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April 14, 2021

New Netflix docuseries questions the meaning of a crime

By ANDREW SHIBUYA | February 26, 2021

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JIM WINSTEAD / CC BY 2.0

Hotel Cecil’s haunting reputation lives on as Netflix zooms in on a former inhabitant’s disappearance. 

A 21-year-old woman disappears for three weeks in a Los Angeles hotel infamous for its history of crimes and murders. The last seen footage of her raises more questions than answers and becomes a viral sensation. What happens next?

Netflix’s new docuseries The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel attempts to elucidate the 2013 disappearance and death of Canadian Elisa Lam and the difficulties and challenges of solving crimes in the age of the internet. The series focuses on the great variety of factors in Lam’s death, from her vast history of social media posts chronicling her mental health to the dilapidated stretch of Los Angeles that the hotel occupies.

In order to achieve the scope of perspective that one might argue this case deserves, the series features a variety of people with some degree of connection to the case, ranging from the man who found her body to miscellaneous YouTubers who chronicled the case on their channels. Personally, I found that one of the more remarkable features of the docuseries was the decision to include these YouTubers, referred to frequently as “internet sleuths.”

Following the failure of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to generate any sound leads on Lam’s whereabouts (before her body was found), the team working on Lam’s case decided to post the last-seen footage of her before her disappearance. The eerie video shows her in an elevator, pressing all of the buttons at once, moving about erratically and gesticulating wildly to an audience that may or may not have been there.

Upon the greater internet’s discovery of the video, which went viral after being posted to YouTube, the LAPD received a great onslaught of calls from concerned watchers, none of which were of any value to the case. YouTubers began posting relentlessly, to the greater hindrance of the investigation. Some morbid fans sought Lam themselves, tracking her every last step.

This idea of virality was very much a new frontier in 2013, and the Lam case was one of the first criminal investigations that saw great chunks of the internet playing an important role. As such, the inclusion of these internet sleuths in the series — none of whom had any relation to Lam prior to her death — might seem strange at first glance. Their personal additions are wholly speculative and seem to serve only to convolute and contradict the findings of the official investigation. So why include them?

This is certainly a contentious question, and one must consider the intentionality of the series as a whole. I found that through their inclusion, the series is able to gesture loosely to important and topical questions with respect to the involvement of the internet in criminal cases. How far is too far for these internet sleuths? 

I can also see, however, how one could argue that the show uses outlandish conspiracies to draw out the drama and embellish the case, thus cheapening the story and Lam’s death as a whole.

The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is at its best when it engages with these modern dilemmas, only some of which are raised intentionally. In fact, what the series does not explicitly address is often far more thought-provoking than the actual narrative. For example, an important question that the show inadvertently raises pertains to the ethical implications of making a show singularly about one’s death. I couldn’t help but consider if it is a disservice to Lam’s life to further cement her legacy solely as a mysterious death and the accompanying internet frenzy.

Moreover, though the docuseries clearly intends to entertain, its focus on conspiracy theories instead of the complexities of Lam’s mental health and suffering likewise seems to detract from her story as a whole. It is worth asking whether the creators actually intended to tell the story or if they were more interested in the viral phenomenon that ensued.

Unfortunately, it seems as though the focus is placed more on the latter, with the actual investigation given almost equal weight to what the internet speculators have to say. In all fairness, though, these things are not entirely inextricable. This case would not be as singular as it is without the great amount of attention it garnered online.

This said, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is a decent watch overall. It uses many tried and true tricks of crime documentaries and unnecessarily embellishes a fascinating case. But at the same time, it raises interesting questions about the nature of our morbid fascination with crime and the unsettling reality of internet culture. Ultimately, the series is nothing special with respect to the greater genre of crime documentaries but is unique in its questioning of internet culture and the moral quandaries that accompany it.

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