If you watch enough true crime documentaries on streaming platforms, you start to notice a template emerging. There are the moodily lit reenactments, complete with perky voiceovers from the victim’s diary or blog, written during happier times. There are the journalists and “experts” on the case (more often than not, YouTubers or message board posters) offering their own versions of what may have occurred, with little to no evidence to back it up. And there are the red herrings, the tantalizing alternative theories or explanations of the case spliced into the narrative to build suspense and justify the fact that the story is told in multiple installments, rather than just the hour-and-a-half of a standard documentary.
These tropes are all present in Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, a four-part Netflix series from director Joe Berlinger (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) about the death of 21-year-old Elisa Lam at a budget hotel in downtown Los Angeles with a history of murders, suicides, and overdoses. For those unacquainted with the facts of the case, Lam disappeared in 2013 while traveling through L.A., with the mystery of her fate only deepening once the Los Angeles Police Department released surveillance footage of her on an elevator behaving erratically, pacing, gesticulating wildly, and at one point appearing to hide from someone, or something. Police eventually found her decomposing body in a water tank on the roof, and while it is still unclear how she got to the roof or ended up in the tank, an autopsy determined her cause of death was accidental drowning, finding no evidence of physical or sexual assault. The fact that Lam suffered from bipolar disorder — and that a toxicology report revealed only traces of pharmaceuticals in her system at the time of her death, indicating that she may not have been taking her medication — further contributed to the theory that she may have had a psychotic episode, causing her to climb the roof and end up in the tank. Her roommates at the hotel had also complained about her “odd behavior” days before her death, leading her to transfer to a private room; perhaps most significantly, her sister also confirmed that Lam had a history of suffering delusions of paranoia and persecution, explaining her behavior in the elevator.
This is the story of Elisa Lam’s death as told by the police and by many mainstream media reports: a tragic accident that could have been prevented by any number of factors, such as her taking her medication or one of the employees or other travelers at the hotel checking up on her mental state. But it is not the story told by the vast majority of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, or the internet sleuths captivated by Lam’s story who serve as the engine driving its narrative.
In its four installments, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel weaves a dizzying web of various potential scenarios for the viewer to consider, dropping her extensive Tumblr posts as breadcrumbs along the way. Was Lam on powerful hallucinogenic drugs, possibly procured in Skid Row, the downtown L.A. neighborhood where the Cecil was located, which is depicted as a haven of homelessness and crime? Was she murdered by a hotel employee who was protected by a subsequent cover-up? Or was she killed by a struggling black metal musician named Morbid? The answers to these questions are no and no: no recreational drugs were found in Lam’s system, it seems highly unlikely that a low-budget hotel like the Cecil would have the resources to orchestrate such a cover-up. The case against Morbid is the weakest of all: internet sleuths jumped to accuse him based on the fact that he had stayed at the hotel a full year before Lam’s disappearance, and in the documentary he says he was so tormented by the accusations that he was almost driven to suicide. Despite the flimsiness of these theories, however, the filmmakers take their sweet time examining the merits of each one.
All of these theories are introduced throughout the series, usually by people with no tangible connection to either the case or Lam herself. And the aim of this storytelling tactic is clear: to regenerate interest in a now eight-year-old case, one that predated the explosion of the true crime genre and a cottage industry of podcasts and Facebook groups of obsessives mulling over potential theories about grisly murder cases.
In true crime discourse, rarely is there space afforded to the family members of the victims, who may very well prefer simply to grieve in peace and be left alone (the Lam family members are not interviewed in The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel); equally infrequently is there discussion about how such obsessive scrutiny on the grisly details of someone’s death detracts from the focus of how they spent their time on earth, who they loved, what their passions were. And in indulging in feverish speculation about potential culprits, there’s almost never space devoted to the more mundane yet tragic realities of violence: that the vast majority of it is committed by a loved one, not an unhinged stranger, that it is often preceded by physical or sexual abuse, and that black and indigenous women represent a disproportionately high number of victims. To do so would be to acknowledge the reality: that most violent or unusual deaths are tragic, yet sadly explicable. And being forced to consider the myriad social and cultural factors that contribute to most of these tragedies — in Lam’s case, her history of mental illness — would be to rob the armchair detectives of their fun.
The end of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, in an episode titled “The Hard Truth,” attempts to confront this reality, providing a glimpse of what the series could have been. In the episode, the internet sleuths describe how they came to terms with the fact that Lam’s death was not a spooky murder mystery, but a heartbreaking story of a young woman who simply did not get the help she needed when she needed it. “Now I realize that the way to honor her is to accept the truth, that this was a tragedy of an accidental death,” says one vlogger; another expresses contrition about having engaged in conspiratorial thinking for so long on his channel. And in discussing the history and ultimate gentrification of Skid Row, one expert on the area walks back on the series’ prior vilification of its homeless denizens, saying, “We’re talking about the homeless as if they are the issue. Those individuals deserve a better space than the one we created for them.”
This type of self-reflection is jarring to see in the context of the true crime genre, which is not exactly known for either its self-awareness or its propensity for discussing social issues. But it is necessary. As long as there is cultural appetite for such stories, the onus is on the story-tellers to emphasize what we should truly be taking away from them, and it isn’t threadbare conspiracy theories or gruesome autopsy report details. Elisa Lam was much more than the horrific way she died, or the sketchy hotel where she spent her last days. And by entertaining these red-herring theories, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel ignores the reality of mental illness, and the threat it can pose.
If you are struggling with mental health conditions, please reach out to a mental health care professional or contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST at 800-950-NAMI (6264).