Four Minutes of Video That Made a Missing Woman Go Viral
At the center of the mystery surrounding Elisa Lam’s disappearance — the thing that turned a missing persons case into an online sensation — was the LAPD’s decision to release a video of her acting strangely in an elevator.
Detectives wouldn’t confirm it at the time, but the video released on February 14, 2013 was taken by the Cecil Hotel’s elevator security camera in the very early hours of February 1.
The video is 3 minutes and 59 seconds long and is only footage; it has no titles or tags. It shows Elisa Lam — and only Elisa Lam — getting into one of the Cecil’s elevators sometime after midnight on January 31.
The sequence begins with Lam, casually dressed in a red hoodie, black shorts, and sandals, walking in to the elevator car. She crouches down inside to look at the numbers on the buttons, presses one at bottom left, and steps back into the back right corner of the car, presumably waiting for it to move. There’s nothing unusual about this. It’s what people do when they step into elevators. What’s more, Lam isn’t wearing her glasses, so it makes sense that she’d have to get up close to see the numbers.
A few seconds pass, though, and the door doesn’t close. This is when Lam steps forward — at the 19 second mark — and very cautiously leans toward the open door. She looks out into the hall, first to the right, then to the left in a manner that seems wildly exaggerated, like someone overacting in a student film. Then she jumps back into the elevator.
Whatever she saw, or heard, seems to have spooked her, and Lam subsequently hides in the front right corner, where it would be harder for anyone walking by to see her. She doesn’t hide there for long. At 40 seconds, she looks out again, this time staring down the hall to the right for 10 seconds, at which point her behavior really gets strange.
Lam steps out of the car, then in, then back out, makes a series of slide steps, and disappears from the frame, to the left of the open door. Her right arm dangles into view a few times, so it’s clear she’s standing just to the left of the open door, and she stands there until 1:30, at which point she reenters the elevator with her hands raised and pushes numerous buttons — seemingly most of them, with many punches at the lower left, where “door close” is located. When the door doesn’t close, Lam steps into the hall again, and just about the two-minute mark, begins to do the thing that freaked viewers out the most.
Lam stares intently to the right of the frame, up the hall, and begins to wave her hands around, like she’s conducting an orchestra or trying to wipe away a cloud of smoke in the air. She waves her arms, wrists limp, then wrings her hands. Anyone watching for the first time, seeing this behavior with no sound, would assume she’s talking to someone. But no one appears.
At 2:28, she exits the frame for the last time, taking several short, almost stutter-steps, and then is gone, down the hall.
The elevator finally closes and leaves without her. The video then continues — just a shot of an empty elevator car — for another minute and a half.
So much about this footage is strange and off-putting that it’s hard to know where to begin. It would have been eerie to watch if you stumbled upon it randomly and devoid of any context, and it’s downright creepy when you know the person acting so oddly, in an elevator that never moves, has been missing for more than a week from a hotel on Skid Row.
On closer inspection of the video, though, other peculiarities emerge. For one thing, the timestamp has been redacted. The clip also seems to be sped up, at least a little — although without the timestamp, it’s impossible to tell by how much. Finally, there appears to be least one jump in the tape, suggesting some footage was missing. But again, that’s impossible to prove.
The result was that the video blew up. The original version went viral in the US and in China, where it received 3 million views and more than 40,000 comments in the first 10 days. Today, the most popular version has nearly 12 million views.
The more I looked at the proliferation of videos on YouTube, the more I realized that it contained a community of Lam obsessives every bit as fervent as the ones I found in the other unsolved mystery forums.
Search for “Elisa Lam” on YouTube now and you’ll get 94,600 results, a string of videos that includes versions in French, Spanish, German, and Turkish. Some are merely re-posts of the original video with maybe a new caption, but many are produced segments with narration or graphics. Most have just a few thousand views, but many have hundreds of thousands or even millions.
YouTube is a particularly powerful magnet for outlandish theories. There, you’ll find Elisa Lam videos that reference Sandy Hook, biological attack, and mind control. One video connects dots from the Cecil Hotel to Sandy Hook to the Dark Knight to the movie Dark Water, before landing finally on “total drug-resistant TB” as a form of nefarious biological attack launched by our government.
But maybe the weirdest video I sat through was one from Dr. Douglas James Cottrell, a Canadian practitioner of so-called Deep Trance Meditation. It has 163,000 views. Cottrell claims to possess the ability to channel others, and proceeds to enter a trance wherein he travels to the Cecil and into Lam’s spirit, which he calls “the entity.” What does Cottrell discover? Various clues that point at mind control — specifically, V2K aka “Voice to skull” technology, which he suggests was used to force Lam into the tank.
“Many users acknowledge that the case of Elisa Lam would not have achieved the online popularity it did if it were not for the video of her in an elevator, which — while definitely odd — does not suggest anything suspicious,” Alan F Seem, the head moderator of Websleuths, the popular online forum for mystery obsessives, told me in an email. “The way in which the video is presented and the echo chamber of social media and forums are the main factors, I believe, that made this video and case into an Internet sensation.”
The LAPD has never elaborated on the video — to explain why it was released at its particular length, with no extenuating detail. They have never addressed questions of why it’s redacted, or if it’s sped up (as it appears to be), or why it continue for a full minute after Lam leaves the picture — showing nothing but an empty elevator, not moving, that used to contain a woman who went missing. Little about the video, or the way it was released, makes sense.
I asked why these decisions had been made, but couldn’t get an answer.
I can only speculate that a young woman had been missing for 12 days and detectives had no leads, so they shared this one piece of evidence in hopes that it might make sense to someone. Perhaps it’s the edit the hotel gave them; perhaps it’s just a cut of the footage they considered to be most relevant to others. I can’t speak for the police, but one reason you might edit out a section of the video is that it contained an innocent passerby who happened to wander into the frame, but who was cleared of involvement.