Previously: On The Momo Challenge.
Some people know it as Elevator To Another World. For others, it’s the Elevator To Hell. Some simply call it the Elevator Ritual or the Elevator Game. But no matter the name, this peculiar… game, I suppose — although there’s nothing playful about it — is always said to have the same outcome, as long as you follow its rules to a T: By riding an elevator alone, visiting a handful of floors in a particular order as you go, you can transport yourself to another world entirely. It’s not recommended that you do so, of course; these kinds of games — and again, I use the term loosely — are never recommended to play. It’s simply not safe to play them — and, should you decide you’re up for the challenge, you always play them at your own risk.
It’s all a story, of course, though. The Elevator Game belongs to a highly specific subset of urban legends: Those which take the form of rituals or games, blurring the lines between story and reality in order to send an interactive sort of shiver down your spine. These kinds of urban legends have been around for centuries — just look at any old folk tradition and you’ll find the same principles at its roots — but in the internet age, they’ve spreader wider and faster than ever, as well as upped the stakes considerably in their approach. Think of them like Bloody Mary, but dialed up to 11.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
I originally wrote about the Elevator Game in 2014, during TGIMM’s very first year in existence. Over the course of the next several years, it would surprise me by becoming the most popular post on the site; indeed, it’s the post that both gave the site the steam to grow into what it’s become today, as well as the post that’s directly responsible for making my book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, a reality. It’s undoubtedly the most infamous of this newer crop of urban legend games…
…And yet, there’s still much about it that remains hazy or outright unknown.
So, I decided it was finally time to take an even more in-depth look at the legend — something that digs further than any other work I’ve done on the game before. Something that looks not just at the history of the game — which, it turns out, goes back much further than I’d thought until now — but at its cultural context, and, well… Everything That Came After.
First, I’ll send you to TGIMM’s now-ancient post detailing the rules of the Elevator Game for a refresher (Update for 2021: I revisited the rules again here); there’s also an updated (and, I think, better) set of rules in Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, so if you’re looking for some new reading, please do consider picking up the book. (Info on where to buy can be found here; long story short, it’s available at most major retailers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble, in both hardcover and e-book form, as well as at a variety of indie booksellers. Try your library, too — they might have it, as well.)
Once you’ve brushed up on what the game itself involves, read on. And, uh, buckle up; we’re about to embark on quite the journey.
The Beginnings Of A Legend
It’s always generally been accepted that the Elevator Game originated in an East Asian country, although precisely which country has always been a little bit hazy. South Korea is popularly cited as the game’s place of origin — indeed, way back in 2014, that’s where I thought it had popped up from, too — and not without reason; the legend was circulating Korean social media sites like Daum (다음) and Naver (네이버) by 2010-2011, which is roughly around the time the tale really started propagating across the internet at large. The earliest mention of it I’ve been able to find in this context is dated July 11, 2010; it’s a Daum blog featuring an account of what happened following one player’s attempt at performing the ritual.
You’ll find more mentions of the game in Korean if you run your search for posts dated around 2011, however. (Search terms worth trying include “다른세계로가는방법,” or, roughly, “way to another world,” or “how to get to another world,” plus “다른세계로가는방법,” or “elevator”). Additionally, although the Daum post from July of 2010 might be the earliest Korean reference I’ve dug up, it’s worth noting that the phrasing of that post implies that the legend had been making the rounds for some time by that point: Via Google Translate, the first sentence reads, “4th, 2nd, 6th, 10th floor => and 5th floor according to [instructions] on the internet.” Clearly there’s more to be found here — and, it turns out, you can unearth some valuable information if you broaden your search to include the other country frequently cited as the Elevator Game’s place of origin: Japan.
In English translations, the title of the Elevator Game is usually something like, “How To Go To Another World Using An Elevator.” If you run that phrase through Google Translate, you come up with something like “エレベーターを使用して別の世界に行く方法” — which is, no doubt, an imperfect translation, but serviceable for the purposes of internet-based research. Searching for that particular phrase in Japanese brings up a post on Gizmodo Japan’s community forums from April of 2009, which in turn links to this page, which then links to a post on the Japanese message board 2ch (now 5ch) dated March 1, 2009 — and it’s here that the trail really goes hot: That 2ch post is one thread in a series. Working backwards, we can find the previous thread here, the next previous thread here, and the thread before that here.
