Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam. This is very frustrating. I’ve started this post two or three times and deleted each draft because I don’t want to sound like a bastard toward people doing what I essentially launched my writing career doing: “websleuthing,” kinda.
This series troubles me because the ultimate truth of Elisa Lam’s death isn’t chilling, real world horror as if she’d found herself trapped in some real world version of The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Elisa Lam wrote openly about her struggles with mental health. Anyone who has ever witnessed another person in the throes of a psychotic state saw the infamous elevator video of Elisa at the Cecil and knew what they were seeing.
All the internet churn surrounding Elisa’s vanishing and death from amateur sleuth types was understandable — and ultimately pointless. People loaded up Youtube with hours upon hours of utterly pointless videos discussing this case, parsing every moment…and in the end it was a bipolar woman off her medication and actively psychotic.
Of course there are questions about Elisa’s death. There will always be. Many are legit, I don’t question asking them.
But as someone who has had a part in evolving online crime writing and websleuthing and as someone who has lost a sibling to mental illness, this particular series is really bothering me. I have no idea how it could’ve been made differently, but one thing that does occur to me is framing it as some kind of gritty true crime account is a disingenuous choice. It pulls the focus away from the person at the center of the story — this intelligent, creative, and sadly very troubled young woman — and onto the self-styled “sleuths,” especially.
But Steve, um, weren’t you kind of at the vanguard of this sort of thing? There were like, what, three crime blogs online when you started?
Yeah. I was. And I learned from every single thing I wrote about. One thing I learned is we begin immediately making up our own narratives about high-profile mysteries. And because most of us are not in law enforcement and privy to a huge load of actual, concrete evidence, we start reinforcing our theories. We put them online. People start coming up with counter-theories. Others question your interest, as if all humans aren’t immediately curious about the fates of others — because we are. That’s the root of so much interest from strangers in true crime cases, in real mysteries of any kind.
Elisa Lam’s death was a gruesome and incredibly sad mystery. The real story is about mental health, however. Crime Scene spends way too long framing its narrative like true crime before it finally digs into Elisa’s own writing about being bipolar.
It begins to feel, by the third installment, like this was a fascinating and complex 90-minute documentary shoved into multiple episodes. I say this as someone who has been in their position many times, too, but it relies far too much on the videos from “sleuths.” They feel by the end of the second episode like what they are: filler.
I’m watching Crime Scene to the end to give myself a chance to change my opinion because smart people I know who do genuinely good work with true crime are involved, and producer and director choices were not their call.
But maybe since I sat down today to record segments for a true crime show on an actual murder I wrote about 14 years ago when I ran crimeblog.us, I’m just thinking a lot about this whole true crime thing online and how it has evolved, especially since podcasting was revealed as perhaps the ideal web-centric format for it.
The subject is still a source of intense fascination for me. My best ideas for nonfiction books are true crime subjects. I am really finding out in the last couple of years, however, that my perspectives have changed. I don’t know if I just take it all much more seriously than I did or if this is a result of just aging and growing up, but there it is.