Warning: this article contains spoilers for The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.
Haunting. That’s the most accurate word to describe Netflix’s recent true-crime documentary. It’s not scary, by no means gory, it can’t be classified as horror. But it’s haunting. It’s a story that works its way into your head and nestles at the centre of your brain until it’s etched into your memory and you can only ask one question:
What happened to Elisa Lam?
And that's exactly what they wanted to happen.
Now, the true-crime genre is a very delicate one. It takes expertise to enlighten the public and illuminate certain aspects of life they know very little about, and at the same time avoid exploiting a family’s pain for the entertainment of the masses.
Netflix dropped the ball on this one.
With the use of cheap narrative tricks and a lot of unnecessary information, Joe Berlinger turned what would have been must-see TV into something barely above reality TV trash.
In 2013 Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian student travelling along the west coast when she decided to stay at the Cecil Hotel in downtown LA. On the day she was supposed to check out – February 1, 2013 – her parents didn’t hear from her and immediately contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. This launched a very public, very media-sensationalized investigation into her disappearance. On February 19 a member of the hotel’s maintenance staff found Lam’s body in one of the water tanks on the roof of the hotel – water that the guests had been drinking and bathing with mind you. After an autopsy, her death was deemed an accidental drowning, with Elisa’s bipolar disorder as a leading factor.
See how I did that? See how I summed up her case in one paragraph? Netflix apparently needed four hours.
The first two episodes of the docu-series are devoted entirely to truly mystery-worthy grainy elevator footage of Elisa acting strangely right before she disappeared, and the history of the infamous Cecil Hotel.
The Cecil Hotel is described as a place where bad things happen consistently.
“The Cecil is a place where serial killers, y’know, let their hair down,” was what Kim Cooper, LA Historian and Esotouric, who was one of the many experts brought onto the series, said.
The Cecil Hotel sits in the heart of Skid Row, a notoriously crime-filled neighbourhood (which the series makes sure to tell us repeatedly, while ignoring more complex sociopolitical factors in the area and glossing over police treatment of locals). The show is sure to tell us that former inmates, psychiatric patients, and people who are down on their luck, all call that neighbourhood home.
So the Cecil Hotel is a place where bad things happen, located in an area where bad things happen.
To add to its run-time, the series gives way too much credence to “internet sleuths” – basically YouTubers – who spent hours spinning ridiculous conspiracy theories before and after Lam’s body was found. One of them actually says, “if you reduce the plot of Dark Water down to its basic elements, it’s almost the story of Elisa Lam.”
Really? Reducing the death of a young woman to a weird parallel of a foreign film is pretty tasteless.
The show’s most pathetic move was withholding all the important information and evidence until the fourth and final episode because they knew that absolutely nobody would have watched for that long had all the facts been presented in the very first episode.
And what are the facts?
Elisa was taking medication for her diagnosed bipolar disorder. When the police found the pill bottles among her belongings, they noticed that she had more pills than she ought to have had considering her fill date. When the autopsy was carried out, it was noticed that the levels of the drugs in her system were lower than they should have been. The investigators put two and two together and realised she had stopped taking her pills, thus explaining her behaviour on the videotapes. She had access to the roof via the fire escape, the water tank lid wasn’t locked, and, because her state of mind wasn’t sound, she climbed into the tank and drowned.
Elisa’s death is extremely tragic, but it’s not a mystery – there are facts which lead to a logical conclusion. Her story would have been perfectly fine with a one-hour or less feature film.
The show had potential but the final product was very disappointing.