All the theories about what actually happened to missing student Elisa Lam

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
·9-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Netflix is known for its true crime dramas and documentaries, and its latest drop - Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel - examines the disappearance of Canadian student Elisa Lam from the eerie Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

The 21-year-old was on her solo travels when she visited downtown LA in January 2013, where she stayed at the notorious Cecil Hotel. After a murky past, involving untimely deaths (general manager Amy Price, who worked at the hotel from 2007 to 2017, claimed she saw 80 deaths in her time there) and housing serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger, the hotel had tried to reinvent itself as a cool destination for young people on their travels.

But when Elisa Lam disappeared from the Cecil Hotel, failing to check out on February 1, 2013, the ugly head of its sombre past was reared once again. Police released a CCTV video filmed inside one of the Cecil Hotel lifts, in which Elisa is seen behaving very unusually. The elevator doors don't close for several minutes, and the young woman appears agitated, jumping in and out of the lift as if she believes she is being followed. Then, she disappears out of shot.

Tragically, Elisa's body was found inside one of the water tanks on the roof of the hotel 19 days after she was declared missing. By this time, all eyes were on the case. The video had gone viral and internet sleuths had caught on to the case, trying desperately to uncover the truth. As a result, and egged on by a number of unusual coincidences, several theories emerged about her death, ranging from the possible to the downright bizarre...

What were the theories about the disappearance of Elisa Lam?

She was murdered

The unusual nature of Elisa Lam's behaviour in the CCTV footage from the lift initially led to people believing she was murdered, perhaps by someone not caught on camera. Elisa's body was found naked, which led to suspicions of foul play. It was also noted that the lid on the water tank was closed when detectives came to investigate the discovery of her body - something which would have been very unlikely the young woman could have done herself had she climbed in the tank, considering the distance between the water level and the lid. However, in the Netflix documentary the hotel maintenance worker who found Elisa inside the water tank claimed the hatch had been open, and that he had closed it following the gruesome discovery.

Despite this, some online theorists even went so far as to accuse a specific person of being responsible for Elisa's death. 'Morbid' (aka Pablo Vergara), the founding member of a metal band, had uploaded a video of himself inside a room at the Cecil Hotel just a couple of days after the student's body was found. In that video was a teaser for a new music video entitled 'Died in Pain', which featured lyrics referencing a woman drowning in water. Some amateur detectives online believed this was too much of a coincidence to pass by.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

The allegations of murder against Morbid became so intense he went on to release a video at the time proclaiming his innocence, insisting he had been in Mexico recording an album at the time she went missing (which was true). Years on, the singer told the Netflix documentary-makers that he had suffered mental health issues as a result of the incessant accusations laid upon him. "I received death threats every day. There was no escape. I tried to take my life and I woke up in a psychiatric hospital," he said.

She died as a result of suicide

Elisa Lam was known to have suffered with various mental health disorders, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression in the years prior to her trip. The 21-year-old also kept a Tumblr blog, titled Nouvelle-Nouveau, which police detectives and online communities scoured for clues after her disappearance.

In some posts on the blog, Elisa referenced struggles with her mental health, sharing one quote which read: "No matter how much I feel, I’m not going to let it out... If my heart starts going crazy, I’m not gonna tell everyone in the world about it. It doesn’t help anything. It just makes everyone’s life worse."

Upon discovery of her body inside the water tank, it was considered whether the young woman may have purposely tried to harm herself. The coroner ultimately ruled this out, however, stating that "a full review of circumstances" didn't support the suggestion that she ever intended to take her own life.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Someone from the hotel was in on it

This theory was derived from the eagle-eyed viewers who noticed a discrepancy in the time displayed on the CCTV footage of the young woman in the lift. From the 2:30 mark of the video, Elisa disappears out of sight, but the footage keeps rolling. Zoning in on the time stamp on the video, people noticed it was quite blurry and suggested it had perhaps been tampered with, eliminating 53 seconds of film. Others suggested it had been slowed down at points to edit parts of the video out; the elevator door jumps suddenly at around 2:57, which only added to the speculation. The question was: Why would someone tamper with the video? And how did they gain access to it? From there, the idea was born that someone from the hotel – or perhaps the police department - had something to hide.

