Deconstructing the mysterious death of Canadian student Elisa Lam in 2013, a new Netflix documentary series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, is revealing secrets behind the notorious hotel, described as a place “where serial killers let their hair down.”
Fans of the Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story series may find this story familiar because the season titled American Horror Story: Hotel was inspired by the Cecil Hotel - but the Netflix series is more gritty and frightening (and less fabulous) than Lady Gaga gracing the halls of the Hotel Cortez.
Director Joe Berlinger (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) created an incredibly compelling, creepy, fascinating and heartbreaking four-part series, which includes commentary from individuals like Amy Price, former Cecil Hotel manager from 2007 to 2017, retired Los Angeles Police Department homicide detectives, individuals who have stayed at the hotel, web sleuths, historians and medical experts to thoroughly breakdown the circumstances of the hotel and Lam’s deaths like we haven’t seen before.
The series is gripping right from the beginning, with so many odd and eerie stories from the hotel’s history. It was site of many gruesome deaths and murders, and was occupied by notorious serials killers including Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker) and Jack Unterweger, an Austria serial killer who killed multiple sex workers in Los Angeles.
The Cecil Hotel opened in 1924 when Los Angeles was booming but by the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, the hotel became a place for people who needed a somewhere to stay for cheap.
As the years progressed, it became an alternative to apartment living for people who didn’t have enough money for a deposit, individuals who couldn’t pass a background check, people just out of prison, individuals who were on the run or didn’t want someone knowing their whereabouts.
The Cecil Hotel is surrounded by Skid Row, the area of Los Angeles described in the series as “ground zero” of one of the most “dangerous and violent” places in the U.S., and a “dumping ground” for people leaving jail or prison, or a mental facility.
In an effort to rid itself of its bad reputation, the hotel ended up creating the Stay on Main, a concept for a separate hotel but still in the same building as the Cecil. Stay on Main was meant to be a hostel-type accommodation for young travellers. There was a different entrance and updated rooms, guests for the Stay on Main stayed on different floors away from Cecil Hotel occupants, but they did have to share the elevator bank, described in the series as a “vertical toilet” where all the guests in the building would have to interact.
This is how Lam, who was a student at the University of British Columbia, ended up at the Cecil Hotel, after making a reservation for the Stay on Main.
Lam had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking prescription medication. She was incredibly active on Tumblr, sharing her struggles with her medical condition, depression, anxiety and her personal goals for the future. In Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, we get to hear the exact words from her Tumblr posts to get a first-hand account of what her life was like, why she wanted to leave to explore California and what she was thinking when she was in Los Angeles.
In 2013 Lam seemingly vanished from the hotel. It not only made international headlines but a video shared by police, which showed her last moments alive, started a frenzy online. The video shows Lam going in and out of an elevator at the hotel, acting very bizarre, and making erratic and odd hand gestures.
The video was watched by millions, which resulted in amateur sleuths spending their days and nights trying to figure out where she was and who was responsible.
As even more people started to learn about the Cecil, the hotel become a cultural phenomenon with many wanting to go inside the “death hotel,” some simply wanted to see where Lam stayed.
Lam was eventually found in a water tank on the room of the Cecil Hotel, with her clothing floating in the water.
The series goes through a numbers of theories YouTubers and internet sleuths worked through to explain her death, ranging from an employee at the hotel being involved, to a government conspiracy to infect the homeless population on Skid Row that went wrong. They even believed one particular guest could be to blame. An artist named Morbid, whose real name is Pablo Vergara, was hounded online and accused of her death by these sleuths.
This is much more than a series about Lam’s death or the Cecil Hotel, although those stories are incredibly creepy and compelling on their own. Berlinger does an excellent job of tackling all the different moving parts of the narrative, from the perception of the hotel, the way people on Skid Row are treated, assumptions about people who stay and work at the hotel, and how they fit into the devastating story of Lam’s death.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is lifting the curtain and showing us that things may not be as they seem, even in a hotel that has been full of death and despair.