***General disclaimer: Not an expert on psychology***
I can’t believe we’re reaching the end of October already. Although I have plans for Halloween, I do feel that the month has somewhat passed me by. I plan on stretching the spooky mood into November before everything gets Christmassy although, admittedly, I’m spooky all the year round.
I finished my dissertation for my Masters last month and have been adjusting to a full-time work / sleep cycle. It’s been so strange mentally, having no obligation to research since it ended. I think I am healthy, but I plan on blogging more to force myself to have that alone time. As soon as I handed in that wad of paper I grasped back all the free time I had lost over the last year and made plans for every spare moment. I said yes to everything because I enjoyed feeling like I had friends again after having to shut myself away with my own thoughts… I got burnout as a result. I’ve learned to enjoy my own company a great deal, but there’s only so much you can take before you get cabin fever, so I guess I jumped to the other extreme. Well, I’ve had my month of being too busy to breathe, so it’s time to get back to some kind of normality.
I’ve been thinking about Elisa Lam lately. I’ve been thinking about Marilyn Monroe. I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to call a woman crazy. How easy it is to simplify an inconclusive case by considering a mental illness a major factor, and other evidence as circumstantial.
In February 2013, a young Canadian tourist was found dead in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel, following complaints that the water was running black and had an odd taste. She had been decomposing for up to 19 days. As anyone with basic knowledge of the case will know, the LAPD released this video, which is surveillance footage of an elevator in the hotel where Elisa was seen behaving seemingly bizarrely before her death. If you are easily shaken, I wouldn’t advise watching it late at night. The footage has been the subject of much controversy, namely because a whole minute has been removed, the timestamp is obscured and other parts are slowed down or otherwise corrupted. It is unclear why the video was tampered with and, furthermore, why other footage of Elisa seen with two strange men prior to the elevator video has not been released to the public.
The subject of most controversy, however, is how and why Elisa Lam died the way she did, considering the strange anomalies in the case, and her odd behaviour in the elevator. The police first marked the case as ‘suspicious’, then concluded accidental death, which was then changed because of error to inconclusive, and later changed back to accidental death. The coroner’s report considered Elisa’s bipolar disorder as an important factor in the case, which has been much disputed, and it has been identified that one of the coroners working on the case was sued for his mishandling of an autopsy in another case. In a hotel with a grizzly history on which a long-term resident remarked, “So many things have happened in this place that nothing surprises me”, Elisa Lam’s death could easily have been brushed under the carpet over time; however, in 2017, we don’t want to let it go. There is a divide in the paranormal community in this tenacious grip on the case; some are out there to prove that Elisa was suffering from a manic episode and hallucinating, and others refuse to believe that her mental illness could have contributed to her death. Some believe she was playing a terrifying, ritualistic ‘elevator game’ and was trying to get back from another dimension called the ‘Otherworld’.
There is unfortunately little middle-ground upon which a humanised view of Elisa the Person rather than Elisa the Bipolar Sufferer or Elisa the Murder Victim can lie. Because she acted bizarrely in the elevator footage and because her illness was pounced on as a contributing factor in the case, it is all too easy for us to play our own discursive elevator game and a door has opened to a theoretical Otherworld – the world of the ‘mad’. Because madness is typically classed as outside of logic, when madness is a factor, the subject becomes a tabula rasa on which to inscribe symptoms, attitudes, behaviours, and a societal picture of mental illness. The truth is that whilst categorization is helpful to an extent in a treatment context, no two mentally ill people are the same because no two people are the same. Whilst it is a positive thing that the case has garnered so much attention because we won’t let it go, it has also contributed to a problem I consider quite harmful in the paranormal community, which is the exoticism of the mentally ill. Possible hallucination is ‘creepy’, it’s ‘fascinating’. If Elisa Lam was not on four different medications for bipolar disorder, it may not be as easy to dismiss the possibility that she is interacting with somebody else in that video, perhaps someone down the hall.
I enjoy and love Buzzfeed Unsolved, but a thing that struck me about the Lam episode was the person accompanying Ryan on the Cecil trip (it wasn’t Shane, so I don’t mind who it is) instinctively interjected with, “Yeah, but if she’s bipolar, just right there, that could explain why she was doing that.” Sadly, we have a history of having a “just right there” attitude to Bipolar Disorder, as if the illness speaks for itself. One of the points supporting the suicide theory of Kurt Cobain’s death was, “he was bipolar, so…”
It is true that bipolar suicides are common, but there is nothing inevitable about a bipolar suicide. Perhaps the point of the case now isn’t what happened, but the way we think about mentally ill people who have died suspiciously. In paranormal/unsolved mystery discussion, as it stands we are treating mental illness as something inherently threatening or horrifying in relation to the person and, in this case, a convenient solution to a complicated question. Before you share a picture of an abandoned mental asylum, ask yourself why you are sharing it. Are you truly sharing it purely for the romantic image of the derelict place itself, regardless of the institution that used to inhabit its walls? Do you think it’s haunted? If you think it’s haunted, do you think it’s haunted by the people who were committed there, or by the ill-treatment of these people throughout history? The definition of ‘asylum’ is ‘shelter or protection from danger’. When discussing mental illness in a paranormal or unsolved mystery context, shouldn’t we protect individuals with mental illness from being lumped into a general category outside of logic along with ghosts?
Anyone familiar with the ableistic work of Tumblr user Sixpenceee will know that fascination with mental illness for fascination’s sake only leads to discursive exploitation and Othering. A Kickstarter-funded documentary is being released next year which, with 3 years worth of research behind it, promises to paint Elisa Lam in a more humanised light and educate more on her life as well as her death. I have high hopes that this will help to round discussion on the topic and we will no longer think of her merely as a psychomotor-agitated or decomposing body.
Until then, let’s not cease to answer questions. The epigraph on Elisa Lam’s blog is a quote by Chuck Palahniuk, “You’re always haunted by the idea that you’re wasting your life”. When one strips the intrigue of Elisa’s case away, the supernatural possibilities regarding her death are not necessarily central. Central to her death is that it’s a tragedy but, cliché as it sounds, her life doesn’t have to be a waste. We could learn so much more by talking about her life and the circumstances surrounding it than by stagnating ourselves, continuing to thirstily drink the remains her sensational and unsavory death left behind. (Too much?)