Netflix has recently added one more true crime documentary to it’s list of success. In addition to other binge worthy documentaries, such as “Unsolved Mysteries,” “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” and “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” comes “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.”
The Cecil Hotel, located in downtown Los Angeles, is famous for it’s dark history as the home to notorious serial killers, such as Richard Ramirez, and almost too many murders, suicides, and overdoses to count. Most of all, it’s known as the location of the mysterious death of 21-year-old Elisa Lam.
Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Elisa Lam made international headlines in 2013 when she disappeared while on a solo trip in Los Angeles. She had been staying at the Cecil Hotel, which is where she was last seen on January 31 before being found nearly three weeks later in the hotel’s rooftop water tank.
Before finding her body, the LAPD released a bizarre video of Lam in hopes that it would bring in information from the public. The security footage showed her walking in and out of the hotel’s elevator, appearing distressed, making strange hand motions as if talking to someone in the hall, and pressing multiple buttons although the elevator never leaves the floor.
The docuseries covers Lam’s case over four episodes lasting an hour each. They unpack all the different theories surrounding the case, eventually concluding with the most likely answer; that Lam’s death was accidental and a result of a manic episode caused by her bipolar disorder.
What made this docuseries unique was the diversity of people who were interviewed. Throughout the episodes, we hear from the hotel’s former general manager, a couple of hotel guests, a maintenance worker, a neuropsychologist, an L.A. historian, a Youtuber, and a detective, to name a few. Overall, the police’s side of the story is better told as none of Lam’s family or friends were interviewed in the documentary, understandably so.
This was a big case for internet sleuths, who were captivated by the bizarre elevator footage. We hear from many of them in the documentary, which is interesting since documentaries don’t usually include people who are outsiders to a case.
There are times where internet sleuths have been of great help to investigators, but this was not one of those instances. There’s something simultaneously captivating yet tragic about how the popularity of this case on the internet led to conspiracy theories that some people could not give up, resulting in the truth being doubted and obscured for the public.
The harmful result of internet sleuths overstepping and going too far down the rabbit hole makes “Crime Scene” more than a documentary of a young girls mysterious death, it also serves as an example of the harm that well-meaning people can accidentally cause when they insert themselves into an investigation.
An element of the series that brought in mixed reviews was the voiceover of Lam’s Tumblr blog. In a way, it was similar to the use of Shanann Watts’ social medias in “American Murder: The Family Next Door.” The voiceovers of Lam and Watts’ social medias felt positive in the way that it was giving a voice back to the women, but at the same time it bordered on feeling like an invasion of privacy.
This was especially apparent in Lam’s case since her social medias had already been completely intruded by web-sleuths.
Overall, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is worth the watch. It’s suspenseful even for people who already know the case. It had a great diversity in people interviewed, allowing viewers to hear about many different theories and opinions on the case. However, we miss out on truly understanding who Lam was since we never hear from anyone who knew her. At times, the voiceover of her Tumblr posts, which read almost like journal entries, came close to crossing the line between case evidence and an invasion of privacy. This went against the very specatacle the documentary aimed to critique; the harm of over-the-top web sleuths.