I might not have been reading much but boy have I been binge watching True Crime Documentaries!
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel
2021 – Netflix – 1 Season – 15 and over
As soon as I knew there was going to be a documentary released on the above subject, I knew it was something I wanted to watch. I have of course, heard of Elisa Lam but that is something I have stumbled upon in the last few years. In 2013, I was 23, I was in a job I hated, and I wasn’t clued in with the news or actively seeking it out. So, it doesn’t surprise me that I wasn’t aware of it as it happened. I do also live in the UK and am unaware of what news coverage the story would have had.
True crime fascinates me in that I am always intrigued by how the brain works. I think this comes from knowing that my brain is formed from things beyond my control and the knowledge that my brain is wired in a completely different way to the average human. The personal insight I have into my own bizarre mind has often had me thinking of others.
I struggle with depression, anxiety, and OCD. However, I also got the best of my parents, my mum’s emotional range, and my dad’s logic and drive for knowledge. So, even with my bizarre brain, I am balanced between the two of them. I do suffer down days, everyone on the mental health spectrum will know that and feel them, but for the majority of the time I am in control.
As a young adult, I did know someone who was bipolar but other than knowing they were medicated for it, I have little knowledge to understand it as it was a topic they didn’t like to talk about. Being so grounded in the mental health community now, I completely understand their closed off mindset.
I went into watching this documentary with a completely blank mind. All I knew of the event was the elevator clip. I didn’t even know the crime had been solved till I sat down to watch this.
It is a very interesting 4-part documentary that does take a closer look at all elements of the case and what helped/hindered procedures. The idea of ‘web sleuths’, wasn’t something that had occurred to me, but perhaps that just shows me as not being observant (idk?), but in the modern day (and especially with COVID) I can understand the fine line between web sleuths being helpful and being detrimental to an ongoing case.
It is clear that the case of Elisa Lam affected a great many people worldwide and that there was not only an overwhelming sense of wanting justice for her, but also a frensy that fed into the possibility of ‘paranormal activity’.
As humans, we are naturally curious. We always want to believe that the impossible is possible, even if it defies logic, nature, science, etc. I understand the elements that went into the case and how the hotel’s history clouded the minds of a lot of people following the event.
A place only needs one high profile event to happen for others to flock to it. That’s my opinion. I think the history of the Cecil Hotel is less about being ‘death fuelled, paranormal or suspicious’ and more of a fact that if one person could live there and get away with the darkest of deeds, then others could to. Especially with the area of LA that the hotel is situated, and all the information given about that area.
It’s like an infestation that has been left too long and now people don’t know what to do about it. I guess it’s easier to believe that the Cecil Hotel is infested in paranormal activity rather than admit to the fact that humans are capable of anything and those ‘dark deeds’ are very real and can be committed by anyone.
However, as much as the documentary is a look into the hotel’s seeded past and the location of ‘Skidrow’, it is also an in-depth view into Elisa Lam’s herself. What starts as an unexplained vanishing evolves into a complex person who was feeling many things at one time.
I felt there was a clear communication error throughout the investigation. Both with the information given by Lam’s family and by the mistake of statements given to the press. The documentary also showed the scope of social media and how a group of ‘web sleuths’ can quickly turn into an ‘angry mob’ with no real goal in sight other than overwhelming anger and hatred.
Clearly, a lot of people were deeply affected by Lam’s disappearance. For me, viewing almost as an outsider who wasn’t involved during the ‘bubble’ of attraction, it is hard for me to pinpoint why people felt so connected to a person they never met. From what was shown, her tumbler account reads like an open journal, and it is hard to resist feeling like you know someone when they’re constantly posting online like that.
Much like how some books written in 1st person make you feel deeply connected and personal to the character journey.
What happened to Lam is incredibly sad because it’s opening your mind to the fact that while there are terrible people out there, sometimes it is yourself who is your own worst enemy.
I take medication for my mental health. I have many friends who take medication regularly, and I have many friends who don’t want to take medication. I know many people that struggle badly and many people who struggle in a managed environment.
