The Woman in the Water Tank: The Disappearance of Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam’s death in 2013 captivated the world due to the mysterious circumstances of her disappearance and her erratic behavior before she died.

Although thorough investigations have been completed surrounding her death, rumors persist about what could have happened to her. People’s insistence that there is more to the story has cemented a legacy for Lam within the realm of true crime.

Her story remains an inspiration for criminal mystery stories today. 

Photo of Elisa Lam released by the LAPD

Elisa’s Early Life

Elisa Lam was a Canadian woman born on April 30, 1991, in Vancouver to two immigrants from Hong Kong. She grew up interested in fashion.

Once she was old enough, she enrolled in the University of British Columbia. By 2010 she had started her own blog.

It partly documented fashionable models and clothing, and also documented aspects of her own life that she felt like sharing.

In January 2012, she began posting about how a personal relapse had forced her to withdraw from courses that semester. The post was titled “You’re always haunted by the idea you’re wasting your life.” This is a quote from novelist Chuck Palahniuk that would become the epigraph of that blog and another she would start a few months later.

It was revealed after her death that she suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. The relapse she mentioned in her blog may have been related to her condition.

By the next January, Lam was still not enrolled in classes again, and she decided that she would take a trip to Los Angeles. She arrived in Los Angeles on January 26 after traveling on Amtrak trains and intercity buses. 

The Cecil Hotel: A Dark History

Lam spent her time in Los Angeles staying at the Cecil Hotel, an establishment with a notorious history.

The hotel was the site of several deaths and potential murders since its founding in 1927. It was even a base for infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker, for a time.

Located in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, an area infamous for its derelict population and criminal activity, the Cecil had earned a reputation for attracting a mix of transient individuals, tourists, and individuals seeking affordable accommodations.

It was an easily accessible location for a poor college student to stay, which is why Lam chose there as her destination. Little did she know that she would contribute to the dark legacy of the hotel herself. 

The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles

Lam Goes Missing

Throughout her journey, Lam kept in touch with her parents. They had wanted to join her on the trip, but she insisted on going alone but kept in touch with them often to assure them she was alright.

She last called them on January 31, her last day in Los Angeles. When they did not hear from her on February 1, they became concerned. They called the Los Angeles Police Department, and upon hearing she was missing, they flew to LA to help search for her. 

Upon their arrival, the mystery began to unravel. Roommates who had shared space with Lam in the days prior recalled her odd behavior.

Lam then left them notes and told them to go away, even locking her door and demanding a password if anyone tried to enter her room. She had also attended a filming of Cohen just days before and had been escorted off the premises for odd behavior.

The only person to see her the day she went missing was a local bookstore owner. They claimed that she was concerned about the size of the book she was purchasing for travel purposes.

After a week of investigating, including conducting as thorough a search of the hotel as was legally allowed, they released images of Lam to the public in the hopes of finding her. When another week passed, the police released elevator footage of Lam.

This is what attracted the most attention in the case. 

Elevator Surveillance Footage and a Disturbing Discovery

The video, timestamped from February 1, 2013, depicts Elisa behaving unusually. She appears to be talking to someone or something invisible. She is gesturing and stepping in and out of the elevator, even pressing the button for every floor.

Some theorized she was hiding from someone chasing her. But once news got out that she was bipolar, it became a common assumption that she suffered from a psychotic break.

Her odd behavior intrigued everyone who saw the clip and made the mystery of her disappearance famous. Shortly after the footage was released, the hotel staff began to receive complaints about the hotel’s water.

Multiple guests complained about low water pressure and an odd taste, so hotel maintenance made their way to the four rooftop reservoirs. Within one of them, they found the drowned, lifeless body of Elisa Lam. 

Firefighters working to remove Elisa’s body from the water tank. Photo: Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

Autopsy and Cause of Death

The autopsy report provided some answers, yet it also deepened the mystery. Elisa Lam’s cause of death was officially listed as an accidental drowning, with her bipolar disorder cited as a significant factor.

The drug toxicology report made it clear she had been neglecting to take her bipolar medication, lending credit to the theory she was having a psychotic break in the elevator. However, the autopsy report did not fully quell the speculation and conspiracy theories that began to circulate.

With the footage making it seem that she was fleeing someone, and the hotel’s location in Skid Row, the general public began theorizing what could have happened to Lam. Although the case was closed, the general public still felt entitled to contribute their theories, even though they lacked the details of the case which would contradict many of their ideas. 


Baggs, Michael. Elisa Lam: What really happened in the Cecil Hotel.” BBC, February 10, 2021.

Los Angeles Times Staff. “Timeline: The strange case at the center of Netflix’s Cecil Hotel docuseries.” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2021.

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