ELISA LAM – Part Two: Dark Water is Grosser in Real Life

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung once proposed a theory he called ‘synchronicity’. In short form, the argument is based on the concept that the human mind is in some sense productive of the reality we see around us; we are not merely static observers of an objective item outside ourselves, but are deeply involved in its manifestation in some unconscious way we can’t entirely discern at this point in history. Drawing on this connection, synchronicity describes a situation in which moments of great internal trauma or excitement cause echoes or reverberations in the external world, manifesting as conspicuous coincidences.

The concept is a little like that of an electron ‘jumping’ from one orbit to another. As physicists have determined, the electron does not actually cross the intervening space, and the electron in the new position can’t even really be said to be the ‘same’ electron. Instead, what seems to happen is that the first electron winks out of existence completely at the exact moment the ‘new’ electron appears in the new orbit. There is no apparent physical or causal connection between these events, but they are so closely connected that they must be related and therefore are evaluated as one event. Synchronicity is like that; it’s when two things happen with no apparent objective or causal connection, but are so closely related psychologically that they must be viewed as somehow linked. Jung called synchronicity an ‘acausal connecting principle’. It’s not merely a psychological thing, like when you think about somebody and they call you a few minutes later, but is rather an objective, external event, like that time in Bermuda when a guy riding a moped was killed by a taxi driver and then a year later his brother was riding the same moped and was killed on the same street by the same taxi driver, who was carrying the same passenger.

A related idea was later advanced by writer Norman Mailer, who suggested that certain widely-influential historical moments, like the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, by their very nature spawn an array of coincidences, a sort of ‘coincidence storm’, effects of which can be observed both before and after the core event. I think that, for whatever reason, the death of Elisa Lam was one of these events, with its weird synchronistic tendrils snaking out from a water tower on Skid Row and reaching both into the future and the past.

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Bonus Side Mystery: Did you know that the JFK assassination was predicted by an unknown woman whispering to a telephone operator minutes before it happened, and that she gave a specific time, which was the time the motorcade was scheduled to go past the book depository building, and then in the middle of the call she changed the time to a few minutes later, winding up dead on the money only because JFK made an unscheduled stop to shake hands at the airport?!

In any event, Ms. Lam could hardly have chosen a more perfect site for the phenomenon. Hotels can be creepy places by their nature; like staircases, hotels are ‘in-between’ areas that subconsciously hearken ghostly ideas about being ‘stuck between’ life and death. How many ghost stories are set in hotels? Who doesn’t get creeped out, for no apparent reason at all, when they walk past a staircase in a darkened house? I’ve found that there’s a latent uneasiness in any hotel that a sensitive person might describe as the ‘whispers of the dead’, or something like that— but that said, the hotel Cecil is in a league of its own. It is a downright scary place, with a history soaked in way, way too much unsettled blood.

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Jeez, it even looks haunted.

Built in 1924, the Cecil was a gorgeous mid-level hotel, for a little while. But the hotel and its clientele almost immediately fell on hard times when the Great Depression struck four years later. The hotel weathered that storm, but never regained its original lustre. Its neighbourhood, now known as Skid Row, had become home to legions of homeless people— a problem that has, in large part, yet to be solved. Given its location, it ceased to be a desirable destination for the business travelers that were supposed to be its bread and butter. Instead, it became something of a flop-house, offering low-rent rooms to long-term guests of questionable reputation, renting rooms by the hour to those requiring such a service, and serving as a kind of rock-bottom-budget hostel to young travelers like Elisa Lam. In many ways, the hotel (which has, since Elisa’s death, been rebranded ‘Stay On Main’, a frankly awful name for a hotel if you ask me) continues to serve the same purposes.

Given these circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Cecil has a history of murder and suicide, but the scale of its walk-in closet full of skeletons is truly remarkable. The Cecil served as the headquarters for not one, but two active serial killers. Jack Unterweger, an Austrian reporter cum serial strangler (who sometimes accompanied police on investigations of murders he’d personally committed) and the notorious ‘Night Stalker’, Richard Ramirez (whose avowed ‘satanism’ was a big catalyst for the satanic panic) both briefly called the Cecil home in the midst of their murderous careers. Before their time, the Cecil was already known as the place where Elizabeth Short was last seen alive; Short, better known as the Black Dahlia, was found about five miles away from the Cecil as the crow flies, her body chopped in half at the torso and her mouth sliced open in a ‘Glasgow smile’. The Black Dahlia murder remains one of LA’s most famous unsolved crimes.

But these are only the more notable highlights of the hotel’s gruesome history; all told, at least fifteen people have died untimely deaths within its walls (or falling from its heights). The full list is a chilling read. Benjamin Dodich shot himself in the head in 1931— Louis D. Borden slit his own throat in 1934— 19-year-old Dorothy Jean Purcell threw her newborn child to its death from a window in 1944, later being declared not guilty by reason of insanity— Grace E. Magro, Roy Thompson, Robert Smith, Helen Gurnee, Julia Frances Moore, and Pauline Otton all leaped or fell to their deaths in 1937, 1938, 1947, 1954, and 1962, respectively (with Moore and Otton both taking the plunge in ‘62). Otton, who jumped from one of the Cecil’s windows after an argument with her estranged husband, fell nine stories and landed on 65-year-old George Giannini, who happened to be walking by the hotel; both were killed instantly. Two years later, in 1964, retired telephone operator “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood was stabbed, raped, and strangled to death in her room at the Cecil, a crime for which nobody was ever arrested. This is only a partial list, and it includes only untimely deaths; any hotel which has been around as long as the Cecil must have seen many of its guests pass of natural causes as well, sad tales which are harder to research. LA Magazine writer Steve Erickson spent a night in the hotel shortly after Lam’s death (where he found the halls “prowled by strange men counting something on their fingertips, lips moving but silent”) and he wrote:

The Cecil will reveal to you whatever it is you’re a fugitive from… Bolts and latches on the door will not only keep everyone else out but trap you within, where there are no locks at all on the windows, beyond which the siren city beckons.

