What Happened to Elisa Lam? is a feature-length documentary that will explore the mysterious case of a young woman who was found dead on the roof of an infamous hotel in 2012. The film will trace three competing narratives that seek to explain what happened: the police and those who believe Elisa died from a tragic accident resulting from bipolar disorder; web sleuths, friends, and conspiracists who believe Elisa was murdered; and paranormal experts who suggest Elisa was possessed by a dark force from the Cecil Hotel’s past. At the heart of the film remains the pulse of a creative but deeply troubled young woman whose online writings and struggle against depression continue to resonate with thousands of people across the world.
The case defies conventional categorization. Is it a true crime mystery? A profile of mental illness? A paranormal investigation? Or all three… The Elisa Lam case transcends all labels and becomes a Rorschach test for the 21st-century mind – everyone who looks at it sees something different.
Distressed by relationships, difficulties with her college coursework and worsening psychological troubles, Elisa Lam embarked upon her fateful “West Coast tour” in late January of 2012. On January 31st, she failed to make her daily phone call home; she was declared missing a few days later. The police released the last known sighting of her in the form of a surveillance video recorded inside the elevator of the Cecil Hotel (renamed Stay on Main). The chilling video, which shows Elisa acting peculiar and seemingly hiding from someone, went viral online. Early speculation was that either she was on drugs or being stalked by someone inside the hotel. When police finally released the toxicology report, it only deepened the mystery.
An international fleet of amateur web sleuths joined the investigation and online communities began churning out theories and obscure details related to the case. People noted incredible parallels with the 2005 horror movie Dark Water, in which residents complained about contaminated water prior to the discovery of young woman’s nude body in the apartment building’s rooftop water tank – sound familiar? Online researchers pointed out another incredible coincidence: the test conducted for an outbreak of tuberculosis in downtown Los Angeles was called the LAM-ELISA test. Talk about a grim synchronicity….
While the toxicology report was mysteriously delayed by months, some web sleuths began drawing irresponsible conclusions. A musician found himself accused of murdering Elisa when amateur Chinese investigators discovered that he had stayed at the Cecil and that some of his lyrics referenced a body floating in water. The man was besieged by death threats and his YouTube account was flagged and deleted.
Other web sleuths turned up some of Elisa Lam’s online writings, in which she discussed her life and psychiatric problems in vivid detail. She also wrote about the night of her disappearance, noting that she had visited a speakeasy and commented on being followed. More responsible web sleuths, like John Landon who produced the YouTube channel Brainscratch, documented these new pieces of evidence, which included a disturbing discovery related to the surveillance tape of Elisa. A YouTube investigator released a video which presented evidence that the surveillance tape had been slowed down and was missing frames.
Other amateur investigators noted that there were cuts in the footage and hypothesized that someone with access to the hotel’s surveillance equipment may have edited the elevator tape in order to remove evidence of an assailant in the 14th-floor hallway (which, incidentally, is the same floor Richard Ramirez, ‘The Night Stalker,’ lived during his killing spree). Some independent investigators have even speculated that the police – who weren’t releasing any details of their investigation – may have been involved.
When the LAPD finally released the toxicology report, they said no drugs had been found in Elisa’s system. They concluded that no foul play was involved and that Elisa had died from an accident resulting from her bipolar disorder. Somehow, they argued, Elisa had accessed the security-proof roof, where for some reason she removed her clothes, scaled the precariously located water tank and climbed inside; unable to escape, Elisa drowned.
Many people familiar with the case rejected this conclusion, pointing to multiple anomalies; others agree with the police and cite Elisa Lam’s story as an example of the stigmatization of mental illness in our society.
With a grim, 9-decade history of untimely deaths, the Cecil Hotel legacy adds a macabre and provocative backdrop to the mystery. Over the years, dozens of people have committed suicide by jumping from the windows of the Cecil – so many, in fact, that residents used to call the hotel ‘the Suicide Hotel’. At least two serial killers, Richard Ramirez (“the Nightstalker”) and Jack Unterweger, lived at the Cecil during their murder sprees. Multiple reports of paranormal activity also color the hotel’s history, with several residents claiming that a malevolent entity choked them in their sleep.
Soon after Elisa’s disappearance, residents of the Cecil began complaining of low water pressure and dark water. A maintenance worker discovered the cause of the problems: a corpse. Nineteen days after she disappeared, Elisa Lam’s naked body was found in the water cistern on the roof of the Cecil Hotel. Suspecting foul play, LAPD detectives launched an investigation that many would come to view as insufficient. Their controversial conclusion is still debated today.
The film’s examination of the Elisa Lam case will focus on three primary angles: the murder conspiracy; potential paranormal activity in the hotel; and an analysis of Elisa’s psychiatric condition.
Along the way, it will assess how the case became a part of the pop culture zeitgeist, serving as the inspiration for a season of American Horror Story.
The case is full of almost mind-numbing synchronicities, too, ranging from eerie similarities to the 2005 horror movie, Dark Water, to the LAM-ELISA tuberculosis test.
The new documentary will see multiple narratives intersect: a young woman against her own mind; the Los Angeles Police Department against a legion of Internet web sleuths; murder conspiracists against a Los Angeles court that threw out Elisa’s parents’ civil suit, preventing access to details of the case; paranormal believers against steadfast skeptics; and mental health advocates against a society that struggles to comprehend the nature and severity of psychiatric disorders. Along the way, we see the evolution of a passionate online community of people who are obsessed with finding meaning and truth in a case that may never be solved.