How Netflix's 'Cecil Hotel' Docuseries Untangles Online Conspiracy Theories
Tracking a perplexing missing-person case, the four-parter revels in yet also condemns conspiratorial thinking.
When the spooky trailer for Netflix's latest true crime docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel dropped in January, the show looked like yet another deep-dive into a mystery that inspires obsession. For much of its run time, Crime Scene outlines the evidence in the case of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student who disappeared while on vacation in Los Angeles in 2013, and whose body is eventually discovered in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel, a downtown establishment with a seedy history connected to the Black Dahlia and serial killer Richard Ramirez, who was recently the subject of Netflix's Night Stalker.
In addition to telling Lam's story, Crime Scene sorts through the many theories that sprung up in the wake of her disappearance and surrounding investigation, including the release of shocking elevator security camera footage. At times, especially in its third episode, the show indulges too much in examining this wild conspiratorial thinking. But in the fourth episode director Joe Berlinger, a filmmaker who has moved between non-fiction (Conversation With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three) and narrative features (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), turns the table on the "online sleuths" by showing how amateur detective work, particularly the kind carried out on web forums and in YouTube comments, can do more harm than good.
Given how much time the show spends on these theories, the final conclusion might strike skeptical viewers as "too little, too late," an attempt to strike a responsible pose after creeping out audiences for effect, and it's easy to imagine some true-crime obsessives, fed a steady diet of Unsolved Mysteries episodes over the last few years, taking offense. Because some of them are difficult to follow, let's take a closer look at some of the wildest theories and questions teased out, and in many cases debunked, over the course of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.
What made the Elisa Lam elevator video go viral?
As documented in Crime Scene, the Los Angeles Police Department, stymied in their investigation, released video footage of Elisa Lam in the elevator at the Cecil Hotel on February 15. At the time, detectives hadn't located her body and hoped the video would generate public interest and provide some new leads. In the footage, you can see Lam walking into the elevator, pressing buttons, making frantic movements, slowly stepping out, and eventually walking away. When she leaves, the video lingers and takes on an even more unsettling quality, with the door slowly closing and opening with no human presence on screen.
For most of the first episode, Berlinger tells police officers, hotel employees, journalists, and academics to provide context to the story. (He also relies extensively on words drawn from Lam's blog on Tumblr; no one who knew Lam personally is interviewed.) But with the introduction of the video, the documentary starts to include testimonials from the amateur "web sleuths" who became obsessed with the case. At the close of the first episode, they provide a close reading of the admittedly mysterious elevator video that sets the stage for the three episodes that follow.
Why did online sleuths think this was an "inside job"?
As the documentary progresses, the voices of the online sleuths become more central to the story. Increasingly, the online community grows frustrated with the pace and perceived missteps of the investigation, the communication about certain details in the press, and the specifics of the findings in documents like the autopsy report, and begins to speculate and increasingly push toward a collective belief that the police, the workers at the hotel, and the city government must be involved in a massive "cover-up." Certain details, like the blurry timecode in the elevator footage or a checked-and-then-scratched-out box on a police document, are received as signs that the evidence is being tampered with or possibly distorted by those in power.
How did the Cecil Hotel get its "evil" reputation?
The Cecil Hotel opened in 1924 during a boom period in Los Angeles as money, people, and jobs were flowing into the city. However, the economic situation quickly deteriorated and the Cecil was forced to adjust. The series shows how the history of the surrounding Skid Row area, where the homeless population was pushed and forced to gather, is intertwined with the hotel's seedy reputation. Still, despite some useful bits of contexts from an academic and a resident of the hotel, there's a lack of nuance to how some of this material is discussed and framed.
Instead, Crime Scene emphasizes the fact that Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker serial killer, stayed at the hotel and that Austrian Jack Unterweger, who committed murders in multiple countries, also stayed there. The implication is that there's something fundamentally cursed about the hotel that draws people there, but it's more likely that it was just a cheap spot for people looking for a place to crash. "She has good bones," observes Amy Price, the former manager of the hotel featured in the documentary. Price's testimonial does provide some insight into the human side of the operation.
What's the connection with the movie Dark Water?
One of the stranger theories discussed in the series involves the 2002 Japanese horror film Dark Water, which was directed by Ring filmmaker Hideo Nakata, and later remade into a 2005 English version with Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly. Both films are based on Koji Suzuki's short story "Floating Water" and tell the story of a mother and daughter who discover a suspicious leak in their new apartment, which eventually leads to the chilling discovery of a young girl's body in a water tower on the building's roof. (Lam's body was also found in a water tower on the roof of the Cecil Hotel.) This and other coincidences are presented as examples of "synchronicity" by one of the online sleuths in the series, with the implication being that a murderer was potentially inspired by the film to commit a copycat crime.
Why did sleuths connect a tuberculosis outbreak to Elisa Lam's death?
One of the more outlandish theories floated by the online sleuths involves a 2013 tuberculosis outbreak in Skid Row near the hotel around the time of Lam's disappearance. The theorists speculated that Lam could have been a test subject for a new type of TB medication or that she was sent to Los Angeles from Canada as a type of biological weapon. It's all pretty out there. (Her autopsy report did not indicate that she had tuberculosis.) One aspect of this theory is uncanny and certainly helped fuel speculation: There is a tuberculosis test named LAM-ELISA.
What was the significance of The Last Bookstore?
As discussed in the documentary, The Last Bookstore was one of the last locations where Lam was seen before her death. After shopping there, she had books delivered to her at the hotel, possibly because she didn't want to carry them around as she explored the city. The strangest detail about the store involves the website. "The last known person to see Elisa Lam was Katie Orphan, the manager of The Last Book Store," noted the site Taste of Crime. "If you perform a whois lookup of Katie’s website you will see that she has purchased domain privacy, however it gives you a post code address: V5G 4S2. Typing the post code into Google Maps will take you to a town in Canada, to the exact location of where Elisa Lam’s funeral was held."
What does this very odd detail mean? Probably nothing. Even the sleuths featured in the show sound mostly just puzzled by this one, which only takes on a sinister meaning when considered alongside all the other examples of "synchronicity" outlined in the series.
Why did online sleuths become obsessed with metal artist Morbid?
There are so many theories discussed in Crime Scene. Some of them get more screen-time than others. But the story of Pablo Vergara, a metal musician who records under the name Morbid, is central to the overall point of the series.
Vergara stayed at the hotel for three days in 2012, nearly a year before Lam's death, but online obsessives discovered his videos online, which included a music video where he chases a woman who is eventually murdered, and jumped to the conclusion that he must've been Lam's killer. Soon, his videos were filled with comments accusing him of the crime and he was flooded with angry messages. In an interview, Vergara states that he was in Mexico working on an album when Lam died and that there's definitely no proof that he was connected to the crime.
In these interviews with Vergara, who has also posted music online under the band name Dynasty of Darkness, the series achieves a startling poignancy that elevates it above many of Netflix's bloated, unfocused true crime offerings. You come to understand that Berlinger has been dramatically showing you the appeal and the potency of conspiratorial thinking, the galaxy brain rush that comes with seeing hidden messages in everything and decoding bits of meaning in bits of ephemera.
But in the final episode, with Vergara clearly stating his innocence and discussing the damage the unwarranted accusations had on his life, you see the dark side to the sense of power that comes with thinking that you have all the clues and can play detective anonymously online. Crime Scene arrives at this point awkwardly, losing sight of Lam's personal story at times, but it's still a broader point worth considering. Sometimes the simplest explanation is actually the true one.
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