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Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel review – A dark exploration of the remaining legacy of Elisa Lam

Image of Elisa Lam and LAPD detective Tim Marcia.
Image of Elisa Lam and LAPD detective Tim Marcia. Pic credit: Netflix

Through a series of four hour-long episodes, season one of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel explores the 2013 disappearance of college student Elisa Lam. 

Elisa Lam was “a young woman trying to see more of California,” as described by a news reporter at the time of her disappearance. During her travels, she was staying at the infamous Cecil Hotel, a residential hotel with a dark history of murder and suicide.

At the time of her disappearance, she was last seen in a restricted area of the hotel and her unusual lack of communication alarmed her parents. Nineteen days after Lam’s disappearance, her naked body was found floating in a rooftop water tank owned by the hotel.

Like many of us, Lam was fond of social media. She took to the then-popular site Tumblr to post her philosophical thoughts and share her life with the world, and that creatively became one of the storytelling techniques used in this true crime documentary

Crime Scene jumps between a voice-over that reads Lam’s online posts aloud, vague dramatizations, and interviews with those involved in her public case— LAPD detectives, the former manager of the Cecil Hotel, news reporters and curious internet sleuths.

The history of the Cecil Hotel

The documentary quickly dives into the creepy history of the Cecil Hotel and brings former hotel manager Amy Price to the forefront.

The hotel was located in close proximity to Skid Row, a grungy downtown location that has been heavily impacted by gentrification.

The area is filled to the brim with homeless individuals and illegal activities like drug solicitation and prostitution. It is an undertreated community that was lost in the effort to publicize and remarket the downtown Los Angeles area to tourists.

Cecil Hotel played into this. The hotel’s image suffered at the hands of its deadly history and poor location and thus decided to rebrand itself as “Stay at Main Hotel” — the lower floors where crime is less prevalent were verbally “isolated” from the rest of the building and the employees refused to offer any caution toward guests regarding the surrounding areas.

Price doesn’t escape the critcism derived from her supposed complicity in Lam’s disappearance as details emerge and fingers are pointed. But the focus isn’t diverted.

What happened to Elisa Lam?

The big question remains: What happened to Elisa Lam? And was she murdered? 

These questions are explored through revealing the history of downtown Los Angeles and the online footprint that remains surrounding Lam and her disappearance.

The series dives into a number of overplayed strange parallels that captured the close attention of online forums. But it contrasts these findings against the professional narrative of those investigating her case. 

While the documentary took an upbeat and intriguing investigation into controversy, it allowed its viewers to look at the case through both the eyes of a professional as well as through the internet sleuths — which may be the series’ targeted audience. Crime Scene emerged its audience into a world of curiosities and the unknown.

The first three episodes had a consistent and addictive theme. However, the fourth one changes the narrative. It introduces a very likely and sensible explanation for Lam’s death— a death that is undoubtedly tragic but has been forced to endure being sensationalized. In actuality, these sleuthers created a farce for a deeper and more-personal issue. 

But as many would say, “I don’t believe it.”  

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel takes a careful approach to what is speculation, separating it from “the truth.”

While the documentary doesn’t shy away from buying into the fan theories that have been building for almost a decade, it throws a glass of cold water on its audience and speaks towards the severity of undertreated mental health.

It brings attention to the unpredictability of struggling with a mental disorder, as well as the dangers of mob mentality and doxxing on social media. 

It’s an eye-opening reminder that actions have consequences and the harmful things said on the internet can negatively impact the lives of others and the investigative process. To applaud the documentary, it achieves realization without villainizing its theorists. 

Tim Marcia, the lead LAPD homicide investigator on the Lam case said to the off-screen camera, “I can understand how the web sleuths were trying to do the right things for the right reasons just like we are. You get addicted to it, the challenge of putting things together.” 

While the documentary has received scrutiny for its embrace of amateur theorists, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. It reminded its true crime enthusiast audience that beyond their imagined fears, real-life remains. 

Crime Scene leaves us with one lasting thought: We need to change the way we form communities online and we need to respect the line drawn between speculation and “disorganized thinking” from factual information. 

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

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