The body of Elisa Lam, also known by her Cantonese name, Lam Ho Yi (simplified Chinese: 蓝可儿; traditional Chinese: 藍可兒; April 30, 1991 – 2013), a 21-year-old Canadian student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was recovered from a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles on February 19, 2013. She had been reported missing at the beginning of the month. Maintenance workers at the hotel discovered the body when investigating guest complaints of problems with the water supply.
Her disappearance had been widely reported; interest had increased five days prior to her body’s discovery when the Los Angeles Police Department released 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 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, which itself appears to be malfunctioning. The video went viral on the Internet, with many viewers reporting that they found it unsettling. Explanations ranged from claims of paranormal involvement to the bipolar disorder from which Lam suffered; it has also been argued that tampering had occurred with the video.
The circumstances of Lam’s death, when she was found, also raised questions, especially in light of the Cecil’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 cause 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 plot elements from the 2005 horror film Dark Water. There have been efforts to fictionalize the case since then as well. Less than a year after her death, Hungry Ghost Ritual, a Hong Kong horror film, included a scene apparently inspired by the elevator video, and Chinese director Liu Hao announced he was planning a film based on her life and death, hopefully starring Gao Yuanyuan. An episode of Castle was inspired by it, and a horror film that uses the case as a backstory, The Bringing, began development under Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Lam, the daughter of emigrants from Hong Kong who opened a restaurant in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, was a student at the University of British Columbia; although she was not registered when she left her home in January 2013 for a trip to Southern California, which she called her “West Coast Tour” on her Tumblr blog. She said she planned to stop in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. While she also hoped to visit San Luis Obispo, she was not sure she could.
She 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. She was initially assigned a shared room on the hotel’s fifth floor; however, after her roommates complained about what the hotel’s lawyer would later describe as “certain odd behavior”, she was moved to a room of her own after two days.
Built as a business hotel in the 1920s, the Cecil fell on hard times 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’s more notable murders have happened at or have connections to the hotel: Elizabeth Short, victim of the Black Dahlia murder, the city’s best-known unsolved killing, supposedly made the Cecil her last stop before her death, and in 1964 Goldie Osgood, the “Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square”, was raped and murdered in her room at the Cecil, another crime that has never been solved. Serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker”, both resided at the Cecil while active. There have also been suicides, one of which also killed a pedestrian passing in the front 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.
Lam also had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. She had been prescribed four drugs—Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Seroquel and Effexor—to deal with the condition. According to her family (who supposedly kept it a secret), she had no history of suicidal ideations or attempts, although one report claims she had, in fact, briefly gone missing at some earlier time as well.
In mid-2010, she 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 her disorder. In a January 2012 post titled “You’re always haunted by the idea you’re wasting your life” after a quotation from novelist Chuck Palahniuk that she used as an epigraph for the blog, 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 worried that her transcript would look suspicious with so many withdrawals, adversely affecting her ability to continue her studies and attend graduate school.
A little over two years after Lam had started blogging, she announced she would be abandoning the blog for one she had started on Tumblr in March 2011, Nouvelle/Nouveau. Its content was heavier on found photos, mostly of fashion, and quotes, with a few posts in Lam’s own words. The same Palahniuk quote was used as an epigraph.
While traveling, Lam kept in touch with her parents back in British Columbia daily. On January 31, 2013, the day she was scheduled to check out of the Cecil and leave for Santa Cruz, they did not hear from her and called the Los Angeles police; the family flew to Los Angeles to help with the search.
Hotel staff who saw her that day said she was alone. Outside the hotel, Katie Orphan, manager of a nearby bookstore, was the only person who recalled seeing Lam 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.”
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, looking unsuccessfully for 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.
Another week went by without Lam being found. On February 14, the LAPD released a video of the last known sighting of her, taken by a video surveillance camera on February 1 in one of the Cecil’s elevators. It drew worldwide interest in the case due to Lam’s strange behavior and has been extensively analyzed and discussed.
In the two-and-a-half minute clip, the camera at one of the elevator cab’s rear corners looks down from the ceiling, offering a view not just of its interior but the hallway outside. It is somewhat grainy, and the timestamp at the bottom is obscured. At some points Lam’s mouth is pixelized.
