Why Netflix's The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel Director Chose To Follow Elisa Lam's Story

Netflix's The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel
(Image credit: Netflix)

Elisa Lam disappeared back in 2013, but the recent documentary series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel about the nearly decade-old case has been a hit and is currently residing on Netflix’s Top 10 list. The case of Lam’s disappearance, and then untimely death, had world-wide attention and a number of complex theories from internet investigators. Joe Berlinger, director or the real crime docuseries, had a simple reason for telling Lam’s story now.

The world was watching as detectives investigated Elisa Lam’s case, and as evidence was released to the public, the public responded with a number of wild theories of what could have happened to the 21-year-old tourist. In an interview with The Wrap, director Joe Berlinger says he wanted to tell Lam’s story to bring the evidential truth to the surface of a case otherwise clouded by fantastic notions of conspiracy and the supernatural. In Berlinger’s own words:

The truth is sadly just more simple than the complex theories. The truth is, it’s just a tragic accident. There is a certain irony when the show focuses on crime that isn’t a crime at all, and I did that with intention. I wanted to take the viewers on a ride of twists and turns and gently put a pinprick in all of them and have people realize the truth of the situation. I think it’s a lesson for people not to jump to conclusions over circumstantial evidence. For someone who has devoted as much as time as I have in true crime cases, there are certain circumstantial factors if you just want to have tunnel vision on a certain suspect, and there is that evidence that will lead you to a suspect, and that’s how wrongful convictions occur. That’s why the measure of the law is beyond a reasonable doubt and you need to have corroborating evidence. I thought it’d be interesting to view the case this way.

When a case has more questions than answers, people can tend to try to fit their own narrative in to make sense of a situation, which results in this “tunnel vision” Joe Berlinger speaks of. When the detectives working on Elisa Lam's case released the bizarre footage of Lam’s last known appearance, they opened the door for thousands of narratives. The oddity that was the video paired with the insidious history of the Cecil Hotel was enough for would-be detectives to look past what is real evidence in favor of a more glamorous story that fit more circumstantial evidence.

“Glamorous” is a pretty unconventional word to use to describe a death, and that may just be director Joe Berlinger’s point. All of the conjecture surrounding the case of Elisa Lam left little respect for the truth or the victim. The world was so swept up in the fantastic possibilities of what may have happened to Lam that some ignored the truth of what probably did happen to her: a tragic accident.

Wild theories of supernatural terror, government conspiracy, and cold-blooded murder affected more than just the memory of Elisa Lam. People on the internet who considered themselves detectives accused hotel employees and police of cover-ups and even led a witch hunt against an innocent musician with basically no evidence at all, circumstantial or otherwise. This goes to show how necessary it is to have a certainty beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting for a crime.

If you look past all of the extravagant conspiracy theories behind Elisa Lam’s death, you get to the core of the matter: a tragic loss of life. This is something that has been somewhat overlooked due to the wild theories that unfortunately came about during investigations on Lam’s case. Those theories overshadowing the truth led to Joe Berlinger’s telling of Lam’s story, in which he lays out the facts of what happened to Lam and how her story was handled throughout the world.

Carlie Hoke
Content Writer

Constantly thinking about books, coffee, and the existential dread I feel from Bo Burnham’s Inside.  While writing I’m also raising a chaotic toddler, who may or may not have picked up personality traits from watching one too many episodes of Trailer Park Boys.