Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Recently, Netflix released the documentary series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, a four part series about the death of Elisa Lam. If you’re a true crime aficionado like me, you are already aware of one of the more bizarre cases associated with the Cecil Hotel, the death of Elisa Lam. Although this story is well known to me, I was very excited that Netflix was releasing a new crime documentary at all, but especially one that focuses one of the most infamous places in true crime history.
When first heard whispers of a Cecil Hotel documentary, I hoped that it would be a deep dive into the macabre and sordid history of the hotel. After they released the name of the documentary, I was somewhat disappointed that the focus would be just on the Elisa Lam case. There is a ton of information available on the case, and in order for this to be a worth while documentary, they would need to bring new information to the discussion. Internet sleuths have become a huge part of this story, and that alone has generated so many new articles, videos, and conspiracy theories on her case that one could research for weeks and still find more. At this point, I was wondering if Netflix and the director Joe Berlinger were just attempting capitalize on a Lam’s tragic death.
By the time the documentary was released, I was watching through a critical lens. My expectations were that we would hopefully hear some different perspectives and new information on the Elisa Lam case, and I was still holding out hope that I would learn new information on the hotel itself. Although not an expert, I felt well-versed with the story of Elisa Lam. How could I not? The sensational case of the shy girl who is very active on Tumblr goes missing and is found three weeks later in the mother fucking tank that provides water to the entire hotel- it’s hard to ignore and impossible to forget. Despite knowing of it’s infamy and ominous reputation, I knew little of the hotel itself. All that I knew was that it was a very old hotel in LA where lots of deaths have occurred, that it housed serial killer Richard Ramirez at one point, and that it was the inspiration of the Cortez Hotel in American Horror Story.
Four episodes later, the documentary was over, I felt disappointed and as though I didn’t learn the new information I was yearning for. I did enjoy the small sprinkles of historical information they included, but I was left wanting more. For me, they dragged the story out longer than it needed to be, again for the sake on sensationalism. I realize that they wanted to discredit individual conspiracies, but that should have been done by showing irrefutable facts and not by parading every crazy theory on the case for viewers. Case in point, the story of Morbid, the musician who’s live was ruined by the conspiracy theorist and internet sleuths. Why make him relive his terrible experience when he has cleared his name publicly has this isn’t even a super well known theory of the case?
So what did I learn? I did not know about the case of Christopher Dorner, or how that affected the Elisa Lam case. I did find that interesting, and appreciated the new material to research. The other thing that I did not know, or rather fully understand about this case was the full scope and severity of the concept for the “Stay on Main, ” aka a death trap for young travelers. I did know that the hotel was marketed as a hostel for modern tourists, but I didn’t know that it was literally two hotels operating in one property- one with with its shady ass guests and one with potential victims. I feel like that and interview with creepy ol’ Amy Price, the former manger were really the only worth while information that this documentary brought to the table.
My conclusion: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is a comprehensive look into the story of Elisa Lam, and if you’re not someone who is super into true crime it’s probably a great documentary. The story is entertaining in the most disturbing ways, and I would recommend it to people who didn’t know the case. People that are a little more into true crime or already know the story may not see it that way, and like me would question the motives of the documentary in the first place. I’m not sure that they brought enough new information forward to justify the inevitable emotional toll that creating it will have on her family and friends. Joe Berlinger was quoted as saying that it was important for him to debunk the conspiracy theories out of respect for the victim. After talking with people about the documentary, it seems that they believe the conspiracies now more than ever before, and because the documentary was so widely watched, the conspiracy theorists have new people to discuss it with. I do not think Joe Berlinger was successful in his mission to honor Elisa Lam, and I would not recommend the documentary to people who care about victim impacts or that already know the case.