What is the point of true-crime documentaries? This is the uncomfortable question that those of us who consume them by the bucketload must sooner or later confront. If it’s just someone else’s suffering dressed up as diverting entertainment, then that can’t be OK, can it? But if there is also the possibility that these documentaries might illuminate an important aspect of cultural history, or human psychology, or even prevent future suffering by bringing perpetrators to justice, then there is some value to our viewing, after all.
The case that is the focus of Netflix’s latest true-crime docuseries, Crime Scene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, has the potential to do all of the above. On 31 January 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old student from Vancouver, went missing midway through a solo trip around California. She had been staying at the Cecil hotel in downtown Los Angeles at the time of her disappearance – a location with a particularly grim past, outlined here with barely disguised glee by several local historians. It first opened in 1927, as a mid-range place for business travellers, but when the Great Depression hit, its fortunes fell along with the surrounding, increasingly sketchy neighbourhood.
Over the decades, the Cecil hotel has been the scene of multiple suicides, a handful of murders, and played host to at least two serial killers that we know of (one of whom, Richard Ramirez, is the subject of Night Stalker, another recently released Netflix documentary). The fact that the Cecil is situated just around the corner from Skid Row – the notorious focus of Los Angeles’ disastrous “policy of containment” for homeless and recently paroled people – didn’t help with occasional attempts at rebranding.
By 2013, the Cecil was not so much a functioning tourist spot as a flophouse. Albeit one where, every year, a few naive travellers were hoodwinked into staying at for a few nights, by some extremely misleading holiday booking site. (Moral of the story: Always Google your accommodation before clicking “buy” on that bargain package deal). The half-serious implication of Crime Scene is that the Cecil hotel was haunted by some malevolence forces – such as a vampire Lady Gaga, as in American Horror Story: Hotel. Although, the reality was much less mysterious: if you dump a load of desperate people in an insecure environment, violence will probably ensue. (Actually, the weirdest revelation about the Cecil is the way Americans pronounce it: “See-sell”. Bizarre.)
The police’s side of the story is better told. This is because several of the lead investigators have actually been interviewed, while Lam’s family and close friends, understandably, have no involvement. Unusually for a missing-person case, it was a well-resourced operation involving 18 detectives, scent-tracking dogs and a helicopter to illuminate a search of the hotel’s roof. It seems likely the Los Angeles police department (LAPD) would have made their eventual grim discovery much sooner, had one of their own, police officer Christopher Dorner, not gone on a gun rampage on 3 February – just a few days after Lam disappeared. But that’s a whole other true-crime story …
The LAPD did make their discovery though, on 19 February, and in the absence of any plausible suspects or even definitive proof of foul play, the documentary relies on an actor’s reading of Lam’s Tumblr blog to construct its eerie mood. In American Murder: The Family Next Door, another almost unwatchably harrowing Netflix documentary, social media material was used to give back to the victim Shanann Watts the voice that was stolen from her. But here it seems like a further intrusion on a private grief, that has already been blundered into by an army of web-sleuths.
Lam’s own words have long since been obscured in the online lore by surveillance footage of her behaving oddly in the hotel lift, shortly before her disappearance. The lift video is undeniably creepy when watched out of context, like something from The Ring horror franchise. But there is a context, one eked out far too slowly over the course of four episodes, which should have been confined to two.
The basic facts of Lam’s death are so upsetting, that Crime Scene’s various attempts to lighten the mood with historical detours and commentary from cutesy eccentrics such as the general manager with the Veronica Lake wave, feel, at best, in very poor taste. It is not spooky, it is just sad; desperately sad that a family have lost their beloved daughter and sad, too, that in Los Angeles, as in many other places around the world, the result of human beings in a mental health crisis is avoidable tragedy.
• This article was amended on 10 February 2021 to change two instances of “elevator” (American English) to “lift” (British English).