Speaking candidly, I did not want to go on medication back in 2018 when it was suggested. I fought it for almost 6 months because I believed I could survive without it and also because I didn’t want to admit to another difference. While I don’t have the same mental health issues as Lam did, I can understand her reasoning for undertaking and eventually the stopping of taking her medicine. For some people, that line to walk is incredibly fine and it doesn’t take a lot for them to be pushed either side of it.
It did seem to be a theme in the documentary that the true of what happened to Lam was harder to deal with than the conjured-up ideas that people had had over the course of the investigation.
For me, this feeds into curiosity and taboo. The curiosity I’ve spoken about above, this need to believe in the impossible. The taboo comes from the continuing stigma around mental health. Bipolar (from what I’ve since learned), still seems to have a lot of stigma around it and I imagine it was difficult for Lam to come to terms with the fact that she had it and how she would manage it as an adult moving forward.
I’m very passionate about mental health and I’ve very vocal about it, so seeing all the pieces of the investigation slot into place made perfect sense to me – not that I ever assumed the conclusion would be anything remotely paranormal.
When it was shown that the water tanks atop the hotel where never checked in the initial search, I couldn’t help but feel confused by that fact. I can count at least 7 instances in crime TV programmes where a victim has been found in a water tank. Obviously, crime TV isn’t real, but to me it just feels like an impossible choice not to have at least thought about checking them out.
That said, I do believe that the police force did what they could with the information they had. Clearly as the investigation moves on and they get more information about certain aspects of Lam’s movements and past behaviours, you can clearly see the cogs turning and the detectives involved piecing the events together.
I think the news coverings, while prompt and ‘to the point’ should have perhaps checked their information and facts before reporting. It seems like such a small thing, but 1 comment became the bases of the idea that foul play was involved with Lam’s demise when that fact simply wasn’t true.
I also think some blame lies with Lam’s family, and though that pains me to say, her family were the people most aware of her bipolar disorder and her relationship with her medication. Furthermore, the fact that it was revealed by her sister the true extent of her bipolar disorder and what happened when she ‘crashed’, later into the investigation was something I believe hindered the information.
It’s like walking around with blinkers on. Or being short sighted and walking into a dark building. I like facts but I like to have ALL the facts before facing something and I think the communication errors surrounding this event blocked some of those facts emerging as they should.
[I was originally going to plan out what I wanted to say for this ‘review/opinion’ but ended up letting my thoughts take over, so I’m not sure how much of this will make sense while reading – I know I jumped from topic to topic a bit but I wanted to write this while the programme was still fresh in my mind].
While it is clear that the overall ending to Lam’s life was tragically sad, I wouldn’t be presumptuous in predicting she’d have been fine ‘if only she’d had help or support’ because that’s not something I will ever comfortably have knowledge on. I cannot guess what was going on in Lam’s mind while she took that trip or what caused her to stop taking her medication in the first place, but it’s not necessarily a fixed solution had she stopped taking her medication and still been with her family.
Much of the world of mental health is unpredictable and the scope is so wide and varied that no two people suffer the same. It can be hard to notice when someone is struggling – particularly if they’re a long time suffer or if they’ve had plenty of practice in hiding how they feel.
I will not start preaching on how ‘life would be easier with more acceptance of mental health issues’ because I honestly don’t feel it’s that solvable. It does help that the stigma around mental health is slowly fading but I think that sometimes people misunderstand that mental health also concerns an individuals personal feelings of themselves. It could be that Lam didn’t approve the manifestation of bipolar disorder within herself and couldn’t come to terms with that as her new reality.
It’s not a question that will be answered but it does make me wonder.
At the end of the 4-part documentary I felt relief that the mystery had been put to rest. I felt sad for Lam and her family. I felt compassion for the millions of people suffering with mental health right now.
Finally, it reminded me that sometimes a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ really is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. E.G., don’t get lost in the storm when the answer is already in front of you. It’s easy to get caught up in drama and want to be part of a collective that ‘does good’. I’m aware of many instances where ‘people online’ have helped to solve cases, but this documentary showed that the ambition and drive of those online doesn’t mean they have control of the scenario. Sometimes you just have to see things as they are.
Have you watched this documentary yet? Please let me know your thoughts, views & opinions 🙂