Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel Documentary Review

Episode 3 of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

My first true crime documentary since American Murder reunites me with The Ted Bundy Tapes director Joe Berlinger, this time to explore the controversial vanishing of Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in 2013. The four episode documentary left a lot of food for thought.

Synopsis: In 2013, a 21-year old tourist from Canada stays at the infamous Cecil Hotel as part of her tour to explore the West Coast. When she fails to contact her family, they seek the LAPD’s help in looking for their missing family member.

When I checked out the trailer for The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, I was prepared for anything, even evil spirits — to play a factor in the case.

But as the episodes wore on, I began to realize that despite the bizaareness of the case, the investigation would have progressed like any other, if the police did not make Elisa Lam’s elevator video public. I had every confidence that they would have solved the case and saved themselves the hassle of being accused of conspiracies and whatnot.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the most of the internet sleuths that started their investigation had their hearts in the right place. And I believe in the power of collective action and what it can do to solve crimes (case in point Don’t F*ck with Cats). I just have a problem when too much enthusiasm steps over boundaries and propriety. This was what happened in the Elisa Lam investigation.

In this case, I acknowledge that the web sleuths helped in many ways. They did raise several good points, like discovering why the elevator doors would not close, or how Elisa could have gotten to the roof by herself.

However, their meddling took a life of its own when they started hurling baseless accusations and using their voice to air out conspiracy theories based on the limited information they had.

I think that when the police sought the public’s help on the case, the web sleuths took it upon themselves to solve the case themselves. In so doing, they fashioned themselves above the abilities of law enforcement. They felt entitled to all the details of the investigation and ranted when it was not served to them on a silver platter.

In reality, it is standard practice for law enforcement to keep confidential information from the public especially for an ongoing case and if the information would compromise the flow of the investigation. Unfortunately, web sleuths felt entitled to the information and hurled malicious accusations at both the hotel and the police when they did not get what they demanded. This went on for months.

And what about the commenters? The people watching from the sidelines who were trolling and cyber bullying based on the content they consumed? They never even felt remorse for the damage they inflicted on others. It is shameful how they claimed to feel sympathy for Elisa but they were the very first to abuse another person’s mental state because of the opinions they were fed.

It was shocking how many people were victimized by abuse in this case — everyone seemed to be a fair game when it came to allegations. I wish someone had sued these malicious netizens to hold them accountable for their actions.

So many traumatic incidents happened. The justice seekers became bullies and peddlers of misinformation. They presented their personal opinions as facts and millions of people tuned in for it. I felt an immense sense of satisfaction when the truth was revealed. It was a lesson for everyone.

Technically, I liked how the documentary was presented from different perspectives. The first two episodes were delivered systematically but it all unraveled in the last two chapters as the investigation turned into a circus.

At the end of the day, the real lesson of the tale is about responsibility and respect. Respect for the rule of law and responsibility for sharing only truthful information online, not versions of the truth, not subjective truth, not the truth tainted by biases, but just the truth. The truth is our shared responsibility and its non negotiable. For the people at the back, I hope you can hear this. The lives of others are not fodder for entertainment.