There is controversy around the Netflix documentary about the death of 21-year-old Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles back in 2013. It mainly centers on the inclusion of “web sleuths” and YouTubers featured in the 4-episode Crime Scene series. The controversy boils down to two factors.
First, the web sleuths and YouTubers do not come off well in the documentary. Overreaching, obsessive, irresponsible, infuriating—those adjectives about sum up the bulk of the reactions I saw others have (and felt myself).
One of the most egregious moments is in the fourth (and final) episode, after we hear the coroner’s report on Elisa Lam. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning with complications from bipolar disorder. The doc cuts to a montage of the immediate reactions (from 2013) posted by various sleuths and YouTubers. All of them are dumbfounded and disbelieving. One of them goes so far as to say, “I have spent hours and hours investigating this, and I completely disagree with the coroner.” The arrogance would be laughable if it wasn’t so insane and widespread. This random guy has only gone over public information, but feels confident in “completely disagree[ing] with the coroner.”
Unbelievable amounts of hubris. And these people feature prominently in the last two episodes of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, making those episodes, in particular, quite the lightning rod.
This brings us to the second factor.
A lot of viewers aren’t sure how to interpret the inclusion of the web sleuths and YouTubers.
For many, their first reaction is to think the filmmakers are at fault or wrong. Why include these people? Why give these sleuths and YouTubers who are so outrageous any screen time at all? Isn’t that glorifying them? Isn’t that elevating their statue and status? Viewers who feel this way are more likely to think negatively about the doc as a whole. That the doc is exploitive. Insensitive. More concerned with being trendy than thoughtful.
There’s a whole Reddit post with TWENTY-THOUSAND UPVOTES and over 100 awards (kind of a big deal in the Reddit community) that’s titled, “Why I stopped watching the Elisa Lam documentary.”
They’ve brought in all these ‘YouTubers’ and ‘websleuths’ to narrate the story, and frankly, it’s disgusting. At one point a ‘websleuth’ starts crying saying he felt like he lost a sister, a friend. ‘It’s the outcome a lot of us didn’t want’ he said of her body being discovered. WTF?! Us? He’s acting like he knew her but he’s just a grief-thief – this is in no way HIS tragedy, but he’s including himself in it. And he’s literally a random websleuth. Aren’t we all mate!
They use tons of footage of a group of YouTubers/websleuths staying at the hotel, retracing her steps, going in the same elevator she was last filmed in, and up on the roof. They are GIDDY with excitement. It’s like a night out on the town for them.
‘My instinct says she was murdered’ the websleuth said. His instinct? So, not evidence, or law enforcement, or eyewitness statements? Of course not, because there’s no evidence a third party was involved (I’ll get to that in a sec). He’s gagging for a creepy mystery. He literally wants this to be more tragic and painful than it already is. Just think about that for a second. And Netflix let him talk about it on a documentary.u/CountRavioli135
3,000 people commented on the post, most sharing similar sentiments.
Reactions across platforms and in think-pieces have been nearly unanimous in saying the sleuths and YouTubers are rage-inducing. It begs the question: maybe that was on purpose?
The documentarian behind The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is Joe Berlinger. He is acclaimed. A pioneer of the true-crime documentary genre. Berlinger’s West Memphis Three documentary trilogy, Paradise Lost, helped garner serious public attention that assisted in the eventual overturning of the wrongful conviction of three teenagers who spent 18-years falsely imprisoned.
Berlinger has an extensive track record of serious, thoughtful, provoking work that’s purposeful and well-respected. From Brother’s Keeper (1992) to Paradise Lost trilogy (1996-2011) to Crude (2009).
Vanishing isn’t some thrown-together schlock by a random director off the street. It’s the next installment in a well-respected filmmaker’s career.
If the inclusion of the sleuths and YouTubers was purposeful—what’s the point?
The point, part 1: show, don’t tell
Every hopeful writer eventually encounters this golden rule: “Show, don’t tell.” Showing is grounded in action, telling in exposition.
In Avengers: Infinity War, the first scene involves Thanos arriving on an Asgardian spaceship. Thor and Hulk, two of the most physically powerful superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are pretty confident as they confront the previously unknown challenger. Why shouldn’t they be confident? We’ve watched them succeed time and time again over every other enemy.
Except Thanos beats down Hulk. Which is something we have never seen before. It’s quick, brutal, and very very very one-sided. Hulk had no chance. The same thing happens with Thor. What you, the viewer, probably take away from this scene is: Thanos is clearly the new big bad and has introduced a higher power level into the MCU. The other heroes are going to need a miracle to defeat this guy.
That’s showing. Compared to telling which would just be someone saying “Thanos is stronger than every hero we have. No one can defeat him in a one-on-one fight. We should be terrified of this guy.” Those words are cause for concern, sure. But without a demonstration of Thanos’s power, telling us he’s strong doesn’t really mean anything.
So imagine if Vanishing simply told us the web sleuths and YouTubers were annoying. Maybe the detective or journalist would say, “The online sleuths and YouTubers spread a lot of misinformation that caused a lot of issues.” We’d probably believe them. But that statement wouldn’t make a lasting impression on us. It’s information rather than experience. There’s no action. No demonstration.
Berlinger is very aware of the power of experience. So he brings in the sleuths and YouTubers, letting us see, first-hand, what they’re like. And, yeah, they make your blood boil.
