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The Bizarre Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Elisa Lam

A deep dive into the mysterious case of Elisa Lam.

By Shauna MullenPublished 5 months ago Updated 5 months ago 18 min read

On January 31st, 2013, 21-year-old Elisa Lam vanished on the day she was supposed to check out of the “Stay on Main” hostel. This case is filled with creepy coincidences and conspiracy theories.

Who was Elisa Lam?

Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old woman of Chinese descent who lived and studied in British Colombia. She was a very avid blogger on the social media platform “Tumblr” under the name “Nouvelle-Nouveau.” Through her regular posting, it is really easy to get a sense of the kind of person she was as she used this essentially as a journal. She clearly was struggling with her own mind and was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder in which she was medicated. However, you can feel her need for being independent and the sense of adventure she longed for. She finally managed to get permission from her parents to travel, under the conditions of keeping in daily contact.

Elisa Lam, 21

The Cecil Hotel

On December 20th 1924, The Cecil Hotel opened as a budget hotel for travellers and cost $1.4 million to build which in today’s money is around $25 million. Over the years, the hotel gained a reputation for the type of guest that it would house. This is due to the hotel’s location. The property is inside the infamous “Skid Row” in Los Angeles which is known as a dangerous area consisting of a 56-block radius.

Skid Row

Filled with sleeping bags and tents where people have been living, some for years, it has been over run with drugs and crime. Currently between 8,000 and 10,000 homeless reside there as all of the city’s resources to help support the homeless are in the same area. Skid row is the place people are dropped off when being released from prison or a mental facility and you have nowhere else to go. In the early 1970s, the city of California came up with a plan to try and contain the homeless and criminals in Skid Row to try and prevent crime from happening in the nicer areas.

Containment plan for Skid Row

The Cecil hotel acts as an alternative to apartment living for people who may not necessarily be eligible for putting a deposit down on a real place to live. This could be because they are freshly out of jail, on the run, or even people who don’t want a record of where they are living. The layout of the hotel was different to what you would expect. Due to how cheap the accommodation was per night, there had to be compromise in some areas. The hotel has close to 700 rooms and some of them had communal bathrooms and kitchens. Before the Elisa Lam case, the hotel was known to police as they would have to visit at least 3 times a day. There were reports of rape and sexual assault, assault, overdoses, and even murder. There was a case that some of the female guests complained that they felt they were being watched when using the communal bathrooms.

In 1985, Richard Ramirez stayed at the Cecil Hotel whilst he was continuing his murder-spree. More commonly known as the night stalker, Ramirez murdered at least 13 people using different methods, from handguns, knives, hammers, machetes and even a tire iron. After he invaded his victims’ homes and murdered them, he would walk back to the Cecil Hotel, take off his blood-stained clothes in the alley behind the building, walk up to his room in his underwear, still covered in blood. He never found his victims in Skid Row because he fit in with the other people who resided in The Cecil Hotel.

Richard Ramirez, AKA, the night stalker

This is not the only case of a serial killer using the Cecil Hotel as a residence. In 1990 to 1991, Jack Unterweger, an Austrian journalist, stayed at the Cecil Hotel to conduct his research on a story involving the prostitutes in LA’s red-light district, which was conveniently down the road from the hotel. However, he wasn’t just a journalist. In December 1974, he killed 18-year-old Margaret Schafer by strangling her with her own bra. He was quickly caught and reprimanded. He tried to justify his actions in his 1976 trial by claiming that he saw his mother in her eyes. Unable to garner sympathy for his abonnement issues with his mother, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Jack Untenweger

Whilst behind bars, he learnt to read and write. He became very skilled at it and published many books. He won a literary award in 1984 and his writing was being analysed and taught in Austrian schools. His autobiography topped the bestseller list and was adapted into a movie. Due to the quality of his writing, many of Austria’s creatives began a campaign to get him pardoned, using his writing as proof that he was a reformed man. However, his writing from that time still had tones of violence and death. For example; “No theme is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman.”

