Netflix’s newest docuseries, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” dives into the Elisa Lam case and the history behind the notorious hotel. Rather than providing its audience with a traditional true crime show, it instead paints a story told through internet conspiracies and viable coincidences, raising questions about the morality of true crime entertainment. What does this series actually reveal about the infamous case, and what does the consistent fascination with this story and others like it say about our society?
The History of “True Crime”
The “true crime” genre label can be applied to any nonfiction literary, television, podcast or film work that examines the background of a real investigation. True crime stories usually detail the events leading up to and following a grisly situation, frequently dealing with murder.
Over the past couple of decades, the true crime genre has thrived as a form of entertainment. From “Forensic Files,” a show that revealed how forensic science was used to solve violent crimes, to the popular podcast “Serial,” which thoroughly investigates crimes over the course of multiple episodes, true crime has been a part of pop culture for a while.
Perhaps there is something fascinating about the fact that these gruesome stories are true, in contrast with horror movies, which are often entirely fictional and feature unrealistic antagonists. According to Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University, horror allows us to play with our fears in a controlled environment where the threat is often gripping and compelling, but ultimately not real. The true crime audience may be looking for a more realistic scare, or are just curious about the inner workings of the forensic department. Megan Boorsma, who studied true crime and was published in the Elon Law Review, also claims that this particular form of entertainment can help people feel prepared if they were to ever stumble upon a similar ghastly situation.
Though it may be a significant source of entertainment for some, the genre has not been without controversy, and Netflix’s newest docuseries raises concerns about one prominent aspect of the danger in consuming true crime content.
Netflix and The Cecil Hotel
Though the Elisa Lam case seems perfect to further explore in the documentary format, Netflix misfired on their latest addition to the streaming service’s true crime collection.
“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is a four-part docuseries focusing on the story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who went missing in the notorious hotel under puzzling circumstances and was later discovered drowned. Even before Lam’s passing, the Cecil had a history of strange happenings and deaths.
When Lam’s case began in 2013, the internet was abuzz with questions and wild theories. One of the few pieces of public evidence included a grainy elevator video of Lam in what was believed to be her last moments, attempting to run from or communicate with an unseen force with unnatural slowness.
In the first episode, the show sets up the mystery around Lam’s disappearance and gives unfamiliar audience members information about the Cecil Hotel and the neighborhood’s reputation, setting a promisingly creepy tone.
True crime stories may also be appealing to some because they allow everyday people to attempt to solve the crime from the comfort of their own homes, also referred to as filling the role of an “armchair detective.” The docuseries certainly harnesses the power of suspense for the audience’s sake, but with varying success.
One of the prominent aspects explored in “Crime Scene” is the inclusion of “internet sleuths” in the original case. Episode 3, titled “Down the Rabbit Hole,” mostly focuses on the impact many internet sleuths had on the case.
When the elevator footage of Lam’s last moments was released, many of these online detectives took it upon themselves to dig out any information they could find about Lam’s disappearance, even reading through her personal blog and dissecting many of her cryptic posts. On some occasions, these internet sleuths raised alarm about suspicious evidence, but they often did more damage than good. Some believed Lam’s disappearance was the work of aliens, or a paranormal being, while others falsely accused Mexican death metal singer Pablo “Morbid” Vergara of murdering Lam. Some critics consider the lengthy inclusion of such conspiracies to be “irresponsible and dishonest.”
These internet detectives became too involved in the case and indulged in numerous theories across various social media platforms, leading other casual internet viewers to believe in such wild possibilities. By spending so much time hashing out these conspiracies, “Crime Scene” indulges in them as well. By leaving out key pieces of evidence until later episodes, the docuseries deliberately allows the audience to wallow in these wild conspiracies, elevating the false idea that conspiracies are just as valuable as any other lead.
Mental Health and Controversy
One particular piece of information is deliberately withheld near the beginning of the series and is used to cause dispute around the nature of Lam’s death for most of the show. Later, this crucial piece of evidence is resolved almost indifferently toward the end of the last episode. After hours of speculation and often ill-founded accusations toward hotel customers and staff, the most likely reason for Lam’s death is finally revealed.
During the final episode, investigators discussed Lam’s struggle with depression and bipolar disorder. After discovering that she was not taking her prescription medications regularly, the case was ruled an accident due to the high likelihood that her erratic behavior could have easily been caused by her lack of proper medication. By playing along with conspiracy theories and electing to leave Lam’s mental health issues until the end, “Crime Scene” chooses the most dramatic route over the truth, making for a series that’s too long and oftentimes disrespectful.
Unfortunately, “Crime Scene” is not the only true crime series to fall into this type of controversy. Another Netflix series, titled “Unsolved Mysteries,” spends an inappropriate amount of time hashing out paranormal theories behind Jack Wheeler’s death, which was ultimately due to mental illness, to the point where the ludicrous theories were evaluated as much as the truth. Similarly, a highly downloaded podcast about Brian Reed’s investigation of an alleged small-town murder, known as “S-Town,” also came under fire for presenting private information about the deceased for the sake of suspense and commercial purposes.
Is There Danger in True Crime Entertainment?
“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” had the potential to be a concise and cohesive dive into this well-known mystery, and it could have also served as a warning about online communities and the harm they can cause when they assume authority over a case. In the end, the docuseries lived up to none of those things.
Not every work of true crime is as unfavorable, of course. Many similar works are produced well, and with respect for the people involved. True crime does not have to be regarded as a danger in and of itself, but those who engage with true crime should be wary of exploitative content, rather than something made to inform and enlighten.
Ultimately, there’s a fine line between true crime for the purpose of education and true crime designed for unreasonable success and the exploitation of information. Netflix seems to fall into the former with this docuseries.