joe berlinger’s crimescene: the vanishing at the cecil hotel demystifies true crime sensation

by Steven Wandling

For three decades, documentarian filmmaker Joe Berlinger has worked across a variety of mediums in both fiction and non-fiction to expose corruption and injustice through thought-provoking stories filled with rich characters that challenge the relationship between audience and subject. Most known for helming the Paradise Lost trilogy, which chronicled the wrongful imprisonment and eventual release of three teenagers on death row, Berlinger’s films have a sophistication and insight that puts him at the head of the crime documentary genre. When Netflix announced the four-part docuseries on the disappearance of Elisa Lam Crimescene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, our expectations were through the roof as to just what the series had in store and what revelations would be made about the Internet-breaking case.

The infamous Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles has a long history of crime before Alisha Lam's disappearance.

The Elisa Lam story has everything a true crime junkie could ever want. Her disappearance checked so many boxes that it created an instant feeding frenzy amongst the always-hungry websleuth community. Lam was last seen alive at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles adjacent to the poverty of Skid Row. In unsettling hotel surveillance footage released by the LAPD, she is last seen entering an elevator in a distressed state before walking out of the camera and vanishing. After an exhaustive search, her body is inexplicably found in the water tank on the roof of the Cecil. She had never actually left the Cecil alive. The sordid history of the many crimes over many decades that occurred at the Cecil, itself a landmark of true crime history in the United States, and the cryptic final moments recorded of Elisa Lam created an instant sensation across the Internet.The security footage seemed to outright prove the existence of the supernatural itself. People crave a good mystery in their lives, and in 2013, what happened to Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel was it.

Netflix has come under some scrutiny for the grisly content of their true crime docuseries, a genre that is in ever-increasing demand. By the time of Crimescene‘s release, the Elisa Lam case had already been drug through the conspiracy fueled darkest corners of the Internet. At this point, pure sensationalism is the last thing this story needed. Luckily, Joe Berlinger has quite a talent for luring an audience in with piqued curiosity before pulling the rug out from under and forcing them to examine themselves. This isn’t just for the clicks, as so many Youtube videos made in Elisa Lam’s name have been. The story of the Cecil Hotel and the disappearance and subsequent death of Lam are wholly sensational, but the series pivots to bring meaningful sober discourse about the lack of adequate attention given to mental health in our society and the often messy line between subject and audience in true crime entertainment.

The last known footage of Alisha Lam at the Cecil Hotel that sent the Internet into a frenzy.

The first season of Crimescene puts the loose knit group of crime and cold case amateur enthusiasts known as websleuths under a sometimes harsh, but necessary microscope. The community of online armchair detectives, like any other human being on the planet, loves a good mystery. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Humans crave mystery in their lives. They make the dreary monotony of everyday living exciting and dangerous. A good Internet mystery is sexy and enticing while being safe from the comfort of your computer. People also have a compulsive need to try to solve mysteries, and none more so than websleuths. Websleuths jumped into the rabbit hole of this case without a second of hesitation. The only problem is that, especially in the age of the Internet, it becomes increasingly easier to forget that there are real people at the center of every single one of these cases. Elisa Lam was an actual person who met a tragic end and she has a still very grieving family. This happened in 2013. It’s not a decades old cold case and even those have actual people that are too easily forgotten for the sake of a good mystery.

Elisa Lam was a young woman who was searching for connection in an age when it isn’t easily found and her short life was all too bleak. There’s no mystery to that sentence. It’s a cold and unforgiving example of an often indifferent-seeming universe. Throughout Crimescene‘s four episodes, Joe Berlinger expertly draws the viewer in with the sensation and sincere social history of the Cecil Hotel and Elisa’s supernatural seeming death/disappearance. As the story unfolds like serialized pulp, Berlinger pulls back the curtain to reveal that although Crimescene is a docuseries about a fascinating occurrence, it’s also a commentary on the sometimes unhealthy relationship between case subject and audience that can lead to actual real world harm.

There’s a black metal musician in the show that was targeted and harassed by websleuths as Elisa Lam’s supposed killer simply because of his black metal lyrics and spooky aesthetic. Any long time fan of Berlinger will immediately remember Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three in Paradise Lost on death row for a set of child murders they did not commit based on the fact that they wore black and listened to heavy metal. The more things change, the more they often stay exactly the same. Hopefully after Berlinger’s latest has a chance to resonate and sink in, more and more people can start to look for and help to further destigmify mental health crises. His underrated and misunderstood Books of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is rife for revisiting in the wake of Crimescene’s similar look at this unhealthy relationship between and the real world things that can occur when the line between the two is blurred and crossed.

Thanks so much for reading. Crimescene: the Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is now streaming on Netflix! Check it out and share this with your horror loving friends! Follow creepylovely on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you would like to write for us just shoot us a private message or DM on social media. Stay lovely! Stay creepy!

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