My partner and I recently watched the Netflix true crime docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, and our thoughts about it were very similar to many of the other reviews I’ve seen out there: It was about 3 hours too long, and there was far too much screen time given to the destructive and disrespectful internet sleuths. The docuseries intentionally withheld crucial information from the viewer until the last episode in an attempt to give weight to some of the conspiracy theories armchair detectives were pushing for years.
This series could have been really interesting and beneficial had it just focused on the actual truths in the case from the beginning. (Spoilers for the show below.)
The disappearance of Elisa Lam has been a popular “unsolved” mystery since 2013 when it occurred. It frequently shows up on Buzzfeed listicles and Reddit forums, attracting a large number of amateur Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys who fancy themselves smarter and more thorough than actual detectives, coroners, and psychologists. If you are unaware, Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian who vanished from the infamous Cecil Hotel on a trip to LA in 2013. The case went viral when a video of her behaving in an erratic and paranoid way in the hotel’s elevator was released by the police in an attempt to get any information about her disappearance. A few weeks later, her dead body was discovered in one of the water tanks on the roof of the hotel and months later it was revealed that Elisa had bipolar disorder and had stopped taking her meds before her death.
It’s a tragic and upsetting story that is lost in the nonsense the True Crime Youtubers spew out for 2 hours of the show. The very real issues a young woman with a mental illness faced are shunted to the side so that internet sleuths clamoring for their five minutes of fame can explain why they thought all kinds of insane things might have happened to Elisa, from being murdered by a staff member, to being killed by a ghost, to being assassinated by the government because she was a biological weapon for TB. (No, really, some of them truly believe that.)
The truth is that Elisa had a history of strange behavior after going off her meds, and an illness like bipolar needs to be taken extremely seriously. This docuseries had a chance to show how stigmatizing it can be to live with a mental illness, how dangerous it can be to go off your meds, and explore deeper the mental health issues those on Skid Row face; the people whose cases aren’t sensationalized the way Elisa’s was, the people who are still suffering and dying every day because of addiction or mental illness. The series touches on this briefly in the last episode, but it should have been fully and thoroughly explored instead of letting the internet detectives ramble on for hours instead.
Yes, the elevator video is very creepy. But the minute I saw it a few years ago, I recognized it for what it was: A person struggling badly with a mental health episode. When I learned Elisa had suffered from Bipolar I and had gone off her meds, her behavior and accidental death made perfect sense. Here’s the thing: going off medication cold turkey, especially for disorders like Bipolar I, is incredibly dangerous. When I was a teenager, I stopped taking my anti-depressants one summer without telling anyone. The resulting mental breakdown was so severe that I stood in the parking lot of restaurant in upstate New York and screamed about how much I wanted to kill myself. Quitting meds cold turkey is no joke, and it’s cruel and disrespectful to bang on online about how Elisa HAD to have been killed, how the truth is being covered up. Her life and death should not be fodder for people who are bored with their own lives and fancy themselves modern-day Sherlocks.
The truth is that mental illnesses can kill. And until we start talking about them matter-of-factly, giving them their full weight and meaning, sharing our experiences and issues, we won’t be able to help everyone. The cause of death in this story is not a ghost. It’s not a serial killer. It’s something scarier than that because it can impact anyone, anywhere, no matter their social standing, race, sexuality, or gender. Had the docuseries focused more on that and less on the garbage theories of people who actually drove a man to try to commit suicide, it might have been better.