How a troubled tourist became a TV sensation
Is our obsession with true crime unhealthy? A new series about the disappearance of a young traveller has captivated millions. But critics say the genre harms victims and viewers alike.
Elisa Lam was on the adventure of a lifetime.
For years, she had dreamed of leaving her studies behind and travelling solo through California, experiencing the sights and sounds of the American West. Now, she was doing it for real.
So, when the 21-year old Canadian tourist disappeared without a trace from a hotel in downtown Los Angeles in 2013, police officers were baffled.
They had only one clue: four minutes of grainy CCTV footage, taken from the hotel lift, showing Elisa’s last known movements.
The footage is bizarre: first she stands still, her back pressed against the wall, as if hiding from an invisible assailant. All of a sudden, she steps out into the hallway, her arms waving, fingers splayed, as she gestures wildly. Then the lift doors shut, and she is gone forever.
The footage caused an online sensation, but it did not help save Elisa. She was found, weeks later, in a water tank on the hotel’s roof.
Now, eight years to the day since her body was discovered, the case has captured public imagination once again. A new Netflix series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, is currently the most viewed program across the UK.
The show’s success will have come as no surprise to Netflix. In 2014, true crime series Serial turned into an overnight sensation, becoming the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history.
Since then, the popularity of true crime has soared – the UK alone has three television channels dedicated to the genre.
Yet for director Joe Berlinger, Elisa Lam’s story is about more than just true crime. Over four episodes, he speaks to detectives, local historians, mental health experts and even internet sleuths who have become dangerously obsessed with the case.
One of the show’s main interviewees is Pablo “Morbid” Vergara, a death metal singer who was baselessly accused of murdering Lam after web detectives stumbled across a video of him at the hotel.
The fact that police eventually ruled Lam’s death an accident made no difference: Vergara was cyber-bullied so badly he ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
But for some critics, Berlinger’s documentary not only highlights the danger of society’s true crime obsession, it also contributes to it.
“The show does exactly what it said internet sleuths did: It put fantasy over facts, and sensationalism over empathy,” writes journalist Katie Dowd.
Dowd believes there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to document true crime. In 2019, the American film Surviving R Kelly was widely praised for giving a voice to victims.
And a new BBC series, Forensics: The Real CSI, has received critical acclaim for avoiding endless speculation about victim and perpetrator and focusing only on the painstaking work of forensic scientists.
Even so, experts warn that true crime fans should be careful about their viewing habits. As one psychologist says: “We should never be desensitised to horror.”
Is our obsession with true crime unhealthy?
No, say some. There may be more true crimes series today than ever before, but this is not a new phenomenon. People have been fascinated with crime ever since Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of London in the 1880s. And according to psychologists, true crime can affirm our views of right and wrong and trigger chemical reactions in our bodies. Watching is nothing more than harmless escapism.
Yes, say others. True crime is unhealthy for individuals and unhealthy for society. Documentaries like the Cecil Hotel series exploit the victims of crime for entertainment and can make viewers paranoid – one journalist even reported suffering from nightmares and anxiety. Moreover, the plight of Morbid provides a stark reminder of what can happen when casual interest turns into a group obsession.
- Would you watch a true crime series?
- Do true crime documentaries exploit victims for entertainment?
- Write a short story about a sudden and mysterious event that takes place in your town or city.
- Use the expert links to watch the trailers for Netflix’s Cecil Hotel series and the BBC’s documentary on forensics. Which do you prefer? Write half a side explaining your thoughts.
Some People Say...
“Crime hides, and by far the most terrifying things are those which elude us.”George Bataille (1897 – 1962), French philosopher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that women are more likely to be interested in true crime than men. Women account for 75% of true crime podcast listeners and an astonishing 80% of the attendees at CrimeCon, an annual American true crime conference. According to research by psychologist Amanda Vicary, female fans of true crime podcasts showcased higher anxiety responses than male listeners – but, notably this did not stop them from finishing the podcast.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds why women are so fascinated by true crime. Vicary believes that women watch true crime shows because they fear crime themselves. But psychotherapist Rhea Gandhi suggests that women are interested in documentaries like the Cecil Hotel series because they are looking for a feeling of justice. And in 2017, Jes Skolnik, a domestic abuse survivor and true crime fan, said that shows can help victims reflect on violence they have experienced personally.
- Elisa Lam
- Lam suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings and occasionally psychosis. After her disappearance, police determined that Lam had stopped taking medications.
- Online sensation
- Lam’s strange behaviour captured attention across the world. On Chinese site, Youku, the video gained 40,000 comments in just 10 days.
- The 2014 hit podcast reexamined the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his gilfriend, Hae Min Lee, in the US in 1999.
- Local historians
- The documentary focuses on the hotel’s location in Skid Row, which is known as a “dumping ground” for LA’s homeless population.
- Pablo “Morbid” Vergara
- Vergara was harassed by web sleuths despite the fact he was not in the US at the time Lam disappeared.
- The Los Angeles Police Department concluded that Elisa Lam accidentally drowned after climbing into the water tank during a mental health crisis.
- Critics accuse the series of presenting conspiracy theories, including that Elisa Lam was a biological weapon sent to infect LA’s homeless population, as real possibilities before debunking them only in the last 10 minutes.
- Surviving R Kelly
- R Kelly is an American singer and songwriter who has been accused of numerous sexual assaults. Today, he is in jail awaiting trial.
- Jack the Ripper
- Jack the Ripper was a serial killer who murdered at least five women in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888. He has never been identified.