Format: Single Crime
Length: Limited Series. 4 Episodes.
I’m not a true crime expert. I’m an average middle-aged white woman with that weird middle-aged-white-woman obsession with true crime shows.
It’s mostly background sound for me, which feels weird and inappropriate, but it’s who I am as a person. I’ve watched every episode of Forensic File. I’ve plowed through all the ID Channel stuff on Hulu. I’m also obsessed with cult stuff. I guess that’s also true crime, just a different sort of crime. And there are tons of true crime experts out there. There are far more knowledgeable people to dissect these shows and the crimes, so I never thought of myself as having a place in the true crime blogosphere.
But I’ve seen a lot of hate getting thrown at Netflix’s latest big drop, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel, and I know now that I do have a place. Because this show isn’t for true crime experts, it’s for viewers like me. And what people are hating it for is exactly what I loved about it.
The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel is long. Forensic Files tells an entire story in 22 minutes. This is four hours. It’s nitpicky. Facts are repeated ad nauseum. The story is told in a meandering way, leaving the viewer with a lot of “Wait, what was that about?” thoughts only to find out it was nothing two hours later. Most damning of all, according to many of the haters, it ventures into the world of internet sleuths. And what personally saddened me was the lack of specific details on the Cecil Hotel’s past.
But it was with good reason.
Here’s the thing about The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel: it’s not just a true crime show. Technically, it’s not a true crime show at all. It’s the story of a girl, as told by her existence on the internet, her death, and what that internet did to her death. It’s almost poetic. It’s the goddamn Lottery. Not to lessen Elisa Lam as a person — this was a real girl who lived a real life and died tragically — but her death gave the internet a bountiful harvest.
The show is narrated with a blend of interviews with key players and readings from her tumblr feed. It’s told in a way that feeds you little morsels that make you want it all now, but you can’t have it now. You are seeing the investigation play out. You are moving at the investigators’ pace. You are running into dead ends. You are saying Eureka! only for those revelations to fall flat.
You are learning just how awful this hotel is, both inside and outside, and you’re getting bits and pieces of its nightmarish past.
You want more of that past. There’s a season of American Horror Story inspired by this hotel.
The past doesn’t matter. Sorry. Unless you want to blame ghosts, past noteworthy crimes don’t add anything to this, so they’re not added to the show. What does matter is as you’re investigating this crime, everything that Lam did in that hotel and everything going on around the hotel that day is important until you’ve proven it’s not. And you will be hitting the same facts over and over again. That’s just how it goes.
And keep in mind, it wasn’t just the police who were investigating. It was the internet. And in that angry, anonymous, paranoid way of the internet, everything went nuts.
We know this better now. We now live in a world ruined by internet falsehoods. We see exactly how information gets warped and correlation becomes causation and coincidences become conspiracies. Does knowing this make us any less susceptible? Obviously not. But I think there was a bit of a novelty to Elisa Lam’s death that sparked the internet in a way it wouldn’t now. I remember people going nuts over this. I remember watching that video of her in the elevator. If I watched it now, I would assume it was some film major’s bullshit final and move on.
Are the internet sleuths relevant to the crime? Not usually. BUT—big but—the internet sleuthing led to the character assassination of an innocent person. A cancelling, as we say now. And that’s possibly the most important lesson from this show. This isn’t a unique incident. This happens all the time now. People’s careers are destroyed over unfounded allegations. Seeing this happen in The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel shines light on this major problem we have now of people believing everything they see on the internet and acting on it. Even when the truth comes out, rarely is the harm done to innocent victims rectified, and the ones who scream the loudest about burning those people at the stake are the ones least likely to call it off.
One article I read even had the audacity to imply that because this innocent person is now a successful filmmaker, it doesn’t matter that this happened to him. I argue that it’s better to leave out his current career for that exact reason.
Did you know that the victim in the first televised rape trial had to move to another city because of how she was treated? She spent the rest of her life in and out of rehab, unable to handle the abuse she suffered not just from her attackers but from the community who blamed her for her own attack. She died three years later. Drinking and driving. Not saying she wasn’t at fault in her death, just saying this is how innocent people get ruined by media.
Anyway, by the end of The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel, there’s no case at all. All the work put into it by investigators ends anticlimactically. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value to the show itself. It just proves that everything isn’t what it seems and that there are some wild coincidences out there.
Like that Elisa Lam died just before a tuberculosis outbreak, and tuberculosis is tested with the LAM-ELISA test. It’s weird, but the world is weird.
My final thoughts on the show, the reason I recommend it? It’s easy to assume that many true crime shows exist without spin, and everything they show is a statement of fact. But that’s never the case, not in true crime or anywhere else. The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel is a fantastic example of how easy it is to spin facts to make you believe one thing, when all along, the truth was something entirely different. It’s a reminder that nothing is exactly how you see it, and you should take everything you see and read with a hefty dose of skepticism.