Everything wrong with Netflix’s “Cecil Hotel”


Jim Winstead

The Cecil Hotel, also known by its nickname “hotel death,” is currently closed for renovation until later this year.

Chloe Hartje, Perspectives Editor

While “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” has all the best elements for a crime documentary, it does not fail to disappoint. Its four, one-hour long episodes could have easily been cut to a single episode, but instead, it is needlessly long and dull. Netflix’s “Cecil Hotel” repeats details endlessly, includes insignificant interviews and uses fake cliffhangers to seemingly stretch the documentary. This latest Netflix hit may be better to skip. 

The Cecil Hotel has a long history of criminal activity, however the docuseries focuses on the story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian tourist who vanished while staying at the hotel in 2013. It addresses several conspiracy theories surrounding her disappearance and ultimately death, none of which have been proven true. 

Located in a grim neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, also known as Skid Row, the infamous hotel has housed some questionable people, including serial killers Richard Ramirez (the “Night Stalker”) and Jack Unterweger. Additionally, several guests have jumped to their deaths out of upper-floor windows, and there have been countless overdoses, murders and suicides inside the hotel’s dark premises. In an interview, former Cecil Hotel manager, Amy Price, revealed that within a span of 10 years, there were a total of 80 deaths. 

The Cecil was known as a hotel for travelers, and it unfortunately attracted 21-year-old Lam. She had been a student at the University of British Columbia when she decided to take a trip by herself to California. At the beginning of her stay, she was sharing a room with other guests, but she was soon moved into a room by herself due to complaints about her strange behavior. When she went missing on Jan. 31, her sister told the LAPD that she took several medications for her bipolar disorder and she could have been experiencing withdrawal. 

Lam frequently posted details of her life on Tumblr, capturing her struggle with mental illness and her feelings of being lost. The documentary uses her blog posts as a narrative, and although this feels uncomfortable, it is understandable given its importance to the case. 

Hotel staff reported her being alone the day of her disappearance, but a surveillance video of Lam in the hotel elevator shows otherwise. In the video, Lam looks to be disoriented and paranoid, clicking several buttons to seemingly get the elevator doors to close. She quickly hides in the corner of the elevator as she waits for it to move, only it does not budge. Lam creeps towards the doors and jumps out, looking both ways to see if anyone is there. Then, she proceeds to move her feet in almost a square dance motion back into the elevator and up against its wall again. She leaves the elevator and begins to make strange hand gestures, which looks like she is “conjuring a spirit,” or possibly communicating with someone down the hall. 

As Lam turns to the left, there appears to be a shoe from another person, unless her own foot was unusually twisted. After she leaves, the elevator doors finally close. The LAPD released this video during her search and it drew worldwide interest, with people extensively analyzing her behavior. Several theories to explain her actions have emerged; some believe that she was being pursued and tried escaping in the elevator, and others suggest that she was under the influence of ecstasy or another party drug. However, her autopsy report revealed no sign of foul play or any trace of illegal substances, therefore being inconclusive. What seems to be the most probable is that she was experiencing a psychotic episode due to withdrawals from her medication. 

The docuseries includes an interview with two Cecil Hotel guests who stayed during the time of Lam’s search. They complained to the hotel staff of the low water pressure as well as its unusual color and taste. Santiago Lopez, the maintenance worker, went to the roof to check if there was a blockage in the water tanks. Unfortunately, through an open hatch, Lopez found Lam’s naked body lying face-up in one of the four tanks. After nearly three weeks, the search for Lam came to a sad and unexpected conclusion. 

The tank was drained and cut open at the bottom in order to remove Lam’s body, which was partially decomposed. Her death was ruled as an accidental drowning, yet the exact cause of her death may never be known. 

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” withholds the truth throughout the lengthy series in order to create mystery surrounding Lam’s death. It uses “internet sleuths” from YouTube who make rash assumptions and claims that turn out to be completely wrong, which is a potentially dangerous technique. The docuseries takes an intriguing, multi-level story about an unfortunate death and makes it not only borderline boring, but also deceiving.