Damn, Erickson, that’s some dark shit.

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But they do have the best God-damned bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine. Or Portland, Oregon, for that matter.

While the grisly legacy of these deaths remained, things settled down a little at the Cecil in the intervening three decades between Osgood’s murder and Elisa Lam’s death. However, eight years before Elisa would meet her fate in the hotel water tank, something happened which has now become consistently wrapped up in the mythos of this strange tale. It had nothing to do with the Cecil, and indeed is hardly notable at all, at least in terms of its own inherent reality, but in retrospect it was spookily, weirdly prophetic in a way that makes very little sense. This is the mediocre Jennifer Connelly horror vehicle Dark Water, released in 2005.

Dark Water was a remake of a Japanese movie, which is itself an adaptation of a short story by Koji Suzuki. It’s not a very scary movie, or even really a particularly good one, barring John C. Reilly’s excellent turn as a good-natured slum-lord. The film deals largely with the hideous phantasmal spectre of parental neglect, so, you know, it’s one of those movies, where ghosts are just symbols of human failings and weaknesses, and everybody gets all soggy and morose about how bleak and hopeless everything is until the movie just, like, ends. They really dig horror movies like this in France, which is why I don’t watch French horror movies anymore.

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“La fantôme, she is my fear of commitment! Ah, the ennui, Jacques, the ennui!!”

Anyway, the film would be completely forgettable except for a high number of weirdly specific details that seem to presage the Elisa Lam case. Connelly’s character, named Dahlia, moves into a shabby, down-on-its-luck apartment building with her daughter, Cecilia. Various spooky things happen, notably in the elevator, which is a favourite haunt of the film’s ghost. The ghostly elevator trouble manifests as a failure to operate— even when buttons are pressed repeatedly, the door refuses to close, forcing characters to take the stairs. In the first few minutes of the movie, Cecilia manages to get away from her mother and run up the stairs and out onto the roof, through a door that was supposed to be locked; nobody, of course, can figure out why it was left open, since only the superintendant is supposed to have keys to the door. Later, Dahlia finds that there is a problem with the water in the building— it’s discoloured, smells bad, tastes bad— so the situation is looked into and the reason found; yup, a dead body is decaying in the water tank on the roof. Granted this is a movie, and not real life, so we see the police actually, you know, arresting and questioning the property’s management, something that apparently doesn’t happen when something like this goes down in real life.

If Dark Water is the primary synchronistic echo of the Elisa Lam tragedy in the past, its reverberations in the future seem to be tied to a tuberculosis outbreak on Skid Row about a month after Elisa’s death. Here, in the streets surrounding the Cecil hotel itself, LA health authorities battled an epidemic of TB, sending medics to the street to test for the disease and treat those affected. The tests used to indicate the presence of this disease bear the clunky name of “lipoarabinomannan enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay” which, of course, is shortened to LAM-ELISA. Hundreds of people were given LAM-ELISA tests in the very neighbourhood where Elisa Lam died just a few weeks before. It should be noted that these tests were already being widely used prior to Ms. Lam’s death and are in no way related to her or intentionally named after her; it’s just a coincidence. A really fucking weird, mind-blowingly specific coincidence.

So, on top of the bizarre elevator video, which is itself creepy enough to keep you up at night, we have all of these insane coincidences to contend with. Think about it: first, a movie is produced about a woman named Dahlia and her kid, Cecilia, in a haunted apartment building with a malfunctioning elevator and a dead body in the water tank on the roof, contaminating the building’s water. Then, eight years later and in real life, a girl in a (hell, let’s just say it) haunted hotel, closely tied to the Black Dahlia, named the Cecil, with a malfunctioning elevator, dies in the water tank on the roof and her body contaminates the building’s water. Then, the homeless population living on the streets outside the hotel, some of whom were probably still wearing Elisa Lam’s lost clothing, were given tests called LAM-ELISA, an anagram derived specifically and only from the chemical composition and medical purpose of said tests, having nothing at all to do with the girl with the same damn name who died in the same damn neighbourhood mere weeks before.

As mentioned before, the LAPD’s conclusion was that Elisa Lam’s death was self-inflicted, potentially a result of a troubled mental state. However, the unanswered questions and bizarre coincidences proved irresistible to would-be crime-solvers / ghost-hunters on the internet, resulting in an array of other theories ranging from the thought-provoking to the utterly ridiculous. These, too, are part of the mythos, serving as a compellingly-recent case-study of the genesis and formation of a legend in alternative theory. We’ll dip our toes in those waters in the next section.

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