In 2013, the body of 21 year old Elisa Lam was discovered in the rooftop water tank of Los Angeles’ infamous Cecil Hotel. What was eventually ruled an accidental drowning took on a life of its own due to law enforcement’s decision to release surveillance footage of Lam’s final moments. Netflix’s new docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel pieces together this mysterious tragedy by examining Lam’s life and the complicated history of the hotel itself. Yet it also exposes the harmful nature of Internet sleuthing by questioning the ethics of true crime fandom and highlighting the line between compassion and exploitation.
I’m what you might call a former true crime addict. I read Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood in high school. I binged Snapped before binging was a thing, and devoured every episode of ID Discovery’s Deadly Women. Once I discovered podcasts, I realized there was a neverending supply of shows telling true crime stories from all over the world and I ate up every one.
I’m not alone in my morbid fascination. Millions of people every day download podcasts, watch documentaries, and even attend live shows dedicated to the topic. But the genre is in the midst of reevaluation, given the recent Black Lives Matter movement and calls to defund the police. True crime has a tricky relationship with law enforcement, swinging wildly between worshiping homicide detectives to mocking investigators for missing what hindsight reveals to be “obvious” clues.
All from the comfort of our own couches.
This curiosity, combined with publicly accessible documents and the ease of creating digital content (i.e. podcasts, blogs, and YouTube videos) has led to the trend of Internet sleuthing: interested civilians investigating unsolved crimes or strange occurrences. While these sleuths are occasionally helpful — the book and HBO docu series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark chronicles how the work of true crime blogger Michelle McNamara led to the arrest of the Golden State Killer — the story of Elisa Lam shows that web sleuthing often causes more pain and confusion in the wake of tragedy. For every Michelle McNamara working diligently to help make her community safe, there are hundreds of hobbyist “investigators” diving down Internet rabbit holes looking for answers to crimes they have nothing to do with and using their findings to create more content.
Most true crime content creators will say they’re giving a voice to the voiceless. Or shining a light on forgotten victims. But the voyeuristic quality of sharing stories that are not our own — not to mention, the sheer amount of money to be made on clicks, downloads, and tickets — leaves the ethics of the genre murky. Like it or not, we’re consuming the pain of others as entertainment. These stories are appealing because they make a scary world feel a little less dangerous, but it’s easy to center ourselves in the story turning real human beings into cautionary tales, or worse, re-traumatizing survivors or families of victims.
On a recent episode of the true crime podcast My Favorite Murder, a woman wrote a letter to the hosts about the experience of hearing her own assault on a previous episode. She had not given consent for her story to be told. This listener who originally shared it was only tangentially connected to the victim, but had adopted the story as her own, as a way of sharing in the community of survivors. The problem was she was not the one who had survived. And by telling the story of another, she was spreading salacious details of the worst moments of someone else’s life.
There is a bonding experience in sharing these stories. I’ve been to the live shows where cheers erupt through the crowd as infamous details of notorious stories are recounted for an audience. And I’ve been told to “get the fuck out” if I can’t accept that this is their way of processing trauma. But the trauma isn’t theirs. And while the girl power is intoxicating, it’s easy to forget that it’s built on the backs of real people whose lives are over.
Cecil Hotel does not shy away from showing this harsh reality and documents the deluge of websleuths and Internet investigators convinced that they could help find Lam. While these people most likely started with the best of intentions, it’s easy for morbid curiosity to take over. What looks like an honest desire to help covers the underlying need to conquer our fear of the unknown that her tragic death represents.
While we will never know for sure, Lam most likely climbed into the tank during a psychotic episode and drowned when she was unable to climb back out. But if her life could end so simply, ours could too. There has to be another answer giving us a concrete way to protect ourselves from suffering the same fate. And when that answer doesn’t exist, we create one. While some may honestly tell themselves they want to help, they are taking the identity of vigilante and using it to brand themselves as a compassionate ally.
The cynical reality is that there is a currency to caring. We create phrases to show that we see victims as more than just their crime scene photos, then we slap those phrases on a T-shirt and wear it as a signal of our virtue. We cultivate our own murder adjacent stories as a way of gaining status in the true crime community. We create videos dissecting autopsy reports and ask viewers for likes. We are not holding space for victims and survivors, we are filling the space with our own empowerment.
Walking the Path of Tragedy
An extreme form of this exploitation is the phenomenon of Murder Tourism in which true crime enthusiasts travel to the locations of crimes to either investigate or experience the story for themselves. Websleuths flocked to the Cecil Hotel desperate to see themselves in the spaces that Lam once occupied. They want to safely make themselves part of the story and experience the thrill of walking in tragic footsteps. But they do it from a position of safety and hindsight bias. They may go to the rooftop Lam died on, but they will never experience the fear of her final moments or the feeling of sinking into darkness. No, they will get a taste of that fear. And then they can get a selfie. Proof that they are alive in a place where Lam is not.
Those Left Behind
One might ask, “What’s the harm in all of this fascination? Let people conquer their fears in their own way and experience the world on their own terms.” That would be acceptable if it were not so often damaging to those left behind. A key element of the case involved Lam’s behavior in the hotel’s elevator. Websleuths created wildly varying reasons for her mannerisms and narratives based on their understanding of who Lam was. But the truth was not readily apparent in a google search.
