In the new series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, released Feb. 11, Netflix took the case of a mentally ill young woman’s tragic death and decided to present the case within a framework of an evil, haunted hotel and a violent, murderous homeless population, rather than treating its main subject with care and compassion.
Anyone with an interest in true crime media is likely to know of Elisa Lam and her mysterious disappearance at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, California in January 2013. Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian tourist staying at the Cecil during her trip through the U.S.. The internet first became captivated by Lam when the Los Angeles Police Department released an elevator surveillance video of the woman from the night she was last seen alive. In the video, Lam acts strangely — pressing multiple elevator buttons, poking her head out of the elevator to look around, erratically waving her arms and finally dashing out of the elevator before it has even moved. So-called “web sleuths” immediately took to the case, mapping out every pixel of the surveillance tape, chasing down every conspiracy theory and poring over each and every single one of Lam’s Tumblr posts, all of which are still viewable on Lam’s blog.
Lam’s body was found Feb. 19, 2013 inside a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel. Two days later, the coroner’s office reported that the cause of death was accidental drowning. The full coroner’s report, released months later, further revealed that Lam had not been taking her prescribed medication for her bipolar disorder in the days leading up to her death. Additionally, she was found with no internal or external injuries on her body or recreational drugs in her system. Case closed. Or so it should have been. But Netflix gives a platform to conspiracy theorists right off the bat in their new docu-series, presenting their ideas as if they have significant merit. Spoiler alert: they don’t.
Instead of highlighting the details of Lam’s bipolar disorder and addressing the facts of the case, Crime Scene leans into the entirely contrived, baseless theories made up by people who never knew Lam. In the first episode, they include interviews from two “web sleuths,” both of them middle-aged men who take a voyeuristic, almost fetishizing approach to investigating Lam’s disappearance. John Sobhani, a man who threw himself into the mystery after losing his job, adds an especially disturbing ambience in his interviews. It is odd that Crime Scene did not consider that maybe this man’s obsession with a dead 21-year-old girl should not be encouraged. At one point, Sobhani even shares how he hired someone to film Lam’s grave for him and touch the headstone, so he could feel like he was there himself. And while these men’s commentaries are shared throughout the series, Crime Scene does not introduce Judy Ho, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, until the last episode.
Not only did “Crime Scene” take up much of the series’ time with conspiracy theories, it also spent a significant portion of the series building up the lore and superstition around the Cecil Hotel. Specifically, it dedicates a lot of screen time to emphasize how poor the area around the hotel is. The hotel is part of the Skid Row neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, which is well known for its extensive homeless population and high crime rates. The docu-series frames poverty and homelessness as inherently corrupt, as things that make the hotel an automatically evil place. The former manager of the Cecil Hotel, Amy Price, laments over how she was unable to turn the hotel into a Marriot-type destination because the city stopped her from kicking out the Cecil’s long term tenants. These tenants were there long before Price was, as the Cecil was one of the few places with a bathroom, a bed and four walls that they could afford to stay in. It seems the viewer is supposed to also feel bad that Price wasn’t able to evict dozens of people, implying that if the hotel had been renovated and gentrified, it would’ve been a much safer space for Lam.
Crime is an actual problem in Skid Row, and the docu-series addresses that, but only in order to frame Lam’s death in a specific way. The series adds in details about the poor and homeless people who have suffered in order to emphasize how dangerous it would be for Lam, a pretty, young Canadian tourist to be there. The homeless, poor victims of crimes and folks with mental illness are by no means offered the same gravity as the docu-series gives to Lam. In one case, Price tells the story of a tenant who jumped out her window at the hotel by saying the woman “wanted to teach her husband a lesson.” They treat this tenant’s death almost comically, while Lam’s death is treated like a genuine tragedy.
The fourth and final episode of the series attempts to backtrack on most of its problematic aspects, letting a former Cecil Hotel resident and a Skid Row historian explain why gentrification and the villainizing of Los Angeles' homeless population are actually not good things. This is also the episode where the series finally breaks down the actual facts of the case and explains what most likely happened to Lam. Frankly, these attempts to remedy the earlier claims of LSD use, biological warfare, haunted hotels, evil homeless predators and a metal musician murderer are too little, too late. The series gave enough fuel to the ridiculous conspiracies that a whole new generation of web sleuths are ready to start their own theories.
Although this may be what happens with many true crime series looking at unsolved cases, Lam’s death is not really “unsolved.” There is significant evidence pointing to an accidental death related to mental illness. It is also somewhat ironic for Netflix to implicitly encourage new conspiracy theorists when the docu-series touches on the damage of web sleuths’ involvement in the case, as it features Pablo Vergara, a man who had to stop making music when internet investigators baselessly accused him of having a role in Lam’s death.
Continuing the speculation over Lam’s death is doing the opposite of letting her rest in peace. It seems especially insulting to overlook her major struggles with mental illness in favor of creating drama and a spooky, far too drawn-out docu-series. There is, at times, a sense that Crime Scene is trying to emphasize how web sleuths suffered and agonized over the mysterious disappearance more than it cares to emphasize Lam’s own suffering.
Upon first glance – yes, the Cecil Hotel seems like a great subject for a chilling true crime docu-series. There have been dozens of deaths and mysterious occurrences at the hotel. But when you look a little closer, you’ll realize the real horror surrounding the place is not supernatural or malevolent in nature, but instead emblematic of the way society treats poor, homeless and mentally ill folks.