Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel — Netflix's well-intentioned Elisa Lam docu makes some missteps
Netflix's Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, about the Elisa Lam case, is not the story you think it is. It's a human tragedy, not a paranormal mystery.
The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is a four-part documentary that examines the disappearance of a 21-year-old Canadian tourist called Elisa Lam, from a notorious downtown Los Angeles hotel, in early 2013. Lam was on a solo trip, and when she didn’t do her daily check-in with her family back in Canada, they were understandably worried. The LA police had few leads to begin with: they traced her last-known movements, to a bookstore, the taping of a talk show (Conan O’Brien’s), back to the Cecil Hotel, and then — nothing. Lam seemed to have vanished into thin air.
The case would have attracted scant attention except for two things:
First, the location. The Cecil Hotel can be thought of as a real-life equivalent of Stephen King’s Overlook; it’s a place known for such macabre happenings that these events have a Wikipedia page to themselves. It’s been ‘home’ to two serial killers, including Richard Ramirez, aka the Nightstalker. Suicides, homicides are all par for the course at the Cecil Hotel, which started off as a luxury hotel, but became — through a mix of fate, crises, time, human intervention and geography — a “flophouse”, a place that drew the most broken.
Second, the last known footage of Lam herself. The LA police recovered security camera visuals from the Cecil Hotel that showed the young woman in one of its elevators — acting in a decidedly eerie manner. The CCTV footage, which the cops initially released to the public in the hopes of gleaning more information about Lam’s last hours, was viewed millions of times in the days since her disappearance was reported, analysed and dissected in minute detail by ‘web sleuths’ and true crime/unsolved mystery ‘enthusiasts’. For the footage was odd: it showed Elisa stepping casually into the elevator, peering at the panel of buttons, jabbing a few at random and standing back. Then, when the doors didn’t close, peeking out, before backing into a corner as though to avoid being seen by someone outside. Finally, Lam ducks outside the door and makes “swimming” motions with a hand, before exiting the frame altogether.
Vloggers, bloggers, virtual forums engaged in a frenzied discussion of the case, and the momentum only spiralled further when Lam was found, dead, in one of the water tanks atop the Cecil Hotel roof. Theories abounded about what may have led to Lam's end, who could have been responsible, how her final moments must have played out.
A friend recently started to watch the Gerard Butler-starrer Greenland in the hopes of seeing a typical comet-strikes-Earth movie, but turned it off when it became evident that it was all too real a disaster narrative, especially in this crisis we’re all living through.
I had somewhat different expectations as well when I began to watch The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel — much like, I suppose, the many people who got hooked to ‘solving’ Lam’s story. I didn’t expect any paranormal elements, having read Josh Dean’s exhaustive report previously in Matter, but I did anticipate a frightening tale of a seedy hotel and a young woman caught in its underbelly. And perhaps the story of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel is that, but it is also so much more.
I’m not a fan of all the choices this docuseries makes — some of the interviewees (the former manager of the hotel, for one; a detective who worked the case, for another; a web sleuth who said he thinks of Lam as a loved one; even a couple who stayed as guests at the Cecil around the same time as Lam and reported that the water supply was foul in taste and appearance, leading to the overhead tanks being examined) seem more like tropes or stock characters out of movies than real people: the jaded investigator type, the employee with something to hide, the empathetic bystander, the incredulous witness.
And in trying to uncover Lam's personhood before she became the centre of an infamous mystery, her journal entries on Tumblr are read in a voice-over, addressing her feelings of being left behind by her peers, her struggles with mental illness and medication, her loneliness. This is nowhere as close to creepy as a similar choice made by another true crime doc: I'll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO), which had Amy Ryan voicing the late writer Michelle McNamara’s thoughts as she attempted to piece together the identity of the Golden State Killer. But it still feels uncomfortable on occasion, these artistic montages of Lam and her well-articulated and painfully honest thoughts, juxtaposed with the grimy setting (and tenor) of her end.
Even more of a tonal misstep perhaps is the storytelling choice to dangle all of the red herrings the investigators (the official and the amateur kinds) were presented with as Lam’s case unraveled. It adds to the narrative tension, sure, but it can be perceived as dishonest and manipulative to keep viewers engaged through four hours of streaming.
But that isn't why The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel induced my version of the Greenland disconnect.
Are certain places inherently evil? Home to malevolent forces that victimise those hapless enough to stray into their path? The preternaturally high incidence of violence and bloodshed at the Cecil Hotel makes it seem as though the answer to that question is yes. But again, there’s so much more to it.
The Cecil Hotel is “evil” only in that occupies a prime spot on downtown LA's infamous Skid Row the most troubled blocks in the city, designated by law enforcement as a containment zone for “undesirables”. People who had just been released from mental health facilities or prison were dumped on the streets here. The homeless, the mentally ill, those on the metaphorical and sometimes literal knife’s edge, were all penned into this area. Set amidst this inhumane social ghetto is the Cecil Hotel with its 700 rooms — some vacant, some occupied by long-term residents parked there in a sort of halfway house programme by the authorities, and others rented by itinerants and tourists on a tight budget. Is it any wonder that it was the site of so much despair?
The Vanishing brings out the context within which the Cecil Hotel acquired its unsavoury reputation quite thoroughly. So much so that towards the end, when the wrongful death suit brought against the hotel management holds them accountable (among other things) for not intimating Lam’s next of kin or any authorities when her behaviour was clearly that of an unwell person, you can see the Cecil staff’s point of view: their baseline for “normal” was so skewed. When Richard Ramirez’s bloodstained appearance went unremarked, when the manager encountered a sniper in one of the corridors while leading a tour through the premises, when the scene outside its doors was so desperate — how much would one unwell woman stand out?
And Lam was unwell, as The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel highlights. Her condition was diagnosed as Bipolar I — the more severe form of the illness — and she was under-medicated; it is believed to have contributed to her erratic behaviour and the circumstances that led to her death. This is where the Greenland bit comes in: I thought I was watching a story about a mysterious disappearance, an incomprehensible vanishing. Instead, I was watching a story about something far more “commonplace”, closer to home — and far, far more insidious.
There’s no elegant way to segue into it, so I want to dwell now a bit on the third thing this docuseries does well: the depiction of web sleuths. The cottage industry (if one can call it that) that has sprung up around true crime is one that has been explored in other works — Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places comes to mind, as does the podcast The Clearing, the Netflix documentary Don't F*ck With Cats, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. In The Vanishing, you see the varied sides of this phenomenon: on the one hand, ‘internet detectives’ were able to work out some crucial facts about the elevator footage (what floor Lam had halted on, why the doors wouldn’t close, how she might have gained access to the supposedly out-of-bounds hotel roof), but there’s also a lot of unpalatable voyeurism on display. Worst of all are the conspiracy theories, the increasingly bizarre rabbit holes tunneled to explain Lam's disappearance.
The answer of course was more prosaic, while no less tragic for it. An individual still suffered and died all alone; a life was still cut short and a family brutally bereaved. But maybe the conspiracy theories allowed those following Lam’s case to believe that there was something deeper there: that it wasn’t only a story of a mind turning on itself, or of a person not receiving the help she needed because she was in a place where no one was getting the help they needed...that feels so meaningless, so pointless. And so there were attempts to imbue another instance of the randomness of our lives with an overarching meaning: that someone was out to get Elisa Lam, that she was persecuted by an unseen external force, that she stepped into the maws of an evil place and it snapped its jaws shut around her. Maybe it’s easier to believe that than it is to think that tragedy can find us anywhere — in a hotel with a spooky backstory, or within the spaces of our own minds.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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