Autobiography written in prison

Regardless, the campaign for his early release worked, he was released after serving 15 years of his life sentence, the minimum required by Austrian law. May 1990, Jack Unterweger was released from prison with the Jail’s governor claiming: “We will never find a prisoner so well prepared for freedom.” Only 4 months after his release, another woman was found dead, strangled in the same way as Jack’s first victim. He didn’t stop there either, he continued to kill seven more prostitutes all in the same way. In the eyes of the public, Jack was a reformed man who would give readings of writing, stage his plays and even work as a reporter. He established himself as one of the main journalists reporting on the murders of the prostitutes he was killing. Even being able to interview the chief of police.

Under the guise of being a journalist that was working on a story investigating the “terrible conditions” suffered by American prostitutes, he checked into the Cecil hotel. He managed to get a ride along with an LAPD patrol officer of the red-light district. He killed three more prostitutes whilst in LA but was eventually caught.

Jack Unterweger in custody

These two examples are not the only cases of death surrounding the Cecil Hotel. Many suicides and overdoses occur here regularly. So, it is no wonder that the owners decided to sell the property in 2007 for $24 million. A new manager was brought in to freshen the place up and make it profitable. The first thing on the agenda was to evict every tenant that was living there for little to no money. As quickly as the process began, it ended. The California Government sent a stop work order that halted all renovations and evictions. The Cecil Hotel, along with other hotels in the area, were part of a programme with the councillors to provide cheap, affordable housing for the homeless population in skid row due to being registered as a “residential hotel.” This made it impossible to turn the hotel into a profitable business coupled with the hundreds of bad reviews under The Cecil Hotel name. The hotel Cecil was so infamous for its clientele and dangerous reputation that it was featured in Season 5 of American Horror Story.

This is when the manager came up with a plan that logistically sounds like a nightmare to me. She moved all the tenants to the two bottom floors, the three floors above that were transformed into “Stay on Main.” A completely new concept that was targeted at young travellers as a youth hostel. The rooms were transformed into shared accommodation with bunk beds to house multiple travellers. The remaining 9 floors remained as the Hotel Cecil where the existing regular guests could continue to stay. Stay on Main had a different entrance, a different hotel lobby and the staff even wore different uniforms. The only place the two different types of guests would interact were the common elevators. This also means that there was nothing stopping any of the Hotel Cecil guests going to the Stay on Main floors or vice versa.

New layout for the building.

The Facts of Elisa Lam’s Disappearance

Elisa Lam was seen by hotel staff in an area that is off limits for guests. She was told to leave and last seen heading towards the elevators. When police searched through the CCTV footage, they found a recording of Elisa Lam acting strangely in the elevator. Once she leaves the elevator and walks off to the left, she is never seen on any of the CCTV footage again, including every entrance and exit of the building. Police concluded that meant she was either still in the hotel or left the hotel not of her own accord. A search for Elisa began, looking through all 700 rooms for places you could hide a body and even the lockers reserved for hotel staff in the basement. After not finding anything, they decided to use sniffer dogs to try and track Elisa’s scent. The dog managed to find her scent in the room she was staying in, but it stopped at the window which led out to the fire escape. Police continued their search on the roof of the hotel, but still they found nothing.

The CCTV Footage

After a week of no evidence and leads that led nowhere, the police decided to release the last known security footage of Elisa Lam to the public, in the hopes that someone who knew more would come forward. They were not prepared for the media attention that would come with it. The video went viral online and caught the attention of “Internet detectives” who wanted to solve the mysterious case of Elisa Lam. The CCTV footage was analysed by hundreds of people trying to find something that could lead to finding her.

A Facebook page was made to talk about her case. People saw that the timestamp of the video was altered so that it was hard to read what it said. After some people had “decoded” the timestamp, they realised that at least 53 seconds of footage was missing which is backed up by the jump of the elevator doors. People insist that they see another shoe in the corner of the footage that doesn’t match what Elisa was wearing. Many theorists online believed that she was interacting with someone in the corridor and was scared. One big question that everyone who watched the video was asking was: Why was the elevator doors not closing? Elisa had clearly pressed multiple buttons on the elevator to leave that floor as fast as she could but the doors do not close until she leaves the elevator a couple of minutes later. This made people theorise that someone was holding the elevator button in the hallway, stopping her from leaving.

