Elisa Lam: The mystery you should care about

Elisa Lam: The mystery you should care about

It was only ever going to happen in America. A young, pretty student with bipolar disorder was found drowned in a water tank on the roof of a hotel where not one, but two notorious serial killers had conducted their grisly business. Just minutes before her death, she had been caught talking to someone or something invisible on a hotel security camera. Naturally, Hollywood jumped in and commissioned a horror film, due for release next year, and the Internet went berserk with medieval cries of demon possession and supernatural foul play. In the ensuing drama, a young woman’s solitary battle with mental illness was drowned out – and the stigma just grew bolder. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

The plans for the horror movie about Elisa Lam’s death, titled The Bringing, were announced in March 2014, days before World Bipolar Awareness Day, with the director of Drive and the producer of American History X jumping in. The publication of this article – the one you are reading – is nestled neatly between Substance Abuse Awareness Day and America’s national Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. They are awareness drives celebrated, without a trace of irony, in the same country that birthed a gun-toting Elliot Rodger and his gun-bashing counterpart Michael Moore; where everything is bigger, louder, more significant. The violence is broadcast in Technicolor.

But every now and then, something happens at normal volume, and that’s when the weirdness really sets in. Elisa Lam’s death is one of those cases: one where everything at first seems to be made for TV, but as you pick and pick at the layers, one by one the dramas disappear until you are left with a life that was lived, neither here nor there, with some sadness and maybe a little too much solitude. And maybe not even that.

Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian-Asian student, was staying at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles at the time of her death in January 2013 – a budget hotel with some 600 guest rooms, which was built in 1927 and only partially refurbished in 2007. The Cecil Hotel, as most reports hasten to mention, was at one time home to serial killer Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Nightstalker, and at another to fellow serial killer Jack Unterweger. It was also allegedly the last place butchered actress Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. The Black Dahlia, was seen before her grisly – and still unsolved – murder in 1947. For those who have an appetite for the macabre, there is also a murder on the premises and at least three documented suicides.

And then there is the deadly recent tuberculosis outbreak just a few blocks from the site of Lam’s death, where, in a bizarre coincidence, the test kit used was called the LAM-ELISA. Cue Jaws theme.

For those with a taste for it, the spine-chill factors in Lam’s story are not in short supply, in other words. Her body was discovered after residents at the hotel began to complain that their water tasted foul and had an unusual colour; it turned out Lam’s corpse had been lying in a water supply tank on the roof of the hotel for some two weeks, contaminating the water.

Lam was found dead in the water tank by a maintenance worker. Her death was ruled as accidental by drowning. Her drug tests came back negative and there was no evidence of foul play or visible trauma on her body.

There were, however, some nagging questions. The first was how on earth Lam got onto the roof. Access to the roof was barricaded throughout (although there was a fire escape) and the entire rooftop area was protected by an alarm. The water tanks themselves were so difficult to access that workers had to cut the tank open to remove her body. The lids of the water tanks are so heavy, furthermore, that it is likely impossible one person could have moved them. How, then, did Lam get into the tank and then replace the lid behind her?

And then there’s the mystery person who updated her blog six months after her death.

There is also the last known “sighting” of her, which is footage of her captured on the hotel security camera. In the first week it was uploaded in China alone, it was watched over three million times.

Various writers online have gone to town with the description of this video, ranging from calling her movements “almost not human” to claiming that she must be terrified out of her wits. On calm, analytical viewing, this does not appear to be the case. In the video, she seems to be behaving slightly oddly, but the really odd one in the story seems to be the lift rather than Lam. Despite her repeated attempts to press buttons and – it seems at one point – to activate its sensors by waving her hands around, it refuses to move, and its doors open and close apparently at random. Lam herself moves in and out of the lift and at one point appears to be jumping about slightly playfully.

Armchair detectives have suggested that Lam might have been attempting to escape from her killer or that the person she was waving at (if there was a person) was the last person to see her alive. Others have taken into account her bipolar diagnosis and speculated that she may have been having a psychotic episode. And then there is the alarmingly large contingent that appears to believe she was in thrall to some supernatural force – no doubt the commentariat that gave Hollywood the impetus to begin writing its horror screenplay. (“The whole story is eerily like Dark Water,” one blogger writes eagerly. “Is Elisa Lam’s death one of those ritualistic murders that are synchronistically mirrored in a Hollywood movie?”)

In fairness, however, you or I might also appear to be in thrall to some supernatural force when confronted with a lift, appliance or other man-made machinery that was uncooperative, and it’s not entirely implausible that someone who filmed us without sound, reacting to slow internet or a freezing computer, might conclude that we were on drugs or having a psychotic episode.

