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The Bizarre Case of Elisa Lam: What Happened to Her?

In 2013, a woman’s body was discovered in a water tank in Los Angeles; her disappearance would attract the attention of people around the globe.

Elisa Lam acted erratically for days before she disappeared and then vanished without a trace before being found in the water tank of the hotel she had been staying in.

Photograph of Elisa Lam who was only 21 when she went missing. Image via Wikipedia.

The discovery of her body and the subsequent investigation left extensive rumors as to the circumstances surrounding her death. So, what actually happened to Elisa Lam?

Who Was Elisa Lam?

Born to Canadian immigrants from Hong Kong on April 30, 1991, Elisa Lam grew up in Vancouver with a love of fashion. 

This directed her career path, leading her to enroll in the University of British Columbia while she started an online blog dedicated to fashion.

The blog began in 2010 and became an online journal that mixed her interest in fashion with some description of her own life.

She would document the hottest fashion items of the season alongside reviews of models and shows but also would recount her personal struggles and relationships for anyone to see.

By 2012, the blog had begun to favor the latter, straying from the world of fashion and becoming a record of her struggles with bipolar disorder and relapses.

Her struggles ultimately forced her to withdraw from courses at her university, and she shared her concern that her multitude of withdrawals would keep her from being able to continue her education.

Her most notable post was titled “You’re always haunted by the idea you’re wasting your life,” a quote from novelist Chuck Palahniuk that summarized the hopelessness that she outlined feeling in the post. 

The quote became a staple of her blog; it encapsulated her fear and helplessness at the time and became essential to her online presence.

Only a few months into 2012, she abandoned her blog for a new one, which once again focused almost exclusively on fashion, moving away from her constant recording of her own emotional state.

After her death, information was released that confirmed Lam suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, conditions that she struggled with for years. Her parents hid her disorders from the world, possibly implanting an inherent shame within Lam for her condition. 

She had been prescribed several different medications to manage her symptoms over the years, but the relapse she outlined in her blog posts was likely an episode of her mental illnesses surfacing. 

Her relapse was likely one of many instances in which Lam did not take her medications, a practice that had resulted in psychotic breaks and institutionalization on more than one occasion in prior years. 

This established a pattern of behavior that possibly explains her disappearance in 2013.

The Grim Legacy Of The Cecil Hotel

Lam arrived in Los Angeles On January 26, 2013, after deciding to take a trip, likely in an attempt to alleviate the stress her mental illness was causing.

After riding a series of Amtrak trains and commercial buses, she stepped into the notorious Cecil Hotel in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles.  

Photograph of the infamous Cecil hotel. Image via Vanity.

Skid Row was notoriously well known by the 1990s for being an area full of the homeless, drug addicts, and criminal activity.

As a result, housing accommodations were cheap in the area, enticing visitors and poor college students to visit, which is how Lam wound up in the area. 

Within the neighborhood, Lam’s choice of residence, the Cecil Hotel, stood as a hotspot of all things criminal in Skid Row. Since 1927, when it was established, the hotel has been a haunt for criminals of all kinds. 

Most infamously, Richard Ramirez, a serial killer known as the Night Stalker, plagued the streets of Los Angeles using the hotel as his home base. Little did Lam know that when she booked her room, she would become a part of the hotel’s dark history.

Leading Up To Lam’s Disappearance

As a young woman adventuring to a new city, Lam consistently updated her parents on her location and what she was doing during her visit, especially since she was staying in such a questionable area.

Her last call to her parents came on January 31, which was planned to be the final day of her journey before heading back to Canada. 

A day later, her parents had not heard any update on her journey back, and they instantly panicked. Fearing the worst, the couple called the Los Angeles Police Department who immediately began investigating.

After a few days, the police reported that Lam was missing, which drove her parents to fly to Los Angeles to join the search.

Quickly it became clear that the circumstances surrounding Lam’s disappearance were suspicious. Police started interviewing Lam’s roommates, people whom she had shared a room with at the hotel until a few days before her disappearance. Each of them shared that Lam had been behaving strangely. 

They recalled the notes Lam had left telling them to leave her alone and how she locked herself in her room and demanded a password from anyone trying to enter. 

She also had gotten the chance to be an audience member at the filming for an episode of Conan but was removed from the studio for her eccentric and concerning behavior.

This pattern of behavior led investigators to believe that Lam had another mental break and had potentially harmed herself.

A local bookstore owner was the last person to see Lam alive. Lam had been buying a travel book and had consulted the owner for advice because she was worried the book might not fit in her luggage. After this exchange, Lam disappeared. 

Police released images of Lam, hoping that someone would recognize her, and began scouring the hotel to find any evidence of what happened. 

The only piece of evidence police were able to locate was security footage of Lam in the hotel elevator, which they released to the public in hopes that someone could explain what was happening in the tape. 

This footage has become the core of the conspiracy surrounding Lam’s death because of what it depicts.

What Happened To Elisa Lam

Timestamped February 1, 2013, the footage shows a crazed Lam behaving erratically in the elevator of the hotel. As she walks in the elevator she turns and appears to be talking to someone, although no one follows her into the elevator or is visible through the doorway. 

Surveillance footage screenshots show Elisa Lam behaving erratically. Image via Business Insider.

She proceeds to hit every button on the elevator before finally walking back out, still with no sign of anyone else as she continued to rant and gesture wildly.

Releasing the footage to the public instantly inspired wild theories about what could have gone on in the elevator. 

Some believed that Lam was fleeing an assailant, screaming and waving to fend them off; others believed she may have had another psychotic episode, especially after it was released that she suffered from bipolar disorder. 

The mystery behind the footage and her odd behavior is what has propelled the case to infamy, along with the unusual location where her corpse was discovered.

Within weeks of Lam’s disappearance, the hotel began receiving complaints from its patrons, stating that the water tasted odd and that the showers were suffering from low water pressure. 

Hotel maintenance, seeking to resolve the issue, investigated the rooftop reservoirs where the water was stored. Upon opening one of the reservoirs, they found Elisa Lam’s drowned body.

How Did Elisa Lam Die?

An autopsy conducted on Lam’s body found that her cause of death was drowning, likely brought on as a result of her bipolar episode. Toxicology reports confirmed that Lam had once again been refusing to take her medication, which rationalized her behavior in the elevator footage. 

But as usual, conspiracy theorists did not care for scientific explanations and began creating their own explanations for her disappearance.

Those who are convinced Lam was murdered insist the footage of her in the elevator demonstrates that she was fleeing from someone, an assertion that is reinforced by the setting of the Cecil Hotel’s seedy history. 

The location of her body also raised questions from conspiracy theorists: the water reservoir that her body was found inside of was closed from the outside, raising the question of how she could have closed it once inside.

While the investigation was closed by police, marked as an accidental death, Lam’s legacy lives on as the subject of true crime conspiracy.

Multiple television shows, movies, and songs have drawn inspiration from the hazy and gruesome details of her disappearance and death, while her story adds to the extensive, tragic history of the Cecil Hotel.


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