The Problem With Netflix's Cecil Hotel
Giving a voice to the unapologetic in the face of tragedy...
I, like so many, enjoy the occasional crime documentary. When Netflix or the current streaming service du jour offers up some new multi-part episode of something that dives into the nitty gritty of some horrible bit of real life, I settle in for a binge and dive in, popcorn first.
I was unfamiliar with the story of the Cecil Hotel, but at its heart, it is the story of the tragic death of Elisa Lam in the, part traveller's hotel, part flophouse, Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The first two episodes of Netflix's Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel focus on the facts of the story and the surrounding town as they were understood shortly after the disappearance. It explains the strange location Elisa's body was found in, describes the neighborhood around the Hotel, covers the details of her goings on both in LA and on the internet, and lays the groundwork of the story while seeding the ground for what is to come.
The story the documentary isn't wholly about Lam's disappearance, though. The young woman's disappearance is the central vehicle the story circles around, but it could have been a different tale at the core, while still holding the same problem. The 2017 attack outside of Parliament, the tragedy in Ferguson, the school shooting in Sandy Hook or the 2017 Boston Marathon - all of these have one sad thing in common with the case of Elisa Lam - and that is the internet's reaction to them.
Partially through Episode 2 and then the entirety of Episode 3, the aspects and tone of what the documentary is focusing on changes. We're no longer discussing the discoveries of where Lam and gone or what she had done, instead we now are focusing on podcasters, crime bloggers, and internet detectives. All of those that took up the mantle of Elisa Lam's case and, the law be damned, were going to figure out who committed this heinous act (and all of them were certain it was a committed act). All of the work and police procedural that was built in the first episode is, piece by piece, taken apart.
'Why does it look like footage has been doctored?'
'Why aren't the police giving us the autopsy?'
'Who in the hotel isn't talking?'
This collection of unlicensed detectives go as far as connecting Lam's disappearance to a local Tuberculosis breakout, given the name of a common TB detection test is called 'LAM-ELISA'. Could the government be involved? Isn't this all just a bit too coincidental? This many coincidences can only mean there is a truth we are unaware of. There must be a conspiracy. It's the only answer.
This all culminates in a death metal rocker who goes by the name or Morbid who once stayed at the Cecil and posted a video of himself there. These sleuths make the connection that this man sings about death and has a music video, coincidentally released around the time of Lam's disappearance featuring a young woman being chased and killed. Let me repeat this for proper emphasis: There is astonishment that a man who sings in a genre known as 'death metal' and is named 'Morbid' sings songs about death!
If you've seen the documentary all of the way through, you'll know the last episode quickly deconstructs these conspiracies. Gone are the bloggers and rubbernecking conspiracies that have mocked the police, harangued the hotel, and outright doxxed an artist to the point where he no longer seems to have a passion for creating his art. We are now back to the police and detectives, for the most part, revealing the sad truth of the story: a young woman with severe Bipolar Disorder under-medicated herself and, for reasons that can only be speculated upon, drowned in a horrible accident.
We return to the conspiracy speculators briefly admitting they had it wrong and that they were forced to accept the truths of the tragedy. Not one of them though, says 'I'm sorry.' There is no remorse for their actions. Not one of them admits that their actions were wrong, just their answer. No admission that because of them an artist's career has been stilled, a hotel has had to deal with years of accusations, a police force has had to deal with a low boil of crime tourists thinking the know all of the answers because of forum posts and over-analyzing unimportant pixels. None of these people admit that, perhaps, they put pressure on an emotional family dealing with one of the worst possible tragedies they'll ever face, by insisting their daughter was murdered. We see no guilt, no self incrimination.
Crime Scene tells us the truth, but it does absolutely nothing to deter the problem it, maybe incidentally, shined a light on. In the end, the bloggers get to insert themselves into another tragedy and act like they know better, the podcasters, the crime stopper groups, and the subreddits get to go hunt a new conspiracy to dangle from. Crime Scene gives half of its time to spin invention and bullshit as fact and bring anyone they want down with them. It validates their theories much longer than it devalues them, and accepts their journey to the truth as a valid one. By rubbernecking the rubberneckers, we are giving a voice to the wrong, and helping them build their audience along the way.
Even now, you can easily find new and continuing theories about the case by people that are uninformed of the truth, or even worse, dismissive of it. These same types of people will still hold 'Morbid' to the fire like he is a comic book villain who unironically dressed in the garb of an evildoer to commit his crimes. In the end, the only real villains in the tragic story of Elisa Lam are the 'detectives' that have inspired wrong answers, wrong theories, and caused nothing but pain for their page views.
If they're lucky, and wrong about the right thing, they may even get to be featured in a Netflix documentary.