“I fear I would look exactly like this if there were cameras in the lifts at Tygerberg [Hospital] when they are on the fritz,” is the pithy verdict of psychiatrist Dr Kathleen Mawson. “She certainly isn’t psychometrically agitated or posturing or anything else suggestive. She’s rather well-kempt.”

“Her behaviour is somewhat odd, but I don’t find it very bizarre,” adds psychiatrist Dr Leigh van den Heuvel. “There seems to be something wrong with the lift she was trying to use.”

The reality, say both Mawson and Van den Heuvel, is much more complex, and whether Lam’s death was accidental, a suicide or a murder owing to increased vulnerability during a time of mental fragility, there was likely a complex interplay of factors that contributed to the cutting short of her life. Also, Mawson points out, no toxicology screen is 100% accurate: it is possible that she did have drugs in her system, but they were simply not tested for. And there’s no sure-fire way to ascertain her state of mind from a four-minute silent video.

“Psychosis can often be quite subtle and it’s difficult to make conclusions based on a video like that,” says Van den Heuvel.

“The suicide rate in bipolar disorder is very high – mostly this is related to depression, but can also occur in manic episodes due to poor judgement and disinhibition. If the person has a psychotic episode their behaviour can become very bizarre and unpredictable and they can easily harm themselves for any number of reasons.”

Mawson agrees that there is no one factor that can be pinpointed. “Of course mental illnesses are devastating, but they are seldom a single cause for any one occurrence,” she says. “It is multifactorial and there is a complex interactions of factors.”

The bottom line, then, is that whether Lam had a drug-related accident, whether she was murdered with diminished capacity as a factor or whether she committed suicide, we simply don’t know, and we will probably never know.

Here is the problem, though: in the land of reality TV, a woman like Elisa Lam never had a chance. It happens all the time – pathology and personal tragedy are swapped for entertainment. Supersize vs. Superskinny, for example, where eating disorders are made two-dimensional for ratings. I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’, where loneliness (and stupidity) are paraded for hilarity. The Amityville Horror, a so-called “true story” which features a supernatural massacre and a house of evil (dum dum dum…) – the real back-story being, in fact, a traumatised child abuse victim who returned home to murder his parents in revenge for years of mistreatment. The list goes on.

The problem with all of this is that there is more material online than can be counted about the case of Elisa Lam, but the real case of Elisa Lam – that is, that which goes beyond the medieval theories of demon possession or the Shakespearean dramas of sudden madness and drowning – remains elusive. Her life story – the many years and minutes and seconds which led to that moment up in the water tank – are entirely unexplored (although the band The Zolas do make a rather poetic effort in their music video ‘Ancient Mars’, which chronicles a fictitious version of Lam’s last day on earth).

According to Lam’s blog, her suffering due to bipolar disorder was severe, but she was coping well on her meds, which included Wellbutrin and Lamictil. She mentioned a relapse, but not in detail. She spoke about having been raped at one time, and surviving it. She spoke about her condition matter-of-factly and often with a firm dose of gallows humour. She did not attempt to make the reality of it more palatable for anyone; the tone of the blog, by and large, is searingly honest.

The text on her blog is faint and difficult to read. The navigation is not particularly user-friendly. You have to highlight it or copy and paste it into a document; it takes effort and some commitment to get through the various posts.

During her travels before her death, she said she was happy. She told someone in San Diego that she loved him. She told family and friends she was going to visit an organic farm; she met up with Internet friends; she kept in touch with her parents until the day she disappeared. She loved art. Her blog slogan was the Chuck Palahniuk quote, “You’re always haunted by the idea you’re wasting your life.”

From what she wrote, she appeared intelligent, analytical, imaginative, with a sense of humour that was by turns acerbic, warm and self-deprecating, depending on the day. The Internet seemed, genuinely, to be a way for her to reach out and connect with people. Her desire to make friends online appeared genuine. From her posts appreciating poetry, grammar, writing and wordplay, she seemed to love language. A little while before she disappeared, she lost her cellphone. Whether this had anything to do with her death is uncertain.

From the few minutes on the security camera, what this writer sees at that particular moment is a woman who is frustrated, energised, slightly playful. What is beneath the surface is unclear. What happened next will perhaps never be known.

It’s not much; a tenuous grasp on the woman that was left floating silently in that water tank 18 months ago. It’s all we have. The battle for sanity, and survival, is hard; that much we all know. The real mystery is not how Elisa Lam died. It’s that even in 2014 – with dozens of ‘Awareness Days’ dedicated to understanding mental health – there are reams of insane theory of medieval proportions, and a sensational horror movie, to explain how she died in a cistern. But just a few faint, probably unread posts to explain the life that might have led her there. DM

Read our follow-up story here


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