I don’t normally review documentaries or anything that could be considered for TV, due to the length and the amount of depth that is required for one to properly review them. However ‘The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ might be the most god awful documentary I’ve ever seen in my life, to the point where my brain can’t contain it and I now have the sudden urge to tell everyone why this thing is so damn bad.
Let’s start with what the documentary is about. It is about a girl called Elisa Lam who travels to Los Angeles as a tourist, stays in some creepy hotel, goes missing for days on end without a trace and is then found dead in a water tank on the roof. The documentary concerns itself with the initial police investigation, the hotel itself and whether Elisa Lam committed suicide or was murdered.
Now let’s talk about the format of the documentary. It was released on Netflix and formatted as a TV show containing four episodes, each of which is just under an hour long. So the whole this is just under four hours in length:
Episode one is like stage dressing, as it spends a long time establishing how downtown LA is basically full of criminals and how the hotel is place with a long history of guests killing themselves, dealing drugs, robbing each other, killing each other, hiring prostitutes and pretty much any other crime you can imagine. Episode two is more focussed on contextualising Elisa Lam as a person and what led her to traveling to LA, as well as her disappearance, the initial police investigation and the discovery of her body in a water tank on the roof. Episode three is a whole hour of YouTuber conspiracy theories being treated as serious and legitimate possibilities as to what could have happened to Elisa, with only a few sprinklings of actually interesting police forensic work. Finally, episode four is about how and why the police determined the death was a suicide and/or an accidental death, and a bunch of YouTubers refusing to believe it.
Now that we’re all caught up, let’s get into why this documentary is bad. It all has to do with one thing, which is the way the documentary deals with the question as to whether Elisa Lam killed herself or was murdered.
For some reason the documentary spends a lot of time giving a platform to YouTube conspiracy theorists who seem to think they know better than the police investigators do, and then treats those YouTuber’s perspectives as valid interpretations of the case even though they have no idea what the hell they are talking about. I’ll give you an example:
Police theorised that Elisa Lam couldn’t have been murdered and if she was it would have had to have been after she got onto the roof of the hotel. The reason for this being because the stairwell leading to the roof has a door that activates an alarm when opened, unless it is disabled by a member of staff with the authority to be up there. No alarm was triggered during Lam’s stay at the hotel, therefore she couldn’t have taken the stairs to the roof. She would have had to have taken the ladder from the fire escape, which is unguarded. When the body was found there were no traces of injury of any kind, meaning the killer (if there was a killer) couldn’t have killed Lam before going to the roof, since carrying a dead body up a ladder would have damaged it in some way. So the way police see it is that Lam either went up to the roof of her own free will and ended up killing herself, or she was killed on the roof after taking the ladder up. Makes sense, right?
Well then the documentary cuts to a YouTuber who visited the hotel. He says he “leant into” the door leading to the roof and no alarm was triggered when he did so. Essentially he is implying the police could be wrong about Lam taking the ladder to the roof because he leant into the door without alerting security. But this is stupid because, firstly, he didn’t actually try to open the door, he just leant into it. Secondly, if he did trigger an alarm he wouldn’t have known about it because it’s not something that just starts ringing through the entire building, it’s a signal that is set off for only staff to see in the lobby. My gripe with this is less the fact that this YouTuber is obviously dim, and more to do with the fact the documentary presents their point of view with the same level of seriousness as the legitimate police investigation.
Then the police announce that they determined the death to have been either an intentional suicide or and accidental death. They came to this conclusion based on the fact the body was undamaged and that Lam was a bipolar who, experts had examined after looking over the body, had for some reason decided not to take the proper amount of medication she was supposed to in order to counteract the disorder. They even said that her bipolar disorder may have played into it for this reason. It’s an anticlimactic resolution to the mystery, sure, but it is grounded within the evidence that they had access to.
Then the documentary cuts to a bunch of YouTubers who all object to this conclusion, with all of them saying some variation of “I couldn’t believe it, it didn’t seem real to me”. Then there is an extended segment dedicated to this Mexican guy who makes death metal music on YouTube. This guy stayed at the same hotel as Lam and, shortly after her death, released a music video about chasing down a girl in the woods and killing her, and then another about a Chinese girl drowning. All these YouTuber conspiracy theorists pick up on it and start theorising about the fact he could have killed Elisa Lam based on absolutely no evidence, which indirectly prompts their viewership to harass this man, find out his personal details and then get him blocked off of pretty much any and all social media he had access to at that point. When we hear this guy’s side of the story not only do we discover he was innocent of the crime (surprise, surprise), but also that he spent a lot of time with doctors recovering his mental health after trying to take his own life due to the amount of harassment he had received from people accusing him of murdering Elisa Lam, and that the whole experience ruined his passion for making music on the internet. So at the end of the day, all these YouTubers achieved absolutely nothing other than almost indirectly driving an innocent man to the point of suicide, just because he released a poorly timed music video. What’s worse is that no one ever apologised to him, and the documentary still presents these YouTubers as valuable and insightful people to talk to regarding the Lam investigation.
