REVIEW: ‘The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ is About So Much More Than One Case

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The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel

In 2013, a young woman named Elisa Lam went missing, and her case became a viral phenomenon for internet sleuths. Netflix’s new docu-series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel chronicles the investigation around Elisa Lam’s disappearance and harrowing discovery of her body. However, the series quickly shows that while Lam is the heart of the show, it is about much more: dissecting mental health, internet obsession, and city disenfranchisement that leads to the tragedy at the center of all this.  While Lam’s case is well-known, so is the reputation of the building she stayed at. The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is executive produced and directed by Joe Berlinger (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes).

What stood out immediately with The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is the empathy and agency given to Elisa Lam. Right after the opening credits, viewers are brought into this story by her own words read via voiceover from her personal Tumblr blog. This occurs multiple times throughout the four episodes. She is not introduced as simply a victim, but a young 20-something dealing with many relatable struggles, and a deep desire to travel. Every time it began to feel as though The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel was straying from Lam’s story, it would bring viewers back with her own words. It is a very strong, and important choice, although it will likely make the final episode that much more heartbreaking. Which it should. The show does not let you forget Elisa Lam is a human being at the center of all this.

There is one other figure at the center of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, and that is the hotel itself. To quote journalist Josh Dean: “The Cecil is just as much a character as Elisa is.” Opened in 1924, the hotel has had a sordid history. Multiple serial killers are known to have stayed there while committing their crimes, including Richard Ramirez. Additionally,  residents and guests would engage in drugs, prostitution and violence. Former Cecil Hotel Manager Amy Price is interviewed and states that in the ten years she worked there, she believes there were around 80 deaths. While there are questionable parts about the management of the hotel, and Price isn’t completely interrogated on that, the series opens a broader discussion on the history of Los Angeles and geographic disenfranchisement.

Cecil Hotel is on Skid Row. The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel does a fair job balancing the discussion around crime in this community, as it shifts mainly on who is interviewed. The many residents of Skid Row and the hotel are often at the peak of their suffering, which is why they have turned to drugs or crime. At one point, Skid Row is described as a lawless place where those just out of jail or mental institutions are simply dropped off. While crime is present, the series decently avoids fear-mongering towards the homeless community, although it could have been delved into deeper (only one former hotel resident is interviewed). Skid Row is where the many resource institutions such as meal service are located for people to take refuge. Doug Mungin’s interview is a welcome and insightful perspective. As a Skid Row Historian, he explains how the crime and Cecil Hotel’s reputation is a product of a bigger picture thanks to gentrification. It allows the docu-series to open up a much larger cultural conversation about crime.

Experts, investigators and Cecil Hotel employees are who viewers can expect to see give their perspective. Lam’s family is discussed but not present. It is a noticeable gap, although watching the case unfold it can be easily seen why they may not want to discuss this tragedy once again. The other perspective brought into The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is that of the case’s many internet followers. In 2013, after the infamously unsettling elevator footage was released to the public in the hopes of gathering leads, the case became a global obsession for many.

The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel once again does a fair job of toeing the line discussing the response outside of the investigation. It doesn’t condemn the internet sleuths and shows a wide variety of footage. Some are incredibly empathetic towards Lam, while others seem more sensational and capitalizing on the case’s popularity on YouTube. Internet sleuthing is a phenomenon in the social media age, and has definitely shown its value in certain cases (Don’t F*ck with Cats for example). The show does a fair job showing that there is a fine line between empathy/a desire for the truth…and obsession. Many true crime fans will likely resonate with this commentary. The “fantasy of being the one to solve the mystery” is as much a call out as it is a self-reflection in the documentary. While many looked for the truth, due to investigation delays as well as the video going viral, conspiracy theories surrounded Elisa Lam and muddied the waters on the internet.

Ultimately, it is truly in the last episode where The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel makes a powerful impact that sets it apart from other series of recent months. It hit a personal note for me as a reviewer, but it also cannot be discussed without spoilers (for lack of a better word).

Content Warning: This section of the review contains spoilers as well as discussion around mental health. 

