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You must have heard the one about Elisa Lam. A staple of online paranormal mysteries and conspiracy theories, she is today comparable in her celebrity to Bigfoot. Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian student from Vancouver who went missing in 2013 whilst on holiday in California. She had been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, but she was thought well and confident enough to travel on her own around the USA’s West Coast. At the time of her disappearance, she had been staying in the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. Over two weeks later, the hotel’s guests began to complain that the water pressure in their rooms was erratic and the water malodorous. This lighted the way to the roof, where Lam’s body was discovered at the bottom of a thousand-gallon water tank.

Lam’s story soon became reminiscent of the conspiracy theories surrounding the suicide of Danny Casolaro, a journalist who had died in a hotel bathtub in 1991. Some investigators had rather querulously maintained that Casolaro had been bumped off by the CIA. After Lam’s death, online enthusiasts highlighted the difficulties that she would have had in locating the rooftop water tank, climbing into it, and closing it once she was inside. Her mobile phone was never recovered from the scene or her room. It was not much of a stretch to imagine Lam being murdered by persons unknown and then secreted in the water tank. Nonetheless, a Los Angeles coroner returned the verdict that Lam had died from accidental drowning.

What propelled Lam to internet superstardom, however, was the release following her disappearance of the last ever recorded footage of her. Dressed in a red hoodie, and filmed from overhead, Lam steps into the hotel elevator but it does not respond when she pushes the buttons. She then tries to hide in the elevator, before cautiously venturing out of the door again. She converses animatedly with somebody who is either out of shot or not there at all. She twists her hands and makes strange shapes out of them. This footage is so eerie because Lam looks both disorientated and mischievous. One minute she is stepping playfully around the elevator floor with hopscotch feet and the next she is reeling back to frantically pummel the control panel.

The time is 12.22am. What is so disturbing about the footage is the thought of meeting Lam unexpectedly in the middle of the night, in the lonely corridors of this sleeping hotel. Of being unable to connect with her or of being freaked out by her weirdness. Of watching helplessly as she flits eerily away to her appointment with the water.

One theory to quickly gain online prominence was that Lam was taking part in a faddish game called the elevator ritual. This was dreamt up around the same time and from similar components as the Three Kings ritual, which is considered in the first half of my “deconstructing” series. The Three Kings was created by the Reddit user FableForge in 2012; the elevator game originally appeared on a South Korean website in 2010. Both games purport to offer instructions for summoning spirits and accessing alternative realities. So as we did with the Three Kings, let us explore how the elevator ritual functions.

You firstly need to get hold of a building with an elevator and more than ten floors. Next, you have to ride around these floors on a predetermined journey. Here is your itinerary, helpfully translated from the original Korean for me by Google’s robots:

1. Take the elevator from the first floor
2. If you hit the fourth floor and arrive on the fourth floor, do not come down and press the second floor
3. When you arrive on the second floor, press on the sixth floor.
4. When you arrive on the 6th floor, press on the 2nd floor.
5. When you arrive on the second floor, press on the 10th floor.
6. When you arrive on the 10th floor, press on the 5th floor.
7. When you arrive on the fifth floor,
She is not a person.
And if you talk to her or make a sound,
You will not be.
(A woman can hit a hit)
8. When you arrive on the fifth floor, you push on the first floor.
When you get to the 10th floor, you succeed and then you exclude yourself
A world without anyone is unfolded.

I would have a lot more confidence in these robots if they could ultimately decide upon fifth or 5th. Anyway, your lucky numbers for tonight are 1-4-2-6-2-10-5-1. I have a vague idea for a short story in which the player, exasperated that the game isn’t working, has a sudden brainwave and dials these floor numbers on his phone. He would then speak to… who? His dead mother? General Haig? When I have cracked this last spooky detail, my story is ready to be written.

It isn’t necessarily clear from the Korean, but after reaching the fifth floor and enduring the invasion of the mysterious woman who is “not a person,” your final stop is meant to be the first floor. But once you have pushed button number one, the elevator should instead – if you have carried out your instructions correctly – climb to the tenth. Here you will arrive at the alternative reality. This will be identical to your home reality, except that you will be the only human being in it. “A world without anyone is unfolded.”

As with the Three Kings, the elevator game is superficially user-friendly but just slightly too irksome for you to ever contemplate playing it. A crucial check upon mass participation is that the player has to be always alone in the elevator until they reach the fifth floor. If another passenger gets in and wishes to use the elevator, the mission is instantly invalidated.

The instructions make me envisage Korean teenagers slipping out of apartments that are located in high-rise condominiums, in the dead of night, when nobody is around and the communal elevator is available for unrestricted use. In the UK, though, a teenager could typically walk for ten miles without encountering anything with ten floors. And when they did at last locate an eligible building, it would be most likely a hotel or an office block, with watchful security guards and lots of people milling about to interrupt the game.