The point, part 2: we live in a society
From what I’ve seen, many of the mainstream crime shows and streaming docs are one-dimensional. By that, I mean they mostly focus on the victim and the suspect and what happened and how it happened. It’s the Unsolved Mysteries and Dateline style that’s been popular for decades. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that style.
But in the traditional documentary world, it’s pretty common to go multi-dimensional. You pick a specific event to focus on and use it as a jumping-off point for a larger examination. One classic example is the 1994 Steve James doc Hoop Dreams.
For 5 years, James followed his subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they went from kids playing basketball in the Chicago streets to being recruited into one of the top basketball high schools in the city, St. Joseph. Hoop Dreams then spans from their freshman year all the way to senior year. James had nearly 300 hours of footage that he cut down to the final 3-hour film.
What we see transcends basketball. Gates and Agee are black youths from poor neighborhoods. St. Joseph is very preppy, very white, and very far away from where Gates and Agee live. They have 90-minute commutes each way. That’s physically and mentally devastating. It immediately puts them at a disadvantage in a situation where the odds were already stacked against them.
Hoop Dreams shows us, rather than tells us, how societal structures and divisions can limit an individual’s ability to reach their potential. This is antithetical to the American dream, as that dream is based on the idea “Willpower and effort are all you need to be great.” Sadly, that’s not the reality for a lot of kids with hopes and aspirations and the determination to back them up. Many have their wings broken by divides created by class, race, and biased gatekeepers.
Basketball is one example. You can imagine the same thing happening to poor and minority students interested in music, art, theater, science, engineering, other sports—anything—who lack easy access to the resources needed to carve a path forward in their desired field. It’s up to us, as a society, to create fewer barriers to entry and hurdles to performance. But we can’t change anything if most of us aren’t even aware of how the odds tilt for and against certain groups of people. The result is: many teenagers with the potential to do something great, like Gates and Agee, end up stonewalled by circumstances outside their control.
All of this is shown rather than told. You feel so much hope for Gates and Agee. Then sadness and disappointment as their dreams evaporate.
This broader societal statement is very common in the documentary world. But a lot of people don’t watch documentaries and may be unfamiliar with this approach. So when they experience The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, it’s possible and easy to overlook what Berlinger wanted to say about society. You go in expecting the one-dimensional, only to have these sleuths and YouTubers show up over and over again, providing perspectives that are uneducated, egotistical, and conspiracy-driven. That can be jarring.
So when we look at the aforementioned multi-dimensional commentary of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, what do we see?
- Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row.
- The shady history of the Cecil
- Elisa Lam
- The investigation into Elisa Lam’s disappearance, discovery, and death
- The online culture around Elisa Lam’s disappearance, discovery, and death
I think what Berlinger wanted to show was the difference in how the public engages with the fantastic versus the realistic.
When Elisa’s fate was unsolved, full of opportunity for the fantastic, the internet went wild. The sleuths and YouTubers gushed elaborate conspiracies that created a whole online movement around Elisa’s death. They theorized on everything from potential murderers to cover-ups involving the hotel, the police, even international, geopolitical influences.
To this day, you can find people speculating on “what really happened to Elisa Lam.” It’s enough to leave you feeling some kind of way. Especially when you consider how much of that content was and is monetized.
But then Elisa’s story got grounded in the reality of bipolar disorder and the stress and shock of being on Skid Row and in a hotel that feels like a knife’s edge—two places that actually exist and have a definitive, documented history of crime and mortality—the internet moved on.
Or let’s put it another way.
At one point, the sleuths and YouTubers thought Pablo Vergara killed Elisa. Why? Because he performed as a death metal character named Morbid, made vlogs about death, songs about death, and had stayed at the Cecil. Not when Elisa did. But a year earlier. Never mind he was in Mexico at the time of her disappearance. None of that mattered. All that mattered was the narrative the sleuths had created, that the YouTubers pushed, and that the online communities ate up.
As Vanishing covers, Vergara received a waterfall of hate. People piled on that he was a murderer. They reported his YouTube channel so many times it got removed forever. His label dropped him. The accusations ruined any hope he had for a career in music. These people hurt this man. All because of a story they made up.
But when Berlinger presents the very real possibility that Skid Row and the Cecil Hotel were too overwhelming for Elisa and triggered a severe mental health episode—where’s the outcry? Why aren’t online armies mobilizing to pressure Los Angeles to improve Skid Row to the point where a name like “Skid Row” isn’t appropriate? Why weren’t people calling for the heads of lawmakers who had done nothing to counteract the crime and nefarious elements that found safe haven at the Cecil for decades?
That’s what’s terrifying to me about The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. It shows how willing people are to rally around conspiracy. And how unwilling they are to demand accountability in reality. Reality ends up being too immense or too boring to care about. Or both.
Now apply that attitude to other societal and cultural situations. I can think of a few in American politics. And in regards to the American judicial system. Or law enforcement accountability. Or white collar crime. Where time and again, the public gets up in arms around the intrigue of a situation. But when it comes time to discuss serious changes to systems and accountability for the people in charge of those systems…nadda.
There’s a world where Los Angeles took accountability for Skid Row and prevented such homelessness. There’s a world where The Cecil couldn’t persist as a den of iniquity that lured in unsuspecting travelers and threw them in with seedier elements. And in that world, a young woman like Elisa Lam takes a trip to Los Angeles, stays downtown, and it’s empowering rather than shattering.