Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
It wouldn’t be a pandemic without true crime documentaries on Netflix, which is probably why I found myself checking out the extremely generically titled Crime Scene on Netflix the other day.
It’s possible the title implies a series is coming, but for now, Crime Scene, subtitled The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, is a single four-episode miniseries dissecting the mysteries and conspiracy theories that have swirled around the 2013 death of Canadian college student Elisa Lam at Los Angeles’s Cecil Hotel. It’s become enough of a phenomenon in the past eight years that you’ve likely heard at least something about it (the 2015 season of American Horror Story drew heavily from it, for instance) but the series managed to dig into its cultural impact in ways I hadn’t considered—ways that made me think a bit more deeply about (wait for it) fads, crazes, and panics. Oh, and also that catchphrase we’re all sick of: “cancel culture.” (I cringed just typing that. But please stick with me.)
If you’re unfamiliar, the case in question began when Elisa Lam disappeared without a trace while staying at L.A.’s infamous Cecil Hotel (the hotel has a century-long history of crime and a reputation for being haunted, but at the time was trying to escape its past by rebranding part of itself as a trendy loft called “Stay on Main”). After searching for her for several days and failing to turn up even a trace, the LAPD appealed to the public for help by releasing the last known video footage of her online. The video got a great deal more attention than they expected, mainly because Lam’s behavior in it was bizarre. The footage, taken from one of the Cecil’s security cameras, showed Lam boarding an elevator, pushing a dozen buttons, hiding as if she’s being watched, appearing to interact with empty air, and getting on and off the elevator several times—all while the elevator door refuses to close for several minutes. When they finally found her body several days later, it didn’t clear up any of the weirdness: She was found floating in one of the water tanks on the hotel roof, having apparently climbed in, closed the hatch behind herself, undressed, and then drowned. To add to the grisly details, she was only discovered after guests complained about the discolored water coming out of their taps.
With a case this bizarre, and with the details already public, it probably goes without saying that public speculation about the truth of the case was all over the map. Had there been foul play? Was there a coverup? Were the cops in on it? Had the ghosts of the Cecil claimed yet another victim?
Conspiracy theorists and paranormal enthusiasts will likely be extremely disappointed by Crime Scene, which ends up making a strong case that the circumstances of Lam’s death, though horrifying and tragic, were actually pretty mundane. It turns out Lam suffered from bipolar I disorder—a disorder known to cause psychotic episodes—for which she rarely, if ever, took her medication. There were at least two ways for her to access the roof, neither of which was far from the elevator or difficult to reach. The conspiracy theorists’ trump card—that the water tank hatch had been closed behind her—turns out to be a case of bad intel: the cops did indeed find the tank closed, but that was because it had been closed by the custodian who originally discovered the body, not Lam herself (or her imagined killer). Elisa Lam’s death was almost definitely an accident, self-inflicted due to mental illness.The reality is that the whims of the internet mob are, at best, only occasionally guided by moral clarity and a sense of true justice.
For several years, though, there was a contingent of internet dwellers firmly invested in believing otherwise. Crime Scene is by no means a great docuseries, but it shines when it dives deep into the the obsessive online community dedicated to digging to the bottom of the disappearance—and by “digging to the bottom of the disappearance,” I of course mean “flailing around randomly with very little concern for actual facts or how real people were being affected.” Once true crime enthusiasts discovered the security camera footage, every millisecond and every pixel of it was dissected, analyzed, and otherwise tortured. Why was there half a second missing here and there? Was that someone else’s foot peaking into the frame? Why was the time stamp so blurry? What were the cops and/or the Cecil trying to hide???
No doubt the LAPD and the slumlords who run the Cecil are accustomed to, and often deserving of, this sort of public scrutiny, but that’s to say nothing of the mountains of collateral damage the sleuth bloggers left in their wake. One victim of the unfocused fervor, who the filmmakers interviewed extensively for the series, is Mexican musician Pablo Vergara, who recorded death metal under the (less-than-clever) pseudonym Morbid. Vergara had nothing to do with Lam’s death—his alibi, that he was in Mexico, recording a new album at the time, is airtight—but the facts that he made spooky music and had once been at the Cecil were enough to convince the bloggers that he was responsible. Countless people on the internet began hounding Morbid with hateful messages and death threats, demanding that he confess, eventually driving him to the point of a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt. Vergara landed in a hospital and hasn’t recorded music since (though he has branched out into filmmaking).
And, well, not to put too fine a point on things, but I feel like that dovetails pretty well with a lot of the stuff I’ve been talking about in this column.
The phrase “cancel culture” has behaved like any other cultural tag that becomes excessively mainstream: it’s become so overused and weaponized that it’s lost all meaning. As I previously mentioned in this column, the American Right is exceptionally gifted at taking almost any phrase gaining cultural traction and turning it into an insult for the Left, which has led to a dynamic in the last couple of years of “Cancel culture’ s out of control!” from one side and “It’s not cancel culture, it’s just consequence culture!” from the other. At its root, though, the phenomenon of cancel culture is not an exclusively left wing phenomenon—nor is it essentially one of just consequences for wrongdoing.
The reality is that the whims of the internet mob are, at best, only occasionally guided by moral clarity and a sense of true justice. Morbid’s music isn’t to everyone’s taste, and might even have been in poor taste, but the guy hardly deserved to be accused of murder and hounded nearly to death simply because he was a bit too interested in death as a phenomenon. When you leave justice up to the mob, it’s rarely aimed in the right direction or proportional to the crime.
Several years ago, I used to write a column called LOL Interwebz around here. I gave it up, in part because there were only so many different ways to write, “Wow, people are sure awful on the internet!” (Not long after I gave it up, the Trump era began, and things somehow got a hundred times uglier.) For those reasons, I’ve tried to keep this column away from internet culture as much as I could. One uniting theme, though, seems to be that the behavior of the mob is almost never ruled by facts or reason. Occasionally they get things right; more often, they start wearing stupid wigs or spending thousands of dollars on plush toys. Too often, the “wisdom of crowds” means chasing conspiracy theories and ghost stories, or hunting innocent people to the brink of death.
I confess there was a time, when this sort of phenomenon was just emerging, that part of me expected it to be a good thing—“Hey,” I thought, “maybe if all of our actions are held up to public scrutiny, we’ll all become better people” (note that I was also a teenager when I was having these thoughts, so, eh). The problem with that optimism was that it assumed the mob would always have all the facts and would always make moral judgments in line with my own preferences. The mob, however, does not need to have its facts straight in order to come for you. Nor does meticulously staying in line with the zeitgeist of the moment guarantee you’ll be spared—something can always be dug up from your past.
I’m routinely struck, when I read the gospels, by how narrowly focused Jesus’s teaching is. Most of it—if not quite all of it—seems directed as an answer to the implied (or occasionally explicit) question of “Good teacher, how can I inherit eternal life?” The answers, almost always, are geared toward ensuring that the listener’s own behavior is just and righteous. Countless individuals over the centuries have tried to politicize Jesus’ teaching, but it stubbornly resists it. The teacher tells us to remake ourselves, not the world around us. And yet, if we would simply obey, the world would be remade.
The death of Elisa Lam was tragic, but the swarming of the internet mob did nothing to bring her back and nothing to effect justice. A blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut, but that in itself isn’t an argument for the goodness of blind squirrels.
What if we, fellow internet squirrels, all just…opened our eyes?