There are further impracticalities. An in-built paradox is that the game has to be abandoned if another person gets into the elevator but that you are not allowed to engage with the phantom woman who enters on floor five. How, therefore, will you know if the game is still ongoing or interrupted? The newcomer’s innocuous requests for a particular floor could be wrongly interpreted as part of this game’s diabolical test. I would find the social embarrassment of this to be far worse than the yawning hell that supposedly results from interacting with the fifth-floor woman.

The creepypasta stories that have been chartered by the elevator ritual often have fun with all of the possibilities of the fifth-floor woman. She can take the form of somebody you know or of a demonic banshee. In one of the scariest online stories, “she started talking about how there’d just been an accident on the fifth floor and asked if I would go back with her to help.”

Then there is the destination. The elevator ritual to me looks rather like a moon trip. In the latter, a vast slice of GDP and the nation’s expertise will be consumed in trying to reach a place where there is basically nothing there. On your own elevator rocket ride, you will follow the onerous instructions, and risk the claws of the phantom woman, in order to reach an alternative reality where there is nothing new to see and nobody to talk to. What are you meant to do in this reality? Admire it from the tenth floor? Here is what one set of instructions claims:

Should you reach the Otherworld, the floor onto which you will emerge will look almost identical to the one from your own world, save for two things: All the lights will be off, and the only thing you will be able to see from the windows is a red cross in the distance. Some say that electronic devices—mobile phones, cameras, MP3 players, etc.—don’t work in the Otherworld; others say they do.

Best not choose to return from the Otherworld using an elevator that runs on electricity then!

This originally Korean ritual is usually coupled with imagery from horror manga. The woman who invades the elevator is frequently modelled upon the ghost from the 1998 Japanese horror movie The Ring. As the daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Lam might seem to be more at home in the generically East Asian vibe of the elevator ritual. The circumstances of her death wrap so naturally around this ritual because certain features of the real-life case appear to enhance, and to be enhanced by, the fictional instructions. Lam’s chatting with an unseen person fits with the phantom woman; her subsequent death fits with the disappearance into another world. We are allowed to indulge the fantasy that Lam had completed the ritual successfully. Her discarded body was henceforth left in the water tank whilst her soul remains forever exiled in the Otherworld.

I think that we have made enough of an inroad into bad taste here. I hope you can see that I wish to get at the pearl within this glutinous oyster, the true twinkling horror of this story. So many online commentators think that they are innocently consuming the horror of Lam’s death by pouring over its details and the eeriness of her final video. In reality, they are actively causing this horror by exploiting the wretched, lonely death of a young woman, stripping her of all her privacy, and hysterically thrusting her into a limelight that she could have never imagined. The horror is surely that if any of us had a similar breakdown in public, our actions could end up being scrutinised by half the world in the same way.

The earliest videos that were circulated of Lam in the elevator had been slowed down to make her actions look weirder and shakier than they actually were. There was all the wilful mystification of her climb into the water tank, with inconsequential details being analysed in depth and important ones being excluded. How did she get on to the roof when the door was locked and fitted with an alarm? It transpired that anybody could climb on to the roof using the fire escapes, and so the locked door did not remotely matter. Her family’s exploratory lawsuit against the Cecil Hotel revealed that the lid of the tank was never closed from within, amputating one of the story’s most awesome tell-tale “discrepancies.”

Gruesome details about the decomposition of Lam’s body – details that would be normally excluded from media coverage – are today published on the Wikipedia page that is devoted to her death. Not to her, but to her death. This is implicitly justified because they number amongst the clues for us to ponder, though their publication also has a characteristically intrusive and prurient effect.

In the elevator video, Lam is evidently trying to hide from somebody. Her body language is at times excited and flirtatious, leading some who are conversant in this language to speculate that she is on the way to a romantic assignation. Another person could have been present on the roof when Lam died, but unless they confess, or a witness comes forward, there can be no evidence to implicate anybody. Alternatively, Lam’s actions could have been psychotic or influenced by the cocktail of prescription medications that she was taking. I can picture how somebody who wanted to hide from an unwanted suitor, real or imaginary, might have climbed on to the roof, and into one of the tanks, thinking that it was a place of safety. Lam might have thought that she would be able to hide floating in the tank while clinging to the rim of the entry hatch.

Lam suffered from depression. Her death could have been an impromptu suicide attempt, a disastrous impulse that she would have never chased up in a more fortuitous state of mind. One of these initially mini miscalculations that anybody could make on the spur of the moment, if something went wrong, if the drugs didn’t agree with them, or if they were left alone with morbid thoughts in a strange city.

But Lam did not know that she was being filmed. It is hard to imagine her consenting to the bizarre footage of her last actions being published and getting millions of online views. Lam’s death was tragic and lonely, and it seems only lonelier with millions of ghouls gawking at it. The dead, as with children and animals, can never insist upon their rights, but we should be able to behave decently without them needing to. We are still at a stage of insufficient distance, when it dehumanises Lam and robs her of her dignity to project her into the centre of an entertaining urban legend.