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‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ – A Conspiracy Theorist’s Dream

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The disappearance of 21-year-old college student Elisa Lam in 2013 attracted the attention of nearly every internet sleuth across the world after she went missing during her stay at the notorious Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Since then, many individuals have not stopped questioning her mysterious disappearance.  

The new Netflix documentary series, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” which was released on Feb. 10, dives into the life of Lam before when she planned for a West Coast tour along California and during the time she spent alone in LA. This period of time was documented in detail through her Tumblr posts, which allows the viewer to feel as though they are hearing a narration from the inner thoughts of Lam herself. However, at the end of the series, the audience must recognize that this woman wasn’t just a mystery or a conspiracy theory; Lam was a real person who had a devastating end. While the documentary highlights some of these aspects in which an innocent life was lost due to Lam’s mental health issues, it more so focuses on internet sleuths who were attracted to the puzzling case and took it upon themselves to “solve” it.

Photo provided by Netflix

The only footage of Lam during the day of her disappearance was a four-minute video of her on the elevator alone. The first episode shows this entire elevator footage with different narrations from the documentary’s interviewees, which creates an ominous yet powerful perspective of this very strange clip. The narration follows every movement that Lam makes — from her odd hand and arm movements to the elevator doors mysteriously not closing. After this video was released to the public in 2013, the LAPD faced a very challenging situation since the clip would soon become viral.

Retired LAPD homicide detective Tim Marcia said in the documentary that only limited information about the case was released to the public, giving these people leeway to create extensive conspiracy theories. This led to the wild accusation that heavy metal musician Pablo “Morbid” Vergara had murdered Lam because of his suspicious YouTube activity; social media users discovered his “China” music video and his vlog of him staying at the Cecil Hotel. From these videos, these people declared themselves as investigative geniuses. It’s quite disturbing to see how these people, who spent their entire days in front of their computer screens, completely ruined this man’s life and reputation based on no actual evidence. After the endless harassment online, Vergara didn’t receive any justice or apologies from the people that disparaged his name. Therefore, one positive aspect of the documentary was the fact that Vergara was brought in for an interview so that his image could finally be put in a good light. The documentary has a bit of a build-up before revealing that they called Vergara into question, so the film crew has the audience thinking at first that there wouldn’t be any comments from him. After listening to Vergara’s side, however, it’s easy to feel extreme sympathy for this man who had his life ruined from a rumor. 

The statements made by these individuals who relied on social media and YouTube for information about Lam’s case were laughable; they proved time and time again throughout the series that they had nothing better to do. Interviewed web sleuth John Sobhani said that he spent nearly thousands of hours “researching” the case online, while YouTuber John Lordan said that he didn’t trust the news reports of the discovery of Lam’s body and went to social media to confirm it. These men are clear examples of how some people have too much free time, and that kind of time can lead to something destructive. It’s disappointing to see how much airtime the documentary gave to these men and other YouTube conspiracy theorists since the interviews provided nearly no additional information and caused the documentary to be much longer than necessary. After the first episode, the series begins to lack structure since it becomes a battle between those internet junkies versus the detectives and hotel workers.

Photo provided by Netflix

The documentary emphasizes the dark past of the Cecil Hotel by highlighting the most infamous deaths that happened in those rooms, as well as the notorious killers who were living there. Those such as Richard Ramirez, mostly referred to as the “Night Stalker,” and international serial killer Jack Unterweger were just two men among the numerous criminals who were let loose at the hotel. Whether it was the hotel’s unfortunate location or some mysterious dark energy, there was something that attracted these kinds of heinous people. Although the documentary tries to focus on Lam, the history of the Cecil Hotel cannot go unsaid just because of how dark and historic it really is. Additionally, the series spends a great deal of time discussing Skid Row, which the Cecil Hotel was located directly in the center of. Because of how dangerous this part of the city is, the audience must acknowledge that the dark attractions of the hotel may not be due to any rumored supernatural forces, but simply because of the unfavorable location of the hotel itself.  

The former manager at the time of Lam’s disappearance was Amy Price, who seems to have a very suspicious demeanor in her interviews from the documentary. However, the filmmakers may have been trying to make her appear that way through long pauses after she’s done speaking, which would allow the audience to become wary of Price’s true nature. Price’s main goal and accomplishment during her management was the idea of “Stay on Main,” which divided the Cecil Hotel so that there would be one better area for tourists with renovated rooms; the “Cecil” rooms would be continued for permanent residents. This economic bandage was a way for Price to hide her real problems and gain some financial growth, as it misled naive tourists into thinking they were staying in a hip and modern hotel. Whether a viewer wants to be suspicious of Price’s involvement in Lam’s disappearance, what’s undeniable about her character was the simple fact that she was a bad hotel manager.

The documentary seems to end on an assured note, as they conclude that Lam had died from accidental drowning due to a manic episode caused by her bipolar disorder. Though this is proven on multiple accounts in the final episode, the conspiracy theorists will still doubt the LAPD and the hotel management. This was clearly a mysterious case with aspects in which people will never know the reason for: a clear time jump in the elevator footage, the open water tank latch that should’ve been visible to the LAPD helicopters and Lam’s expressed erratic behavior to her roommates and the hotel manager which was merely ignored. However, it’s easy to believe a conspiracy theory because once you do, everything is a clue. These plot holes may never be answered, but internet sleuths such as Sobhani and Lordan, who treat themselves like they are real detectives, must recognize when it’s time to let someone rest in peace without profiting from their death.

Lam’s sister justified the conclusion that Lam died from being off the medication that treated her bipolar disorder, as she said that her sister was known to have these kinds of episodes in the past. If her family accepts the cause of her death, which they do, then people should respect that. Instead of egging on the ideas of what-if, the documentary should have paid more attention to mental health awareness, as Lam was an exact example of the necessity for this kind of awareness. 

Chloe Geschwind is an Arts and Entertainment intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at cgeschwi@uci.edu.