‘The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ brings new light to the Elisa Lam case

We all think that we know the infamous “unsolved” murder case of Elisa Lam, but the new “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” brings much more to the case that has transformed internet-sleuthing forever.


Screen capture by Netflix

Annabelle Blomeley, Staff Reporter

True-crime documentaries are hard to pull off. From badly made reenactments of murders to the internet spoiling the whodunnit, it’s rare to find a true-crime documentary that’s not ruined from the start.

So when the “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Hotel Cecil” four-part docuseries erupted in popularity on Netflix, I was a bit wary of watching it. But after several TikToks and tweets arguing over the case popped up on my phone, I decided to give it a shot.

Like everyone else who’s watched “Buzzfeed Unsolved True Crime,” I was relatively familiar with the case. 

But if you don’t know, “The Vanishing at the Hotel Cecil” centers on the infamous Elisa Lam case from 2013, when Lam’s body was found floating in the Hotel Cecil’s rooftop water tank. Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian tourist, had been videotaped acting strangely before her death, and paired with the sketchy background of the Cecil Hotel, she sparked thousands of amateur crime junkies to try to solve her case online.

To be clear, I have a lot of glowing praise for this docuseries, but I also have my qualms. 

I watched the first two episodes one night, and they scared me a lot. As I said, I’ve watched shorter investigative shows and series about the Elisa Lam case, but none were as in-depth as Netflix’s. 

The series starts by explaining The Hotel Cecil in all of its sketchy glory. Located in Los Angeles, the hotel is right in the middle of an area called Skid Row.

Skid Row was practically designated as a 50-block neighborhood for LA’s homeless population, which was made possible by the city concentrating almost all of their homeless services in the area. With approximately 5,000 homeless people and thousands more who live in poverty, Skid Row is particularly known for its harsh living conditions and subsequently high crime rates. By highlighting the presence of organized crime and people suffering from untreated mental health problems, the docuseries frames Skid Row as an unsafe place for a young tourist to be. 

Despite this, I think the series does a good job of trying not to criminalize the people who call Skid Row home. In fact, the series emphasizes the idea that Elisa’s case involves a lot of people and a lot of problems, with no one person being completely at fault.

With this being said, The Hotel Cecil is definitely at fault for something. Built in the 1920s during the golden age of Hollywood, the hotel has its fair share of death. Eventually going on to inspire American Horror Story’s “Hotel” season, the hotel manager said in an interview for the docuseries that in her ten years working there, there were around 80 deaths ranging from suicides to murders and overdoses. 

The worst part was the rebranding that the Cecil Hotel underwent prior to Elisa Lam’s stay.

In a bid to hide their less-than-desirable past, the hotel sectioned off a part of the building and renamed it “Stay On Main,” gearing it toward younger, more hip people. They also failed to acknowledge crime in the neighborhood, which prompted a lot of people to wonder who had killed Elisa Lam, with many scapegoating the homeless population.

What makes Elisa’s case truly fascinating is definitely the elevator surveillance footage of her acting bizarrely before her death. It’s positively spooky to watch her flex her hands and hide behind the elevator door, particularly because you can’t see past the elevator.

The last two episodes investigate how Elisa Lam died and who did it. From the heartbreaking interview with the janitor who found her in the water tank to the description of the manhunt for a musician who wasn’t even in the country when Elisa died, the docuseries focuses a lot on how this case affected more people than it should have.

The docuseries doesn’t stop at just describing Elisa’s case, though. It warns and informs the audience about several important topics that drastically affected Elisa’s life and death, including mental health struggles and the dangers of the internet.

For example, it goes into detail about Elisa’s struggle with mental health issues, from not wanting to take her medicine to her sad and hopeful diary entries from just days before she died. 

Next, the series focuses on how the internet completely blew the case out of proportion. Hundreds of YouTubers and social media influencers turned themselves into amateur investigators in an attempt to solve this case, but it ended up hurting a lot more people than it helped.

For example, the musician mentioned earlier, named Morbid, detailed in a heartbreaking interview that he became suicidal after the internet claimed he had killed Elisa, even though he was in his home country of Mexico for a whole year prior to her death.

The docuseries makes an important connection between Elisa’s mental health and those that her case affected. 

From comparing her mental health struggles to those of some homeless individuals in Skid Row, to comparing her suicidal thoughts to those of Morbid’s, the docuseries details just how the internet investigators completely ignored Elisa’s past mental health struggles in a bid to find her murderer.

To me, these “bigger picture” comparisons made the docuseries really stand out. I feel like a lot of murder documentaries have almost no takeaways. They just tell you to not walk home alone at night or not to get in a stranger’s car. 

“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” warns against many cultural aspects that could affect anyone’s life, regardless of whether or not they find themselves enthralled in a murder mystery.

In my opinion, what makes this docuseries great is how well it knows its audience. While watching, I would question something and the docuseries would immediately give me more details to answer my question. It’s like it knows exactly what you’re thinking. I don’t think that this is for everyone, but I really enjoyed feeling like I was a part of the investigation. 

With this being said, some of the problems that I had with the docuseries as a whole also boils down to this style of investigation. 

For example, a lot of the case relies on one piece of evidence that they don’t give you until the very last episode, so while you were trying to come up with solutions, it was nearly impossible without this bit of information. It made the series seem like it was just trying to stretch the information as much as possible because they wanted it in four parts.

On top of that, they leave out a lot more crucial information for the sake of suspense, like the coroner’s report and more evidence that doesn’t come out until the very end.

But if you’re looking for an unsolved case, then this docuseries is not for you. The ending is packaged pretty and topped with a bow, so you don’t have to worry about sleepless nights lying awake, wondering what could have happened to Elisa.

I would continue, but I’d rather not spoil the well-crafted ending. The docuseries does such a good job of building evidence and details that half of the fun is trying to figure out what happened to Elisa. If you want to step into the shoes of an LAPD detective, then try to watch the show with no spoilers. It’s so worth it.

I think that the docuseries is a quick, engaging watch that’s perfect for a rainy weekend. The docuseries touches on every aspect of the case, from the important details of how she acted before she went missing to the weird case of a tuberculosis strain having the same name as Elisa Lam. 

You’ll walk away feeling heartbroken for Elisa, her family, Morbid and many other characters, but you’ll also feel anger for a lot of the characters as well. 

“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is perfect for true-crime junkies, true-crime haters and everyone in between.