top of page

The Unexplained Death of Elisa Lam

“You’re always haunted by the idea that you’re wasting your life”. This was the title of one of Elisa Lam’s final blog posts, dated Friday 27 January 2012 before her body was found in suspicious circumstances a year later.

Elisa Lam was born on 30 April 1991 to her parents who had emigrated to Burnaby, Canada from Hong Kong. Elisa’s parents owned a restaurant in Burnaby and worked hard to ensure Elisa and her sister Sara had a good upbringing, and the family appeared to be very close. Elisa was enrolled at the University of British Columbia, although she was not attending classes in the year of 2013. Elisa was struggling with bipolar disorder, and it is believed that she was taking a break from her classes to try and regain control of her mental disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition which affects one’s moods, often resulting in extreme swings from manic depression to euphoric highs. Bipolar disorder used to be known as manic depression, and unlike ‘regular’ mood swings experienced by most individuals, bipolar sufferers often have episodes lasting up to several weeks. Elisa kept her bipolar disorder mainly to herself, although she posted semi-regularly to her online blog called Ether Fields, which contains some heartbreaking posts detailing her internal mental turmoil. Her blog is still available online, and can be accessed here, although much of it makes for very sad reading. She also had a Tumblr page, Nouvelle-Nouveau on which she posted a variety of images.

Elisa Lam photographed at her high school graduation.

The Infamous Cecil Hotel

Promising to call home every day, in January 2013 Elisa embarked on a solo trip to California for a week of sightseeing. Elisa had chosen to stay at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles during her vacation. The Cecil Hotel opened its doors for the first time in 1927, and since then it has developed a reputation for being the centre of mysterious and often disturbing crimes. To fully understand Elisa’s death, it is important to firstly discuss the history of this infamous hotel. William Banks Hanner was a hotelier who built the Cecil Hotel in 1924, with the aim that the hotel would be a destination for international businessmen and LA’s social elites. Tanner reportedly spent $1 million on this luxury hotel which was compromised of 700 rooms and a marble lobby, with decadent furnishings throughout. Unfortunately, America was flung into the worldwide Great Depression a few years later, and the opulence of the hotel was short-lived. The surrounding area became known as “Skid Row”, with thousands of homeless people taking refuge in the streets, and the once luxurious hotel quickly became a meeting point for criminals and drug users.

The Cecil Hotel now has a notorious reputation for suicides and unexplained deaths, with the earliest known suicide at the hotel being recorded in November 1931. The hotel is also thought to have been the location where the Night Stalker resided whilst committing his murders. As of today, the hotel is listed as being the location for at least 16 suspicious deaths, including that of Elisa Lam. The hotel has been used as inspiration for many novels and stories, and even a season of American Horror Story.

The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

Upon checking into the Cecil Hotel in January 2013, Elisa was reportedly assigned a room on the fifth floor, which she shared with other residents of the hotel. However, after a few days, Elisa’s roommates complained about her ‘abnormal’ behaviour, and she was moved to a private room. Elisa was scheduled to check out of the hotel on 31 January 2013, but when she failed to get in touch with her parents that day, they knew that something was wrong. Her parents contacted law enforcement and reported their daughter missing, and flew to California to search for her. The hotel was the last known location of Elisa, and therefore this is where the search was focused. Law enforcement and search dogs were recruited to look for Elisa, and the hotel was searched thoroughly, but no sign of Elisa was found.

Discovery of Elisa

In early February 2013, guests at the hotel began to complain about the poor water pressure, and also that the water had an unpleasant odour and flavour. A hotel engineer was tasked with checking the water tanks located on the roof, and upon peering into the tank he made a gruesome discovery, for inside the tank was the body of Elisa Lam. Upon discovering Elisa’s body, law enforcement seized CCTV footage from within the Cecil Hotel, including the elevator footage. Elisa can be seen on the camera footage which is dated 1 February 2013, however the time stamp has been obscured, meaning we do not know what time of the day this footage was recorded. Elisa appears to be inside the hotel elevator for several minutes, behaving somewhat strangely. This is the last known footage of Elisa alive, and it can be viewed here.

