The Mystery of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel


This is one strange and sad tale. And there’s a video. A weird video.

The Elisa Lam mystery stands out for a few reasons. Firstly, this is no centuries-old fireside tale with scant photographic evidence and super-dodgy sources. Secondly, the manner of her death has been debated furiously in some corners of the internet, with it appearing to be almost like a Jonathan Creek-style locked-door mystery. Finally, what happened with Lam’s body was truly the stuff of nightmares.

Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian. She was on holiday in the US. On the 26th of January 2013, the student checked into the 600-room Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles by herself. Apparently, she intended this to be a short stopover in the city on her way to Santa Cruz. Five days later she was reported missing by her parents after her daily phone calls home stopped.

About a month after these events, the Hotel’s management team began to receive reports of problems with the building’s supply of water. Complaints included erratic drops in pressure, unusual colouration, and “a very funny, sweet, disgusting taste” to the water when drunk. Investigation of these reports by the maintenance staff uncovered the unthinkable in one of the Hotel’s rooftop water tanks: Lam’s corpse.

Guests had “brushed their teeth, bathed and drank with water from [the tank] for as long as 19 days” while Lam’s decaying body floated about in the water—became the water.

The Mystery

Nightmarish, indeed.

So what was she doing in the water tank? The first explanation I heard at the time was suicide but, almost immediately, questions arose that seemed at odds with this: how did Lam get, undetected, onto a roof that was “barricaded throughout” and the area fitted with an alarm and only accessible to employees? if Elisa Lam committed suicide how could she possibly climb into one and close the (apparently heavy) lid behind her? how did she manage to drown herself when nothing to hold her down was found with her body? why did she have no clothes on?

Providing some spacial context, media photography revealed that the water tanks were so tall that the fire crews trying to release her body needed ladders to access the tank.


In the end (fairly recently), the death was ruled to be an accidental one—by drowning. Her body tested negative for drugs and there was no sign of physical trauma to it. The LA County Coroner’s office listed her as suffering from bipolar disorder and stated that this was ‘significant’, but it seems that no further details regarding this ‘significance’ have come to light.

The Mystery Deepens

Just before Lam died, the Hotel’s security camera captured images of her using the lift. The footage shows Lam entering the lift and pressing a lot of buttons before staring closely at her selection. She then seems to huddle in the corner, as if wary of someone looking for her, before peering cautiously back into the corridor. This sort of peculiar behaviour goes on for a while, with the lift door remaining open the whole time. Eventually, she makes her way back into the corridor before gesticulating as if speaking to someone. At 2:29 there seems to be someone else’s foot slightly in frame that Lam then steps over, and the movements of her fingers and feet have been noted as very strange. Then the lift doors close and the video ends.

One source mentions that the video has been cut, with a section deleted, although I haven’t had time to dig into this in search of a verifiable source. I’ll post a link to the video below for those who wish to watch.

Needless to say, as with most mysteries, the Elisa Lam case has been explained in every way possible: from evil paranormal forces at work to government conspiracies.

The Cecil Hotel

The Cecil Hotel (which is only a short walk from the notorious LA Skid Row) would have provided enough of a creepy cup of copy even without the recent death of Lam because it is a place that has often been linked to violent deaths. Notorious serial killer Richard Ramirez stayed on the 14th floor while killing something like 18 people in the 1980s; and Jack Unterweger murdered three women in 1991 there while working as a crime journalist. A few decades earlier the Hotel was the scene of many suicides and at least one murder. Three are detailed below:

“Helen Gurnee, in her 50s, leaped from a seventh floor window, landing on the Cecil Hotel marquee on October 22, 1954.

“Julia Moore jumped from her eighth floor room window on February 11, 1962, she said. Moore left behind a bus ticket from St Louis, 59 cents and an Illinois bank account book showing a balance of $1,800.

“Pauline Otton, 27, jumped from a ninth floor window after an argument with her estranged husband on October 12, 1962. Otton landed on George Gianinni, 65, who was walking on the sidewalk 90 feet below. Both were killed instantly.

“’Pigeon Goldie’ Osgood, a retired telephone operator, was found dead in her ransacked room on June 4, 1964. Osgood, known for protecting and feeding the pigeons at nearby Pershing Square, was stabbed, strangled and raped. The crime has not been solved.”

Even Elizabeth Short, the much written-about ‘Black Dahlia’ “is alleged in at least one book to have hung out at the Cecil and drank at the bar next door before she disappeared in 1947.”

Sony have bought the screenplay rights for a horror film based upon the Elisa Lam case.

For more research into real-life cases please check out my ebooks.


  10. Elisa Lam’s blog

About MBForde

Writer. Excels at staring blankly, having bad hair and storing food in cheeks. Wrote Eerie Britain, amongst other things.
This entry was posted in Bizarre, Horror, Topical. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Mystery of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel

  1. K says:

    I don’t think that’s another foot that appears in the video at 2:29, I think it’s the back of her own foot where she’s turned it as she’s walking away. It’s still a very odd video though. At first I thought maybe she’s trying to figure out why the door won’t close….and then by the end it seems like she’s trying to stop it from going. Just very odd.

    • Rachel H says:

      This is a bit late, but I almost wonder if she could have been pressing all those buttons in the elevator to stop someone from following her, or at least make it more difficult for them to do so. Since she was doing that, if there indeed happened to be someone questionable there she was trying to hide from, they would have had to find an alternate route to get to her (like stairs), hence her peeking out into the hallway.

      I know they ruled this “accidental,” but it really doesn’t seem like it… Especially with everything added up, naked inside a water tank with a heavy lid closed over the body – that strongly gives the impression of someone trying to hide a corpse.

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  3. One of the symptoms of extreme bipolar disorder can be paranoia and auditory hallucinations. That might explain the odd behavior on the elevator. But it doesn’t really help with the water tank aspect of the story….

  4. Sophie says:

    You say the tanks were too tall to get up onto, but it would be entirely possible to haul herself onto the lower platform around the tanks, then onto the second platform to the left, then climb the railing to the top of the front left tank, and hop between tanks from the top. Closing a heavy lid while in water would be hard though. The video is super creepy too… the angle of strange hand movements almost seem unnatural.

  5. Oculto says:

    Eliminating all that’s impossible, whatever’s left, doesn’t matter how improbable it is, must be truth.

    The thing is, something is working on that Hotel. Of course, It’s a place highly crowded. Almost every human thing, must happen more often in place like this. How many people did eat, sleep, fuck, pooped, laughed, drank in there, i don’t see why that doesn’t apply to die or kill.
    But 5 violentamente deaths – excluding hers. Two killers.

    Very suspect. Maybe the place, or people in it, influence behaviors in some way, elevating violent, dark urges…
    Well, i am just spelling pointless shit. I will look into it.

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  7. Dlayani says:

    This whole case reminds me of the shortstory dark water from Koji Suzuki. The victim in the book is much younger than Lam, but still…

  8. Roy O bannon says:

    She was bipolar and jumped in the tank as she was having paranoid delusions. the lid on the tank wasn’t closed,contrary to popular belief, the tank was accessible from the roof next to the tanks. and the reason she was found naked is people suffering from extreme hypothermia take off all their clothes. its a well documented fact. Conclusion: Accidental drowning

    • Josh C says:

      So who closed the tank lid after she was in, and how did she get onto the roof without setting off the alarm? Also, if she took her clothes off in the tank, why weren’t they found in the tank with her?

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  10. Elle says:

    One of the creepiest coincidences in the case is this –

  11. Anonymous says:

    What’s done in the dark will come to the light


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