There was another odd coincidence pointed out, stemming from the bookstore where Elisa Lam was last seen in person. The Last Bookstore in LA was, ironically, the final place Elisa was known to have come into contact with anyone. Even weirder, the postcode its domain is registered to is V5G 4S2. Theorists at work entered this code into Google Maps and it pinpointed to none other than the exact spot in which Elisa Lam went on to be buried. Very odd, yes - but a clue in the case of the death of a woman? Unlikely.

Her death was a copycat of a film

This is when things get a bit... far-fetched. Web sleuths invested in the case quickly began drawing comparisons to the horror film Dark Water. In the film, the body of a girl is found in the water tank on top of an apartment block after guests noticed the water looked dark and tasted funny - which was exactly how Elisa Lam's body came to be discovered. The girl's name? Cecilia. Pretty close to the name of the hotel in this case. Some people entertained the idea that perhaps Elisa's death was as a result of someone trying to create a copycat of the film in real life, but this is just another one of those things that ultimately comes down to coincidence.

Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/GETTY
Photo credit: MARK RALSTON/GETTY

She was a tuberculosis test study

Here's where we go really rogue. The online communities investigating Elisa Lam's death noticed that there was an outbreak of tuberculosis in Skid Row, which is just a few blocks from the Cecil Hotel, around the time she went missing. Their attention zoned in on it even more when they discovered that the test for the specific strain of tuberculosis going round was named the LAM-ELISA (standing for Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). Yeah, weird coincidence.

Conspiracy theorists jumped on it, speculating that Elisa may have been being used as 'a biological weapon' of some kind to help eliminate the homeless population in the area. Fuel was only added to the flames when it emerged she was a student from the University of British Columbia, which has a notable tuberculosis research centre. It was suggested that Elisa Lam may have been executed by whoever had plotted to use her as warfare, perhaps after she 'learned too much' or something. Needless to say, this was not a primary avenue of investigation for LAPD, however Elisa's autopsy did reveal that she didn't have any signs of tuberculosis at the time of her death. So there you go.

How did Elisa Lam actually die?

Ultimately, the experts working on the case concluded that none of the above theories were correct. In actuality, the coroner ruled Elisa Lam's death was as a result of accidental drowning, believed to have occurred as a result of her poor mental health. Elisa had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, and had been prescribed four medications to treat it. But after searching her room in the hotel, it became clear she had not been taking her medication in the doses she was supposed to.

Toxicology reports concluded there were no illegal drugs in her system when she died, which some people had wondered about based on the unusual behaviour displayed in the CCTV video. The findings also revealed Elisa Lam was not drunk at the time of her death, and that the levels of prescription medication were notably low - in keeping with the physical evidence found in her hotel room.

The Cecil Hotel staff confirmed Elisa had exhibited some "erratic behaviour" during the early days of her stay, when she was initially sharing a room with other young women. She was ultimately moved into a room of her own after leaving odd notes on the others' beds. It's suggested that this, perhaps, was a display of Elisa Lam's mental health disorders intensifying.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

As for why she was found naked? This remains unknown, but there are two possible answers. If Elisa was experiencing visions as a result of her ill mental health, as she was previously reported to have done, this may have played a part in stripping herself off (and it may also explain her erratic behaviour in the lift CCTV). Alternatively, if she had been in the water a while, unable to climb out, the young woman may have been experiencing hypothermia, which is known to falsely make people think they are too warm, causing them to remove items of clothing despite their body temperature actually being very low.

The lead detective on the case, Detective Wallace Tennelle, truly believes the young woman did accidentally drown - despite any continusing speculation. "My opinion is that she fell off her medication, and in her state, she happened to find her way onto the roof, got into the tank of water," he told CBC. "At the time, I think that water tank was maybe full. But as people used the tank, used water, unknown to her, the level was dropping to a point where she could no longer reach out and escape, and she died that way."

Whatever happened, it's an exceptionally tragic series of events. It may have been the source of some exciting amateur detective work for some, but it's important to remember that this was the death of a real woman, suffering real mental health issues, with a real grieving family left behind.

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