There’s a subgenre of internet-famous mysteries that don’t capture national attention at first, but get endless attention online. The stories always feature relatable middle-class protagonists whose deaths or disappearances remain unexplained.
Brian Shaffer, an Ohio med student who walked into a college town bar in 2006 and was never seen again, became one such enduring object of fascination. Maura Murray, a Massachusetts college student, is another big name in these circles, after she got in a car accident on a snowy road in 2004, supposedly walked into the woods, and was never heard from again. (Murray’s case became a book about one sleuth’s obsession, tellingly titled True Crime Addict.)
Theories about these cases are debated in Facebook groups and on Reddit, parsed in YouTube videos and podcasts. And the Elisa Lam disappearance was one of these stories. In January 2013, the 21-year old Canadian tourist traveled to Los Angeles and went missing at the seedy Cecil Hotel in downtown LA. When police released footage of her acting strangely in a hotel elevator right before her disappearance, the then-emerging community of internet true crime sleuths latched on to the story in a speculative frenzy. Nineteen days after she went missing, her body was discovered in the hotel’s rooftop water tank. A final report released later that summer ruled the death an accidental drowning.
The new four-part Netflix documentary on the case, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, is a muddled attempt to revisit the story. Presenting itself as a study of the cultural appetite for crime, it revisits the hotel’s infamous history and rehashes the online conspiracy theories around Lam’s disappearance.
But the story is an odd fit for a commentary on online sleuths because the case was neither solved by sleuths nor really disrupted by them. And the series’ relitigation of the mystery’s unanswered questions ultimately makes it an awkward attempt to exploit the hunger for crime mysteries, while simultaneously attempting to comment on that appetite.
Crime Scene starts with a dramatic reading of Lam’s Tumblr posts, about her desire to see the world, which leads to her trip to Los Angeles. And the case begins when Lam was reported missing by her family in Canada, whom she was usually in constant contact with.
The story of the attractive young tourist’s disappearance immediately made the local news in Los Angeles. The documentary features interviews with the hotel manager, employees, fellow guests, and law enforcement who unspool the story as a mystery, playing up the Cecil Hotel’s “haunted history.”
A self-styled historian and “esotouric” (an allusion to esoteric tourism) talks about the hotel’s gory past, as the place, where, for instance, the serial killer Richard Ramirez reportedly stayed after committing some of his crimes.
The hotel is close to skid row, the epicenter of the city’s homelessness crisis. And as Lam’s body remains undiscovered for over two weeks, speculation builds that she might have fallen victim to violence from someone in the hotel or nearby skid row.
The most crucial aspect of the case — which turned it into an online obsession — came when, in an effort to spark leads, the police department chose to release grainy elevator footage of Lam seemingly acting erratically, as if someone were following her.
The Lam case garnered attention precisely because true crime mysteries resonate only when they play on relatable cultural tropes and fears.
After the release of that video, true crime sleuths swarmed the case. The documentary features an endless parade of YouTube videos and Facebook post voiceovers, representing the army of amateur investigators making multiple unsubstantiated, or ultimately easily explainable, claims. For instance, that the timestamp in the video is suspiciously scrambled, or that it looks like there’s someone else’s foot outside of the elevator.
In retrospect, the Lam case was noteworthy as one of the first to play out online from the start, almost in real time. But rather than commenting on that, or providing additional insights into their coverage, a moderator of a Lam Facebook group and a YouTuber who started his channel thanks to the Lam case restate the same points made in the endlessly replayed footage.
The discovery of Lam’s body in a hotel rooftop water tank that February — after guests complained about the foul odor and taste of the hotel’s water supply — became the kind of gruesome detail that again captivated true crime sleuths and the media.
And when the police found no evidence on her body of a crime — despite her being nude — and the forensic expert initially deemed it unsolved, the crime community online went into overdrive. There were frenzied questions about how she got up to the water tank, because an alarm would have sounded if she had walked through the internal stairs, and the fire escape would be terrifying to climb up in the tall building.
In the internet’s aggressive search for answers, attention centered around an amateur heavy metal musician who’d written a song about someone disappearing in water and had a reference to China (Lam was Chinese Canadian). He subsequently became the object of intense attacks online, but it’s unclear whether the people who went after him are random online commenters, specific Lam conspiracy theorists, or even what the series is saying about online vigilantism, other than it’s bad.
In the final episode, after Lam’s death is ruled an accidental drowning, all the conspiracy theories raised are mostly, finally debunked. An expert talks about bipolar disorder, and Lam’s history of not taking her medication, which would account for the mysterious paranoia in the elevator footage. A forensic pathologist explains how she may have accidentally drowned in the tank.
The heavy metal musician is even trotted out to talk about his experience with the online vigilantes who ultimately scared him off the internet and contributed to a suicide attempt. And one of the YouTubers admits to being very conspiracy minded. The docuseries’ structure, building up half-baked conspiracy theories (that sound outlandish in the first place) by endlessly replaying them, and then debunking them, feels like a straw man argument, and too morally neat.
This is especially true because the series itself alternates between conspiracy-mongering and analysis. A journalist is trotted out to legitimize as an undeniably spooky “synchronicity” that the Lam and Cecil Hotel story echoes the movie Dark Water. In the film, a mom and daughter move into a creepy old building, and the daughter ends up dead in a water tank, contaminating the building’s water.
Nobody points out the obvious fact that the “coincidence” simply speaks to the way that the Lam case garnered attention precisely because true crime mysteries resonate only when they play on relatable cultural tropes and fears — like the idea of drinking water contaminated by a dead body. And, obviously, the media only cares when crimes involve relatable protagonists.
By the time a skid row historian makes the point that plenty of people on skid row have mental health issues and the media never covers them, it feels like tacked-on moralizing, rather than part of any meaningful cultural analysis.
There are certainly interesting ethical quandaries involved in the way true crime cases grab our interest, and how crime rumor-mongering plays into existing cultural prejudices, around, say, violence and people who are unhoused. Netflix’s own Unsolved Mysteries reboot did a good job of unpacking such questions throughout the multiple cases it covered.
But the Lam case — as a single story — doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of analysis, at least not as presented here. The third episode of the series is titled “Down the Rabbit Hole.” It could have been the subtitle for the entire series — and not in a good way. ●