Warning: Possible spoilers ahead for Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.
On February 13, 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department released the last known video footage of Elisa Lam to the public. The 21-year-old Canadian college student had gone missing during her solo stay at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. After weeks of searching for clues to no avail, the authorities released the short video of Lam entering and ultimately exiting the hotel's elevator in hopes it would lead to answers. The new Netflix anthology series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel looks at the uncomfortable history behind the video, which was intended to help find a missing person. Instead, it became the prototypical viral video.
The just under four-minute clip was, to theorists, like The Ring in real life. It People watched the grainy elevator footage over and over again looking for hints as to what could have happened: Why doesn't the elevator go up once she's pushed the buttons? Is there someone holding the door? Is that why Lam appears to be acting so erratically?
Armchair detectives passed the suspicious video along to their friends online. The original video has been viewed just under 29 million times at time of print — likely more now that the Netflix series is live. The video also went viral in China, where it racked up three million views and more than 40,000 comments in the first 10 days, according to Medium's Matter. Eager viewers shared their theories on YouTube and Reddit of the footage. They analysed her Tumblr for clues of who she was and where she could have gone. Her page's tagline was a quote from Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk: "You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life." Another possible hint?
The internet helped drive interest and later obsession in the Lam case. "It allows people to feel like they're actually participating in this investigation," Kim Cooper, an LA crime historian, told Vice in 2015. Unlike previous cases, YouTube allowed people to keep going back to the footage. It led them to make wild assumptions including that the LAPD had edited the video before release. Others swore they saw an extra foot in the shot, a clue that she hadn't been alone in what we would later learn were likely her final moments alive.
The conversations surrounding the clip added a sense of intrigue that turned a real woman into a character from a thriller. One theory even pointed to the similarities between Lam's disappearance and the 2005 movie Dark Water in which an elevator and water tank play key roles. Others suggested there was something supernatural taking place at The Cecil, which by then had rebranded itself as the boutique hostel Stay On Main. Still, the space was an easy mark since it's known as "the most haunted hotel in L.A." thanks to its long bizarre history of suicides, murders, and serial killer clientele. (Robert "The Night Stalker" Ramirez reportedly stayed there during the height of his murder spree.)
While the theorists' intentions may have been pure, their fervour sensationalised the disappearance of Lam — and the hotel's eerie reputation — further. It also led to harassment of those the online conspiracists felt were possible suspects including Pablo Camilo, a death metal singer who goes by the name Morbid. The footage no longer feels like evidence, but legend. A real-life horror story that inspired American Horror Story. A mystery akin to Serial's search for answers in the murder of Hae Min Lee, which was also exacerbated by armchair detectives.
In the end, as Vanity Fair pointed out, releasing the clip didn't help the police find Lam, they were just "inundated with dead-end leads, false sightings, and irrelevant clues" from those who were only pretending to be investigators. The video muddied the search for Lam, but also led to the dehumanisation — and worse the memeification — of the young woman, who, on February 19, 2013, was found dead in the hotel's water tank, an area restricted from guests. Her death was ruled an accident, but many chose to ignore that explanation in hopes of finding one of their own.
With too many unexplained factors in her death of Lam, those obsessed found it hard to let the case go. For its part, the Netflix series from director Joe Berlinger (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) doesn't define Lam by her murder, offering a sense of who this young woman was. The docuseries leaves no stone unturned, looking into even the most outlandish of theories to help tamper down some of the macabre fame surrounding the case. In the end, they come to a far more rational conclusion that likely some will again refute.
Late last year, the elevator footage resurfaced on TikTok. Much of the context surrounding the release of the Elisa Lam video may be lost, but the emotions that fuelled those early online searches still exist. "A death that still doesn't sit right with me," reads the TikTok's caption. The clip includes footage from the original elevator video and offers no new evidence, but has been shared 16.9k times.
Lam is gone, but, eight years later, the internet is trying to keep her case alive. Perhaps that is the rare bright spot in this video going viral. There are still plenty of people who believe Lam deserves the justice that the footage once promised. What the Netflix docuseries proves is what the case of Elisa Lam really needs is closure.