Watching it felt like parkour
Joe Berlinger, the director behind Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, brings us another true crime documentary series about the mysterious case of Elisa Lam and The Cecil Hotel. Let me tell you, watching it is a long, turbulent ride so many stopovers you somehow lose sight of the destination. Until, at the very end, a realization hits you.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel will have you hooked because of the build-up in the first episode. It starts with a peek of Elisa’s personality through reenactments of her Tumblr posts—something we can all relate to—then transitions to showing us the establishment’s past and reputation as the hotpot of danger and disaster. Eventually, we're left to assume the worst from the insinuation that the Cecil Hotel stands in a district highly populated by homeless people.
But by the middle of it, we're introduced to a cast of characters who try to involve themselves in the investigation.
The question marks started to appear in my head when the internet sleuths talked about their hunches on “…what really happened to Elisa Lam?” At some point, I found myself wondering if this was about this true crime case, or if it was about the people involved (or trying to be involved) each getting their 15 minutes (or more) of fame.
The mix of facts and opinions from historians, law enforcement and web sleuths, gives viewers a long list of possibilities about her disappearance. And not one angle stood out. This information overload invites you to make your own conspiracy theories in your head. Are the internet sleuths on to something the police aren't? Why are there inconsistencies in the way they report the facts? Is the manager of the Cecil Hotel actually shady?
The long-winding tangents come to a conclusion as the end of the series nears. The autopsy report makes them—the family, the police, the sleuths—consider Elisa’s mental health as a bigger factor. It shows us that there is more to her history that was overlooked. Then, everything clicks.
The documentary series, despite its faults in storytelling, reminds us that at the base of it all, Elisa Lam was a human being coping with her own mental health issues.
The series teaches us how to approach mental illness and mental health, whether as employees, friends or strangers on the internet. Everyone around us may appear okay, but we aren’t sure what’s going on in our quieter moments. The message, don’t forget to check in on your friends from time to time, rings louder than ever.
Likewise, it’s easy to fall into the herd mentality or the internet mob while we look for answers. Whether it’s cracking a conspiracy theory or seeking accountability from someone who did another wrong, we have tendencies of taking it too far. (Believe me, I’ve fed into it a couple times before, and it's never a good feeling.)
Let Elisa Lam's story be a reminder that behind the screens are humans, and these humans have their limits, too.
Stream Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel only on Netflix.
Art Alexandra Lara