*** SPOILERS for Netflix’s Cecil Hotel Documentary ahead ***
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is a Netflix documentary about the disappearance and death of Elisa Lam in 2013. Elisa Lam was a 21 year old Canadian, who during her brief stint in LA stayed in a hotel ‘Stay on Main’ – a rebranded section of the Cecil Hotel. Elisa went missing during her stay and was discovered weeks later, dead, in a water tank on the Hotel’s roof.
Cecil Hotel has a speckled history. It’s reputation for crime, and proximity to the famous ‘skid row’ draws intrigue. It’s been the home of two serial killers, and in 10 years 80 people lost their lives under its roof (according to former Cecil Hotel manager, Amy Price) many of which were due to suicide. Nothing drew online attention to the hotel quite like the disappearance and subsequent death of Elisa Lam.
Netflix loves a true-crime documentary, especially if it can eke it out into a series; cliffhangers, red herrings, clips of people sitting down saying ‘are we recording?’ It’s all very formulaic and has been, generally, very successful for the platform.
I fucking hate this documentary. For numerous reasons.
If you’ve seen it you might be expecting what I’m going to say. The presentation of mental health. There are also a few more reasons that made me want to scream into a pillow (since I’ve quit reaction-ranting on Twitter I’ve taken up howling into whatever soft furnishings that are within arms reach).
I, too, like many others, was sucked in from the start. I was aware of the Elisa Lam disappearance and death prior to sitting down to this Netflix series. Through YouTube circa 2013/14. I was convinced she was murdered, it’s a cover up! JUSTICE FOR ELISA LAM! Why? Because of a grainy 4 minute video and some person on YouTube ranted about it for an hour. I sat and nodded along like an obedient puppy. ‘Oh my god. How are the police not doing more? LOOK AT WHAT THESE PEOPLE HAVE FOUND OUT FROM THEIR LIVING ROOM’
It’s a mob mentality. These online ‘sleuths’ create an online community and whip up excitement and frenzy. They create an environment people want in on. It’s how conspiracy theorists operate. They pose their theories as ‘critical thinking.’ Wake up sheeple! I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before. It’s a cool club and only those enlightened and willing to challenge the status quo are let in.
Sound familiar? We’re in a time currently where conspiracy theorists are wreaking havoc across the internet. Q-anon. Anti-vaxxers. Et cetera, et cetera. You’ve most likely seen them, particularly on the hell-site Twitter. Reddit is another fave location of theirs.
Woah, woah, woah, Meg. Are you comparing the Elisa Lam conspiracy theorists with the disinformation (fake news) spreading trolls of today? The trolls you actively despise? If I’m not wrong, weren’t you saying you bought into the YouTuber’s arguments above?
Well, dear reader, I did buy into the arguments back then. I bought into their argument years ago without much care or attention. I was given a simple diluted portion of facts they hand-picked and I thought ‘yeah that’s enough for me. I’ve decided she was murdered.’ I did not hound people online. Yet I did watch these videos, I gave the YouTuber’s views, I probably even liked a troll’s comment pointing the finger incorrectly. I’m ashamed about that, I really am.
This is just but one area I take a great dislike to in this documentary. It gives a platform to people who spread false accusations, hindered a case by flooding the police with calls about what they think happened, and hounded an innocent man so much he attempted to take his own life. There’s no doubt about it. These people are trolls.
Fast forward 8 years. I don’t buy into one side of an argument presented to me anymore. Yet, I have to ask the wider media, why are these people being given such a platform? Have we not learnt anything in that time? 2013 was the relatively early days of YouTube, and very different to what we know it to be today. Cyber-bullying, pile-ons and fake news are all at the forefront of our internet experience now. Yet here we are platforming people who perpetuated these exact things 8 years ago. Calling them ‘sleuths’ and benefiting from their atrocious actions for sensationalism; presenting them as fact-checkers and detectives for the majority of this series.
At the end of Episode 3 we are introduced to Morbid. A black metal musician. We are shown a character who has lyrics, graphic lyrics, about murder, flesh, drowning. They show a montage of his videos, he’s in heavy make-up, contacts, fake blood. They show a music video of his that has a girl running through the woods, the voice over informs us this girl is ‘murdered’ at the end of the video.
Oh fuck. It’s shocking. This is terrifying for someone watching it at 10pm at night (me). It is set up to be exactly that. They show another one of his videos, filmed when he was staying at the Cecil Hotel; again with a YouTuber’s voice over, this time saying ‘He was there at the time of Elisa’s death’. The aforementioned girl-woods-murder video was released around the time of Elisa’s death. Oh shit. They even declare his videos are ‘the calling cards of a murderer’ through the voice of a YouTuber they are platforming, then they end the episode. The perfect cliffhanger.
It’s not until much later in the last episode do they return to this. Informing us that the Cecil Hotel video they had shared, the one they had presented as proof he was there at the time of Elisa’s death was, in fact, filmed 12 months prior. He wasn’t even in the USA when she died. He had receipts to prove this, studio contracts for his music, stamps on his passport. He was in fucking Mexico.
Yet the damage was done. In that, the internet back in 2013 had decided he did it. They self-appointed themselves as judge, jury and executioners. They did not care for facts. Mob mentality was out in full force on the great interweb and this man was hunted. Literally hunted. He was reported and subsequently blocked from his email, Facebook, and YouTube account. People sent him death threats. Which is actually a very common occurrence today. How ridiculous is that? Oh, you’re on the internet? Death threats, par for the course.
