They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. British philosopher Alan Watts elaborated, saying “all the do-gooders in the world — whether they’re doing it for themselves or doing it for others — are troublemakers.” Of course, Watts was referring specifically to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their centuries-long campaign of forcing Western values upon the rest of globe with the objective of “improving the world.” In the misguided rush to transform entire cultures, no one stopped to gauge the damage that was being done or consider how those being targeted for change might react to the imposition.
“Sometimes doing good to others and even doing good to oneself is amazingly destructive,” Watts said during one of his famous lectures.
While watching “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” the well-known aphorism about the road to hell kept reverberating through my mind along with a single line of dialog from a second season episode of “The Simpsons.” In the episode “Itchy & Scratch & Marge,” Marge utters a profound maxim of her own: “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”
“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” premiered Feb. 10 on Netflix. It is the first season of the new documentary series “Crime Scene.” The series intends to deconstruct the mythology and mystery surrounding infamous locations in contemporary crime. To launch the series, director Joe Berlinger chose the Cecil Hotel — also known as Hotel Cecil and Stay on Main at various points in its long history. The Cecil is a 19-floor hotel in downtown Los Angeles boasting 700 guest rooms. It originally opened its doors in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. Hoteliers William Banks Hanner, Charles L. Dix and Robert H. Schops funded the enterprise, tapping Loy Lester Smith to design a Beaux Arts style building. Construction, helmed by W. W. Paden, cost $1.5 million.
Despite the fact that upon opening the hotel exuded an aura of opulence and beauty, the Cecil is now known for its reputation of violence, suicide and murder. That unfortunate reputation was further highlighted by an event that took place in February 2013 when college student Elisa Lam, a guest staying at the hotel, went missing. In “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” Berlinger examines the case methodically, focusing both on the official police investigation and the role played by a global community of internet sleuths. He interviews law enforcement officers involved in the case, employees and guests who were at the Cecil during the time Lam disappeared, and armchair detectives armed with a podcasts, YouTube channels and — worst of all — good intentions.
Surprisingly, Berlinger isn’t as critical of these wannabe gumshoes as he could be.
In 2019, Berlinger attracted a lot of attention with two projects centered on the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, including the Netflix docu-series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and the film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” starring Zac Efron. In the latter, Berlinger spent less time exposing the degree of Bundy’s depravity in favor of positing that Bundy’s sensationalized trial set the stage for the true crime fixation that has dominated the media in recent times. It calls to mind Oliver Stone’s take on the same subject matter in “Natural Born Killers,” a film promoted as an indictment of a society enamored of fame, fixated on crime, and addicted to the media.
In “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” Berlinger extends that motif, though he does so in a way that is less blunt and disapproving. In fact, he walks a narrow path between embracing and dismissing the more outlandish theories put forth by those drawn into the mystery of Lam’s disappearance.
Berlinger walks viewers through the history of the Cecil, a hotel that had suffered a significant decline in the second half of the 20th century as the city’s Skid Row neighborhood blossomed around it. A long list of suicides and deaths that took place in the hotel dates back to the 1930s, with more than a few victims plunging to their deaths from upper floors. Serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, stayed at the hotel for a few weeks during his killing spree between 1984 and 1985. Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger was staying at the Cecil in 1991 when he killed at least three sex workers.
Though Berlinger acknowledges the hotel’s reputation, he never directly suggests that the past has any part to play in Lam’s disappearance. Through interviews with law enforcement officers, the location of the hotel — particularly its proximity to environment with a high crime rate and the availability of illicit drugs in the vicinity — is taken into account.
“The Cecil Hotel is a specific place, but there’s a universality to how it’s viewed — everybody knows about that one house at the end of their street where notoriously chilling things have happened, and The Cecil Hotel is that for Los Angeles,” Berlinger explains in his production notes. “It has taken on an urban legend-like quality for having a long history of mysterious happenings and crimes, including housing two notable serial killers: Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger. Location offers a very relatable point of entry to tell true crime stories, and to look at those locations from a historical standpoint and deconstruct how they became infamous. The Cecil was a jewel in LA when it was built in 1924, so we wanted to examine how it fell into disrepair, which is directly related to the social and cultural changes that happened in downtown Los Angeles over the course of nearly a century. And our entry point into that larger story is through Elisa Lam’s case.”
It wasn’t until the Los Angeles Police Department, hoping to jog the memory of potential witnesses that may have seen Lam in her final hours – released a video footage taken by a security camera located in one of the hotel’s elevators. The footage, taken on the day of her disappearance, shows Lam behaving strangely. She enters and exits the elevator repeatedly, pressing multiple buttons on the control panel. The door remains open for an extended period of time. She appears to be talking and gesturing in the hallway outside the elevator. She even seems to hide in the elevator at one point.
The video went viral on the internet. Viewers found it unsettling and started to form explanations that ran the gamut from homicide and drug abuse to the involvement of supernatural entities and dimensional portals. People are fascinated by puzzles and crimes, and Lam’s disappearance offered them a chance to channel their passion into cracking a case in real time.
Unfortunately, most of them became so obsessed with Lam that they quickly abandoned deductive reasoning in favor of collective ineptness. In online communities, conspiracy theories began to develop. Wild theories were foisted upon the LAPD, threatening to drown out legitimate leads. Unfounded accusations were made. Lives were disrupted.
No doubt their intentions were good, but when an internet lynch mob – one whose members have no real experience in investigating crime – seeks justice, someone innocent is going to find themselves labeled a criminal.
The final episode reveals how too much unsolicited help from armchair detectives can interfere with a case. Berlinger interviews an individual who some internet sleuths wrongly fingered as a murderer, and how his life was damaged by the experience. Berlinger also reveals the tragic truth about Lam’s disappearance, concluding the story a poignant, honest discussion about mental health issues.
“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is both elegiac and addictive. Divided into four episodes, it is a riveting and sad look at one woman’s downward spiral that regrettably went unnoticed by those around her. It also presents a subtle condemnation of society’s predilection with crime reporting and those who – having no connection to the case – insist upon becoming involved by cooking up half-baked theories. In interviews with them, Berlinger showcases the good and the bad, underscoring their strong, genuine desire to help solve the case as well as the fanaticism which can gradually lead them to data bias, baseless assumptions and flawed logic. It is the same reliance upon instinct over evidence that causes conspiracy theorists to value inexpert opinion over peer-reviewed, fact-based testimony.