Scrolling down to post number 736 in that last thread brings up the earliest version of the Elevator Game I’ve been able to find on the internet in any language: It’s dated Nov. 22, 2008.
This set of rules is quite simple. You’re instructed simply to get on the elevator, alone, in a building with at least 10 floors; visit the fourth, second, sixth, second, tenth, and fifth floors in succession; and while at the fifth floor, press the button for the first floor. Doing so will cause the elevator to rise to the tenth floor — and when the elevator doors open, they will open onto another world. The instructions state that you’ll know you’ve arrived if you appear to be the only person present — but also that what happens next isn’t known.
These rules additionally warn you about a young woman who might step onto the elevator at the fifth floor; you’re not to speak to her, they say, because, as Google Translate puts it, “the person… is not a person” — a turn of phrase I find deliciously chilling.
But that’s it. This early Japanese version only covers what happens up until you arrive at the 10th floor. It doesn’t include any details about what you’re meant to see while you’re up there — or, crucially, how to return to your own world. As far as the rules are concerned, you’re on your own.
This kind of ending — a short, sharp, sudden stop — is common for ritual-based Japanese urban legends. Many of them, such as the Little Finger Game, Summoning The Red Man (which may or may not be Japanese; it’s said to be, for what it’s worth), Closet To Another World, and the Fed Up Game, just sort of… stop, without a denouement or a clear resolution.
And although a lot of Western readers find this aspect of these kinds of stories frustrating, it’s worth remembering that it’s not lazy writing; it’s a firmly-made stylistic choice — a choice that leaves the reader guessing; allows their imagination to fill in the blanks; and, especially in the case of games meant to transport players to other worlds, supports the reality constructed within the legends. The reason the instructions just stop is because we don’t know what happens next; no one has been around to tell us. Those for whom the rituals were successful vanished from our world and haven’t been heard from since.
But eventually, the details came, added by others as the game made the rounds, with each storyteller adding their own flavor to the tale.
By early 2011, Korean versions included a way to make the return trip, as well as a way to cancel the initial journey, in case you decide you don’t want to go through with it after all.
When English translations of Korean sources began arriving on the internet by the end of 2011 — notably the Oct. 27, 2011 post on Hakei’s short-lived but wonderful Scary Stories blog — they came with information about how to tell if you successfully made it to another world: Your phone and other electronics would cease to function; also from the windows of the tenth floor, you’d see your own town or city, but with all the lights off and a red cross glowing in the distance.
And by the time English translations of Japanese versions of the game hit the internet, like Saya In Underworld’s Oct. 18, 2012 2ch translation, people had begun writing accounts of what happened they tried to play the game themselves.
Art Imitating Life
So that’s the history of the Elevator Game on the internet — or at least, as complete a history as I’ve been able to piece together with the resources and skills available to me. Since there’s a language barrier for me, I may — as always — have missed something somewhere.
Regardless, though, the bigger question concerns what prompted the invention of the game in the first place. Did anything happen in real life that might have inspired a legend like this one?
The answer: Possibly, especially if the game did, in fact, begin circulating around 2008.
Here’s what happened:
In June of 2006, an elevator in the Minato Ward of Tokyo, Japan malfunctioned, beginning to ascend while the doors were still open and causing the death of a 16-year-old high school student. An investigation launched immediately following the accident found that this fatal accident was just one of several then-recent instances in Japan where a certain kind of elevator manufactured in a specific time frame began moving while its doors were still open.
That’s what strikes me the most about this incident, and the other cases it brought to light: The fatal accident occurred when the elevator in question began ascending seemingly of its own accord.
In the Elevator Game, a successfully-executed ritual is signified by the elevator ascending of its own accord, from the fifth floor to the tenth floor, even though the button the player presses while on the fifth floor is the one for the first floor.
