The Cecil Hotel Doc Is a Crime Story in Search of a Crime

Spoiler alert: Main plot details revealed.

It’s one of the most indelible and weirdest moments in internet video history: a girl in a red hoodie walks into an empty elevator and presses buttons for more than a handful of hours. ‘floors. She then begins to scan the hallway, entering and exiting the door (and exiting the security camera frame), as if waiting – or trying to avoid – someone. She hides in the corner for a while, and her movements get more weird and exaggerated. Nothing dramatic happens, but there is a feeling that thrills wrong. The video, released by LAPD in 2013, is the last known sighting of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian tourist who disappeared while staying at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Nineteen days after being checked into the elevator, her body was found in one of the water tanks on the roof. Lam’s latest disturbing glimpse in the elevator went viral and sparked an online afterlife savage, a season of American Horror Story, and now a new Netflix documentary series that puts his life and death, and that of the infamous Cecil Hotel, in the ever-popular true crime format – which is a disturbing approach to take for a story it is growing in. clearer than any crime ever took place.

There is one thing you should know before watching Netflix docuseries Crime scene: the disappearance at the Cecil hotel – but it is only revealed in the fourth and final episode. So consider this both a spoiler alert and a giant asterisk to place next to the first three episodes: When Lam’s body was found in a water tank on Cecil’s roof, the access hatch to the top of the tank was open, not closed as police initially reported. Despite the video, Lam appears to have fallen or jumped into the tank and drowned. This detail, which was gleaned from a 2015 lawsuit that Lam’s family brought against the downtown Los Angeles hotel and corroborated in an interview with the former employee who tracked her down, quite effectively eliminates years of conspiracies over the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the 21. one-year-old Canadian tourist. Although her body was naked when she was found, it showed no signs of trauma, and the only major red flags in her toxicology report were the prescription drugs she was taking for bipolar disorder and depression. . do not present in his blood. The fact of the outbreak, and the timing of its disclosure, poses a serious problem for the series: How is there a “crime scene” if there has never been a crime?

Photo: Courtesy of CBS News / YouTube

Even before it became an online sensation, the story was followed breathlessly by Los Angeles Cable News in 2013. It was the kind of gruesome dark tale that always sounded like one echo to another. Rainy, black and white Los Angeles played out in real time in the modern drought stricken city. But in many ways, Lam’s story turned out to be an anomaly for the Cecil, who was infamous for almost all of her 94 years: she appears to have only died. at the hotel rather than somehow because of it. Even before Richard Ramirez lived there during his murderous Night Stalker madness in the 1980s, there were stories: the woman who jumped from the ninth floor and run over a man on the sidewalk below; sighting Elizabeth Short there shortly before she was cut in half and forever known as the Black Dahlia, the victim of Los Angeles’ most notoriously unsolved murder. In the 1970s, Los Angeles tried to confine the homeless to Skid Row, and the Cecil has become something of a near-shelter like many of the old big hotels on Main Street – and the site of the kind of crime that generates the fear rather than sympathetic victims. According to Amy Price, who was Cecil’s manager when Lam arrived, there were around 80 deaths – ranging from overdoses to suicides to murders – at the hotel during the decade she worked there. .

But despite nine years of hindsight and a clear sense of what likely happened – that Lam stopped taking her meds, and if she was indeed running away from anything, it was in her own head – the filmmakers are giving in. story to a group of cops and a number of “web sleuths” who spent years developing Elisa Lam’s conspiracy theories.

The series maintains various theories about what could have happened to Lam – that she was killed by another guest of Cecil, that she was the victim of a copier murder inspired by the 2005 horror film Dark water, that she was an op involved in an international conspiracy to spread a new strain of tuberculosis. Not only are these conspiracies detailed, but choice material is taken from Lam’s own Tumblr so that every potential horrific thing that absolutely hasn’t happened to her seems plausible (but not for all of TB, a topic she has never had before. apparently never blogged). The show works roughly like this: A female narrator reads in her blog how she was open to meeting a guy on her trip to California, and then there’s a whole section on how she maybe picked up by someone then killed. Or we hear how she blogged that “my mouth is my downfall, and that will get me in trouble”, and then this a possible horrific outcome is explored. “Everyone is vulnerable, especially if you’re a naive girl from another country who’s here and thinks it’s beaches and roses – that’s misleading,” says one of the LAPD cops. We hear about the ubiquitous crime on Skid Row, about how she couldn’t have gone out without being offered hard drugs (in ten years of living in Los Angeles, I have never been offered hard drugs on or on. around Main Street), about the homeless and the guys fresh out of jail surely going up and down the same elevators. Surely Something about the hotel must have figured in his death?

Some of the potential killers the internet hung on to spend more screen time than others, including Morbid, a black-metal musician (real name: Pablo Vergara) who had previously stayed at the Cecil and used to record songs that explored, well, morbid fantasies, including chasing and killing a woman. With his tendency for white contact lenses, facial piercings, and stage blood, Vergara may not look like the nicest character, and he made a video proclaiming his innocence in a full morbid gown and a more creepy than convincing style. – but the fact remains that there is nothing at all that binds him to Lam. This did not stop detectives who were convinced that he killed Lam while hunting down Vergara online, and the cyberbullying campaign mounted against him led Vergara to attempt a suicide.

“I feel like I’ve lost my freedom of speech,” Vergara said in an interview for the docu-series. “In fact, I didn’t make music anymore. When I try, it’s not the same. I’m trying to rebuild my life and stuff, but it sucks. Every day it never goes away. I have to live with it for the rest of my life. “

It’s such a shame, because you can so easily imagine a documentary that treats the facts differently and is more wary of web sleuths and YouTubers who have been “investigating” the case for almost a decade. At a time when conspiracy theories have had a disproportionate influence on politics and public health after suffocating for years in closed communities (offline and on), why not start right away by saying that there was no crime, and rather consider Elisa Lam as the person she was? And then, separately, consider the community that has kept a horror movie version of her online more critically.

There’s a quote from Lam’s Tumblr that appears in the first episode of Crime scene, “Internet does not really have any consequences”, to which I keep coming back. While this may have ringed true when she was still alive and writing in the early 2010s, we have seen again and again how decidedly this is not – the QAnon and anti-vaxx plots are the first. examples. But instead of taking this shift in our understanding of online communities and conspiracies as the subject, Crime scene: the disappearance at the Cecil hotel only discusses the aftermath of the Internet and the stories that come to life there, in the lightest way.

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