REVIEW: “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel”


Erin Chance

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” tells the story of the unsolved mystery of Elisa Lam’s death. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Netflix released a haunting docuseries called “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” on Feb. 11. With four hour-long episodes the series could easily be finished in an evening, mostly because you won’t want to stop watching.

The series was directed by Joe Berlinger, known for directing documentary films like “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost.” They all have a true crime theme, and this docuseries is no different.

The beginning introduces you to the setting of the scene, the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1924, the hotel has seen its share of bizarre guests and horror stories. As we learn later in the first episode, this hotel seems to have been the inspiration for “American Horror Story: Hotel.” Let me just say: This is not a hotel you want to be staying at.

When the Cecil Hotel first opened, downtown LA was booming, until the Great Depression hit in 1929. The hotel took a hard decline in the ’30s and ’40’s housing homeless and low-income customers. Then in 1931, the first death was documented, and since then there have been over a dozen deaths from different ailments in the hotel.

Even in the mid-’80s and early ‘90s, the Cecil was home to Richard Ramirez, better known as the “Night Stalker,” and serial killer Jack Unterweger. “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” really emphasized that tragedy always found its way to the Cecil Hotel.

The show describes the beauty and glamor of the marble lobby and how it draws patrons in. One guest was Elisa Lam, a 20-something Canadian traveling California in hopes of finding herself.

Lam’s investigation went viral when the confusing footage of her in an elevator was posted, generating a stream of conspiracy theories. Photo courtesy of CBS.

In the first episode, the show introduced Lam via her Tumblr feed, which she used as a diary to process her life and emotions. I felt like I knew her – like we were connected by the words she wrote. Many others felt the same in 2013 when Lam’s investigation went viral because of the infamous elevator video the police released in hopes of gaining a lead.

The show captured the connection that people felt to Lam, which made them feel like they owed it to her to solve her disappearance. Of course, releasing the video made her disappearance even more mysterious because the video led to more questions than answers.

With only the video released, and not much other information, conspiracy theories sprouted from “gaps” in the investigation. In reality, the public just didn’t have all the information available to them.

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” explained that YouTubers and internet sleuths became obsessed with the case and the hotel. They would go to the hotel to look at the elevator that Lam was last seen in, and they would go to the room she stayed in, recording and reporting everything.

The story really starts out basing everything around the hotel, but you quickly find out that the series is about Elisa Lam’s disappearance. By the third episode, you find out that Lam’s body was found nearly three weeks later in the hotel’s water supply tank on the roof.

Her body was discovered by one of the maintenance workers when he went to check the tanks because guests were complaining about low water pressure and discoloration of the water. After Lam’s body was found, her death was declared to be an accidental drowning.

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is available to watch now on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

One thing that did bother me a little about this docuseries is that the whole show they make Lam’s disappearance and death seem very suspicious, like she was murdered or kidnapped. They make all these crazy connections that feel like there is something missing from the evidence. And well, spoiler! There was a piece of the puzzle that the audience and sleuths couldn’t have known.

In the last few minutes of the final episode, we find out that Elisa Lam has struggled with mental health her whole life. She had Bipolar I Disorder, and she was prescribed medication for it. The police determined that Lam was not taking her medication a few days prior to her disappearance and concluded that she was having a manic episode which caused her to fear for her life and search for a place to hide.

The fact that the whole show is based around a seemingly mysterious disappearance, and we are told over and over that it’s mysterious just by context, but then are told otherwise the last few minutes of the show was upsetting. The police knew all along, the filmmakers knew all along, but the audience didn’t have this crucial fact, which resulted in a disservice to Lam’s real, authentic story.

I still think they tell the story in a compelling way, but I don’t think it was right of them to make Lam’s death seem like a creepy, mystery-shrouded puzzle when it wasn’t. It was about mental health.

That being said, if you enjoy true crime, this is a good show that has lots of other stories within it that make it fascinating to watch. It’s just not the best ending, but it wasn’t the best ending for Elisa Lam either. It was the truth.