Through interviews with her family and the hotel staff, police learned that Lam had a history of psychotic episodes and that she had been acting erratically in the days leading up to her disappearance. Her actions on that night were consistent with behavior she’d exhibited in the past. These details were not given to the public because there was no need for the public to know. How many of us would want every detail of our lives divulged to strangers around the world to be analyzed and dissected simply because they convince themselves they have “the right” to know?
Many sleuths featured in the documentary were incredulous that they could not get access to police reports and medical records, but it’s hard to blame Lam’s parents for not wanting their daughter’s private life turned into click bait. Shouldn’t they be allowed to grieve in private rather than endure constant confrontation with conspiracy theories that either present false hope or reopen the wound?
Because websleuths have convinced themselves they deserve all access to any information, any lack of transparency can be read as “hiding the truth’ and quickly spiral into conspiracy theories. They are born out of the assertion that we are being lied to and while there are recent examples of law enforcement concealing details of an investigation for political reasons, these viral conspiracy theories often use circular logic with questionable sourcing.
A misinterpretation of the status of the water tank’s hatch led to a tumult of speculation that Lam must have been murdered, only to find that the hotel employee initially found the hatch open. Similarly, the question of how the elevator doors in the video are able to stay open for two minutes was simply answered by an understanding of the elevator’s buttons, but spawned countless theories about a killer lurking in the hallway. After all, it’s what’s on the outside of the frame that scares us. The unknown element grabs our attention and insists that we find an answer by any means necessary.
Even more harmful, these conspiracy theories often lead to harassment disguised as vigilantism. Pablo Vergara, aka Morbid, was dubbed a suspect in Lam’s death by the sleuth army, all because of a video he posted from the hotel. Never mind that he posted it a year before her death and that he was in another country when she disappeared. Nevertheless, these sleuths took a string of random facts and loosely tied them together to create a narrative allowing them to justify cyberbullying. Because of this, Morbid received deaths threats, essentially lost his music career, and attempted suicide all as a result of strangers who chose him as a convenient suspect because he fit the narrative they were creating.
Lam’s story lends itself to these conspiracy theories because there are an uncanny number of coincidences hidden in the details of her life. But these coincidences probably exist in all of our lives; we’re just not looking for them. If you see yourself as a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Lam may have been part of a secret government conspiracy to study tuberculosis, but the more likely answer is that she just happened to have a name similar to that of a drug used in treating the disease.
It’s terrifying to think that the world is that haphazard, but it’s often the case. Our insistence on finding the “answers” only leads to confusion and distrust, circular logic, and confirmation bias. Convincing ourselves that Lam was murdered is one step down the road to believing that vaccines are harmful tools of an elite ruling class and that the local pizza place is hiding a child sex ring. The leap to Qanon is shorter than you think.
Most web sleuths investigate out of a sincere desire to help and a belief that the authorities are failing to take these cases seriously. While there are certainly systems that hide information to protect their own, there are also legal requirements for withholding evidence to the public, and as amateurs it can be hard to tell the difference. Yes, the system is broken, but the solution is not to take on the mantle of vigilante because it so easily leads to self-aggrandized exploitation. If we really want these crimes investigated with compassion, let’s focus on reforming the system that does so. Instead of poring over hours of Google searches, let’s register people to vote and pressure elected officials to change procedures that keep rape kits backlogged. Let’s build movements insisting on a system of policing that views each crime as both solvable and worth solving.
Who Tells Your Story
Effective true crime hinges on the lens through which the story is told and the purpose in telling it in the first place. The recent Netflix docu series, The Ripper, recounts the story of a British serial killer while highlighting the way sex workers in the community were treated as disposable. Making a Murder exposes giant problems within the American justice system. HBO’s The Vow attempts to unpack the thought processes leading someone to become a victim of a sex trafficking cult. But many others exist solely to entertain.
It’s important to remember that deceased victims cannot give consent for their stories to be told and it becomes our responsibility to keep them at the center of how we present what happened. Crime Scene is successful in this capacity as it uses Lam’s own writing to show that she was a complex human being who suffered a terrible tragedy. When we lose sight of the victim at the center of the story, our actions become another form of attack. Without a purpose for sharing painful stories, there’s little left in the telling but entertainment.
For the record, I’m not saying all true crime is harmful. There is power in hearing others tell your story. Another listener of My Favorite Murder heard her own story of survival told and left feeling seen, understood, and accepted. I don’t want to discount that, but it requires seeing victims as more than just their stories.
I am a survivor of a crime I will never see justice for. The system was not built to protect me and it didn’t. If someone were to tell my story, I hope they would do so with compassion. I hope they would convey to their audience that I am more than the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t want an army of keyboard vigilantes seeking that justice for me and I don’t want them digging into my life for answers that fit an entertaining narrative. I would rather they use that time and energy to help create a system that does work for everyone. It’s not flashy, it won’t get people smashing the “Subscribe”, but it’s what will lead to change.
Isn’t that the best way to honor victims and survivors?
Jenn Adams is co-host of Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast, which takes an in-depth look at a topic in the mental health field like anxiety, PTSD, and toxic relationships through the lens of your favorite horror movie.