even more buttons, some more than once, and moving her hands and arms in strange gestures.
The door remains open for several minutes, after which Lam exits and walks away; only then does the door close.
In the weeks after Lam disappeared, hotel guests began to complain about the water – the pressure was low, and the water tasted strange and sometimes ran black before clearing again.
A maintenance man went up to the rooftop water tanks on February 19 and, horrifyingly, discovered Elisa Lam’s body in one of the tanks. This tank was one of four that provided water to the guest rooms, kitchen, and coffee shop of the Cecil Hotel.
In order to remove the body, the tank had to be drained and cut open because the maintenance hatch was too small for the equipment needed to remove her body. She was found naked, bloated, and decomposing.
There was no evidence of physical trauma, sexual assault, or anything that could have been considered a suicide attempt. On February 21, the LA coroner’s office issued a finding that her cause of death was accidental drowning with bipolar disorder – Elisa had been diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and depression and was on a number of medications to help her cope, which were found in her toxicology screen– as a significant factor in her death.
Clothing similar to what she had been wearing in the video was found in the tank as well, including her watch and room key.
Theories And Questions
Both the video and the unusual circumstances surrounding Elisa Lam’s death have given rise to theories and unresolved issues that make the case perennial in the media.
Many who have studied the video think that she may have been attempting to escape from someone who was chasing her – that someone is then assumed to have caused her death in some way.
Others think that her agitation merely stems from frustration because the elevator was malfunctioning.
Some think that she was under the influence of party drugs such as ecstasy, despite the fact that they were not found in her toxicology screen – they think that either the drugs could have broken down while she was decomposing or that she could have taken a rare cocktail that wouldn’t have been detected by a normal screening.
There have also been some theories involving the paranormal – there are those who think that Elisa was interacting with one of the hotel’s many ghosts.
In terms of her location, many wonder how she got onto the roof and into the tank in the first place. The doors and stairs that provide access to the hotel roof are reported to be consistently locked, with the passcodes and keys being accessible to staff only.
However, many think that the fire escape could have bypassed these measures – a video uploaded after Lam’s death shows that the hotel roof could have been easily accessed via this fire escape and that two of water tanks’ lids were already open.
More questions arise when the dimensions and placement of the tanks are considered. Many think that Elisa couldn’t have gotten into one herself – they are 4 by 8-foot cylinders propped on concrete blocks with no permanent external access ladders. Maintenance staff must use a ladder to get to the access hatches. Additionally, each tank has a heavy lid – considering that Elisa was found in a tank with the lid closed, how did she replace it from inside?
Another theory has arisen about the strange circumstances of Elisa’s death – some think that she was playing the Elevator Game, a Korean urban legend that is supposed to transport players to a “different world” by having them press a series of buttons and travel to different floors in a particular sequence. If the game is interrupted, there are said to be terrible consequences. However, Lam’s button pressing in the elevator doesn’t match the game’s instructions, so many discount the theory.
Bizarrely, Elisa’s Tumblr blog, Nouvelle/Nouveau, continued to update after her disappearance. These updates are benign and seem to fit with the theme of the blog, so many attribute this to Tumblr’s Queue function – it allows posts to be scheduled and automatically published at later dates. Her blog has since been deactivated.
In September 2013, Elisa’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against the Cecil Hotel, seeking unspecified damages and burial costs. The hotel argued that they could never have predicted that Lam would enter the water tanks, and because it is still unknown how she reached them or got inside, no liability could be assigned. The case was dismissed in 2015.
The circumstances have been compared to a horror film called Dark Water that was released in 2005, but there is no link to the case and the film is actually a remake of an earlier Japanese film that is based on a short story written in 1996.
However, there are TV shows and films that have actually used the Elisa Lam case as inspiration. The concept is used in a May 2013 season finale of ABC’s Castle, as well as a series of episodes in the first season of How to Get Away with Murder in 2014.