The elevator footage immediately became an internet sensation, sparking many conspiracy theories about what happened to Elisa, including that her behaviour shows that she was speaking to a paranormal entity, that she was having a maniac episode or that she had taken an illegal substance which was causing her to act strangely. In the rather perplexing footage Elisa enters the elevator and proceeds to lean down and peer closely at the buttons, before pressing numerous buttons. She waits inside the elevator for several seconds before peeking out the doors and then jumping back in. She stands in the front right hand corner of the elevator, in a position that appears to me as though she is hiding, waiting to jump out on someone. She then looks out the elevator doors again before stepping fully out, then back into the elevator and then out again, moving off camera. The weirdest part of the footage is when Elisa steps out of the elevator and it appears as though she is talking to someone outside of the elevator - she makes multiple hand movements, and although we cannot see her facial expressions on the camera, I believe the hand movements suggest she is talking to someone, perhaps disagreeing with someone. Not for the first time during my research have I wished for CCTV to record audio!

Another possibility is that Elisa is making strange movements to try and trip the motion sensor of the elevator, in an attempt to close the doors so it will move. The fact that the elevator does not move for several minutes has sparked conspiracists to believe that paranormal activity is present. However, I simply believe that the elevator in the hotel was likely old and slow, and because Elisa had pressed multiple buttons it had overridden the commands as a safety measure, and is designed to keep the doors open for a prolonged period to allow persons to exit. Personally, I find the fact that Elisa exits the elevator and is not seen to re-enter it at any time before her death is the most perplexing for me - presumably she was using the elevator to get somewhere, so why does she not get back in the elevator? Does she use the stairs? Upon viewing the footage, her parents are adamant that Elisa has never had any history of the behaviour exhibited on the footage.

Unexplained Death

Elisa’s body was found floating in the hotel’s largest water tank, and although she was nude her clothes were found floating in the tank with her, and the items appear to be those which she is seen wearing in the CCTV footage. Elisa’s room key was also found in the tank with her, but her phone has never been recovered. The manager of the hotel at the time when Elisa was found told media that the roof where the tanks were located was not accessible to guests - the only access was via fire escapes with alarmed doors, and only staff with specific keys were able to disable the alarms. The alarm on the door leading to the roof was said to have been regularly tested and in good working order at the time. I think the statement released about the lack of accessibility to the roof was an attempt on behalf of hotel management to suggest that the hotel grounds were more secure than they actually were; many journalists have captured footage of themselves reaching the roof without setting off any alarms, which shows that it was entirely possible for Elisa to have reached the roof without alerting hotel staff. When Elisa’s body was found, the hotel engineer reported that he noticed that the hatch on the water tank was open, which does mean that it is possible that Elisa entered the tank of her own accord. However, the tanks are approximately ten ft high, and therefore a ladder is required to reach the tank. Although no ladder was discovered beside the tank when Elisa was found deceased, this of course does not mean that she had not used a ladder to reach the tank, and that it had been removed, possibly by a maintenance worker, during the 3 weeks she was within the tank.

Water tanks located on the roof of the Cecil Hotel.

I think it is important to mention that Elisa was on an extensive list of prescription medications to control her bipolar disorder. These included Wellbutrin, which is an antidepressant, Lamotrigine which is a mood stabiliser and Quetiapine, an antipsychotic, amongst other medications. During the autopsy a toxicology test was conducted to detect the presence of these drugs, and to ascertain whether Elisa had taken any alcohol or illegal substances prior to her death. However, due to her body being in the water for an extended period, and the level of decomposition, the quantitation of these drugs in the blood was unable to be performed due to the limited sample availability - there was scant amount of blood present in her body. As a result of the lack of blood in her extremities, the coroner sampled blood from her heart, and enzymes in her liver and bile to conduct a toxicology report. Present in the blood of Elisa’s heart and her liver enzymes were venlafaxine and bupropion, which are both antidepressants. The autopsy shows that the levels of venlafaxine suggest Elisa took this medication on the day she died, and that she likely took bupropion recently but not on the exact day of her death. No traces of quetiapine were found, suggesting this medication had not been taken recently, and lamotrigine was only found in minuscule amounts, again suggesting that she did not take this medication on the day she died. Her bile ethanol (alcohol) level was 0.02g% which is the normal amount of ethanol for bile, and none was detected in the blood of her heart, meaning Elisa had not ingested any alcohol. The blood from her heart also confirmed that she had not taken any illegal substances. As a result of the autopsy, the coroner ruled that Elisa’s death was an accidental drowning.

Did Elisa commit suicide?

