True-crime docuseries are designed to make you keep watching. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger, as the filmmakers lay out a trail of breadcrumbs leading viewers through a shocking crime and into a mystery toward its conclusion—which, if you watch a lot of these things, is rarely as satisfying as one might hope. More so than many documentaries of its type, Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel does actually provide concrete answers to its central questions. But make sure you watch the whole thing, or else you’ll walk away with some wild ideas about what happened to 21-year-old Canadian university student Elisa Lam when she vanished from the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on January 31, 2013.
Lam’s story has become the stuff of online legend, thanks to a surveillance video released by the the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office in a last-ditch attempt to find any sort of lead into her bizarre disappearance. If you haven’t seen it, it’s genuinely creepy stuff: Lam, disoriented and moving in strange, loose-limbed ways, steps into a hotel elevator and presses a whole series of buttons. She ducks in and out of the elevator, as if she were being pursued by an invisible attacker. After a few moments, she wanders away, and the elevator door sits open for a full minute and a half before sliding shut.
An upload of the video from journalist Dennis Romero has been viewed more than 28 million times, and launched what The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel characterizes as good-faith attempts by self-proclaimed “web sleuths” to find out what happened to Lam, a prolific Tumblr user whose writings struck a chord on social media after her case received worldwide attention. Of course, given that this all happened on Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube, clout chasers with selfie sticks and conspiracy theorists peddling snake oil weren’t far behind. That’s where the Cecil’s troubled history, combined with fear-mongering about mental illness, unhoused people, and even a little bit of latter-day Satanic Panic, came in.
The first two episodes of The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel set the scene for Lam’s fateful arrival in L.A. with an abbreviated history of the Skid Row neighborhood immediately surrounding the Cecil, intertwined with a blow-by-blow of the days and weeks following Lam’s disappearance. It’s not until episode three that director Joe Berlinger begins to lay the foundation of his ultimate argument, about how internet culture encourages the bored and comfortable to invent grand narratives in which they are the hero, often at the expense of society’s most vulnerable. This thesis really comes together in episode four, when Berlinger tracks down a black-metal musician who had the misfortune of innocently posting a video of himself at the Cecil on YouTube; appropriately for the co-director of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996), defending a metalhead falsely accused of murder seems to give Berlinger a moral clarity that’s missing from the messier, more convoluted parts of this docuseries.
That being said, Berlinger engages with the material in better faith than he did in 2019’s Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, at least attempting to fact-check the outrageous claims—one says Lam was a living biological weapon carrying a deadly new strain of tuberculosis—made by his subjects. But there’s a difference between making a documentary about conspiracy theories and making a conspiracy-theory documentary, and Berlinger doesn’t thread that needle as well as Rodney Ascher did in perhaps the most skillful example of the former, 2012’s Room 237. That’s largely due to the way the series is chopped up into four one-hour episodes full of cliffhangers and rug pulls, which is fine when you’re dealing with a linear story like a missing persons investigation—and the straightforward procedural parts of the documentary do work.
But playing Whac-A-Mole with online rumors, by their nature murky and evasive, is something that requires greater focus than The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, with its uneven transitions between competing storylines, can pull. There are too many people caught up in the aftermath of this case—you walk away feeling sorry for everyone involved, from Lam’s parents to the hotel staff to the bookstore down the street—for it not to be completely clear when Berlinger is entertaining a theory and when he is simply documenting it. Otherwise, this might as well be an episode of Ancient Aliens, where if someone is willing to say something on camera, it might as well be true.
Its structure does The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel no favors, but neither does the attempt to cram Lam’s story into a larger series described as “a gritty and meticulous study of some of America’s most notorious haunted locations,” adding another sensationalist thread to an already overstuffed concept. Yes, the Cecil is infamous. Many people have died there, some of them violently. But it’s not haunted—and, to his credit, Berlinger leaves no ambiguity on this point when it’s finally time to cut the bullshit and reveal the truth at the end of the series. The real story here is twofold, and neither of those threads involve the cheesy, cable-ready voiceover at the beginning asking (and they’re always just asking) if the Cecil Hotel is a portal to hell.
For some, it’s more compelling to think that a ghost killed Elisa Lam, or that a Skid Row resident sold her some bad LSD, than to accept that this is simply a sad story about psychiatric crisis and institutional neglect. It was more exciting for the YouTubers and people scrolling through Netflix. And with too much crammed into even a relatively lengthy four-hour running time to drive home its most salient points, The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel ends up being a tragedy wrapped in a mystery shoehorned into paranormal nonsense. Netflix is notorious for not releasing data on whether its viewers finish its content, but in this case, it probably should.