This week, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel reached #1 on the Netflix Top 10. After watching all four episodes, I was left conflicted about how the documentary was made. Parts felt like well-done, diligent reporting, while other parts recklessly floated conspiracy theories that held no merit.
If you are planning on watching the series, it will be in your best interest to stop reading this article now. I’ll try to go into as little detail as possible, but there will certainly be spoilers.
This documentary focuses on the disappearance of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian woman who traveled to Los Angeles by herself in 2013. This case gained public attention for a number of reasons. First and foremost, this was not the first strange occurrence that took place at the Cecil Hotel, which is where Lam was staying. Located just down the street from Los Angeles’ notoriously dangerous Skid Row, the Cecil Hotel was no stranger to violence and tragedy. It was the site of various murders, suicides, and fatal drug overdoses. Amy Price, the hotel’s former general manager, said that eighty people died during her ten-year tenure. The Cecil Hotel’s violent past added a whole different layer to the already mysterious case.
The other aspect of this case that garnered so much attention was the video of Lam’s strange behavior in a hotel elevator prior to her disappearance. It was originally released by the Los Angeles Police Department in hopes that the public would help them generate leads, but it ended up complicating things for them even further. The video quickly went viral and inspired so-called “web sleuths” to dedicate hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of hours to investigating her disappearance on their own. In the video, Lam presses the buttons to multiple hotel floors and repeatedly looks outside the elevator’s door as if she is being followed. She also steps out of the elevator, goes back in and appears to hide in the corner, leaves again, and moves her hands in a way that makes it look as though she’s conjuring a spirit or talking to someone who isn’t there. Eventually, she exits the elevator for good and is never seen again.
Check out the video here:
Lam’s body was discovered nearly two weeks after her disappearance in a water tank atop the hotel’s roof, following guest complaints that the hotel’s water supply was discolored and tasted bad. She was discovered naked and floating face-up, with her clothes having sunk to the bottom of the tank. There were no signs of any sort of trauma that would have led investigators to believe she suffered a violent death.
The LAPD investigated a number of different possibilities throughout the case, both before and after the discovery of her body. These included Lam being murdered by another hotel guest or hotel employee who would be familiar with the layout of the hotel’s roof. They also explored the possibilities that she was on hallucinogenic drugs based on her behavior in the elevator footage.
But in the end, her autopsy ruled her death as an accidental drowning with bipolar disorder playing a significant role. Her toxicology report detected the presence of prescribed medications to help treat bipolar disorder, but showed a small amount, indicating that she had stopped taking her medication prior to her death. Based on the elevator footage, they surmised that she was experiencing psychosis induced by bipolar disorder and falsely believed that she was in danger, which led her to try hiding in the water tank. Once she fell in, she could not get back out and eventually drowned.
It was a tragic end to Lam’s disappearance, but one that is explainable based on the LAPD’s investigation and the autopsy report. The evidence is conclusive. However, throughout this case, the previously mentioned “web sleuths” took anything they thought was remotely close to factual evidence and ran with it. They called this research, but it ultimately just showed how dangerous conspiracy theories can become and how lies that spread around the internet can be extremely harmful.
These YouTubers and users of other social media sites dedicated themselves to finding out the truth about Lam, but may have done more harm than good. Out of their “research” came the theory that Elisa Lam was being used as a biological weapon to take out the homeless population on Skid Row by giving them all tuberculosis. Or that she was murdered by someone obsessed with the 2005 film Dark Water, in which a little girl also happened to die by falling into a rooftop water tank. A strange coincidence, yes, but absolutely no factual evidence points to this being the case. Or that it was an inside job by the hotel and that the LAPD helped them cover up the evidence. Once it was determined that Lam had died accidentally, many of these sleuths held onto these conspiracies and refused to believe what the facts were telling them. I got the impression that they were so invested in their theories because they were secretly hoping it turned out to be murder.
While these conspiracy theories are ridiculous, they are not harmful to anyone. But one did become very harmful when they accused a musician named “Morbid” of murdering Lam. Though his music did make him to appear to be obsessed with death and morbidity, hence the name, it does not make him guilty of a real murder. The web sleuths labeled him as Elisa Lam’s killer without any actual evidence. They claimed that he was at the Cecil Hotel at the same time as Lam and that one of his music videos suggested he had killed her. It turns out he had stayed at the Cecil Hotel only once, twelve months earlier, and was in Mexico at the time of her death. Still, many people on the internet accused him of murder and threatened vigilante justice. Eventually, the constant harassment became too much to handle and he tried to take his own life. Fortunately, he is still alive today, but it goes to show how a theory that takes off on the internet with absolutely no basis can be very harmful.
That is the most troubling part of this series. It presents itself as a true crime documentary, but spends a large portion of time glorifying web sleuths and their sham investigations. Even the title suggests that a crime was committed when, in reality, it was an accidental death. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this series never seems to completely shut the door on all of these conspiracies. To me, it seems disrespectful to the findings of the investigation and to the family of Elisa Lam. While I found the documentary to be intriguing, I found it more problematic than anything else.