For those familiar with true crime, the mysterious disappearance of Elisa Lam is one of the most recent cases that attracted the attention of internet sleuths and conspiracy theorists alike. This interest being all the more spiked by the fact that she had disappeared from the notorious Cecil Hotel located in downtown Los Angeles. No doubt those familiar with the hotel’s sordid past thought this an interesting detail, as throughout its history the hotel has been home to serial killers, numerous deaths and has built a reputation as being among the cities’ most haunted.
From Joe Berlinger, the director that brought us Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, comes a new series from Netflix entitled CRIME SCENE that explores the mythology surrounding infamous locations. The first installment in this series, THE VANISHING AT THE CECIL HOTEL focuses on the 2013 disappearance of college student Elisa Lam as well as the fallout surrounding her tragic death. As a result of her death, interest in the hotel was once again ignited and throughout the 4-part documentary we explore the history of the hotel, learn about Elisa’s life before her ill-fated visit, and learn that although the mystery surrounding someone’s disappearance can be intriguing, sometimes the truth is a much sadder story.
Throughout the series we learn about the Cecil Hotel’s downfall, how the once grand hotel built in 1924 ended up passing through different hands and, because of its proximity to Skid Row, how it unfortunately became a haven for crime and gained a reputation for being LA’s skeeziest before attempting to rebrand and cater to young travelers as the Stay on Main, a hostel-type establishment boasting cheap rates and city views. The series does a good job of balancing the history of the Cecil Hotel with the history of the surrounding area, most notably Skid Row. Interviews with LA and Skid Row historians give us insight to just how dangerous the area is and ultimately, how the city of Los Angeles has let its inhabitants down. Poor planning and budgeting leads to one of the weirder aspects of the hotel’s rebranding, for although the hotel boasts a whopping 700 rooms, part of the hotel would be completely redone to become the Stay on Main, while the other part would continue as the Cecil, housing long time occupants. Although the building would have two separate entries, occupants of both sides of the hotel would no doubt run into each other while using the shared elevators.
Enter one of the most intriguing aspects of Elisa Lam’s disappearance. Elisa Lam was a college student visiting Los Angeles from Canada. She had been staying at the Stay on Main when she was reported missing by her family after failing to check in on January 31, 2013. LAPD was called in to search the hotel and although they had scent dogs search throughout the building as well as the rooftop, ultimately the search came up with nothing. Thinking that they could reach out to the public for help on Lam’s whereabouts, police released a haunting and now infamous video on February 15. The video – the last known sighting of Elisa before her disappearance depicts her entering and exiting one of the hotel elevators, pushing random buttons and seemingly hiding, playing or attempting to escape from someone just out of view. This led the internet sleuth community on a frenzy trying to break down every second of this surveillance video and coming up with theories ranging from drug use, homicide, to video tampering as the video seemed to be slowed down and part of it seemed to be missing or cut. On February 19th however, Elisa Lam’s families’ worst nightmare became a reality as they discovered her body floating in one of the water tanks on the roof of the hotel after several complaints about discolored and foul tasting water prompted management to check on them.
A lot of times in cases where a tragic death has unfolded, the documentary focuses on how the victim could have died and what led them to their fate, ultimately losing or forgetting about the fact that this victim was a person who led a life before they became true crime history. In CRIME SCENE: THE VANISHING AT THE CECIL HOTEL we get to know Elisa Lam as a person, before she became just another chapter in the terrifying history of The Cecil Hotel. The documentary takes us through her old blog posts where she would share her thoughts about being diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder as well as her excitement about traveling and visiting Los Angeles. We can imagine a girl who was troubled but ultimately wanted to experience life the way any other 21-year-old would, full of wonder and excitement. Interviews with creators of the Elisa Lam Facebook page paint a picture of a community who not only was intrigued and wanted to solve this case, but really felt like Elisa was someone they all knew and in finding out about her death, wanted to bring justice for her.
Sometimes, no matter how well intentioned these investigations are they end up being more damaging in parts than helpful. Such is the story of Pablo Camilo, known by his stage name of Morbid, a death metal singer who was caught up in the whirlwind of internet sleuthing at the time of Elisa Lam’s death. In the fourth episode of the series, Camilo is interviewed and we see what happens when accusations are thrown at the wrong person. Camilo speaks about receiving death threats and making worldwide news for a crime he says he didn’t commit all because of some terribly timed and honestly, creepy videos he had published on his YouTube page. He mentions still having to deal with the repercussions of being made a suspect by crime sleuths all over the internet and how it has affected him professionally and personally.
When it comes to what really happened the night Elisa Lam disappeared and her subsequent death, we may never really know. Researching this case when it happened I will admit that there were so many theories floating around and there were some aspects of the case that were not mentioned in the documentary. At its conclusion though, CRIME SCENE: THE VANISHING AT THE CECIL HOTEL is pretty cut-and-dry with its final word on the case. Although there were a few things they didn’t cover, they do a great job at presenting the facts in the case without sensationalizing it or giving into shock value. By giving us insight into her blog posts and the people who rallied to find her and bring about some sort of justice for her death, they manage to make Elisa Lam not just the sum of what happened to her, but a real person whose life was sadly cut short. CRIME SCENE: THE VANISHING AT THE CECIL HOTEL will release globally on Netflix on February 10th.