The parallel is… difficult to miss.
Although the faulty elevators were replaced following the 2006 accident, anxiety surrounding elevators in general remained high following the incident; indeed, a survey of Japanese university students in the aftermath found that 65 percent continued to feel “uneasy” around elevators for some time. Admittedly the survey was somewhat limited in scope, with only 40 respondents; still, though: If you found out not just that a single elevator had suffered a fatal malfunction, but that many elevators had suffered similar malfunctions — and that you could have suffered injury or death at any point while riding one, without even knowing you were at a heightened risk of disaster — wouldn’t you be uneasy, too?
It’s pretty well-established that urban legends often function as coping mechanisms — they’re one of the ways we deal with terrible tragedies that we have a hard time making sense of on our own. Especially given the timing, it’s not unreasonable that the legend of the Elevator Game could have arisen out of fears and anxieties surrounding the 2006 Minato Ward elevator accident specifically, or the more general fears and anxieties about elevators that this incident exposed.
Of course, there’s another real-life case that many associate with the Elevator Game, as well — a much more well-known one, particularly in Western societies. Indeed, by my experience, it’s actually the connecting of these two dots that correlates with rising interest in the game in the West.
I’m talking here about the death of Elisa Lam.
I should start by saying here — as I have elsewhere on TGIMM — that I don’t think the Elevator Game had anything to do with what happened to Lam. To be perfectly honest, I think it’s enormously disrespectful to both Elisa herself and her friends, family, and loved ones to blame her death on what is, truly, just a spooky story.
What sometimes — and, really, what too often — happens when armchair detectives, casual theorists, and folks who, like myself, are ultimately just randos on the internet with no actual expertise in forensic work, police work, or crime solving start examining cases like Elisa’s is, we turn them into stories. We divorce them from the fact that they actually happened, and that real people were actually affected by them in the most terrible ways possible.
But I firmly believe we have an ethical obligation to engage with this kind of material responsibly — not simply to consume it the way we would other, fictional entertainments.
Elisa Lam was a real person. The people who cared about her are real people. What happened to her is real, and the grief of those who have mourned her is real.
So, I’m going to try to address this topic as respectfully and sensitively as I can. For this reason, there’s some editorializing about the theories surrounding Elisa’s death that bother me; I think it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge why those theories are problematic. Not for nothing were all of the references to the Elevator Game removed from the Wikipedia page about this case.
Here is what we know:
The Death Of Elisa Lam
In January of 2013, Elisa Lam, whose Cantonese name was Lam Ho Yi (藍可兒), was 21 years old. She was been born in Vancouver, British Columbia on April 30, 1991. She had attended the University of British Columbia, although she wasn’t at that time enrolled for the spring semester. She had bipolar disorder and depression and took several different medications to help manage these conditions. She had several blogs — one on Blogspot, another on Tumblr — where she wrote about her experiences living with bipolar disorder and depression, posted images of fashion photography, and jotted down quotes that resonated with her.
At the end of January, Lam left Canada for a solo trip to California in the United States. She traveled mostly by train and bus; according to court documents, it’s believed she stopped in San Diego first, then carried on to Los Angeles, with plans to visit Santa Cruz later on. She called her parents every day while she was away.
On Jan. 26, Lam made reservations at Stay on Main, formerly the Cecil Hotel, in Los Angeles. On the 28th, she checked in, intending to stay until the 31st. She was initially assigned to a shared room on the fifth floor; however, two days later, she was reassigned to a private room at the request of the other tenants of the shared room. This second room was also on the fifth floor.
On Jan. 31, she visited a bookstore located around the corner from Stay on Main called the Last Bookstore, where she purchased presents for her family. She also conversed with the manager, who described her as “very outgoing, very lively, very friendly.” On this day, she was also observed at Stay on Main by hotel staff.
But she didn’t check out that day, as she had originally intended. Nor did she call her parents.
She just… vanished.
Her family reported her missing.
