On Thursday, Netflix’s “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” became the streaming giant’s latest installment to its collection of true crime and paranormal docuseries. Broken up into a four episode saga, the series looks at the peculiar and haunting events that transpired at the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, focusing specifically on the unusual disappearance of 21-year-old Elisa Lam in February 2013.
Fair warning, this review will discuss certain aspects of the Lam case, so a spoiler alert is in effect for those of you looking to be surprised by the developments of the case as the series progresses.
The docuseries, created by Joe Berlinger (“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” “Paradise Lost” trilogy), examines the hotel’s notoriously troubled past, emerging in the Roaring Twenties as an glamorous hot-spot for businessmen traveling to La La Land. The Great Depression and suburbanization in the post-WWII era prompted the demise of the downtown area into what is now known as Skid Row, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, known for its vast homeless population and open air narcotics market.
The Cecil Hotel’s budget friendly fares attracted the Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam, while traveling solo down the American West Coast. Lam, an avid Tumblr user, chronicled much of her travel experiences as she went along, leaving a digital trail of breadcrumbs for authorities to follow when she was declared missing on Jan. 31, 2013. An entire sweep of the hotel and surrounding area yielded no evidence, until a complaint of discolored and foul-tasting water revealed that Lam’s body was floating in the water tank on the hotel’s roof. Detectives found footage of Lam’s final elevator ride, where she exhibited peculiar and unexplained behavior that prompted further investigation.
An interesting aspect of the show’s storytelling was the focus on outside attention and internet sleuthing that arose from the unsolved case. The Los Angeles Police Department, having released the last footage of Lam’s mysterious elevator ride, paired with Lam’s expansive social media presence, prompted hundreds of YouTubers to try to solve the case themselves, before being a YouTuber was even a thing.
Experts argue that the outside influence and mystery-hunting following the 2013 tragedy have done more harm than good, prompting a myriad of conspiracy theories surrounding the case, including a police cover-up, an inside job committed by the Cecil Hotel and a government implant meant to release tuberculosis on the homeless population of Los Angeles.
Personally, I could have done without the list of coincidences and conspiracies behind this case. I say that not just because I’m a skeptic, but more so because the show decides to spend an entire episode out of only four parts to catalogue and attempt each theory, most likely for dramatic effect. While I think it’s important to talk about the case in terms of the 21st century and how the public was engaged, it very well could be fueling the fire for the perpetuation of these conspiracies around Lam’s death. The best crime docuseries, in my opinion, stick to the facts.
While the docuseries focused on the disappearance and death of Lam as the chief plot point, the show did little to actually tell Lam’s story before her fateful trip to the California coast, lacking the traditional testimonials from close family and friends that come standard in any episode of “Dateline.” Perhaps this was a stylistic decision, wanting the audience to get to know her in the same way the police did: through her endless Tumblr posts; or perhaps all members of Lam’s family declined to be a part of the project as the dramatization of such a painful part of their lives would be hard to revisit nine years later.
Overall, the case is incredibly interesting and certainly worth a watch for any true crime fans, however the input of amateur detective work and footage from Millennial YouTubers hoping to ride in the same fateful elevator came across as distracting, and at times insensitive to the real tragedy that took place.