ELISA IN WONDERLAND, 1: TWO WAYS OF EXITING AN ELEVATOR
In the aporia of fact, speculation expands like a vapor to fill its container. The water in the Cecil Hotel-- built in 1924, rebranded to make its elegant but decaying facade an appealingly retro hotspot to young, frugal travelers-- turns foul-tasting and brackish. It comes out of the shower heads in lazy spurts. A girl has disappeared. We see her on video tape, doing a weird little half-dance in an elevator. Mostly with her hands. The doors open. The doors close.
We can find ourselves in a bind when it comes to how we read death at a distance. No matter how generous in feeling we aspire to be, there’s a cognitive cap to the amount of death and suffering we can truly viscerally give a shit about. Journalist and author Gwendolyn Ifill coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” describing the tendency of mass media to fixate disproportionately on stories involving imperiled white women from well-heeled families (think Jon Benet Ramsay, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson) at the expense of all those women-- non-white, or poor, or undocumented, or involved with drugs or sex work-- who vanish or die in circuits outside the national “Laura Palmer” mytheme. There’s a lot to deal with here-- issues of gender and race and class-- but there’s also something, I think, to learn about narrative laziness. These stories proliferate insofar as they’re made to be the same story. A reiteration of something we’ve heard before, somewhere, a familiar trajectory with the gory details freshly etched in. That’s how we bear it.
Elisa Lam was not a missing white woman. Nor was she a fixture of the national news cycle. What she was, eventually, was a meme-- an image that resembles other images, made sticky by its dips into high strangeness. Memes live and die by the extent to which they show us something novel. The closer they are to our common lexicon of images (clipart, cartoons, Hollywood) and the farther they stray from their normative meaning, the stronger they become. Brecht would have liked memes. He would have especially liked this one.
Lam was a 21-year old Canadian college student spending her winter vacation touring the California coast. She disappeared on January 31st, 2013, three days after checking into the Cecil. On February 19th, her body was discovered, naked, in one of the hotel’s 1,000-gallon water tanks, following numerous complaints about the water becoming brackish, slack, and odd-smelling. The coroner’s report manages to be both clear-cut and ambiguous. Death by drowning, bipolar disorder as contributing factor.
What’s important-- that is, what’s important to the story that Elisa Lam became-- is the footage. Prior to the discovery of her body, the LAPD, seeking leads, released a video taken by an elevator surveillance camera depicting Lam’s last recorded activity. If you’ve seen this video, you’ll understand how difficult it is to articulate the strangeness of it. You might also know that the footage released to the public may or may not have been slowed, edited, or abridged, and that is has been meticulously counter-edited and -abridged in dozens of different ways since then.
Over the course of anywhere from four to eleven minutes (depending on the version), the elevator security cam shows Lam enter the car, duck out, tiptoe nervously around the perimeter, hop in and out, jam repeatedly on buttons, and, most notably, engage in a series of dance-like, gesticulatory hand-motions. Finally, as Lam stands in the hallway, just in sight, the doors close. When they re-open, she’s gone. I’ve shown this clip to numerous people and an instant desire to speculate seems pretty much universal. It demands explanation. It demands analysis. Her comportment diverges so sharply from the usual fidgeting and dithering we expect from elevator-riders that, even in lieu of the grim fact of her death, the video gnaws at the “everyday,” that space of habit and productive action. The argument that her body language is consistent with a manic episode, or even consistent with someone getting bored in a very slow, janky elevator, jars with the desire to match strange effect with strange cause.