At the start, Lam enters, clad in a red zippered hooded sweatshirt over a gray T-shirt, with black shorts and sandals. She enters from the left and goes to the control panel, appears to select several floors and then steps back to the corner. After a few seconds during which the door fails to close, she steps up to it, leans forward so her head is through the door, looks in both directions, and then quickly steps back in, backing up to the wall and then into the corner near the control panel. The door remains open.
She walks to it again and stands in the doorway, leaning on the side. Suddenly she steps out into the hall, then to her side, back in, looking to the side, then back out. She then steps sideways again, and for a few seconds she is mostly invisible behind the wall she has her back to just outside. The door remains open.
Her right arm can be seen going up to her head, and then she turns to re-enter the cab, putting both hands on the side of the door as she does. She goes to the control panel, presses many more buttons, some more than once, and then returns to the wall she had come into the elevator from, putting both hands over her ears again briefly as she walks back to the section of wall she had been standing against before. The door remains open.
She turns to her right and begins rubbing her forearms together, then waves her hands out to her sides with palms flat and fingers outstretched, while bowing forward slightly and rocking gently. This can all be seen through the door, which remains open. After she backs to the wall again and walks away to the left, it finally closes.
It was reposted widely, including to the Chinese video-sharing site Youku, where it got 3 million views and 40,000 comments in its first ten days. Many of the commenters found it unsettling to watch. “I’m so scared, I’m shaking. I’m numb,” said one.
Several theories evolved to explain her actions. One noting the Cecil’s dark past, posited that she had somehow become possessed during her stay, or at least on the elevator; she might also have been playing the “Elevator Game”, a supposed way to travel to another dimension and back. Another suggestion was that Lam was trying to get the elevator car to move in order to escape from someone pursuing her. Others, including a body language specialist who reviewed the video, suggested that she might be under the influence of ecstasy or some other party drug. When her bipolar disorder became known, the theory that she was having a psychotic episode also emerged.
Another viewer argued that the video had been tampered with before being made public. Despite the obscuring of the timestamp, he claimed, parts had been slowed down, and they claimed nearly a minute of footage had been discreetly removed. This could have been done simply to protect the identity of someone who otherwise would be in the video but had little or nothing to do with the case, or to conceal evidence if Lam’s disappearance and death had been the result of a criminal act.
Discovery of body
While the search for Lam was raising the case’s media profile, guests at the hotel began complaining to management about low water pressure in their rooms. Some also claimed their water was oddly colored, and had a slightly unusual smell. Employees began investigating.
On the morning of February 19, an employee went to the roof, where four 1,000-gallon (3,785 L) water tanks provided water pumped from the city’s supply, for the guest rooms and the kitchen and coffee shop downstairs. In one of them he found Lam’s body, floating face up a foot below the water surface. Police responded, and by noon that day the hotel had drained the tank so firefighters could cut it open and remove the body, since the opening of the tank was too small to accommodate the necessary equipment.
In the wake of the discovery, all of the Cecil’s short-term guests left, many expressing revulsion at the thought that they had unknowingly been drinking water contaminated by a decomposing body for the preceding two weeks. The hotel paid for some to relocate to another hotel, and required those that remained to sign a waiver stating that they had been made aware of the health risks. Reviews making light of the situation were posted on the hotel’s Yelp page. While the county’s health department found that the water had not been contaminated, it issued a “do not drink” order and required that the entire system be drained and refilled before retesting for possible fecal contamination and rescinding the order. One long-term guest stated that there had been flooding on an upper-level room following Lam’s disappearance.
After being removed from the tank, Lam’s body was taken to the county coroner’s office to be autopsied. Two pathologists, Jason Tovar and Yulai Wang, spent four hours that afternoon dissecting it and examining her internal organs. On February 21, the coroner’s office reported that they had found her death to be an accidental drowning, with bipolar disorder as a significant factor.
Their full report was released four months later, in June, after being postponed several times. They reported that her body had been found naked in the tank, about half to three-quarters full, with the clothes she appeared to have been wearing in the elevator video floating in the water alongside her, coated with a “sand-like particulate”. Along with them were her watch and room key.
