The various crime scene endeavors in this true-crime docuseries to lighten. The mood with hints at a haunting are at best in very poor taste. What is the point of true-crime scene documented? This is the uneasy question that who consume them by the scuttle load must sooner or later challenge. If it’s just someone else’s suffering dressed up as diverting pleasure, then that can’t be OK, can it? But if there is also the probability that these documentaries might illuminate an important aspect of cultural history, human psychology or even prevent future tolerate by bringing perpetrators to justice. Then there is some value to our viewing after all.
The case crime scene that is the center of Netflix’s latest true-crime docuseries, Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel has the potential to do all of the above. On 31 January 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old student from Vancouver, went missing partway through a solo trip around California. She had been stay put at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles at the time of her disappearance. A location with a particularly grim past, outlined here with barely disguised glee by several local historians. It first opened in 1927, as a mid-range place for business travelers, but when the Great Depression hit, its fortunes fell along with the surrounding, increasingly sketchy neighborhood.
Over the decades, the Cecil hotel has been the scene of multiple suicides, a nuisance of murders, and played host to at least two serial killers that we know of (one of whom, Richard Ramirez, is the subject of Night Stalker, another not long ago released Netflix documentary). The fact that the Cecil is situated just around the corner from Skid Row. The infamous focus of Los Angeles’ disastrous “policy of containment” for homeless. And recently paroled people – didn’t help with irregular attempts at rebranding.
By 2013, the Cecil was not so much a working tourist spot as a flophouse. Albeit one where, every year. A few naive travelers were hoodwinked into staying at for a few nights. By some extremely misleading holiday booking site. (Moral of the story: Always Google your accommodation before clicking “buys” on that bargain package deal). The half-serious indication of Crime Scene is that the Cecil hotel was haunted. By some malevolence forces – such as a vampire Lady Gaga, as in American Horror Story: Hotel .As if, the reality was much less mysterious: if you dump a load of desperate people in an insecure environment, violence will probably ensue. (Actually, the weirdest disclosure about the Cecil is the way Americans pronounce it: “See-sell”. Bizarre.)
The police’s side of the story is better told. This is because several of the lead investigators have actually been interviewed. While Lam’s family and close friends, understandably, have no participation. Unusually for a missing-person case, it was a well-resourced operation involving 18 detectives, scent-tracking dogs and a helicopter to a search of the hotel’s roof. It seems likely the Los Angeles police department (LAPD) would have made their eventual grim discovery much sooner, had one of their own, police officer Christopher Dormer, not gone on a gun rampage on 3 February – just a few days after Lam vanish. But that’s a whole other true-crime story …
The LAPD did make their discovery though, on 19 February, and in the absence of any reasonable suspects or even definitive proof of foul play, the documentary relies on an actor’s reading of Lam’s Tumbler blog to construct its eerie mood. In American Murder: The Family Next Door, another almost unwatchable harrowing . Netflix documentary, social media material was used to give back to the victim Shaman Watts. The voice that was stolen from her. But here it seems like a further invasion of private grief that has already been miscalculated into by an army of web-sleuths.
Lam’s own words have long since been obscured in the online lore by surveillance footage. of her behaving oddly. In the hotel lift, shortly before her disappearance. The lift video is undeniably creepy when watched out of context, like something from The Ring horror franchise. But there is a context, one eked out far too slowly over the course of four episodes. Which should have been confined to two.
The basic facts of Lam’s death are so distressing, that Crime Scene’s various attempts to lighten the mood with historical detours and commentary from cutesy eccentrics such as the general manager with the Veronica Lake wave, feel, at best, in very inferior taste. It is not spooky, it is just sad; desperately sad that a family has lost their beloved daughter and sad, too, that in Los Angeles, as in many other places around the world, the result of human beings in a mental health crisis is an avoidable tragedy.
• This article was amended on 10 February 2021 to change two illustrations. With “elevator” (American English) to “lift” (British English).