The mysterious death of Elisa Lam has been solved according to a documentary that was released in 2021. Through detective work, and with some assistance from internet forums, retired police detectives, coroners, and a forensic neuropsychologist, the Netflix documentary series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, helps us find some closure to the saga.
Just like many who witnessed the haunting video of Elisa Lam frantically pressing the buttons wanting to escape but trapped for minutes only to gesture to the thin air as if a person is there, and then disappearing altogether from view, I watched the video numerous times during those few weeks in 2013, hunched over my computer screen with sweaty palms and rewinding endlessly the footage for clues.
Her death hit close to home for me as I frequented the restaurant run by her family. It was the typical Chinese Canadian cafe, serving hamburgers and french fries alongside chow mein and sweet and sour. My friend Jim Wong-Chu loved the food and even held his retirement dinner there; he’d always got the same type of burger for its fresh paddy meat. The cafe symbolized the Asian Canadian story: parents who immigrated from Asia who sacrificed long hours in their cafe to give a better life for their children, who would go onto university to achieve professional careers that the parents could never have themselves. One can only imagine the pain the parents endured learning the loss of their daughter.
When Lam went missing in 2013, the whole world was in anticipation as to what happened to the young student only to find out nineteen days later that her body was found dead in a water tank at the rooftop of the hotel, with the lid closed. How could she possibly get up to the roof on her own? Was she murdered? Or was she possessed? Was the hotel haunted?
When news broke about Lam’s horrifying death, there was no doubt in my mind that there was something supernatural about the case. There was no explanation for how a young female could end up inside a water tank on the rooftop of a fourteen-floor building. The LAPD found her naked and floating in the water with the latch to the tank supposedly locked from the outside. There were no signs of struggle nor scratch marks on her body. Toxicology reports showed no substances in her body that could indicate she was high on drugs.
Media from across the world centred on this hotel not far from Los Angeles’ skid row for a while but eventually moved on with their lives as the story faded over time. A legion of amateur detectives, or “web sleuths” continued the search for hints, forming a tight community that kept the narrative strong on internet forums and YouTube channels. The Cecil became a sort of shrine where pilgrimages continued throughout the decade. Lam’s death became a sensationalized industry unto its own.
I stared into the ceiling after watching the entire series. Anger and empathy kept me up all night. Elisa Lam’s death was exploited, the vast conspiracy theories that made no sense were dissected over four episodes. The narrative is compelling, but many parts felt contrived, such as the scene that morbidly pans to an anonymous hand caressing Lam’s name marker as if wiping away the tears of a trembling spirit whose case was finally solved on Netflix.
We learn a great deal more about the history of the Cecil Hotel, the puzzling deaths and suicides that occurred, and the psychopaths who found a home there. The documentary keeps us in suspense throughout with a chilling narrative and flashbacks of gruesome deaths at the hotel, constantly reminding us of the possibility that Lam’s death was connected to the curse of the building.
We learn only at the end why the Lam family wanted their privacy and to grieve on their own terms without meddling into their lives and the vulnerabilities of their deceased daughter. The documentary is devoid of any local connections in Vancouver, with many declining to participate in its production. We can understand why.
I was asked in 2019 to work on this production. I did not: I found the whole premise gross and exploitative and disrespectful of Elisa Lam and those who loved her. https://t.co/4nbQqwtcOT
— Ian Young (@ianjamesyoung70) February 14, 2021
The story of Elisa Lam is a tragic tale of mental illness and the need for awareness and sympathy for those who need help. Elisa Lam clearly craved for freedom to explore the world on her own terms and regain a sense of normalcy, privately yearning for support to her inner suffering. Had the docuseries focused on this narrative the film would’ve been more tasteful.
The documentary, however, has completely different motives and its goal is to explicitly attention-seeking and ensure its rankings on Netflix remain relevant for the next few weeks. It has fed into Netflix’s surge in popularity among pandemic-weary audiences who want anything to lessen their daily news feed of daily death counts and rising variant cases of Covid-19.
Perhaps only in a pandemic can Netflix exploit our collective hunger for escapist entertainment. Communications and Media Studies scholar Brice Nixon has called this phenomenon “audience labour exploitation,” a long history of media companies seeking to control the attention of their audiences by whatever means possible to extract as much capital advertising and airtime. This long history exploitation has continued in more superfluous ways in the age of the Internet and digital media.
While Netflix has climbed quickly to join the pantheons of the internet tech giants – in fact, its stock has just reached new highs at the end of 2020 – it has successfully used the old Mondo film genre and repackage them as newsworthy binge programming. In the 1960s, this genre of pseudo-documentary exploitation films depicted sensational topics and became the rage of the time. Netflix simply revived this tradition in the guise of such titles as Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, and Bling Empire.
In the end, there was no spiritual haunting, foul play, or vast government conspiracy. A young 21-year old student went in search of escape, and her life was cut tragically short. While director Joe Berlinger has a reputation as a social justice documentary maker of unsolved mysteries, his latest work crosses ethical boundaries. Crime Scene doesn’t try to help portray Elisa Lam the person, instead choosing to piece together clips of old news footage and stilted voiceovers from her final blog entries to distastefully hypothesize her final moments of life. The real tragedy is that her loved one’s grievance has been disrupted and torn apart and they are now again forced to relive the horror almost a decade later.
The world once waited in bated breath as to what happened to her. At least for now, the suspense is over.
Allan Cho is Executive Editor of Ricepaper Magazine and Festival Director of LiterASIAN Festival, North America’s first Asian writers festival. He is an academic librarian at the University of British Columbia. He has written for the Georgia Straight, Diverse Magazine, and Ricepaper. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies, The Strangers and Eating Stories: A Chinese Canadian and Aboriginal Potluck. He blogs on issues about publishing, diversity, and libraries at Allan’s Library.