The 53 seconds of footage that people believe are missing is theorised to contain images of the person that was making her feel so scared.

Discovery of the Body

19 days after Elisa Lam’s disappearance, a travelling couple staying at The Hotel Cecil complained about the water. They said the water pressure in their room was low and it was a dark colour that smelt and tasted like it was rotting. The maintenance worker for the hotel went to the roof to check the water tanks and found the dead body of Elisa Lam floating around naked.

When the police arrived on scene, the media onslaught followed. The hotel was shut down completely, every guest was redirected to other hotels in the area. When a police spokesperson addressed the media, he stated that the lid to the water tank was closed, which cemented in people’s minds that she didn’t get into the tank by herself because she wouldn’t be able to reach it from the inside.

Water tank where Elisa was discovered


Theory 1: A couple days after Elisa’s body was discovered, an outbreak of tuberculosis spread through the homeless population of Skid Row. Elisa Lam was a student at the University of British Colombia which is known for their extensive research centre for Tuberculosis. That in itself is a loose connection to the demise of Elisa Lam but the technology for testing Tuberculosis is called LAM-ELISA. This made many people speculate that Elisa was sent there by the government as a weapon in an attempt to lower the population of homeless in Skid Row. This would never be proven and most likely just a crazy coincidence.

Theory 2: Another theory that was birthed by a crazy coincidence is that she was killed by someone who had an obsession with the film Dark Water. In 2005, the movie Dark Water was released in the US and the story is eerily close to the story of Elisa Lam. In the film, a mother and daughter move in to a run-down apartment complex, strangely close to the Hotel Cecil. They are targeted by the ghost of a former resident who makes themselves known by changing the colour of the water dark. The little girl in the movie ends up dying by falling into the water tank on the roof, which is how Elisa Lam was found. The jacket Elisa Lam was last seen wearing, the one that was found amongst the rest of clothes at the bottom of the tank, was nearly an exact match to the one the little girl wore in the movie when she died. People have theorized that someone with mental instability had seen the jacket Elisa was wearing and made the connection to the movie. They then decided to murder Elisa in the same manner the girl in the movie dies.

Theory 3: When the body of Elisa Lam was discovered and announced to the public, the internet detectives who were involved in the Elisa Lam discussion group on Facebook decided it was time to look into the guests of the Hotel Cecil. They truly believed they were going to find her killer. One of them came across a video of a death metal singer called MORBID who posted a video on YouTube of his stay at the Hotel Cecil. After looking into the singer more, they found some creepy connections. One of his videos consisted of him singing one of his songs in front of pictures of serial killer Ted Bundy and Elizabeth Short, the actress murdered in LA in 1947 aka the Black Dahlia. He posted a mirror selfie on social media captioned “the killer is me.” A song he posted a couple of days after Elisa Lam’s disappearance was about laying someone to rest in water.

Internet detectives determined that the lyrics were about Elisa Lam who was found floating in water and of Chinese descent. Another one of MORBID’s music videos was a women running for her life through a forested area before eventually being murdered. MORBID’s real name is Pablo Vergara and when the web sleuths found this out, they bombarded all of his social media with death threats and awful messages accusing him of murder. He was even featured on a Taiwan news website as an official suspect for Elisa Lam’s murder. However, the video that MORBID posted of his stay at the Hotel Cecil was a whole year before Elisa Lam checked in. In fact, he had an alibi with receipts that he was in Mexico recording his music at the time of Elisa Lam’s disappearance.

Theory 4: Other people are convinced something more paranormal happened to Elisa. A recent theory is that the CCTV footage actually shows her playing something called The Elevator Game. The rules of the game consist of the player getting into an elevator by themselves and visit different floors in a certain way to try and get to a “new dimension.” You must get on the elevator on the first floor then travel to the second and sixth floor before returning back to the second. Then you must go to the tenth floor before going down to the fifth. The main rule to follow when playing is do not leave the elevator at any point during the game. When visiting the fifth floor for the final time, a mysterious woman is supposed to join the player in the elevator but they can not interact with her. The player must then push the button to the first floor again. If the elevator goes to the first floor, the player must leave without looking back at the building. If it goes to the tenth floor, you supposedly enter a different dimension. Some theorists are convinced that Elisa was playing the game and broke the rules which is why she ended up dead in the water tank. This can obviously not be proven.

