Note: I know I promised you all a project on the Shag Harbour UFO crash. That is, in fact, in the works. However I’m experiencing a really weird writer’s block with it, which I can only presume is caused by aliens. As a result, I’m moving on to something else first. You’ll get your aliens soon. Until then, this month’s topic is fucking weird as all get-out too, so I hope you enjoy.
This month on the Mask Sign we tackle perhaps one of the darkest incidents we’ve looked at so far: the 2013 death of Canadian student Elisa Lam in the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. This is a fascinating case, surrounded by unanswered questions, and involved in (productive of?) a number of truly bizarre coincidences. The former manifest in missing connections due to a lack of information, while the latter forge other connections that don’t seem possible. The combined effect is uniquely unsettling, with a tendency to shake one’s unquestioned assumptions about such fundamental issues as what reality is and whether the mind is capable of affecting matter and time. Simply put, this project is best read at night, preferably in a spooky hotel, and your full suspension of disbelief (for the time being) will, hopefully, be richly rewarded with a damned fine case of the creeps.
Before we go on, a disclaimer: compared to the subjects we’ve looked at so far, this is a very recent event, and, any way you slice it, what we’re looking at is a tragedy. As such, the emotional well-being of grieving family members is of paramount importance. If you find yourself compelled to do your own research, please be conscientious, and avoid contacting these people. I’d also like to advise any squeamish readers that things will get pretty hideous, particularly in this next paragraph. Now, let’s begin.
Posting this photo here, lest we forget this is a true story about a real person who is dead now.
In late February 2013, guests at the rather seedy Cecil Hotel on Skid Row in LA began to complain to the management about the water. For a few days, the water had been discoloured, and it produced a nasty smell. The issue appeared to go beyond bad city water, so it was investigated by maintenance workers at the hotel. Their first task was to determine whether it was a plumbing problem or a problem with the water source; to answer that question, they went to the water tank on the roof of the hotel. They noticed immediately that the tank was unlocked, a breach of safety protocol. What they found inside was both tragic and sickening; the body of 21-year-old Elisa Lam floated there, naked and surrounded by articles of clothing. She had been reported missing nearly three weeks before. We’re going to handle this next part like ripping off a band-aid, so gear up: during that three weeks, the Cecil’s guests had bathed in, brushed their teeth with, and, yes, drunk the water in which Elisa’s body had been decomposing. Okay, take a second to let your stomach settle. That’s the grossest part of this thing, I promise. But it does get a whole lot weirder.
Elisa Lam, a student of the University of British Columbia, had been on a solo trip to LA during a school break. Alarm bells were rung when Lam, who was taking medication for bipolar disorder, failed to call her parents as she’d previously agreed on January 31, the day she was supposed to check out of the Cecil. On February 14, with no sign of Elisa having yet… eugh… surfaced, the LAPD released what appears to be the last record of Elisa before her death: a security video from one of the hotel’s elevators. This video, more than anything else, catapulted this story from a bizarre tragedy to something truly otherworldly.
In the video, Elisa steps into the elevator, seeming almost confident at first. With a bit of a flourish, she presses a number of buttons, apparently starting with the top floor and going down in sequence (she’s not wearing her glasses, and has to lean very close to the panel to see it properly.) After a few seconds, during which the elevator remains motionless, she appears to hear something. She steps forward, then quickly leans into the hallway and looks both ways before moving back into the elevator car, now looking decidedly spooked. Hands folded in front of her, she puts her back to the elevator wall, then moves further into the corner by the control panel, looking like she’s trying to hide. She peers out the door and then, with an awkward little hop, goes out into the hallway. The floor buttons remain lit and the door remains open. She looks both ways, steps back into the elevator, then into the hallway again. Barely off-camera, she apparently puts her hands up to her head, then moves back into the elevator, suddenly appearing to be dizzy or unstable. She presses more buttons. The door still won’t close, the elevator remaining still. Then she tucks her hair behind her ears and calmly steps out into the hallway again.
The next few seconds show Elisa making gestures that internet commentators have called “bizarre” and even “non-human”, though I think this is somewhat hammed up. I’ve experimented by watching security camera footage of myself at work, pretending I’m watching some other person; I think anybody watching these videos in the days following my own gruesome demise would find them a little creepy. There’s something about grainy video and lack of audio that turn even mundane security footage into something really spooky in the right context. Ultimately, I find Elisa’s actions here to be thoroughly in the realm of physical reality, though there’s definitely a pretty chilling oddness to them.
These few seconds of tape have been widely discussed and analyzed by everybody from amateurs like myself to ‘body language experts’ (often self-described, as in this article – incredibly, real body language experts (provided they even exist?) do not use expressions like “dialing up [one’s] alpha”) and many and varied conclusions have been drawn. From my own viewing, it looks to me like Elisa notices somebody, perhaps someone she recognizes, down the hallway to the right. She gestures to herself and half-bows, a big smile on her face, giving a sense of a playful “who, me?” She waves her hands around, perhaps an eerily prophetic mime for swimming, or maybe she’s just pretending to feel her way around by touch, to indicate that she can’t see well without her glasses. Then she appears to dramatically count three or four things off on her fingers. Then, her enthusiasm seeming to suddenly vanish, she puts her hands back on her head and wanders off down the hallway to the left— never to be seen alive again, as far as anybody seems to know. A few seconds later, the elevator doors close on the empty car.
Wait, I think I’ve seen this one.
The immediate question is, of course, what was going on with the elevator. The mechanism’s refusal to function properly during the whole four-minute event is odd, particularly since it seems to go right back to work once Elisa has left the scene. That said, I’ve worked in hotels for years, and I can confirm that elevators are second only to computer printers when it comes to performance errors and blunt inoperability. The timing of the malfunction has, however, caused some to raise the possibility that somebody intentionally kept those doors open, stranding Elisa on that floor so she could be found by another party. And there are other details that seem to hint at the possibility that Elisa met her fate at the hands of a hotel employee; notably, the door leading to the roof where the water tank is stored was apparently locked and alarmed, causing many to wonder how she could have passed through that door without the complicity of someone with keys and alarm codes.
The LAPD’s conclusion in the case was months in coming, greatly delayed for some unknown reason. Eventually, they offered the rather surprising conclusion that Elisa was not under the influence of drugs, and that she acted alone; whether it was accidental or deliberate, she wound up in the tank as a result of her own actions. This is, if you’ll excuse the pun, pretty hard to swallow. We can speculate as to whether Elisa’s killer was on staff at the Cecil, but it’s hard to believe that nobody at all was involved; she certainly seems to be speaking to someone in the elevator video (though, interestingly, this person appears to be on the right side of the hallway and Elisa eventually wanders off to the left side, and nobody is seen crossing the field of view to follow her). On a more practical level, it’s somewhat unclear how she knew how to unlock the tank, or how a slender 21-year-old girl could lift the tank’s heavy lid. It’s also unknown why Elisa was found naked, with some (but not all) of her clothing near her in the tank, or why that clothing was mingled with several pieces of men’s clothing many sizes too big for her. Some of her articles of clothing were also found in the possession of vagrants who lived in the streets near the Cecil; these were apparently found on the ground, having presumably fallen from the roof.
These questions and some possible answers proposed by the always-reliable denizens of the internet will be covered in a bit more detail in the third section of this project. However, there is more going on here than merely an unsolved death, be it murder, suicide, or accident. Ms. Lam’s fate, for some reason, seems to have resonated (for lack of a better word) with the general ‘background reality’ in ways that completely defy rational explanation. This, for me, is the really, really crazy part of this whole thing, and that’s where we’ll go next.