Her Spooky Hotel-Elevator Video Went Viral. Then She Was Found Dead.
Netflix’s “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” examines the case of Elisa Lam, whose elevator video sparked wild conspiracies about who—or what—may have killed her.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel has all the ingredients of a great true-crime mystery: a missing potential victim; an infamous locale; a dangerous urban environment; a host of suspects; an avalanche of puzzling details; a viral video that provides far more questions than answers; and a series of coincidences—or are they synchronicities?—that suggest the affair could be the byproduct of either a government plot or supernatural phenomena. Everything one could crave from a genre effort is here, although ultimately, what’s best about this four-part Netflix series (premiering Feb. 10) is its conclusion, which delivers a stinging critique of the very conspiracy theorists—and theories—that first turned its tale into a cause célèbre.
Directed by Joe Berlinger, who’s no stranger to the genre—having helmed the Paradise Lost trilogy as well as Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes—Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel concerns Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Vancouver student who disappeared on Feb. 1, 2013, while visiting Los Angeles as part of a West Coast vacation. At the time, Lam was staying at downtown’s Cecil Hotel, an establishment with a grand entrance and lobby that misrepresented its true, shady nature as a haven for drug users, pimps, and killers. As a cheap short- and long-term residence for inhabitants of Skid Row—among the poorest and most crime-ridden metropolitan areas in America—the Cecil had a long, notorious history, including having been one of the last reported residences of the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, as well as the temporary home of Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, who used to walk through its halls, naked and bloody, on his post-slaughter way to his room. Its nickname was “Hotel Death.”
The Cecil’s scandalous past made it the inspiration for American Horror Story: Hotel, but Lam likely didn’t know about its reputation. Under the stewardship of manager Amy Price (featured in new interviews), the hotel split itself in two, creating a second lobby and entrance, cordoning off three floors, and renaming that new section “Stay on Main” as a means of luring budget-conscious travelers. It was that “separate” hostel which Lam visited in early 2013. After a few days’ stay, however, she went MIA, and flyers posted around town did little to bring in promising leads. Through interviews with the detectives who worked the case, as well as dramatic recreations and narrated readings from Lam’s extensive Tumblr blog—which she treated as a veritable online diary—Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel establishes its perplexing scenario, which initiated a significant LAPD investigation of the hotel that turned up few concrete clues.
Until, that is, cops discovered security camera video of Lam inside one of the Cecil’s elevators and, hoping everyday citizens could help decipher its enigmas, they posted it online.
What followed was a bona fide internet sensation, as the Lam elevator video quickly went viral, sparking intense scrutiny and debate, and inspiring a legion of “web sleuths”—i.e. the sorts of amateur detectives who helped take down Luka Magnotta, as depicted in Don’t F**k With Cats—to try to unravel what was going on in the confounding clip. Over the course of four minutes, that footage depicts Lam entering the elevator, pushing multiple buttons, hiding in the corner, repeatedly poking her head out to look for (or engage?) an unseen figure, moving her hands about erratically (as if in a trance), and finally departing. Her behavior is bizarre, as is the fact that the elevator’s doors stay open for a stunningly long time, and even after they close, they then reopen to reveal the same floor Lam was on—this despite the many buttons pushed on its control panel that should have sent it elsewhere.
There’s no obvious explanation for this series of events, which is what sparked such wild online speculation, and what gives Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel its beguiling hook. Even with a third episode that largely spins its wheels, Berlinger’s docuseries generates suspense from the baffling nature of its tale. Discussions about the seedy dangerousness of the area, and the sordid legacy of the Cecil, increase the number of possible ways in which Lam might have been victimized. And once her body is found—floating in one of the roof’s water tanks, which had been providing contaminated water to the Cecil’s residents for weeks—the question of how she wound up in this fatal situation remains puzzling. Which, in turn, motivates web sleuths like John Lordan and John Sobhani to pore over the viral Lam video, scrutinize the autopsy report, and visit the Cecil in an attempt to solve the case.
Berlinger somewhat overdoes it with the creepy dramatic re-enactments, but Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel benefits from a raft of solid talking heads and a central whodunit that proves continually intriguing, especially once web sleuths begin making astounding discoveries, such as the striking similarities between Lam’s fate and the 2005 horror remake Dark Water, and a government-manufactured test for tuberculosis that was administered on Skid Row mere days after Lam vanished—and was named, I kid you not, “Lam-Elisa.” The director leans heavily into these stupefying revelations, all while foregrounding Lam’s Tumblr writing, which paints her as an adventurous but troubled young woman who may have been seeking out strangers to befriend, and who was struggling with a bipolar disorder she was supposed to be medicating with anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs.
In its final installment, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel deduces what really happened to Lam and, in doing so, it offers a sharp rebuke to the online conspiracy conjecture that sprang up in the wake of her viral video’s debut. A distinctly 21st century mystery that turned out to be a tragedy about mental illness, it’s proof that fantastical online “sleuthing” (which often amounts to ghoulish murder-tourism) says far more about the desires and dreams of its practitioners than it does about its nominal subjects—a censure that, arriving in a 2021 grappling with a scourge of deadly QAnon craziness, is all too timely.