The Police Explanation

It took over 4 months for the autopsy of her body to be released to the public. In the CCTV footage, people, including myself, have wondered whether or not Elisa was on drugs. With the nature of the people who surrounded the hotel, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to assume she experimented whilst she was there. We know from her social media posts that she was fine with speaking to people she didn’t know, so could it be that she overdosed on something? The toxicology report states that Elisa Lam had no illicit substances in her body when she died. The only chemicals present in her body were explained by her Bipolar medication. Police concluded that the amount of hormones and chemicals in her body did not match up to how much she should have in the pill bottles. In Elisa’s belongings that was left in her room, the medication bottles were close to full which indicates that Elisa was under taking her medication. Her family have confirmed that she had a history of not taking her medication and when this was the case, she would have hallucinations and genuinely believe she was being chased by something or someone. Her sister said that she remembers Elisa hiding under her bed, scared for her life because she was convinced someone was chasing her. The official cause for Elisa Lam’s death was ruled as accidental by drowning. Police reports state that she most likely was in the middle of a psychotic break caused by her Bipolar. She believed that she was being chased by someone which explains her behaviour in the video. The elevator not closing was not someone in the corridor stopping her from leaving. She pressed multiple buttons in a panic including door hold. After pressing this button, the elevator doors stay open for a total of 2 minutes before closing again. The reason the dog lost her scent on the fire escape is because that is how she most likely made her way onto the roof. The door at the top of the stairs that led to the roof was alarmed so staff would have been alerted if she opened the door. The only way to turn that door alarm off is by turning a key that only certain hotel staff have, this made people speculate that someone who worked at the hotel killed her.

The evidence in this case is scarce but the police explanation covers it all. The day before Elisa was due to check out, the hotel moved her from a shared room to a private one. This was because she was writing notes and leaving them on the other girl’s beds. She would write things like “go home” and “go away” or “get out.” She would lock the door and stop any of the other guests from entering the room unless they knew a certain password. Her behaviour before her disappearance was erratic. Apparently, the day before she vanished, she went to a TV show taping and was part of the live audience. She was escorted out by the security as they believed she was a risk to the host of the show. She wrote a letter whilst in the audience and demanded it was given to the TV show host. Police claim that she made her way back to her room using the stairs when the elevator wouldn’t close. She climbed out of the window and up the fire escape to get to the roof. She was running for her life and trying to find somewhere to hide, believing that someone was chasing her due to her delusions. She climbed into the water tank to hide and got stuck. She was found naked because she stripped her clothes off herself, this could have been for more range of movement or because of hypothermia beginning to set in. Either way, she died in the water tank.

Police explained that the CCTV footage was slowed down to show a better look of her face in an attempt for someone to recognise her. They also say that if 53 seconds was cut out of the video, it wasn’t to hide another figure in the video but because it wasn’t important information for the public to know. This could be because her behaviour was so erratic that they wanted to be respectful to the family.

People don’t believe this story to this day because the police told the media at the time that the lid on the water tank was closed. This was false and a miscommunication on their part. The maintenance worker who found Elisa’s body states that the hatch on the water tank was open when he went to check.

The Hotel Cecil closed down due to Covid but officially reopened again as affordable housing accommodation for the people of Skid Row. Will this be the last time the Hotel Cecil houses a suspicious death?

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About the Creator

Shauna Mullen

I like to write about true crime and do small investigations. I also write fiction sometimes

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Comments (3)

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  • RICHARDS DIVINE💜🌸5 months ago

    Great work! Please would you check out my articles 🤗

  • Kelsey Clarey5 months ago

    This case has fascinated me since I first heard it, but it's also just so incredibly sad.

  • L.C. Schäfer5 months ago

    This whole effing case is so mindboggling

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