Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel: Key Details From the Troubling Elisa Lam Elevator Video

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To say that the last available footage of Elisa Lam is odd is an understatement. How the 21-year-old Canadian student ended up dead in a rooftop water tank at the infamous Cecil Hotel immediately created a frenzy on the Internet. Around the time of her mysterious 2013 death, the only piece of evidence widely available was a four-minute security video of Lam acting oddly in an elevator. The clip quickly fueled conspiracy theories and rumors of foul play, which are explored in Netflix's Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. While the case has an official finding of an "accidental drowning," people have treated it like an unsolved mystery.

After Lam went missing on Jan. 31, 2013, detectives discovered a surveillance clip of her on one of the elevators. Let's review what actually happens in the bizarre video. When Lam enters the elevator, she presses down on a column of buttons and moves to a corner. She peeks out of the elevator, looks both ways, and coils right back in. A few moments later, she steps out, strangely moving her feet in almost a square dance motion. Lam then goes back into the elevator and presses on the buttons again. Going out, she oddly waves her hands as though she's wading through water or conjuring a spell — it almost looks like she's gesticulating to someone outside. Eventually, Lam steps out of the frame permanently. Only after she leaves does the elevator close. A moment later, it opens and closes twice, but there's no one outside. It's very odd behavior, and it especially feels unsettling given that it's the last footage that we'll ever see of her.

On Feb. 13, the LAPD released the video to the public, hoping to gather relevant information. A swarm of internet sleuths shared their thoughts through posts on Reddit forums, published YouTube videos, and tips to the investigators. Here were the key observations that viewers from all over brought up:

  • We potentially see a foot from outside. It struck some as odd the way that Lam strangely twists her foot in the very last frame we see her. At 2:28, it almost looks like there's a shoe from another person and not the heel of Lam's own foot.
  • Lam oddly presses on an entire column of buttons several times. One outlandish theory suggests that she was playing a Korean elevator game that brought her to another dimension. Taking the supernatural element out of the equation, it's possible she may have wanted to throw off someone following her (or someone she perceived to be following her).
  • The elevator remains open for a long time. When the video was released, people were suspicious that a hotel employee kept the elevator open or that an unseen person outside pressed a button to hold it. Because of the Cecil's creepy history, some even suggested that spirits manipulated Lam's behavior and the elevators. In the docuseries, sleuths exploring the hotel realized that Lam likely pressed on the door hold button that kept the elevator open for a few minutes.
  • Some people pointed out that parts of the videos looked cut out, possibly to cover up for the police or the hotel. Between 2:57 and 2:58, there's a sudden jump when the elevator closes. In Crime Scene, the detectives explained (albeit, uncertainly) that their media relations or other outlets may have altered the video for the public. They maintained that the hotel staff did not edit the original video and that it featured nothing suspicious.
  • The video appeared slowed down. Some viewers argued that the milliseconds were not moving properly and that it looked like the video was slowed down. According to the detectives interviewed on Crime Scene, parts of the video were potentially slowed down so that someone might recognize Lam.
  • The timestamp in the video looked deliberately scrambled up and obscured. In Crime Scene, detectives explained that they wanted to withhold certain information from the public, such as the time. (This may be similar to how police wanted to conceal certain details about the Night Stalker as to not tip him off.)

Ultimately, Lam's toxicology report revealed that she was likely undertaking medication for her bipolar disorder, which possibly caused a psychotic episode that led to her strange behavior. Officials ultimately ruled that her death was due to an accidental drowning with her mental illness as a significant factor. It's clear, however, that the unsettling elevator video has played a critical role in sensationalizing the investigation among the online sleuth community.