The original witch-hunt happened with no facts. Just a fucking pile-on. Morbid, real name Pablo Vergara, was hunted in 2013 and Netflix is here in 2021 posing him back in the suspect seat. Just like the people who had destroyed his life. For an extended period of time may I add. It spans across two episodes before they discredit their set-up of posing him as a suspect.
It’s fucking so dangerous. It’s so dangerous in fact, Pablo attempted to take his own life and ended up in a psychiatric unit. Like, what the actual fuck. One person saw a few videos of his, saw he had been at the Cecil Hotel (didn’t bother to check the fucking dates), and let the wildfire rip through the online ‘community’.
Then here we are in 2021, Netflix uses Morbid as a red herring and as a cliffhanger. He’s a tool to them. This witch hunt ruined his life. He no longer makes music. He has lasting damage from these trolls’ wicked decision to go after him because of how he looked and the lyrics he wrote. That’s it. Not a modicum of real evidence. A dislike and intolerance for someone ‘different’. That’s what it is.
We see far too much YouTube footage and YouTubers for them to not once be challenged on what happened to Morbid. Whether or not they were involved in pushing the Morbid narrative back in the day, they would have been aware of it. The producers seem to hold the YouTuber’s opinions highly on many other topics, so why are they not challenged on this? It’s because it would then have shone a light on what Netflix did in this documentary with Morbid. They used him for click bait too.
This could have been such an interesting documentary on ‘internet sleuths’ (trolls and conspiracy theorists) and how their online frenzies can be so damaging, to people’s lives and to cases that are being handled by detectives who have access to all the information.
The documentary is 4 parts. 3 parts too long if you ask me. So much of the series is giving a platform to YouTuber’s to talk about their conspiracy theories, which are just debunked at the end. The 4 parts finish in a similar manner akin to when you let a balloon go and it just pfffffttttttssssss. They spend 3.5 episodes talking about ‘synchronicities,’ the danger of skid row, pointing the finger at this being a murder case. They punctuate it all with mentions of Elisa Lam’s bipolar disorder, and draw examples from her online blog in a creepy fucking manner. Almost trying to position her as the narrator of the Netflix documentary about her own death. Gross.
We get to the last half of the last episode and they limp flatly to the cause of death, which is deemed as accidental death during a psychotic episode due to her bipolar disorder and that she had not been taking her medication properly. It’s almost like you can feel the producers are disappointed they had to include these facts. They toss it at you as they turn and walk away, gutted that they couldn’t leave it on a cliffhanger for that ever lucrative series 2.
This documentary plays fast and loose with mental health conditions. They do exactly what had pushed Pablo Vergara to the brink during episode 3 only to begrudgingly admit the truth in the final episode. They dangle Elisa Lam’s bipolar disorder throughout, focusing on how she saw herself as different, which in turn presents her to us as ‘different’. Using Elisa’s voice lulls us to believe that she’s telling us that. She isn’t. The producers are using cherry picked items from her blog and an actors voice as a mouth-piece. It’s stigmatising. They try, crassly, to present that they aren’t stigmatising her or her disorder. Oh, what, because they interview someone who points out people are still stigmatised for having bipolar disorder? Or that an officer calls it a disease? Oh, then post a website at the end for mental health resources. How destigmatising. Pat yourself on the back!
I see what you are doing Netflix.
You’re doing the bare fucking minimum. You are stigmatising her. Throughout. In a sneaky nasty little way. You breadcrumb her bipolar, constantly juxtaposing it with her blog articles about her mental health, along with the repeated image of a girl laid up in bed. Like that’s the only aspect of bipolar. They describe the mania aspect briefly, all whilst using the imagery of being bed-ridden. Reinforcing the idea that you are either ‘depressed’ or ‘manic’ with bipolar, nothing in between. You’re either in bed, or running around ‘crazed’. This is simply not true.
It. Is. Stigmatising.
Also, to even mention the idiotic notion of the hotel being ‘haunted’ whilst playing the saddening video of Elisa’s last filmed moments; what appears to be a psychotic episode. Especially since for hundreds of years those with mental illness have been killed or tortured because they were believed to be ‘haunted’ or ‘possessed.’ So to play a ‘haunted hotel’ off as some kind of joke in this series, disgusting behaviour Netflix.
The documentary goes on to say ‘Elisa is so much more than her bipolar. She has so many parts about her.’ A brief tag on to the end of a long and enduring poor representation of mental ill health. The classic ‘look at all the ‘weird’ things she did’ (over and over again), but then throwing in the ‘she was so much more than her disorder.’ End scene. They spent episodes repeating video imagery of her struggling in that lift, but whispered ‘she was so much more than this’ at the end. Like we can just forget the last 4 episodes of stigmatising mental health. I’ve seen what you’ve done for the entire series, you can’t pull it back (weakly) at the end.
In conclusion, what could have been a fantastic documentary about the dangers of online trolling, and a true de-stigmatisation of mental health was in fact the exact opposite. It platformed trolls and conspiracy theorists as ‘detectives’, stigmatised the mental health of Elisa Lam, and used Pablo “Morbid” Vergara as a cliffhanger and red herring. When are these major platforms and media creators going to be held accountable for their presentation of mental health? When are they going to stop profiting off others mental ill health?
My heart hurts.
Rest in peace, Elisa Lam.