Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel explores the strange case of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian woman who disappeared in January 2013 while she was staying at the Cecil Hotel in downtown LA. It’s a very famous case with many theories posited across the internet, which captured people’s imaginations after some very odd footage of Lam was released by the LAPD, hoping to find out what happened to her. More than two weeks after Elisa was last seen her body was discovered in a water tank on top of the hotel, after guests at the hotel reported a drop in pressure and discoloration of the water.
Was she murdered? Was it suicide? Was it an accident? Or could it even have been something supernatural? This four part docuseries from Joe Berlinger, who made the excellent documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, delves into the case in a way that is sensationally un-sensationalist. Featuring new interviews with the police officers who worked on the case, the hotel manager of the Cecil, guests who were staying at the Cecil at the time, LA historians as well as web sleuths who were obsessed with the case, it’s a grounded and thorough look at what might have happened to Elisa, while attempting to address some of the anomalies that make this case so strange and compelling. We break down the evidence, theories and what might have happened.
Who was Elisa Lam?
Elisa Lam, whose Cantonese name is Lam Ho Yi, was a 21-year-old Canadian former student born to parents from Hong Kong. She loved fashion, The Great Gatsby, and Harry Potter and had been studying at the University of British Columbia. Lam travelled to the US by herself in January 2013, visiting San Diego before she arrived in LA, with plans to go to Santa Cruz and San Francisco. She called her family every day until January 31, when her parents reported her missing.
In LA Elisa stayed on the 5th floor of the Cecil Hotel, which had had a partial makeover and rebranding calling it the Stay On Main. Initially sharing a dorm with several other girls, Lam exhibited some erratic behaviour including leaving odd notes on the other girls’ beds, until eventually she was moved to her own room.