But based on what we’ve been shown, it is very clear to me that although these people have said they just wanted “to solve the mystery and get justice for Lam”, what they really meant was that they really weren’t interested in the truth of the mystery, so much as they were in finding a solution to it that satisfied what they wanted the truth to be.
Unfortunately, giving these absolute whack-jobs a legitimate voice in this investigation isn’t the only fault of this documentary. Another one is how egregiously it withholds a vital piece of information for the purposes of panning the run time. Let me explain how:
Elisa Lam’s body was found by a maintenance worker at the hotel, who went up to the roof to check everything was okay with the water tanks. He looked inside and saw Lam’s body floating in the water. Then he told his manager, and his manager phoned the police. When police arrived, they found that the hatch to the water tank was closed when they got there. The documentary makes a big deal about the fact the hatch was closed when police found it: With so much evidence alluding to the fact that Elisa Lam probably killed herself, the only point of contention seemed to be that the hatch was closed when police arrived, since Lam wouldn’t have been able to close it from inside tank meaning that someone else must have. A lot of time is spent theorising about who could have closed the hatch.
But the answer is obvious. The maintenance worker closed the hatch after discovering the body. The documentary never says this, because it’s more interested in baiting the audience rather than presenting the evidence fairly. But anyone with a brain can come to the conclusion that after finding the body, the person who found it probably closed the hatch because he didn’t like looking at a decomposing corpse. But it isn’t until thirty minutes before the end of the final episode that the documentary reveals to us that the maintenance guy not only closed the hatch himself before reporting the body to his manager, but that the hatch was already open when he got to the roof, suggesting Lam put herself inside the water tank. By the time we learn this information, Elisa Lam’s body had been discovered roughly two and a half hours earlier in the documentary.
So, why on earth would the documentary hide this vital information to the investigation until the final thirty minutes? The answer is to pad time. You see, the whole allure to the Elisa Lam case was the mystery regarding how a girl can disappear without a trace, and it is common knowledge that a lot of people have a romanticised perception of the world where they want there to be conspiracy theories, and that they want those theories to be true, and that they want the same sort of satisfying conclusion you would find in movies or tv. However, if the documentary were to release the information that the tank was already open when the maintenance guy found they body, the evidence presented to the audience would so overwhelmingly be in favour of the fact she killed herself that it would be nearly pointless to argue to the possibility that she had been killed by someone else. This would not only diminish the run time, but also audience engagement because they would be able to solve the mystery before the documentary ended.
In my opinion, not only is this disingenuous to the audience, but also a spit in the face to the family of Elisa Lam. Think about it: Their daughter died and sparked a mystery that stifled the world for weeks, which leaves them distraught and in a constant state of mourning, and then a documentary on the subject intentionally misrepresents the evidence for three and half hours, and misguides the viewers regarding the truth behind what happened. It’s quite sad to think about.
It also exposes another flaw with making a documentary on the subject: Although this case was a huge and enticing mystery at the time it was happening, it has since been solved and thus the mystery is diminished. So presenting the case to the audience as if the the mystery is still on going is quite counter-intuitive, since a simple Google search can summarise the entire series of events for you in a couple of paragraphs.
Those are all my major gripes with this documentary that make it just SO bad to me.
There is one lesser gripe: Some of the YouTubers in it express that they cried when Lam was discovered dead and some took it upon themselves to visit her burial site for their own closure, which I found to be not only pathetic but a bit disrespectful based on the fact they didn’t know or care who this person was until they were involved in this insane mystery. There were a few other minor things too, but nothing else worth mentioning here. But then there’s also footage of them visiting the hotel themselves and lingering around the room she had stayed in and the place she had disappeared from. In this footage they’re all giggling and don’t seem to care about the staff who told them to stay away from the area. It’s all very odd.
The only positive things I have to say about this is that it had a very good production value and that it successfully deterred me from ever visiting Los Angeles. Other than that it is awful. I almost feel bad for the police investigators and hotel management who were interviewed for this documentary considering how badly represented their side of the story was, and how vital information that they provided was intentionally withheld for hours on end just so the filmmakers could manipulate the audience into watching for longer, prompting them to continue to theorise about a case that could have been properly summarised and explained in an hour or less.
Finally I want to say not all YouTubers are bad, and that I don’t believe any of the ones involved in this documentary are bad people. They made that innocent music artist a target, yes, but it’s clear there was no malicious intent, and that they were just stupidly grasping at straws to try and solve the mystery. I just think they weren’t informed enough and didn’t provide enough edge to justify their involvement, and that they were treated with way too much seriousness in spite of that. I also think they should apologise to the guy whose life they almost ruined.
There are actually some pretty good YouTube documentary channels out there that make high effort and well researched videos. A good example is LEMMiNO who never fails to present intriguing mysteries in an interesting way. Although he is more history focussed, Historia Civilis is also a good source of information.
To finish off I would like to say that I don’t think anyone should watch this documentary. It is intentionally disingenuous, misleading and manipulative, as well as disrespectful to some of the people involved. If you don’t care about those things then just know this: It’s four hours of content that could be more honestly and concisely summarised in an hour, padded out by needless speculation about a case that has already been solved.