The baffling events of early 2013 in a fabled L.A. hotel are one of many inspirations for American Horror Story: Hotel, and an upcoming horror film called The Bringing. While the details of the case drove intense speculation about possible paranormal elements to a young woman’s death, the reality is that this is more a story of lonely despair.
21-year-old Canadian college student Elisa Lam’s body was only found after residents of the Hotel Cecil, a building with a troubled past, complained about their water. It was running strange colors when it ran at all. Although an initial search included a survey of the roof with a search dog, Lam’s body had been in a water tank at the top of the building for several weeks, and it was unclear how or why her life ended in such a lonely and strange way. The LAPD initially treated Lam’s death as suspicious, and released a surveillance video from the hotel of Lam in the elevator, acting erratic and scared.
In the clip, which went viral and inspired a host of theories from the unsettled public, Elisa ducks in and out of the elevator, looking as if she’s trying to evade someone. At some point, she pins her body straight against a side of the elevator as if she is hiding. Throughout the video, she appears to be pressing buttons, but the elevator’s doors stay open, and the elevator doesn’t move.
Elisa’s parents, Chinese immigrants who ran a restaurant in Burnaby, British Columbia, reported her missing in early February. Her last call to them was January 31, 2013. After the discovery of Lam’s body, the Cecil Hotel continued operations but asked each guest staying and checking in there to sign a waiver releasing the establishment from liability if they got sick from the water.
Police found no evidence of physical harm or foul play and dismissed her case as an accident. Contributing to this decision was the fact that Elisa’s parents disclosed she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her toxicology report corroborated this; she had doses of several therapeutic doses of medications used to treat bipolar disorder in her system at the time of her death.
Still, there is the question of how she got onto the roof undetected. The hotel’s chief engineer, Pedro Tovar, says there are only four ways to get onto the roof, and all ways should set off an alarm that can be heard on the top two floors, and at the front desk. Once on the roof, Elisa would have to have climb two different sets of ladders, and lift up a heavy metal lid in order to get inside one of the tanks.
If she was in the midst of a manic episode, however, it explains her behavior in the elevator video, as well as her ability to climb and get inside the tanks. What it doesn’t explain, though, is why her trip to the roof didn’t set off any alarms. While the hotel’s alarms were working probably in the following weeks, maybe they, like the elevator, were malfunctioning the day Elisa Lam found her way to the roof.
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