In 2013, the internet was bewildered when footage of 21-year-old Elisa Lam behaving strangely in an elevator in the Cecil Hotel [Stay On Main] in Los Angeles, Calif., went viral and she was found dead later in the water tanks. Now, the new Netflix docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel has revived the story.
The 21-year-old was last seen on January 31, 2013, before hotel guests complained that the water tasted funny and her body was found on February 19. Her cause of death was ruled as an accidental drowning, but true crime fans have been captivated by the case ever since.
The series is directed by Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes director Joe Berlinger, and Ron Howard is the executive producer.
"One of the critical issues with the true crime genre is that some stories are done irresponsibly, in my opinion. I never want to take on a story where I'm wallowing in someone's tragedy just for the sake of telling that story," Berlinger told Entertainment Weekly.
"I always want to widen the lens and have some social justice message or some kind of social commentary, a larger reason to tell the story. That's the first way, I think, we were respectful to Elisa Lam. We wanted to dissect the truth and not to dismiss her tragedy as a demonic possession, or a haunted house story, or that something supernatural has befallen her. To me, that is very disrespectful to the victim by not honoring the truth."
The documentary paces out the mystery surrounding Lam’s disappearance to keep the audience hooked while delving into the hotel’s strange past, Lam’s mental health and the true crime fans who came up with their own theories.
The hotel was best known for having 700 affordable rooms since it opened in 1927. The former general manager Amy Price estimated that "there were thousands of 911 calls" and approximately 80 deaths when she worked there from 2007-17.
Price recalled touring the hotel with a maintenance manager who was seemingly an expert on where guests had met their grisly fates. "Along the way, he would just point and say, 'Someone died here, someone died there,'" she said. "Suicides. Overdoses. Murders. At one point I think I just asked him, 'Is there a room here that maybe somebody hasn’t died in?'"
"Night Stalker" serial killer Richard Ramirez even reportedly stayed in the hotel, and Elizabeth Short (aka the "Black Dahlia") was rumored to have visited the hotel before she was murdered in 1947.
Lam’s own social media debunked initial theories. "I don’t abuse any drugs, I don’t drink alcohol," she had posed on Tumblr.
"A few good days followed by a week of sleeping. That is the pattern," she wrote. "It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?
"I’m just so tired. So very tired. I don’t want to live like this.”
"You can’t help but wonder, why is she acting this way?'” journalist Josh Dean commented on the footage of Lam’s behavior in the elevator.
"We're looking at a place and analyzing what contributes to crime in this area, and what contributes to the perception of crime," Berlinger told EW. "The Cecil Hotel is located in this area known as Skid Row, where homelessness is out of control."