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The mysterious disappearance of a young traveling college student who vanished in a hotel known for tragedy turned even stranger when footage of her final moments was released, spurring wild and even paranormal theories of what happened to her.
Elisa Lam, who is also known by her Cantonese name Lam Ho Yi, was in the middle of a solo travel trip when she visited Los Angeles in 2013. She stayed at the once opulent Cecil Hotel in downtown L.A. The 600-room building, built in the 1920s, was once a popular destination for the rich and famous in the 1930s and 1940s, the Los Angeles Times noted in 2016. But it later became known for crime and murder and was even a temporary home for serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger.
It later became a popular spot for those who were struggling. The inexpensive rooms and close proximity to Skid Row, where many transients have historically resided, led the hotel to become a popular backdrop for drug use, sex work, and violent crime. As the decades dragged on, an increasing number of crimes took place there, including numerous murders. It was ultimately dubbed the "death" hotel.
To dodge this reputation, the hotel attempted to rebrand as a trendy hostel called Stay on Main, which attracted students and international guests, Netflix's new docuseries “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” explains. One of those tourists was Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student on a personal travel journey.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
During Lam’s stay, she abruptly vanished. In their search to find her, investigators released video footage from the hotel’s elevator that captured Lam during her last known hours before vanishing. It is unquestionably eerie.
In the video, Lam enters the elevator and pushes multiple buttons before peering out of the elevator, seemingly scanning the area around it. She then appears to be trying to hide from someone inside the elevator, leaning as close as she can against the wall before once again peering out. The doors of the elevator fail to close. Then, she moves around in an almost square dance fashion before gesticulating in the hallway. Then she enters the elevator again, looking distraught, before pushing seemingly all the floor buttons, some of which she pushes more than once. She exits the elevator again, moves her arms around in a strange fashion before exiting left. Eventually, the elevator doors shut.
Weeks after Lam’s disappearance, following complaints from hotel guests about sudden low water pressure and discolored drinking water, the tanks of the roof were searched. Lam's body was discovered floating in one of the water tanks. She was naked and her clothing was found at the bottom of the tank.
Investigators said that there was no physical evidence to suggest that a crime occurred. While she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a toxicology report indicated that she was taking her medication — but it suggested she was undertaking the meds, Dr. Jason Tovar, a forensic pathologist who received her toxicology report, notes in the series.
While her death was ruled an accidental drowning, her case has continued to conjure up wild theories. Below are some of the most compelling speculations.
Due to the hotel’s checkered past, some have speculated that the building is haunted. In fact, Season 5 of “American Horror Story” is based on the hotel, Screen Rant reported.
“‘Is there a room here that maybe somebody hasn’t died in?’ I never got used to that. Never got used to that,” former hotel manager Amy Price notes in “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.”
Inspired specifically by Lam’s mysterious death, “Ghost Adventures” investigated the hotel for paranormal activity in 2020. Zak Bagans, the show’s host, claimed there were rumors that Ramirez conducted Satanic rituals on the roof where Lam’s body was found. While retracing Lam's steps, including the elevator, he claimed he and his team could “feel spirits move through you,” he told People.
Online sleuths theorized in the series that her death could have to do with an evil spirit, ghosts, or possession. Her body movement in the elevator was part of these theories.
A police-hotel cover-up
As the docuseries shows, some believed that either hotel employees or investigators participated in a cover-up. These theories arose from the seeming delay in the autopsy report, as well as the fact that investigators said they had searched the roof with dogs weeks before Lam’s body was found.
YouTuber John Lordan told producers of the docuseries that speculation ran wild at the time that there was a cover-up by someone who worked on the case. Some believe that the cops were in cahoots with the hotel to cover up what happened.
Furthermore, amateur sleuths theorized that the elevator footage itself was tampered with, pointing to speculatory inaccuracies in the timecode numbers and suggestions that the footage was slowed down. Investigators and Price denied tampering with the footage.
The “Dark Water” theory
Online sleuths noted that they found eerie similarities between the case and the 2005 movie "Dark Water." The movie features a little girl who moves into a dilapidated building with her mother and then dies after falling inside a water tower tank, located on the building’s roof. The character died while wearing a red top; Lam was also wearing a red top when she vanished and died. The horror film also prominently features an elevator and muddy, discolored water. There was speculation among online sleuths that possibly someone was using Lam to carry out the plot of the movie.
A tuberculosis cover-up
YouTuber John Lordan notes in the docuseries that one theory that arose was that her death was used to cover up a new strain of tuberculosis. There was an outbreak of tuberculosis in Skid Row around the time Lam was in Los Angeles that happened just days after her body was found. Price confirmed in the series that the Health Department told them there was an outbreak in the hotel itself, as well. Lordan noted that the test given to see if one has tuberculosis is coincidentally named LAM-ELISA.
Lordan said it “makes me wonder if there’s any connection.”
Web sleuths pondered if the coincidence was a government conspiracy or terrorist group, or if she was, in essence, a biological weapon. The University of British Columbia, where Lam was a student, has a renowned tuberculosis research center.
“Elevator to Another World”
Some theorized online that Lam was playing the “Elevator Game,” also known as the “Korean Elevator Game,” and “Elevator To Another World.” The game involves entering an elevator alone of a building that is at least 10 stories high. The player is supposed to press a sequence of buttons, which is in theory supposed to transport them to another dimension. Some theorized that, if Lam was playing this game, she may have summoned some sort of paranormal element.
The metal band murder theory
Videos uploaded around the time of Lam's death by Morbid, the stage name of Mexican death metal frontman Pablo Camilo, roused suspicions that he could be the killer.
Days after Lam’s death, Camilo uploaded a video called “Died in Pain,” which features a young girl being chased down. He also posted videos that theorists believed made allusions to the Cecil hotel. One video he uploaded featured a photo of "Black Dahlia" Elizabeth Short, whose infamous Los Angeles murder has never been solved. She was rumored to have been spotted at the hotel before she died.
Camilo was falsely believed to have been at the Cecil at the same time as Lam. An online witchhunt for Camilo ensued after he was deemed a suspect in internet forums. Additionally, at least one international outlet called him a suspect.
Camilo told the producers of the docuseries that he didn't know who Lam was until he was called a suspect online. The authorities investigated him in Mexico but he was never charged. He denied having anything to do with her death and specified that he was at the hotel in 2012, one year before Lam checked in. He was in Mexico when she died. He accused the online sleuths of judging him on his clothing and art alone and said that he attempted suicide as a result of being falsely accused.
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