The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel

I thought I knew a fair amount about Elisa Lam’s case, and had done my due diligence with research going into The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Episode 4 changed my entire perspective on the case for multiple reasons. Firstly, while earlier I said the series doesn’t condemn internet sleuthing, it also provides a fair critique of it. While many genuinely wanted justice for Lam, that desperation and obsession while the autopsy report was delayed led to a mass spread of many different conspiracy theories. This is not to say that suspecting a cover-up is invalid, as police department corruption is common, but these theories even ranged to that of Lam being a biological weapon.

The weakest part of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is when it is spotlighting these conspiracy theories, specifically the ones with a more supernatural bent. It is important to illustrate them, but it is the only time the series becomes more sensational. Obsession became easy with the Cecil Hotel due to a series of bizarre coincidences that even to this day no one can quite explain. However, there were victims of this obsession. Pablo Vergara was a musician under the persona Morbid. Internet sleuths found a video of him staying at the Cecil Hotel, and then dove into his work, trying to make connections between his songs, music videos, and social media posts. The community was convinced he was the murderer.

I will say up front that I personally was disturbed by Vergara’s videos that were shown, however that judgment becomes irrelevant quite quickly. Vergara goes on record in an interview, describing massive death threats and a campaign against his career from those convinced he was the murderer, and that it drove him to attempted suicide. The tragedy is that the facts had begun to be ignored. Vergara was at the Cecil Hotel a year before Lam ever checked in, and he has numerous pieces of evidence to corroborate his alibi that he was out of the country in Mexico at the time of Lam’s disappearance. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinions on his work, it is damning to see that evidence was ignored and even to this day Vergara has not received an apology from those online who publicly posted theories that he was a murderer.

What makes this all the more tragic was the reveal at the end of the series that it was not a murder. It is the hardest part of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel to watch. The series even says so: how you want a murderer because the other reason would almost be sadder. Through Elisa Lam’s own blog posts, testimonies to the investigation team from her family, and a toxicology report it is shown why her death was ruled as accidental.

I myself had been skeptical until watching this documentary. I care a lot about the stigmatization of mental health, especially when it is used to quickly write off cases as suicide. However, it is revealed that a miscommunication with the media is what caused all of this to spiral. Many thought that the lid to the water tank Lam was found in was closed. A heavy metal lid being closed was right to draw suspicion and thinking towards foul play. How could Lam have closed it when she was in the water?

Employee Santiago Lopez, who found Lam’s body, actually found the water tank’s hatch open. This was miscommunicated to the press, and led to what followed. John Lordan, a YouTuber, and part of the internet sleuths who was working on the case, discusses how learning that changed everything. This was revealed months after when Lordan attended the hearing for the wrongful death suit Lam’s family had filed against the hotel.

The remainder of this episode is one that will sit with me for a while. It is an empathetic look into mental health, and how while it contributed to Lam’s death, it wasn’t all that defined her. The documentary emphasizes that Lam’s death was accidental, not suicide. Ultimately, it leads to a greater conversation about mental health awareness, and the toll it takes on many. Lam’s own words from her blog resonate strongly: “If someone says to you they have depression, don’t ask why. There is no why. Tell them every day you love them. Remind them every day it will get better.” Episode 4 is appropriately titled The Hard Truth because the truth about this case really does hurt: it is the tragedy of a neighborhood left to its own devices by the city, the building at its epicenter for decades, and that of a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder. It feels odd to describe The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel as a true-crime series because the focus wasn’t a crime. Unfortunately, a whodunnit is easier to stomach than a large-scale backdrop of systemic injustices.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is one of Netflix’s strongest true-crime series to date. It is empathetic, centering Elisa Lam, and provides important cultural background for the area at the center of all this. Viewers will likely go into this series with expectations, only to have them completely rerouted to much larger cultural conversations, ultimately mourning the tragedy of a young woman’s death.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel is streaming now on Netflix.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel
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    Rating - 9/10
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TL;DR

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is one of Netflix’s strongest true-crime series to date. It is empathetic, centering Elisa Lam, and provides important cultural background for the area at the center of all this. Viewers will likely go into this series with expectations, only to have them completely rerouted to much larger cultural conversations, ultimately mourning the tragedy of a young woman’s death.