A coincidence is when two or more events which seem to have some connection occur at the same time. Coincidences are devoid of any significance or causal connection. Nevertheless, some coincidences may seem to be associated in time and/or space with other things or occurrences in meaningful ways. Most of us have encountered coincidences in our lives and several examples have made it to the popular media. For example:
A person reported one day spending $7.11 in the store 7-11 at 7:11 AM.
A woman who hurt her chin got a fortune cookie at a restaurant that read “Time heals all wound. Keep your chin up.”
A woman found that her future husband appeared in a picture her family took while on a trip 7 years before she met him.
Most of us will chuckle at these examples but will probably not think much about them. Regardless of how remarkable they are, we nonetheless would consider that they fall within the realm of the possible. With millions of people shopping at 7-11, or unwrapping fortune cookies, or taking pictures, you figure that sooner or later this sort of thing is bound to happen to someone. Getting 10 heads when flipping 10 coins once is an unlikely outcome, but if a few thousand people flip coins, it is a virtual certainty that at least one will get that result. With billions of people on Earth performing the same activities day after day, it is statistically very likely that something unusual will happen to someone somewhere sometime.
However, when it comes to some remarkable coincidences, and more often than not those that involve life and death, some people wonder if there is something more behind the coincidence. For example:
Violet Jessop survived three cruise ship accidents: the RMS Olympic in 1911 (which did not sink), and the Titanic in 1912 and the HMHS Britanic in 1916 (which both sank). This led to her being nicknamed “Miss Unsinkable”.
A Dutch cyclist, Maarten de Jonge, escaped two fatal plane crashes in 2014 when he changed his travel plans at the last minute.
Tsutomo Yamaguchi survived the dropping of the atomic bomb in the city of Hiroshima and fled to the city of Nagasaki on which the second atomic bomb was dropped, and which he also survived. He is recognized by the Japanese government as the only person to have survived both bombings.
Faced with these coincidences, some people consider themselves “lucky”, while others may interpret that there is some force or deity guarding their lives. Some people in fact believe that God is behind all coincidences, and that coincidences are messages from the deity. Of course, this belief can be a double-edged sword. For example, as I have written in a previous post, Hitler survived many assassination attempts and this gave him the conviction that he had been chosen by providence to accomplish great things.
But there can be immediate and dangerous consequences to thinking that a coincidence MUST have an explanation, and this is especially true in cases of coincidences that occur within an emotionally charged environment. When this happens, people eager to find meaning where there is none can connect the dots to come up with far flung ideas or conspiracies and may even act on them. One remarkable example of this is the disappearance of Elisa Lam.
In January 26 of 2013, a 21 year-old Canadian student, Elisa Lam, visited Los Angeles and checked into the infamous Cecil Hotel which lies next to Los Angeles’ skid row section. This hotel has a reputation for being haunted due to the many deaths and suicides that have taken place in and around the hotel, as well as serial killers who have stayed in it. Lam was supposed to check out of the hotel on January 31, but failed to contact her family, who called the police. The police searched the hotel and its vicinity but didn’t find Lam. However, they found a disturbing recording of the woman in one of the hotel’s elevators which they proceeded to release to the public.
The video hit the internet like a storm, gathering millions of views, and unleashed a tsunami of speculation by people searching for clues trying to make sense of what could have happened to her. Two weeks after the release of the video, hotel guests reported that the water in the faucets had a funny color and taste. The hotel’s water tanks were searched and Lam’s lifeless body was found floating in one of them.
Several conspiracy theories and interpretations arose trying to make sense of some coincidences in this case.
The bizarre behavior of Lam in the elevator reminded many viewers of the so-called “elevator game” which supposedly originated in South Korea. The premise of this game posits that if you press the buttons of an elevator in the right order, it will take you to a different dimension and you will meet a supernatural entity.
Another idea revolved around a 2005 film starring Jennifer Connelly called “Dark Water” which involves a mother and her daughter who move into an apartment where dark water begins coming out of the faucets. The film depicts some creepy events in an elevator which the mother rides to the roof where she discovers the body of a little girl in the water tank. Based on this, people speculated that someone was trying to recreate some of the movie scenes using Lam as a subject.
The last place where Lam was seen in person was a Los Angeles bookstore called “The Last Bookstore”. Owners of the bookstore’s website list their address as a post office box in British Columbia, Canada, with the postal code V5G 4S2. When you input this into Google Maps, you get a location within the Forest Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park, where Lam is buried. Thus, people suggested that this bookstore could be connected to Lam’s disappearance.
Another theory regarding Lam’s death was linked to a tuberculosis outbreak that occurred in the skid row area around the hotel while she was staying there. This notion arose because someone pointed out that the test used to detect the presence of tuberculosis is called the “Lam ELISA” test. This stands for “Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). Many people considered that it was impossible that this was a coincidence, and all sorts of conspiracies began to be spun such as suggesting she was a test subject for a new tuberculosis drug, or a vessel for a bioweapon, or that she was killed for knowing too much about the tuberculosis outbreak.
And in case you think that all this nonsense is ultimately harmless conjecture, consider this last item.
A final theory concerned a Mexican death metal musician, Pablo Vergara, who went by the stage name of “Morbid”. He had stayed at the Cecil and posted about it (but in 2012, one year before Lam). He also had a song about dumping a corpse in a body of water while singing “I’m thinking China” (Lam was of Chinese ancestry), and his media featured a video of a woman running from a killer before getting caught. These coincidences and the way he looked and acted convinced many people that he was the killer, and they publicly denounced him. Vergara was investigated by police, his music and videos were deleted, his social media accounts were banned, and he began to receive deaths threats around the clock. Vergara descended into depression and tried to take his own life. He eventually had to check into a psychiatric hospital to heal.
So what really happened to Elisa Lam? She had bipolar disorder and depression, and she was taking medications which have to be carefully administered to avoid side effects. Other evidence which indicated that Lam was displaying erratic behavior also suggested that she was experiencing side effects from an uncontrolled disease, which explains her bizarre behavior in the elevator. Her death was ruled an accident.
Science cannot demonstrate that a given coincidence does not have an ulterior meaning or explanation, but science can alert us to the dangers of accepting unwarranted meanings in coincidences without solid proof. This is especially true in situations where people want to believe that there is something more to a coincidence than chance.