Following the discovery of her body, Elisa’s family insisted that she did not have any suicidal ideations nor had she attempted suicide in the past, or had any history of self harm. The day before her death, Elisa had visited a bookstore owned by Katie Orphan, where she bought gifts for her family and appeared to be a happy, bubbly and talkative individual. The purchase of souvenirs for her family suggests to me that Elisa was not experiencing suicidal thoughts at this time, and was intending to return home. Furthermore, when law enforcement searched Elisa’s room all of her possessions including her laptop, also suggesting she intended to return to her room, and her key card was located with her body. Why would she take this with her if she was planning to commit suicide?

Elisa was a keen blogger, and her blog appears to be an outlet for her inner mental turmoil. She is very open online about her struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, and she writes about her hatred for herself when she feels she has failed to make progress towards ‘recovery’. I wonder therefore that if Elisa was planning to commit suicide, or even if she had thoughts about suicide or self harm, whether she would have posted about this on her blog. Given the honest and explicit nature of her previous blog posts detailing her mental health, I believe she may have hinted towards her intentions to commit suicide had she been planning to do so, but I could find nothing on the blog to suggest this. Elisa was very open on her blog, and had she struggled with self harm or thoughts about dying, I think there is a high probability that she would have blogged about it. As she did not blog about these thoughts, I do not believe she had any intentions to harm herself, and I do not believe she committed suicide.

However, looking at the elevator footage, the complaints about her strange behaviour, and the autopsy report, I do not believe that she was murdered either. Sadly, I think that the most likely scenario is that Elisa was having a manic episode, possibly due to her not taking all of her prescribed medication on the day of her death, and unfortunately she entered the water tank by herself. I cannot comment on why Elisa may have entered the tank, nor why she would have removed her clothing either before entering the tank or whilst inside, and I do not claim to have any thorough understanding of mental disorders or in particular bipolar disorder; subjectively looking at the facts of this case, I think the most simple explanation is the correct one. Therefore, I would agree with the coroner’s report that Elisa’s death was an accident.

Elisa’s Tumblr Page

As I have already briefly mentioned earlier, this case sparked many conspiracy theories about paranormal activity within the Cecil Hotel. I do not wish to comment too much on this, as I personally do not believe in the paranormal, and if I were to begin dissecting the paranormal theories about this case, it would make for an incredibly lengthy blog post. However, I do wish to mention Elisa’s Tumblr page - during my research of this case I frequently came across theories about her Tumblr. Following the discovery of Elisa’s body in February 2013, her Tumblr page continued to update until December 2013. After her followers learnt about her death, this was understandably very creepy that her blog appeared to be updating from beyond the grave. However, there is actually a completely logical explanation for this; Tumblr provides an option for bloggers to schedule a reblog of a post for any date in the future, up to one year in advance. Upon searching through Elisa’s Tumblr page, the blogs posted after her death appear to be seasonal - for example, Spring/Summer fashion and outfits which she has reblogged, and a winter scene is reblogged in December. Therefore, I think it is rather clear that Elisa had set up this feature on her blog to reblog certain posts automatically.

Final Thoughts

I was vaguely aware of the mysterious death of Elisa Lam before beginning this blog, although this case was recommended to me a few weeks ago, and I have been researching it rather obsessively ever since. I have listened to numerous podcasts about the case, spent countless hours rewatching the elevator footage, listening to supposed experts analysing her body language, and fallen down several Reddit subthreads. I could have continued to research this case for an indefinite number of weeks, but I am pretty certain now that I would come to the same conclusion - that Elisa’s death is undoubtedly very sad, but I believe it to be accidental. For me, one of the really strange things about this case is the internet presence which Elisa left behind; the fact that we are able to delve into her thoughts, her likes and dislikes and to some extent, her secrets through her Tumblr and blog adds a really personal dimension to me. Elisa's case really emphasises for me the modern era in which we live, leaving a digital footprint which can be searched by strangers online for years after our deaths. I can’t help but think that if Elisa were alive, she would dislike all of the media attention she has received.

This case has been a rather different one, in that I am unsure as to whether I would classify her death as a true crime story. In pathology, a death such as Elisa’s is treated as a homicide until it can be ruled as accidental. I therefore think I will classify this blog post as an unexplained death rather than a strict true crime post.

What are your thoughts? Would you like to see more posts like this in the future?

134 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page