How Did Elisa Lam End Up Dead in a Hotel Water Tank?

By: Diana Brown  | 
Authorities gathered on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles after the discovery of Elisa Lam's body in the hotel's water tank. Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When 21-year-old college student Elisa Lam was found dead in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel (now closed to hotel guests) in Los Angeles in 2013, the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lam's disappearance and case captured national attention.

Her body was found after guests of the hotel complained about low water pressure and a strange taste, which led employees to investigate their water tanks. That's where a hotel maintenance worker found Lam's body, floating naked, her clothes, watch and room key in the water beside her. Her cell phone was never found. The coroner listed her death as a drowning. But how did she end up in the water tank?


Elevator Video Footage of Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam traveled alone from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Los Angeles, and went missing from her Cecil Hotel room soon after she arrived. After a week of searching for leads, the Los Angeles Police Department released a video of her last known whereabouts: security camera footage from inside the hotel's elevator.

This video sparked interest from amateur internet sleuths because of Lam's strange behavior: She pushes the buttons for several floors at once, then appears to hesitantly poke her head into the hallway and look quickly back and forth before backing into the elevator and ducking into the corner.


The hotel elevator door does not close. She pokes her head out again, then leaves the elevator altogether. She stands to the side and gesticulates strangely with her hands as if talking to someone, though the footage does not capture anyone else. Finally, Lam leaves the scene entirely, and the elevator doors close.


An Array of Theories

Some viewers think her behavior could be explained away as possible psychedelic drug use, while others say she could have been trying to hide from a pursuer. Some have even linked her death to the Korean elevator game, a ritual of pressing buttons on an elevator in a certain order to reach another dimension.

The most plausible explanation is that Lam had bipolar disorder, and according to her autopsy, had only taken her prescribed stimulant medications but neither of her stabilizers. This may have led to a manic episode, which can cause some bipolar sufferers to experience hallucinations or psychosis. If Lam had a manic episode, it's possible she thought someone was following her, perhaps causing her to hide in the water tank for safety.


This doesn't satisfy everyone, however. The hotel's water tanks are not easy to access; the crime scene is on the roof of the Cecil, and only hotel staff keys unlock the doors to the roof. Lam could have used the fire escape to get onto the roof, but those trigger alarms; hotel staff say they never heard the alarms go off. Also, the openings to the water tanks are 10 feet (3 meters) up and require a ladder to reach, but there were none around the night Lam ended up inside.

The Notorious Cecil Hotel

Then there's the Cecil itself, a hotel with a storied and gory reputation. Infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez — aka the Nightstalker — lived there in 1984 while he killed 13 people. There were also several suicides, including one where the victim fell on top of a pedestrian, killing them both.

This grisly past only helped fuel the paranormal theories, buttressed by Lam's unsettling behavior in the video. Even the footage itself is a focus of some conspiracy theorists, who allege that the time stamp in the bottom of the frame skips forward, as if a minute of footage were removed. It is also noted that at times while Lam appears to speak to someone, her mouth is pixelated, obscuring her words.


Finally, in an even more bizarre coincidence, it was discovered that a tuberculosis test was being studied nearby the Cecil. The name of the test? LAM-ELISA. While nothing has been found connecting Lam or her death with the tuberculosis study, this was just one more in a series of strange circumstances that ensures that Elisa Lam's death has been a source of fascination and speculation for over a decade.

Elisa Lam FAQ

Is the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles still open?
In 2017, the Cecil Hotel, now known as Stay on Main, closed for a remodel. That same year, the Los Angeles City Council declared it a historical landmark. The work is expected to be completed by October 2021, but as of 2023, it remains closed.
What happened at the Cecil Hotel in 2013?
In 2013, 21-year-old college student Elisa Lam died in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel. It was only upon guests' complaints about low water pressure and strange-tasting water that staff found the body floating naked in the tank.
What is the LAM-ELISA Test?
LAM-ELISA is a test for tuberculosis that happens to be Elisa Lam's name backward. LAM-ELISA stands for Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). Around the time of Lam's death, the tuberculosis test was being studied near the hotel.
How many people have died at the Cecil Hotel?
At least 18 sudden and mysterious deaths have happened in and around the Cecil Hotel as of 2021. The hotel has a long history of suicides and mysterious deaths.
Is the “American Horror Story” hotel based on the Cecil Hotel?
Hotel Cortez from the TV series “American Horror Story” was inspired by LA's infamous Cecil Hotel. While the show does not make specific references to the Elisa Lam case in any of its episodes, it was the mystery surrounding her disappearance that inspired Ryan Murphy to choose a hotel theme.