Lam’s death-- or, more precisely, Lam’s peculiar elevator ride towards death-- was, and remains, an internet darling. Adopted by South-East Asian message boards as an element of mimetic myth along the lines of Japan’s scatologically tinged Aka Manto urban legend, dissected and endlessly researched by North American conspiracy theorists and amateur crime-solvers. Bloggers took pilgrimages to the Cecil Hotel, filmed blurry phone videos of the hallway, the inside of the elevator, the omnipresent shitty-hotel bed stains, the mold in the showers. People with time on their hands and grave questions about the W.H.O. slowed down the video, sped it up, cross-referenced the FPS and video-quality with other elevator security footage. Every other known resident of the hotel that night was assiduously looked up and cross-referenced by house-wives and office-workers and college kids and weirdo teens. Demonic possession was raised in disconcerting tandem with tic-by-tic analysis of the possible signs of a manic episode. Was she playing hide and seek? Was she pushing past a Navy SEAL cloaked in invisibility armor? Was she lucid? Did she know what was coming, just a few hours in front of her? Like everything about this case’s discursive afterlife, there isn’t much that has not been carefully isolated, analyzed, and interpolated into any number of conspiracy theories or occult master-keys.
This in and of itself is not unusual. The internet has proven to be very fertile soil for amateur sleuths of all sorts, from David Icke fans assiduously separating the mammals from the reptilians to the grim procession of familiar cold cases, posted and reposted 20, 30, 40 years on. Google any given unsolved crime and within minutes you’re likely to find an array of speculative solutions ranging from disgruntled ex-lover to suicide to international pedophile ring. The site WebSleuths is typical, perhaps, with sub-forums and megathreads devoted to particular cases, discussed with a mix of conventional piety and lascivious curiosity. As much as these dialogues veer into conspiracy, the fantastic, the occult, they typically keep a foot in the plausible. A given thread is a disorienting mixture of armchair forensics, meticulous footwork-- marshalling the internet’s resources to bring together maps, statistics, timelines, the details of pertinent persons of interest-- and vague guesswork based on intangibles—based on the body language in TV interviews or the expression in a high-school yearbook photo. To return to Charles Fort’s principle of total inclusion, these narratives work on the assumption that all phenomenon are not only valid but significant because the alternative is that no phenomenon is, that all violence recedes into a fuzz of unreadable fragments, that all fragments dissolve into violence.
The Cecil Hotel, the site of Elisa Lam’s death, is a case in point. The place gives the impression of a location supersaturated with the grime and stink of history. The Cecil harbors no particular grand secret, but location and vicissitude and time have combined to suggest a sense of awful agency. It was here that serial killer and cannibal Richard Ramirez lived during his 1984-1985 killing spree, dumping his bloody clothing in the dumpsters out back. The Austrian murderer-slash-crime writer Jack Unterweger would later use the Cecil as his own home-base in homage to Ramirez, killing three prostitutes during his stay. It was in front of the Cecil that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia was supposedly last seen alive. It’s been the site of suicides, murders, overdoses, disappearances. Since 2011 the first several floors have been rebranded as “Stay on Main,” a cheap, no-frills hostel-style destination aimed largely at students, while the rest of the 600 rooms provide-medium term housing for a semi-transient population. You can book a room in those upper floors for $470 per month, recede into the wallpaper and become part of the texture of the hotel’s psychic background noise-- an indicator of its seedy past, or a token of its lingering menace, a voiceless but contributing element in the part of the story people really care about. The Cecil lends itself well to metonymy. It means more than it says. One building, made out of real bricks and glass, signifying a a thousand shitty or disgusting or terrifying or lonely nights far away from the places you know. Elisa Lam’s death is less a rupture in the texture of the “day-to-day” operations of the Cecil and more a sign of suppuration, the burr that draws to the surface and exposes the mess already implicit in its setting.
This brings us back to that sticky element of the Lam footage-- that sense that of seeing something we shouldn’t in a setting so quotidian that we’re scarcely able to even register it. I take an elevator multiple times a day-- the same elevator every day-- and cannot recall the color of the walls, what’s on the floors, if there’s mirrored siding, and so on. But Lam’s behavior throws her setting into such stark relief that I know that elevator (or at least the three corners of it visible from the camera’s vantage point) by heart— the thin yellow rectangle she skirts along, the hopelessly fragile-looking arm-bars, the spider-web pattern on the hallway outside.
