If you’re the sort of person who listens to a lot of true crime podcasts and/or lurks on Reddit, then you’ll know that the 2013 disappearance of 21-year-old Canadian Elisa Lam is, alongside the bizarre disappearance of Maura Murray and the still-to-be-cracked Delphi murders, your average web sleuth’s favourite unsolved mystery.
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If you’re not, here are the bare bones of the incident. Elisa Lam, daughter of Chinese immigrants and a student at the University of British Columbia, travels to Los Angeles on vacation. She finds a cheap hotel downtown, The Cecil, a 19-story complex, situated in the heart of LA’s Skid Row, built in 1927. Initially a business held in high regard, The Cecil fell on hard times as the Great Depression ravaged the US in the 1930s. Thereafter it became a refuge for transients and a playground for crime. The serial killer Richard Ramirez lived there on and off. The website RoomSpook, which records fatalities that have occurred in hotels, claims that at least 12 people have taken their lives within The Cecil’s grubby walls. There have been a string of murders.
Elisa is due to check out on January 31. This never happens, nor does she call her parents, which she has done daily throughout her trip. The LAPD are called in. They search the area to no avail. Then they check the hotel’s CCTV footage, which has caught Elisa trying and failing to operate the hotel lift. She’s deeply distressed. It looks like she’s hiding from someone, unseen, in the corridor outside the lift. The LAPD, clutching at straws, post the video on their website. It’s picked up by the Chinese video hosting site Youku. Over three million people view the video within 10 days and it goes viral. What follows is an orgy of rumour, speculation, supposition and, as the internet attempts to solve the mystery, some impressive amateur detective work. Elisa Lam is still a missing person, but she’s now also a riddle to be solved.
There’s something silly about the discussion of spoilers when taking about a real life and a real tragedy, but Elisa’s disappearance is so strange and so beguiling, it’s perhaps best if you approach Netflix’s latest true crime series with as little prior knowledge as possible. For one thing, the telling of the story is structured in such a way that if you are aware of the story’s many wrinkles – like, for example, that Elisa had a form of bipolar disorder and had a history of not taking her medication, a fact that the show takes its sweet time getting to – the series can make for frustrating viewing. And yet come the last episode, the show pulls off a remarkable argument for the good that the often maligned – and often rightly so – true crime genre can put into the world.
While The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is the story of a bright, adventurous young woman going on holiday and never coming home, it’s also a mediation on the true crime genre itself. It asks questions – like why so many with no personal connection to a victim feel such an emotional one. It shows the gravity of the consequences of a crowd of unregulated voices left to point fingers of suspicion at strangers. It asks why we’ve arrived a time where suspicion of services – the police being a prime example – is at a historic low. It explores themes of victimhood and accountability. And, ultimately, it makes a sad, pertinent point about how far we have to go in understanding mental illness.
Within an ocean of problematic true crime media, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is an island of good taste and great insight, taking its time to explore the sociology of the phenomenon as much as it does the lurid details of the case. Watch it and you’ll learn a lot about people, not just about the hotel’s most high-profile tragedy.