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Revisiting the Chilling Death of Elisa Lam

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


If horror film deaths scare you, wait until you see what real life has to offer.

I always reiterate how real life packs more fright than stories do. A friend reckoned that slasher movies are popular because the murders are unrealistic to begin with. I mean we got lumbering but overly strong psychos dressed in Halloween attire slashing their way to hapless victims. And the victims, mostly females, die in rather sexy and gory fashion. Adding to the excitement are jump scares.

Most movie horror deaths are meant to entertain and not to emulate real-life crimes. Reading about real-life murders will leave one traumatized. There is nothing sexy or poetic about killing or getting killed.

Yet, there are real-life crimes that seems to jump out from the pages of something written by a demented script writer.

Upon hearing the name of victim Elisa Lam, pity will set in. But I know a lot of you will remember something else, and when you do, you need to keep the lights on tonight.

The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. This is where Elisa Lam died.

The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. This is where Elisa Lam died.

Before we proceed, it should be noted that the whole incident occurred in the Cecil Hotel, which already had a reputation for sinister deaths.

It started as a budget hotel when it was opened in December 20, 1924, and today, it has reopened as an affordable housing complex for low-income people. Because of the historic significance of its architecture, it was voted a Historical-Cultural Monument. Though people might know it for the wrong reasons.

The hotel itself earned its reputation for violent suicides and murders, thanks to the many deaths occurring in its rooms. We will start with Percy Ormond Cook. He was 57 when he shot himself in the head after he failed to reconcile with his wife and children. This occurred in January 22, 1927.

Then in 1931, W. K. Norton poisoned himself. Many more cases of suicides followed after, such as Helen Gurnee who jumped to her death in October 22, 1954.

Aside from suicides, the hotel was also a common destination for sex workers, people in affairs, and drug activities, hence it was no surprise that violent crimes occurred here. Like the case of "Pigeon Goldie" Osgood (1964), a retired telemarketer, who was found raped, beaten and stabbed. Her case remains unsolved.

The hotel also had some well-known guests—serial killers to be exact. The “Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez was said to have stayed in the hotel during his killing spree. A copycat murderer Jack Unterweger strangled at least six sex workers during his stay in the hotel (1991).

And that is just a few examples.

But in 2013, an infamous incident further cemented the hotel’s sinister reputation with the public.

The gruesome discovery of Elisa Lam's body.

The gruesome discovery of Elisa Lam's body.

One day, the guests at the Cecil began complaining about the state of their water. The water pressure was low, while some claim that it had a strange color. It was darker, and with a weird taste. Eventually, a discovery made by the hotel maintenance solved the mystery in a rather gruesome fashion.

On the morning of February 19, the unfortunate hotel maintenance worker Santiago Lopez found something: the dead body of a woman. Located on the roof were four 1000-gallon water tanks. They provided water to the guest rooms, the kitchen, and the coffee shop. And one of the tanks happened to contain a dead body, which explained the state of the water reported by the guests.

Santiago looked through an open hatch and saw the body floating face up in the water. In order to retrieve the body, the tank had to be cut opened and drained, as the hatch was too small.

The female remains were naked when they were discovered, and in a moderate state of decomposition. Meaning they had been there for days. The clothing was found floating in the water. The body was identified as Elisa Lam, a Chinese-Canadian tourist.

Elisa Lam: the missing girl.

Elisa Lam: the missing girl.

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Elisa Lam was a Hong Kong immigrant and a student at University of British Columbia. She arrived in Los Angeles in 2013, where she checked into the Cecil Hotel. During her stay there, people were quick to notice that something was wrong with her.

Originally, she was assigned to the fifth floor, where she would stay in a shared room with other guests. But two days after, she was given a private room after the guests complained of “odd behaviors.” She was disturbing her roommates, and in one case she had an outburst in the hotel lobby.

The girl had to be escorted out one time when her behavior was disrupting a television taping in the hotel. Her behavior may have been related to her history of mental illness, like bipolar disorder and depression. There was even a report that prior her stay in Los Angeles, she had gone missing for a brief period.

Stress and missing out on medication could worsen mental illness conditions.

Elisa was constantly in contact with her family through phone calls. But soon, she stopped making contacts and failed to check out from the hotel in January 31, 2013. She was reported missing by her family and a search was made in the rooms and surrounding areas by LAPD, which resulted in nothing.

Flyers were made, and the case were brought to the media’s attention. After more fruitless searches, they then released a video of her last sightings: inside the hotel elevator, much to the horror of observers.

Infamous last footage: the unsettling elevator scene.

Infamous last footage: the unsettling elevator scene.

The LAPD released the video as it might help them track the missing Elisa. But viewers found the video disturbing. Elisa was reported to have bizarre behavior before she disappeared, and this video seems to show it.

The footage was approximately two-and-a-half minutes, and it showed Lam entering and making unusual moves and gesture, exiting and entering the elevator and seemingly pushing every button. At one point, Lam was seen seemingly watching for someone, and conversing with an unseen companion. She then left and was never seen again.

Elisa Lam, seemingly communicating with an unseen companion.

Elisa Lam, seemingly communicating with an unseen companion.

Theories and Interpretations

Some observers pointed out that the cause might be something supernatural; that Lam was being haunted by an unseen force. Several conspiracy theories flourished online. Others suggested that she might be pursued by an assailant, and she ended up escaping in the elevator.

One even reckoned that Lam was playing some sort of Korean game with the elevator buttons that will open a portal to another dimension.

This is just a few of the outrageous theories that surfaced in the internet, but the most obvious explanation is mental illness. Her body language and behavior was a sign of an ongoing psychotic episode. She already had issues with mental illness, and when her body was discovered, it was determined that she hadn’t taken her medications.

The Real Cause of the Tragedy

The remains of Lam would be discovered later and her death was ruled as accidental. But unanswered questions remain, like how she got in the water tank in the first place? The area was secured and inaccessible, and it even had an alarm, though security measures could be bypassed through the fire escape that leads to the rooftop tanks.

People also questioned how Lam got inside the tank, as it was secured by a heavy lid. But it was noted that the heavy lids were open during that time and not locked, which made it possible for a person to jump inside.

Overall, it was concluded that during her psychotic episode, Lam managed to reach the tank via a fire escape, hence evading the security features. She then climbed the tank by using the side ladders and jumped in, as the lid was left unlocked. And upon examination of her remains, no evidence of foul play was found.

There might be questions that will remain unanswered, but one thing is for sure. The real horror here is the danger of mental illness, which was the root cause of these infamous tragedy. People might blame an unseen stalker, or something darker. But the real lesson here is that mental problems should not be taken lightly.


1. Blankstein, Andrew; Flores, Adolfo (February 20, 2013). "Woman's body found in hotel's water tank". Los Angeles Times.

2. "Body found in Palmdale hotel water tank may be missing Canadian tourist". Yahoo! News. 20 February 2013.

3. "Once a den of prostitution and drugs, the Cecil Hotel in downtown L.A. is set to undergo a $100-million renovation". Los Angeles Times. 1 June 2016.

4. Finch, Jenna (22 April 2020). "The Deadliest LA Hotel: What They Didn't Tell Me About Stay on Main". Travel Dudes.

5. Kranc, Lauren (10 February 2021). "Netflix's Crime Scene Cuts Through the Paranormal For the True Story of Elisa Lam's Death". Esquire.

6. Ponti, Crystal (10 February 2021). "Murder, Suicide or Accident? The Chilling Mystery of Elisa Lam's Death".

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