Netflix’s latest true crime series covers the bizarre and unnerving case of Elisa Lam, who disappeared from the infamous Cecil Hotel
If you’re a true crime buff, or if you’ve ever gone down a YouTube rabbit hole of strange and mysterious videos, then you’ve probably already come across the disturbing case of Elisa Lam. Lam was a 21 year-old student at the University of British Columbia who embarked on a trip across California in 2013, only to disappear at the end of January. She was last seen at the infamous Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, a place with a notoriously spotty and tragic history.
Netflix has released a new documentary series called Crime Scene, which focuses on crimes that have occurred at a singular location, and its first case deals with the investigation surrounding Lam’s disappearance. Filmmaker and documentarian Joe Berlinger – who helmed Netflix’s ‘The Ted Bundy Tapes‘ as well as the film ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Evil‘ (he also directed Metallica: Some Kind of Monster!) – has compiled interviews with the LA officers involved with the case as well as hotel employees to put together the pieces surrounding the event. Lam’s family was not involved with the series.
‘The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ documents the checkered history of the hotel as it earned itself a less than favorable reputation beginning in the 1930s all the way up to modern day. The hotel is located close to the notorious Skid Row, which holds one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. The area never fully recovered after the Great Depression, and as an obvious consequence of congregating the city’s impoverished and desperate people into a singular location with no social safety nets, it began to see countless incidents of violent crime. Murders, suicides, drug activity, and sex crimes became common occurrences around and within the hotel, as the documentary’s historians explain in grisly detail. The building even played host to two well-known serial killers – Jack Untermeyer, who killed at least three people while staying there, and Richard Ramirez, AKA the “Night Stalker”, who coincidentally also received a recent Netflix docuseries.
Lam’s case drew significant attention – particularly on the internet – once surveillance footage was released that showed her just moments before she disappeared. In the footage, Lam is seen behaving rather erratically in the hotel elevator, which appears to be malfunctioning. She continuously exits the elevator only to then go back in, and is also seen cowering in the corners of it, as if trying to hide from someone or something. The video is extremely unsettling, which likely explains why it gave rise to tons of online conspiracy theories and speculation of paranormal involvement. The truth, as we learn by the series’ end, is much more doleful.
At only four episodes, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel isn’t a particularly long watch, but it does struggle at times to justify its length. The hotel’s history, as well as the reactions to the surveillance footage, is certainly interesting, but there are moments when it feels like the series is dangerously close to giving into the kind of sensationalism that ends up belittling a person’s life / death as well whoever may have suffered a loss because of it. Thankfully the final episode, which brings us to the end of the investigation, rightfully presents what happened to Lam as a true tragedy, and invites a broader discussion about a crisis that’s been plaguing the country for far too long.
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