On Feb. 6, the LAPD announced that they were investigating Lam’s disappearance. A week later, they were still looking for her, but they had acquired footage from a surveillance camera at Stay on Main reportedly recorded on Feb. 1 and released it to the public.
The video, which was about four minutes in length and had been filmed from inside one of the hotel’s elevators, showed Lam behaving unusually: She steps inside; crouches down and pushes four or five buttons on the elevator’s control panel; pokes her head outside of the elevator and looks around; steps back inside and presses herself against the wall on the right-hand side of the elevator; steps back out of the elevator and gestures briefly with her arms; steps back inside and pushes more buttons; steps outside yet again and gestures some more; and then she finally steps away and out of the frame.
About 30 seconds later, the elevator doors — which have been open for the duration of the video thus far — finally close. In the last minute of the video, the doors open and close again several times, although it’s not clear whether the elevator itself remains stationary or whether it travels to other floors between the times the doors shut and open again.
On Feb. 19, a maintenance worker responding to hotel guests’ complaints that the water pressure in the rooms was low and had an odd taste went to check out the hotel’s water tanks. To access them, he took an elevator the 15th floor, then a staircase from that floor to the roof; turned off the rooftop alarm; climbed onto the platform that held the four tanks; and used a ladder to access the top of the main tank.
When he opened the 1,000-gallon tank, he found the remains of Elisa Lam floating inside. Her clothing had been removed, and her phone was missing. It has never been recovered.
The coroner’s report, which is dated Feb. 21, 2013, ruled her death an accidental drowning. The toxicology report was incomplete, due to a lack of preserved material on which to perform tests; however, it showed nothing out of the ordinary: Traces of the medications she took to manage her bipolar disorder and depression were present, as were traces of a few over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen; so, too, was an incredibly small amount of alcohol detected; but otherwise, she had no other substances or recreational drugs in her system at the time of her death. According to her sister, she was not known to have had suicidal ideations or to have made attempts in the past.
But so many questions remain about the case that have never been satisfactorily answered: Why was she in the water tank? How did she get inside? Did she do it on her own — and if so, how? How did she close the lid behind her once she was inside? Why was her clothing removed? What happened to her phone? What was she doing in the surveillance video, exactly?
And — crucially — did the history of the place she died have anything to do with what happened to her?
The Cecil Hotel, And All That Happened There
Stay on Main had only been called Stay on Main since 2011. It was far more infamous under its previous name: The Cecil Hotel.
Located at 640 South Main Street in Los Angeles, the Cecil Hotel originally opened in 1924. A spectacular example of the Beaux Arts architectural style, it was once a gem of a building; however, the Great Depression, which began just a few years after the hotel opened, spurred a steady decline of the neighborhood in which it stood — now known as Skid Row — for decades thereafter.
But it wasn’t just infamous for its status as a faded gem. Terrible things have happened at the Cecil Hotel. At least 11 people have died by suicide at it. Several more were murdered there. And still more people of notoriety have long been associated with the hotel, if only by unproven rumor or reputation: Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia, is rumored to have frequented the Cecil Hotel’s bar prior to her murder in 1947 (although it’s worth noting that experts on the Black Dahlia case say this is unlikely to be true); Richard Ramirez, the serial killer nicknamed “Night Stalker,” is said to have resided at the hotel while enacting his crimes in the 1980s; and in 1991, Jack Unterweger took up residence at the Cecil as he ostensibly worked as a journalist on an article about crime in Los Angeles, but in reality murdered several sex workers.
Skid Row remains a low-income area, and at the time of Elisa Lam’s death, the Cecil — which re-branded as Stay on Main in an attempt to escape its past — had been part-budget hotel, part-residence for some time. The rooms were cheap. The location was convenient to those who wanted to spend time in Los Angeles’ Spring Street Financial District. And if you were willing to overlook some of the less desirable aspects of the place, it would at least give you a place to stay without blowing your entire budget.
When it became clear that Elisa Lam didn’t just die at any hotel in Los Angeles, but at this hotel, the… theories began to emerge — theories about how and why she died, theories which attempted to answer all the questions that still remained about the case, all speculated upon not by officials investigating Lam’s death, but by those who had been reading along with each new news report as it had come out. Some came to believe she was having a psychotic episode at the time of her death. Some thought she was running from someone — or that she was murdered by someone.