Lam’s body was moderately decomposed, bloated and mostly greenish, with some marbling evident on the abdomen and skin separation evident. Tovar and Wang had a rape and fingernail kit done, but found no evidence of physical trauma or sexual assault. They found no evidence to suggest that Lam had committed suicide.
Toxicology tests were done on her blood where a sufficient quantity was available. Some metabolites and traces of her prescription medication were found, consistent with blister packs and loose pills of those drugs found among her belongings, along with some nonprescription drugs such as Sinutab and ibuprofen. 0.02 g% alcohol but no other recreational drugs were found in her system.
The investigation had determined how Lam died, but did not 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. However, the hotel’s fire escape could have allowed her to bypass those security measures, if she (or someone who might have accompanied her there) had known.
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 are 4-by-8-foot (1.2 by 2.4 m) cylinders propped up on concrete blocks; there is no fixed access to them and hotel workers had to use a ladder to look at the water. They are protected by heavy lids that would be difficult to replace from within. 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, it was recalled (although they had not searched the area near the water tanks).
Theories about Lam’s behavior in the elevator video did not stop with her death. 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 autopsy report and its conclusions have also been questioned. For instance, it does not say what the results of the rape and fingernail kits 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; however one pathologist has noted it could also have resulted from bloating in the course of the body’s decomposition, and her rectum was also prolapsed.
Even Tovar and Wang appeared to be ambivalent about their conclusion that Lam’s death was accidental. One page of the report has a form with boxes to check as to whether the death was accidental, natural, homicide, suicide or undetermined, in large type and a sufficient distance from each other. The “accident” box is dated June 15; however three days later the “undetermined” box was checked instead. This was at some point in the three days before the report’s release noted as an error and crossed out and initialed.
Since her death, her Tumblr blog was updated, presumably through Tumblr’s Queue option which 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.
A week after Lam’s body was found, a couple who had been staying at the Cecil filed a lawsuit against the hotel. They argued the hotel was in breach of contract with the guests, since it was assumed that it would provide water pure enough to drink and bathe with. “Instead,” they argued in a complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, “the defendants provided water that had been contaminated by human remains and was not fit for human ingestion or to use to wash.” They sought a refund of the $150 they had paid for their two nights’ stay, plus $100 in medical expenses and unspecified other relief “as the court may deem just and proper.” The case was a class action, allowing any other guests who had stayed at the hotel during the 18 days between Lam’s disappearance and the discovery of her body to join in and collect any damages.
In September, Lam’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against the hotel, also in Superior Court. They claimed 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.” The Lams sought unspecified damages and their daughter’s burial costs.
After two years of depositions from the hotel’s employees and investigators, the Lams moved for summary judgement in their favor, while the hotel sought to have the lawsuit dismissed. Its employees had testified that they did not hear the roof alarm go off during Lam’s stay, nor were they aware of any other attempts to access the roof without authorization other than hers during their tenure at the Cecil. Thus, the hotel’s attorney, Jeff Hsu, argued, the hotel could not have reasonably foreseen that Lam might have entered the water tanks; he also reiterated that it was still unknown how Lam got to the water tank so no liability could be assigned for failing to prevent that.
Late in 2015, Judge Howard Halm dismissed the suit, agreeing with the hotel’s arguments. “The very nature of the water tank would make it unreasonable for (Lam) to assume that she was allowed to climb it and open the lid,” he wrote. Thomas Johnston, the Lams’ attorney, remained unconvinced, noting that the hotel has since secured the tank entrance with a lock and installed hinges. “This was an accident waiting to happen,” he said. He was unsure whether he and the Lams would appeal.
In film and television
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 young girl who had been reported missing from the building a year earlier.
As life had imitated art, the creators of films and television shows used the Lam case as inspiration. 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 prostitute in order to investigate another guest at the hotel.
In Hong Kong, from which Lam’s family had emigrated to Vancouver, filmmakers were also inspired. 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 popular actress Gao Yuanyuan may be interested in playing Lam. Liu said if he made the film, it would likely be an American-Australian coproduction, in English.
In March 2014, a little over a year after Lam’s death, brothers Brandon and Philip Murphy sold a horror script, 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 for that task, but in August it was announced that Jeremy Lovering would be directing 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.”
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.