It was early February of 2013 when some of the residents of the Stay on Main (formerly the Cecil Hotel) began to have problems with their tap water. The water pressure was inconsistent, and the water itself tasted peculiar and was oddly discoloured. In response to the residents’ complaints, the hotel sent employee Santiago Lopez to investigate the issue. His investigation took him to the water towers on the roof of the hotel where, upon examination, he found the decomposing body of a solitary young woman, naked, floating in the cistern, her clothing and some personal effects in the water alongside her.
No one recognized by authorities knows precisely how Elisa Lam died. The known facts are that Elisa arrived in Los Angeles on January 26th 2013 and checked into the Stay on Main on January 28th. She was reported missing on February 1st, 2013, after she had fallen out of contact with her family; some time prior to that she displayed seemingly erratic behavior in the hotel elevator, which was caught on tape and has been much-analyzed by professionals and amateur sleuths alike. Her body and clothing were found in one of the rooftop water cisterns, which in theory should have been inaccessible by the hotel guests. For a period of time the guests consumed the water that contained her body, which had been discoloured and had an unwholesome taste. Her clothes were in the cistern as well, covered with what appeared to be sand, though it was noted that her cell phone and glasses were missing. Autopsy revealed that she had been dead for several days at a minimum, that there was water in neither her lungs nor her stomach, and that aside from a small abrasion on her knee that she could have gotten anywhere, she had no obvious external trauma that wasn’t accounted for by decomposition.
Among the things that are unknown: how did Elisa get in that cistern, which was said to have been difficult to access? How did she get onto the roof, for that matter, where the cisterns are located, past the secured door? What was Elisa up to in that elevator? Was she alone?
Before we delve into the details of this strange case, and the plentiful theories of what precisely happened, there is Elisa herself.
She was a young woman, only 21 years old at the time of her death, and at the beginning of her adult life. She had struggled with mental illness for many years, but despite her struggles she was kind, empathetic, dedicated, and passionate. She liked fashion, art, and literature, and found a great deal of solace on her blogs “Nouvelle/Nouveau” and “Ether Fields.” She was close to her parents, with whom she connected each day as she traveled. She called her trip “the West Coast Tour.” She had been very excited about it.
It’s important, I think, to remember who Elisa was. That she was a real, warm, living person with hopes and goals and dreams and struggles. It’s easy to forget Elisa herself in the twisting paths of this case, in all the weirdness of the circumstances and the copious amount of theories on what really happened to her. Elisa wasn’t just a part of a mystery to be solved: she was a vibrant young woman, taken too soon from a life that she had only just begun.
LAM-ELISA TB Test
The circumstances surrounding Elisa’s death, and her stay in Los Angeles in general, were strange, but little was as strange on the surface as the colossal coincidence of the LAM-ELISA tuberculosis test.
The name LAM-ELISA seems like an improbable coincidence. The test, developed at the University of British Columbia (the university Elisa had attended, oddly) more than four years before Elisa’s last, fateful trip, is named for the method (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA) used to detect lipoarabinomannan (LAM) in samples of human sputum, in order to diagnose tuberculosis in the patient. There was, additionally, an outbreak of TB in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles at the time of Elisa’s disappearance. Some conspiracy theories have cropped up around these coincidences, though none really fit the facts. That the naming convention of the test is clear and logical, the test itself predates Elisa’s stay in LA by literal years, and that there was no sign of TB in Elisa’s autopsy findings.
Another strange coincidence comes in the form of two movies called ‘Dark Water’ (a Japanese movie from 2002, and the American remake from 2005) and the short story by Koji Suzuki on which the two movies were based. As in Elisa’s case, there were water supply issues caused by the body of a young girl in the building’s water tower. Interestingly as well, the American remake names the lead character Dahlia, the press’ nickname for murder victim Elizabeth Short, who was allegedly drinking at the then-Cecil hotel’s bar shortly before her murder.
The Stay on Main, formerly the Cecil Hotel but re-named in 2011, has a dark and violent history. There have been at least sixteen deaths (that we know of) at the Cecil hotel since the first recorded suicide in November 1931 (a selection of which include: self-poisoning, infanticide, strangulation). Jake Anderson, author of the excellent book on the case, Gone At Midnight, believes the number to be higher.
Because of its reputation of a place frequented by death, it was popularly called “The Suicide.” In addition to the selection of murders and suicides in the hotel itself, the Hotel was also known for having housed both Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez during the period of his murder spree in the 1980s and Austrian serial killer Johann “Jack” Unterweger in the 1990s. Also, as previously mentioned, there is the fact that Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia”, may or may not have had a drink at the Cecil in the last few days of her life.