And some support something a little more… out there: That she was possessed by an evil spirit at the time of her death — or that she died playing the Elevator Game.
It’s not clear to me exactly who first drew a line between the Elevator Game legend and the real-life case of Elisa Lam. I do know roughly when it happened, though, based both on Google Trends data and my own site analytics.
According to Google Trends, searches for “Elisa Lam Elevator Game” first emerged in January of 2014, but didn’t spike until the end of the year — interest rises a tiny bit in August, then a bit more in October, and then jumps dramatically in December. Meanwhile, TGIMM’s post detailing the rules of the Elevator Game was originally published at our old theghostinmymachine.wordpress.com domain on June 25, 2014, garnered very little traffic for the first few months it was live, and then suddenly started attracting All The Traffic in October. At the time, I remember thinking it was kind of weird that this one older post was suddenly getting all this attention — and then, when I looked closer at where the traffic was coming from, I found both in the sources and the search data that it was coming from people interested in a potential link between the game and Elisa Lam.
The Elevator Game remained the single most popular post on TGIMM every single year between 2014 and 2018. It was only unseated in 2019 by the roundup of creepy phone numbers that actually work we published during the previous year’s Halloween season — and even now, it’s still in the top five.
Those who ascribe to the theory cite the surveillance video as their primary piece of evidence. The argument is that it explains her unusual behavior: The button pushing; the poking of her head outside the elevator doors, like she’s looking for something; the gesturing she does with her hands, which looks almost as if she’s conversing with someone — or something — unseen. The fact that Lam was found dead, some posit, is proof that the game went wrong — that she had perhaps spoken to young woman the legend warns players might enter on the fifth floor and suffered the consequences for her transgression.
I’ll go ahead and state it outright: I strongly, strongly dislike both of the supernatural theories.
The possession theory often hinges on the evil spirit supposedly responsible for Lam’s death being an evil spirit that had allegedly previously possessed Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger — that is, that Ramirez and Unterweger’s murderous crimes weren’t actually carried out by them, but by a spirit compelling them to kill. I don’t buy it for a lot of reasons. Besides the fact that this whole situation sounds more like a script for a horror movie than reality, it also more or less excuses Ramirez and Unterweger for their crimes by releasing them from taking responsibility for their own actions. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that humans are perfectly capable of enacting pure evil all on their own, without any sort of supernatural influence. (Source: History. All of it.)
And as for the Elevator Game? Well, if we want to nitpick, Lam’s behavior in the surveillance video isn’t actually consistent with the rules of the game as laid out by the legend: She pushes all the buttons at once; she doesn’t wait for the elevator to move from floor to floor; she doesn’t even press the correct buttons. You could make the argument that she played it wrong, or that what the video shows is how she was affected after completing the game (either successfully or not) — but that’s all based on supposition. There’s no evidence at all that it’s the case.
And, again, I think associating Lam’s death with the Elevator Game fictionalizes an actual tragedy in a way that’s not only unhelpful, but also actively disrespectful to all of the real people who were affected by it — from Elisa herself to her loved ones.
The Truth Of The Matter
The truth is… we still don’t actually know what the truth is regarding Elisa’s death. We know it’s a tragedy. We know that she struggled from time to time. And we know that she died far too young. But we may never know anything beyond that.
The legend of the Elevator Game lives on, though — passed around from forum to forum, from storyteller to storyteller, told around the digital versions of what was once an actual campfire.
So go ahead — if you’re feeling daring.
But as always…
…Play at your own risk.
Follow The Ghost In My Machine on Twitter @GhostMachine13 and on Facebook @TheGhostInMyMachine. And don’t forget to check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available now from Chronicle Books!
[Photos via Tama66, coombesy/Pixabay; Jason Dent, laimannung/Unsplash; Jennifer Boyer, Jim Winstead/Flickr, available via CC BY-ND 2.0 and CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons licenses.]