Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

A young girl’s dream of travel, an inexpensive hotel with a shady past, and the story of internet ‘sleuths,’ you’ll find all this and more in Netflix’s newest hit docuseries:  “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.”

The new series built for True Crime fans features four, hour-long episodes that take viewers through the case of a missing girl and the dark history of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Released in February of 2021, the mini documentary has quickly risen to the top spot in Netflix’s weekly popularity ranking.

Following the true story of A twenty-one year old Canadian college student, the documentary explains that Elisa Lam embarks on a journey to travel, and one of her stops is Los Angeles. There, she books a room at The Hotel Cecil, where she spends four nights before disappearing. The Los Angeles Police Department spends weeks investigating her disappearance, but cannot locate her dead or alive. However, after complaints about foul water come from Cecil residents, the hotel janitor finds her. Dead in the hotel’s rooftop water tank.

The documentary shows video footage of  Lam right before her disappearance, this footage was also released to the public and from there, groups of people online known as internet ‘sleuths’ began to conduct their own investigations of Lam’s disappearance. Viewers get to hear from different ‘sleuths’ as they recall their work with the case, journalists, Cecil Hotel employees and guests, and LAPD officers who ran the investigation.

For the first two episodes, the only ‘evidence’ viewers are made aware of is a four-minute clip of Lam in an elevator captured by security cameras. This clip is analyzed by LAPD and internet sleuths as the episodes show every possible theory, no matter how implausible. It isn’t until the end of episode two that viewers even learn Lam was found in the water tank, and after that the documentary only dives into more theories, many that lack substantial evidence.

In my opinion, the miniseries drags out what could be a two-hour story into a four-hour documentary, with much of the footage being repeated, and many topics being brought up and discussed at length, only for viewers to learn that they have already been disproven, or deemed unimportant. The series spends a lot of time talking about the Hotel Cecil’s dark past, which does help set the scene for Elisa Lam’s case, but this history could have been explained much quicker, while still achieving the desired effect.

To me, the introduction of the internet ‘sleuths’ only likened this documentary to one produced in 2019 titled ‘Don’t F*** With Cats,’ which followed a team of online detectives as they hunted an animal abuser. Once that comparison was made it was difficult for me to think of this documentary as unique or ground-breaking in any way.

Throughout the documentary it is alluded that Lam suffered from a Bipolar disorder and Depression, but it isn’t until the last few minutes that viewers learn Lam was under-medicating, and according to her family, had suffered from paranoia and symptoms of schizophrenia when not properly medicated. This, along with another discovery viewers aren’t told about until the end makes Lam’s death a pretty clear accident, which made me wonder why I spent the last four hours exploring other theories.

There were some aspects of this mini docuseries that I enjoyed. The shots taken of The Cecil really helped viewers envision the scene of the story and the photography itself was visually interesting to watch. The documentary also made use of some of Lam’s social media posts as a way to help viewers understand her, which I thought was powerful. This documentary also takes time to interview people from all corners of the case, which does tell a complete story, but this story includes chapters that seem pretty irrelevant by the end. The very ending of the documentary tells viewers that mental illnesses are serious and provides resources for people to turn to. As most of the documentary follows the internet ‘sleuths,’ the ending also takes time to address the harmful nature of conspiracy theories, which gave this documentary some sort of greater purpose.

Overall I found this to be a drawn out series about a sad story. True crime fans will likely find aspects of the documentary interesting, and the story of Elisa Lam is compelling, but this felt like a bit of a money grab that left me feeling disappointed rather than intrigued or satisfied.