Elisa Lam’s Tragic Story Is About One Thing: Mental Health Advocacy — Not True Crime

Photo: Netflix
Elisa Lam

When 21-year-old student Elisa Lam (who also went by Lam Ho Yi) traveled from Vancouver to California for a solo trip, she was ultimately found dead in a water tank on the rooftop of the infamous Cecil Hotel (now rebranded as Stay on Main). That was on February 19, 2013, after she became a missing person January 31, 2013. 

The case sparked an explosion of macabre curiosity and amateur web sleuths after the LAPD released video footage of Lam’s last known night alive. In it, you see a young woman in an elevator, pressing all of the buttons, hiding from unseen thing (or idea or feeling), jumping in and out of the elevator, and gesturing with wild hand movements to the air. The elevator never closes while she’s in it. 

Cue the conspiracy theorists: From its similarity to the 2002 film Dark Water, to ghosts, hell realms, and elevator games intended to take you to another dimension, the Internet went wild — especially in light of the new Netflix documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, which explore's Lam's tragic and untimely death.

But what seems eerie to many is in truth likely just a grim ending to a young woman’s life.

Lam had bipolar disorder and depression; she was clear about that on her Tumblr posts, and her family also said she’d been diagnosed with it.

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According to her Tumblr, she seemed, to me, a curious, bright, deep thinker. She was a lover of beautiful words and photography. She was hungry for the world, and self-aware, and inspired. She had so much life before her. In shot, she was more than her story, more than her mental health struggles, and more than any Internet sleuth could ever know. She was a whole, dimensional person — not just some abstract material used for spooky conversation.  

What we see in that elevator is probably her dealing with a mental health episode while all alone in another country, in a hotel notorious for crime, without her normal support system.

I have family members with bipolar disorder and I myself live with chronic illness, anxiety, and PTSD. As a health journalist and chronic illness advocate, I know that changes in place and routine can be incredibly triggering. So I’d much rather spend my time helping people find the resources they need when they’re traveling or moving through transitional periods in their life than to sit around the proverbial bonfire making up ghost stories. 

There’s also the idea that someone ultimately took advantage of or harmed her while she was in a vulnerable — but ghosts? Tuberculosis experiments (which can be explained)? Elevators to different realms?

In the Netflix documentary, we see all of that rehashed. The documentary takes its sweet time while making reductive, messy points, and menders salaciously before sort of making a point. 

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It also explores that which lurks within the walls of the Cecil Hotel — and its surrounding LA neighborhood referred to as Skid Row. This space has no doubt witnessed a lot of pain over the years. An area marked by poverty, crime, and homeless population containment “experiments” by police, there is certainly a dark, sad energy lurking — as any place seeps up the residue of history. 

And that’s all valid, but Lam’s is a story about mental health, not true crime. Unfortunately, Lam's story has grown more into one about how people respond to stories about mental health. 

It clearly makes people very uncomfortable, pushing them to cling to anything that takes the focus off of human health and well-being. The documentary simply doesn’t truly get there. 

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But this is bigger than the documentary. 

The web sleuths and Reddit conspiracy threads and theory round-ups all contribute to the denial of the main issue. Lam's story ought to demand our compassion and education and awareness, not the exploitation of mental illness by spooky podcasts and YouTube videos and documentaries; it’s only serving to further stigmatize what real people go through when they are sick.

The elevator footage and the picture of the water tank gave me the chills — because I know how scary, lonely, and confusing it is for people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

By choosing to focus on evil entities in Los Angeles, we pivot from the heart of the matter. L.A. may have its creepy qualities, but there are usually human reasons behind it — and they're probably a lot sadder than they are spooky. 

Are these theories our way of deflecting reality? Are we not reconciling the truth that suffering sometimes simply isn’t fair, doesn’t make sense, isn’t in any way okay or acceptable. 

We all love a spooky mystery. We all love sharing theories and diving into the dark web of research around elevator games and haunted hotels. It's delicious. But please don't let yourself buy into sleuth theories. Instead, I ask that you spend your energy advocating for healthcare access and support for people with mental health struggles.

I hope we don’t forget this was a human being. In the midst of this chatter, we can’t stop mourning her or caring about the case’s potential for additional examination (was someone responsible for hurting her in the state she was in?). We’ve already exploited her tragedy for clicks and views; can we take a step back now? 

Refusing to accept that mental health issues are real — and instead turning its reality into a ghost story —  is called ableism, and it’s not eerie or creepy or spooky. It’s a disservice. 

If you or somebody that you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, there is a way to get help. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or text "HELLO" to 741741 to be connected with the Crisis Text Line.

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Lisa Marie Basile is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times, Wordcraft Witchery forthcoming, 2020), a collection of poetry, Nympholepsy, as well as the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine. Her work encounters self-care, trauma recovery, ritualized living and the arts. More of her writing can be found in The New York Times, Refinery 29, The Fix, Catapult, Narratively, Good Housekeeping, Bustle, Sabat Magazine, among others. Find her on Instagram for more.