Inaccessible roof and sealed water tower?
The roof should have been, many have said, inaccessible. The set of stairs leading to the roof from the fourteenth floor had a security alarm, which was not triggered the night of Elisa’s disappearance. Indeed, Santiago Lopez had to disarm it before finding Elisa’s body on the roof. There were, however, fire escapes that could be climbed to access the roof. Jake Anderson points out that there was graffiti on the roof, as well as reports of drinking up there; someone was accessing it. The cisterns have been said to be sealed in some sources, but elsewhere simply awkward and heavy. Somebody — Elisa or otherwise — got it open, after all.
The Elevator Footage
The footage of Elisa playing in an elevator on what was most likely the last day of her life, which the LAPD released to the public on February 15, has gotten a lot of attention online. The footage, as released, is certainly disquieting to watch, if only because of what would happen to her later that night. This footage is where a number of the theories, discussed below, originate. All is not as it seems on the surface, however. Often noted is that the elevator doors take an unusually long time to close in the video, though upon examination Kay Theng found that the doors to the elevator only close upon pressing the “close door” button or upon someone summoning the elevator from another floor. This may have been unusual behavior for elevators in general, but it was not unusual behavior for this particular elevator. Body language expert Dr. Jack Brown believes her body language to be playful rather than afraid, and speculates that there may be another person outside the elevator she’s playing with.
However strange the circumstances surrounding her trip may be, the question remains, how did Elisa wind up in that water tower?
The Paranormal Theory
Well before Elisa’s death, the hotel was thought to be haunted.
The Ghost Adventures team has recorded a two-hour special in the former Cecil, noting that “it’s undeniable that there are spirits inside this building.” Renowned psychic Joni Mayhan was asked to analyze the case for Anderson, and concluded that Elisa had been murdered, her murderer having been influenced by a malevolent force.
The Elevator Game
The elevator game, which is said to have originated in Korea, has a very simple premise: you enter an elevator in a building that has a minimum of ten stories, alone, and after entering the elevator on the ground floor, press the buttons in sequence, each after traveling to the last buttons’ floor, without exiting the elevator. The order is 4, 2, 6, 2, 10, 5, 1. Certain things are said to happen along the way – a woman may enter the elevator at the fifth floor, to whom you must neither speak nor look at. It’s not clear what happens to you if you do. In theory, if you’ve done all this correctly, when you press “one” to return to the ground floor, the elevator should instead ascend to the tenth floor, where you will find another world. You can either leave the elevator and explore this new world, an empty, dark world with a burning crucifix in the distance, or reverse the sequence of floors that you pressed to get here. The dark world is said to be hard to find your way back from (you need to use the same elevator that you used to get there). And, internet speculation has it, that Elisa Lam was playing that game in the elevator footage.
I have a few problems with this theory: first, and perhaps most importantly: “Elisa had given virtually no attention to the paranormal. In all of her hundreds of pages of writings, not once did she ever reference ghosts, or hauntings, or possessions, or anything in the esoteric paranormal realm,” as Jake Anderson observes. There’s no reason to believe that she would have played a relatively obscure game to go to another dimension, when she doesn’t seem to have done so much as watched an episode of Ghost Hunters. Secondly, the infamous elevator footage took place on the fourteenth floor. The fourteenth floor isn’t part of the elevator game, and the rules are very clear that you must begin on the ground floor. Thirdly, she’s shown pressing what appears to be random buttons hurriedly, rather than traveling to each floor before pressing the next button in the sequence, and she doesn’t appear to be pressing them in the order of the game. Finally, she leaves the elevator, which you’re not to do until you reach the tenth floor.
The Mental Health Aspect
Elisa Lam was diagnosed and medicated for bipolar disorder, which she seems to have struggled with for most of her life and wrote about at length online. She had been taking medications to treat the disorder, but the toxicology results from her autopsy suggest that she hadn’t been taking all of her medications at the time of her death. She appears to have been taking one of her antidepressants (Venlafaxine) regularly, but her other antidepressant (bupropion) was in small enough amounts to indicate that it had been taken recently but certainly not that day, and this was true of her mood stabilizing drug Lamotrigine as well. The antipsychotic she had been prescribed, quetiapine, was entirely absent from her system.
