Netflix’s “Crime Scene” Elisa Lam Doc Takes On Internet Sleuths

A new Netflix docuseries about the Elisa Lam case presents itself as a study of true crime, but it mostly rehashes old conspiracy theories.

There’s a subgenre of internet-famous mysteries that don’t capture national attention at first, but get endless attention online. The stories always feature relatable middle-class protagonists whose deaths or disappearances remain unexplained.

Brian Shaffer, an Ohio med student who walked into a college town bar in 2006 and was never seen again, became one such enduring object of fascination. Maura Murray, a Massachusetts college student, is another big name in these circles, after she got in a car accident on a snowy road in 2004, supposedly walked into the woods, and was never heard from again. (Murray’s case became a book about one sleuth’s obsession, tellingly titled True Crime Addict.)

Theories about these cases are debated in Facebook groups and on Reddit, parsed in YouTube videos and podcasts. And the Elisa Lam disappearance was one of these stories. In January 2013, the 21-year old Canadian tourist traveled to Los Angeles and went missing at the seedy Cecil Hotel in downtown LA. When police released footage of her acting strangely in a hotel elevator right before her disappearance, the then-emerging community of internet true crime sleuths latched on to the story in a speculative frenzy. Nineteen days after she went missing, her body was discovered in the hotel’s rooftop water tank. A final report released later that summer ruled the death an accidental drowning.

The new four-part Netflix documentary on the case, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, is a muddled attempt to revisit the story. Presenting itself as a study of the cultural appetite for crime, it revisits the hotel’s infamous history and rehashes the online conspiracy theories around Lam’s disappearance.

But the story is an odd fit for a commentary on online sleuths because the case was neither solved by sleuths nor really disrupted by them. And the series’ relitigation of the mystery’s unanswered questions ultimately makes it an awkward attempt to exploit the hunger for crime mysteries, while simultaneously attempting to comment on that appetite.

An aerial view of firefighters on a rooftop surrounding water tanks

Courtesy of Netflix

The rooftop water tank where Lam’s body was discovered.

Crime Scene starts with a dramatic reading of Lam’s Tumblr posts, about her desire to see the world, which leads to her trip to Los Angeles. And the case begins when Lam was reported missing by her family in Canada, whom she was usually in constant contact with.

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