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Arts Culture The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel by Netflix: Elisa Lam's Death Demystified

The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel by Netflix: Elisa Lam's Death Demystified

LOS ANGELES, CA -- FEBRUARY 19, 2013-- The Cecil Hotel on Main Street, in downtown Los Angeles, following the discovery of a body in the hotel's water tank, which authorities believe to be that of missing Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, 21, Feb. 19, 2012. Lam was last seen three weeks ago at the Cecil Hotel. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
LOS ANGELES, CA -- FEBRUARY 19, 2013-- The Cecil Hotel on Main Street, in downtown Los Angeles, following the discovery of a body in the hotel's water tank, which authorities believe to be that of missing Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, 21, Feb. 19, 2012. Lam was last seen three weeks ago at the Cecil Hotel. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
By Ryanne Co
By Ryanne Co
March 08, 2021
For years, conspiracy and speculation have shrouded Elisa Lam's death. But Netflix's new documentary sheds light on the true story of the young woman's bizarre case

In 2013, the mysterious disappearance of Elisa Lam made headlines—and to this day in 2021, her death remains a significant tragedy to many. Most may be familiar with the infamous elevator video of Lam; taken from security footage of the elevator on the 14th floor, it shows the young Canadian acting strangely, looking scared, confused, and defensive. In many respects, this video is what brought about the snowball effect that led to the creation of Netflix's The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel. 

Any fan of true crime can attest to the lure of a documentary such as this. Especially for such a high-profile case, there was no doubt that the Netflix series, a four-part documentary containing hour-long episodes, would attract attention. Thankfully, however, the show has escaped the trappings of sensationalism and manages to present its audience with an honest, in-depth, eagle's eye point of view of what happened to Lam on that fateful day in 2013. 

Read also: Tatler Review: Why People Hated The Ending Of "Promising Young Woman" (2020)

 

The Hotel Cecil

The documentary begins with a background on Elisa Lam. A Chinese-Canadian Lam had taken that fateful solo trip to Los Angeles in 2013. The first episode of the series introduces the viewer to Lam's Tumblr account, Nouvelle-Nouveau, where the Lam had been candid about her emotions and growing pains. She'd also talked about something which would later prove crucial to her case: her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

But the documentary, which begins with such, soon makes its way towards discussing the Hotel Cecil. The Hotel Cecil has a rich history and hearing firsthand accounts of the events that occurred there are shocking. Amy Price, the former general manager, spoke about infamous guests—prostitutes, serial killers, and drug addicts to name a few. This, they say, is likely because of the hotel's adjacency to Skid Row, a neighbourhood in downtown Los Angeles that's also been dubbed "the epicentre of LA's addiction crisis". Here, drug addicts, prisoners newly released from jail, prostitutes, and more are segregated and formed into makeshift shantytowns. The documentary ponders on Lam's vulnerability as a young foreign woman on her own, unaware of the dangers that surround her. The word "naïve" had been thrown about as a description.

Someone, they speculate for a time, might have hurt her, lured her, or done something terrible to her. At some point, an investigator suggests that Lam—who was open to meeting people—might have been the victim of foul play. For some time, it was the angle that investigators—and web sleuths—were exploring. 

The Cecil Hotel on Main Street, in downtown Los Angeles, following the discovery of a body in the hotel's water tank, which authorities believe to be that of missing Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, 21, Feb. 19, 2012. Lam was last seen three weeks ago at the Cecil Hotel.  (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The Cecil Hotel on Main Street, in downtown Los Angeles, following the discovery of a body in the hotel's water tank, which authorities believe to be that of missing Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, 21, Feb. 19, 2012. Lam was last seen three weeks ago at the Cecil Hotel. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Web Sleuths

But who were the web sleuths?

All across the globe, there was a multitude who wanted to crack the Elisa Lam case. Some were YouTubers, others went on forums. In the series, police investigators acknowledged that web sleuths have helped crack real cases before. So with the release of Lam's elevator video, authorities were hopeful that someone would shed insight on something they'd miss.

Unfortunately, it seemed as though, while everyone online wanted to crack the case, that most of their theories were based on mere speculation. Everything and everyone from ghosts, rapists, murderers, and hotel staff were identified as suspects. At one point the web sleuths zeroed in on a metal-rock musician, Pablo Vergara, also known by his stage name as Morbid. Although he'd denied even being in the same country as Lam was at the time of her disappearance, people continued to accuse him of her murder. To this day, Morbid says he still receives death threats and hate online. 

The Truth 

In the end, Lam's death was ultimately ruled as an accident. Weeks after her disappearance, her body was found floating in the water tank at the Hotel Cecil. Around this time, the documentary also shifted focus towards Lam's mental health. As previously revealed, Lam had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. What many saw as strange, frenetic behaviour on her elevator video was actually characteristic of a psychotic episode. Her sister had also told investigators that she would sometimes stop taking her medication, which would worsen her mental health. "I never told anyone this," Price said, "but she was being disruptive [days before her disappearance]." 

Now, what authorities are reporting that it couldn't have been far off that—in the midst of Lam's episode—that having delusions that someone was after her. This would explain her strange behaviour in the elevator, and could explain why she was found in the water talk—maybe she thought it would offer her some sort of protection from whoever or whatever she thought was after her.

There's no denying that the death of Elisa Lam remains a tragedy—not just for her, but for all who were affected by it. The series, while offering clarity, also offers audiences an insight into the true importance of mental health, as well as the toxicity of baseless speculation. The conspiracies that surround Lam's death—ghosts, mysticism, and all in that vein—aren't just detrimental to the truth, it's also disrespectful to Lam's memory and the very real problems that likely affected her that day she disappeared.

While mental health advocacies have taken strides in putting their cause out there, it's important for everyone to remember that there are still sensitivities that surround this topic—and that it's important first and foremost to understand someone's situation before alluding to snap judgements. 

Read also: Movie Review: How Pixar's New Movie, Soul, Raised Timely Questions About Selfhood And Purpose

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