The autopsy report isn’t the only reason to believe that something was amiss, however; Elisa had originally checked into the hotel in a room with two other women. Several days into Elisa’s stay, the roommates complained to management that Elisa was acting in ways that made them uncomfortable, and Elisa was moved to her own room. Anderson had discovered one of the last people to see her alive, a man named Tosh Berman, who had encountered her in a bookstore. He described her behavior as erratic and unbalanced, and noted that he had been worried for her safety, not because of any immediate threat but simply because she was so unstable, and seemed so vulnerable.
One theory on how Elisa wound up in that water tower is that she got in voluntarily. That perhaps in her manic state, she chose to go skinny dipping, alone, in a water reservoir on the roof of a 19 storey hotel that is — in theory, at least — hard to access, sometime in February (the average daytime temperature in Los Angeles in February is 21 degrees celsius, or 69.8 degrees fahrenheit — and that would be assuming she had stolen away to do this during the day, when it’s warmest but also presumably the easiest time to get caught). The interior of the water reservoir was completely smooth, lacking entirely in any way for her to climb back out. The theory is that she realized this too late, and the poor woman was left to tread water, hopelessly, knowing that no one knew she was there, knowing that rescue would never come, until she died.
The Murder/Manslaughter Hypothesis
A very common theory is that Elisa was murdered, and that perhaps she was dead before her body entered the cistern. Dr. John Hiserolt believes that she may have been suffocated, and her body thrown in the water tower. He acknowledges the possibility of laryngospasm , sometimes called “dry drowning,” but finds it unusual that there was also no water in her stomach. Many have pointed out that a hotel employee could have accompanied her to the roof without setting off the alarm, and many others have pointed out that there were several registered sex offenders in the hotel at the time of Elisa’s death. Jake Anderson himself suspects perhaps a date rape that became a murder. Mystery author JH Moncrieff agrees, writing at one point that “Personally, I think she was murdered, and not by a ghost, either.”
Ultimately, we may never know what happened to Elisa. I have my own theory, which may be no more true than the others, but which I believe accounts for at least most of the facts: I think it’s possible that Elisa may have indeed gone skinny dipping in the water tower, perhaps in a manic state, with whoever she was playing with in the elevator footage. This person may also have helped her open the lid to the cistern. She took off her clothes, her watch, and her hotel key card, placing them in a pile on the floor of the roof, picking up the particulate matter that was found on them, and jumped in the water first. Quickly realizing that there was no way to get back out, her companion perhaps panicked (if this hadn’t been the plan all along), and rather than getting help, threw her clothing and personal effects in after her, and left her to die.
It’s hard to hope for an answer to the mystery of Elisa Lam’s death. At time of writing, it has been eight years. There is hope, however: recently, Netflix has released a documentary, and Jake Anderson has drummed up new interest with Gone At Midnight. With luck, this new spotlight on the case will lead to fresh information on Elisa, her last days, and perhaps finally an answer to the circumstances surrounding her tragic loss.
Anderson, Jake. Gone at Midnight: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam. Citadel, 2020.
Anon. “Questions Remain Three Years After…” LosAngeles.cbslocal.com. https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2016/10/31/questions-remain-3-years-after-womans-body-was-found-inside-la-hotels-rooftop-water-tank/ Retrieved 16 February 2021.
Barrett, Christina. The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam. CreateSpace, 2016.
Brown, Jack. “Body Language Analysis No. 2313: Elisa Lam Video in Elevator at Cecil Hotel.” BodyLanguageSuccess.com. https://www.bodylanguagesuccess.com/2013/02/nonverbal-communication-analysis-2313.html Retrieved 16 February 2021.
Buzzfeed Unsolved. “The Bizarre Death of Elisa Lam.” Youtube. 18 March 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48jBi86ih5Q
Moncrieff, JH. “Whatever Happened to Elisa Lam?” JHMoncrieff.com. https://www.jhmoncrieff.com/whatever-happened-elisa-lam/ Retrieved 16 February 2021.
Peters, Lucia. Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark. Chronicle Books, 2019.
Steel, Danielle. How Elisa Lam Got Disappeared. Sifox, 2017.
Swann, Jennifer. “Elisa Lam Drowned in a Water Tank Three Years Ago, but the Obsession with her Death Lives On.” Vice.com. https://www.vice.com/en/article/3bkmg3/elisa-lam-drowned-in-a-water-tank-two-years-ago-but-the-obsession-with-her-death-lives-on-511. Retrieved 16 February 2021.
Obsessed with all things dark and weird from a young age, E. Madelyne Hilker has used every opportunity to steep herself in mysterious lore, and is working on her first novel Hallow Earth. She works as a new media producer by day and crochets like a madwoman by night. Maddy lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her family and a large collection of houseplants.