By Sarah Osman
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel makes for a gripping watch, one of Netflix’s finest true crime documentary series.
Since the 1920s, Los Angeles has been associated with noir, literary and film, and that has made it, in the eyes of many, a mysterious city, a place where danger perpetually lurks in the shadows. At the same time, L.A. has also been seen as a city that makes people’s dreams come true: it’s where stars are discovered/made. This dichotomy has always made L.A. rather unusual, and its history – which intermingles darkness and light – is the focus of not one – but two – true crime series on Netflix.
The first, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, focuses on the infamous Richard Ramirez, one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. The second series, entitled True Crime: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel will be released tonight. Both of these series make stops at the seedy and sinister Cecil Hotel. Ramirez used to stay there after a night of slaughtering innocents. Strangely enough, he had a room on the same floor as the late Elisa Lam, who perished at the Cecil Hotel.
As an Angeleno, I recall when Elisa Lam went missing. The entire city buzzed over the scandal and a slew of internet sleuths (who were not just in Los Angeles) began to investigate the case. No one could comprehend what had happened to her: a 21-year-old tourist from Canada came on holiday to L.A. only to vanish from a ‘celebrated’ murder hotel. Had she been killed? Had ghosts taken her away? Where had she disappeared to? Had she performed some sort of ritualistic spell? The questions and investigation continued for a few weeks and then, as quickly as Lam had departed, interest in the case dissipated. But the end of public curiosity didn’t stop writers and artists from portraying the case in TV, films, and books.
Not many specific details have been revealed about the Elisa Lam case until now, so Netflix was clever to pick this particular mystery to unravel — there are multiple themes to explore. Even better, the case and hotel are so bizarre they were begging to be made into a true crime series.
The series, directed by the award-winning documentarian Joe Berlinger, begins with Elisa Lam herself, a shy college student yearning to travel and escape her hum-drum life. She wasn’t happy and we know that because she used her Tumblr page as confession/ therapy. Unfortunately for Lam, she picked the Cecil Hotel as her landing spot in L.A. Unbeknownst to her, the building is only a few blocks away from the city’s most dangerous sector: Skid Row As in his previous work, Berlinger does not shy away from the gritty; once again, he draws attention to the social and cultural complexities of an enigmatic case.
Skid Row’s history is as upsetting as it is fascinating. The term first originated in the mid-19th century, when transient men came to work on the railroad. The 50 block area became increasingly dodgy as hotels and flophouses catered to their new clientele. Soup kitchens and rescue missions sprung up as the problems increased. Unfortunately, the trajectory downward never decreased;after the Vietnam War, homeless veterans joined the population and more residents relied on drugs. In the ’80s, with the de-institutionalizing of mental hospitals, psychologically unstable residents ended up being tossed there.
Skid Row is now known as a “dumping ground” for L.A. ‘s undesirables. For anyone who is homeless and seeking help, it’s the only place in the city that offers needed services. It also means that Skid Row is rife with crime. By exploring this historical (albeit depressing) context, Crime Scene becomes more than a true crime series; it supplies an in-depth look at a dank side of L.A that is rarely discussed in films or documentaries. We are far from L.A.’s branding as the city of dreamers. Crime Scene doesn’t shy away from Skid Row’s violent crime (especially against women) and how the city has provided far too little support for this vulnerable community. In that regard, Crime Scene does not neglect highlighting the absurd wealth disparities as well as the stigma against the homeless.
One day during Lam’s vacation she went missing. Despite thorough searches of the hotel, the only evidence that popped up was a video of the young woman in an elevator. Her behavior was erratic: she punched multiple elevator buttons and hid in various corners of the elevator before she left. LA PD shared the video with the public in the hopes that someone would come forward with information. The video was viewed 28 million times and a number of theories (none of which were particularly helpful) were shared.
Crime Scene shows just how bizarrely far some internet sleuths will go to solve a mystery. Their behavior becomes distressingly obsessive. Some of the amateur detectives watched the video countless times and then proceeded to visit the hotel, filming the elevator, the roof, and the room Lam stayed in. While these investigations are meticulous, and bring up points to consider, the motivation behind them is questionable. Why are these people so concerned about this case? This is one of the first true crime docu-series to explore the world of web sleuths (the other being the brilliant I’ll be Gone in the Dark). Truth is, the behavior of these faux investigators is almost as intriguing as the case itself.
The theories surrounding Lam’s disappearance range from plausible to downright ridiculous, and Crime Scene covers all of them. Lam’s mental health is considered as well as the fact that she could have been murdered. A heavy metal singer, who had visited the hotel two weeks prior to Lam and decided to film a video about a murder, is touted out as a possible suspect. Or could Lam’s disappearance be linked to the supernatural? Was she playing the Korean Elevator Game, in which visiting hotel rooms in a specific order can whisk you to another dimension? Or did the sordid Cecil Hotel suck here into its bowels? The series reminds us that numerous rapes, drug deals, serial killers, suicides, and murders (that we know of) occurred at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps it is haunted.
The solution to how Lam died is still not fully known, but her body turned up in a grisly manner, which led to even more questions. While we may still not know exactly what happened to the young woman, we do know that the Hotel Cecil remains as foul as ever. The manager of the place, Amy Price, is interviewed extensively and she does her best to salvage her reputation. Price is well aware of the hotel’s problems, but she hasn’t done much to solve them. She appears to be an innocent white girl from the suburbs who had no idea how to handle her guests or the area surrounding the hotel. In fact, her business decisions are frustrating to the point of making her complicit; if Price had been more aware, Lam may still be alive today. She rebranded a part of the hotel, calling it a youth hostel, “Stay on Main.” That strategy might have brought in classier guests but, since those in Stay on Main shared the same elevator as the Cecil, tourists ended up mingling with the more disturbed guests, and that could have led to Lam’s demise. The attempt to revamp the hotel in this way was met with angry reviews on Yelp; former guests complain that the staff is rude, bugs run rampant, you can hear women screaming across the street, and you may get mugged in the parking lot. The Cecil Hotel may have gotten a new name, but it remained as dissolute as ever. It is now closed and no one is quite sure if, or when, the hotel will reopen.
Crime Scene makes for a gripping watch, one of Netflix’s finest true crime documentary series. It’s a robust mix of forgotten and/or squelched L.A. history, an engrossing expose of internet sleuths, and a creepy mystery. Who-dun-it is just the beginning.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.