It teaches us how to look in the same way that the Zapruder film taught our parents, or our weirder aunts and uncles, how to look: myopically, thoroughly, obsessively. Scrape away the gravity of the video’s context, and a game-like quality emerges. To me, the most disconcerting element of the Lam footage is precisely that the coyness that occasionally seems to emerge in her body-language. Her two-footed hop out into the hallway, a split-second of pushing a flyaway lick of hair down, instances where her notorious hand-motions waver between indicating alarm or just exaggerated sass-- these seem utterly divorced from readings that take the elevator footage as direct presage to Lam’s death. For Michel de Certeau, one of the primary theorists of the everyday, this kind of playfulness-- of turning the at-hand environments and objects of the everyday as an ad-hoc conceptual jungle-gym-- is the functional cousin of the holy-shit moments of terror that similarly distort our assessment of our surroundings’ use-value. Most of the cases that have any kind of longevity among true-crime fandom possess their own instances of the everyday, torqued— Jon Benet Ramsay’s bowl of pineapples, Maura Murray’s used-car shuffle, the mystery puppy in Zeb Quinn’s abandoned automobile. These are anchors, to a certain kind of person, that tie the din of irresolution around the violence of these cases to the world just outside their perimeters. With the Missing White Women mentioned earlier, the shock and frisson emerges from the extent to which violence and trauma burst suddenly into narratives in which no place for violence and trauma have been made. These moments of innocuous, incongruous, or otherwise incidental detail in the midst of violence-- serve an inverse but related function-- not the readerly shudder of witnessing order being upset, but of normalcy being asserted in the texture of disorder.
What do people get out of pouring their labor into the grim, pointless agonies of strangers? There’s an impulse to try to put a broken object back together-- but there’s another impulse, just as strong, to admire the principle of wreckage itself. It would be incorrect, I believe, to paint the entirety of the online true-crime culture as voyeuristic ghouls, just as it would be naive to take their altruistic motives as a given. My aim in this piece has been to track a third option, to begin posing a more flexible aesthetics of these cultures. The fundamental work of these internet detectives’ pursuits is a dedicated sifting and filtering of data pointed towards the isolation and integration of small, important facts, little gleaming bits of oddness or significance that stand out from the dull mass of information forming the field upon which any journalistic account of events is founded. These bits are polarized towards a total unity of sense, or they cause data to fragment, theories to unravel, the possibility of the resolution of an unknown to recede even further towards a horizon of white noise. In these communities, every new piece of evidence is admitted with the tacit understanding that it introduces itself in a quantum state, bound to push the consensus reading of the situation as it stands either towards legibility or illegibility. Whether or not you are on team legibility or not, however, remains a separate question.
Hence the peculiarly doubled death of Elisa Lam, and the continued fascination that both of her deaths exert. The Elisa Lam of the coroner’s report-- desperate, sick, far from her family and friends, nervous in new places, chatty with cashiers, scared to die, doomed anyway-- could be any of us. The Elisa Lam of the conspiratorial or mimetic imagination-- possessed by demons, stalked by serial killers, targeted by paramilitary operatives, and possibly a biological weapon-- is (presumably) none of us. In the latter mode of reading, those grounding elements serve as way-points in increasingly outlandish-- and increasingly formally and theoretically daring-- forays into conceptual no-fly zones. The term “true-crime” begins to lose its meaning, and something else-- Irreal Crime, perhaps, or Pataforensics-- takes over. It’s this mode or genre that I turn to next, retaining Lam as a test-case as her last days enter a particular register of contemporary digital myth-making.
It’s here that the sutures holding reportage and fantasy come loose, and a bolder, even unhinged rhetorical mode comes to the fore-- a rhetoric where the speaking subject is a sort of speculating id, and the field of facts an array of elements in a ludic and ludicrous game, tinged with the lurid thrill of terror. A rabbit hole full of rabbits with very sharp teeth, mutant DNA, and extremely strong opinions about the federal reserve.