On January 28, 2013, Canadian college student Elisa Lam checked into the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Her stay was to last three nights. During this time, Lam’s known activity was limited. She changed from a shared room to a single. She visited a bookstore. She returned back to the hotel. And then she vanished.
Netflix’s new docuseries, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, looks into the case, which became one of the most well-known true crime “mysteries” of the last decade.
Lam had left her belongings behind at the hotel, including her laptop and clothing. There were no signs of forced entry into her room, nor any drug-related paraphernalia. Her last known sighting was on security footage from one of the hotel’s elevators, in which she was seen acting erratically, moving around inside the elevator as if hiding, speaking and motioning as if there is someone else out of sight near the elevator bank. She held the door open. She pressed several buttons. She was found dead on the hotel roof days later.
As journalist Josh Dean puts it in an interview for the Netflix series, “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to say, ‘what the fuck?’”
As the documentary and Dean later make clear, however, there are ways of explaining Lam’s death, even if these explanations prove unsatisfying. Though explicitly chronicling the Elisa Lam investigation, the documentary acts more as a trojan horse for exploring many other features of the case: confirmation bias, fallacies of coincidence found in conspiracy theories (apophenia), urban planning in LA, and mental health.
So while the central question of the series may seem conspiratorial, the answer is actually clear, and it reveals more about those investigating (and obsessing over) Elisa Lam than it does about Lam herself.
What Happened to Elisa Lam?
Crime Scene partakes in a common true crime story structure: withholding key details from the audience until the final episode. While frustrating and baiting, the structure is designed give viewers knowledge only available to the public, allowing them to participate in solving the crime. The structure is particularly effective in the Elisa Lam case, during which internet sleuths obsessed over details of the death. Through the documentary, we become the sleuths.
The sleuths, however, are proven wrong, and the final episode of Crime Scene imitates the kind of jarring awakening many experienced when the case wrapped. In the last episode, in a fusillade of evidence revelation, we are told of many details, which, if revealed earlier in the series and the case, would have led us likely to different conclusions. In short: Lam was not murdered, and it was speculative to have believed so from the start.
“All the background information that’s used to rule [Lam’s death] as an accident is not necessarily made available to the public,” forensic pathologist Dr. Jason Tovar explains in an interview for the series. “For the people on the internet, you really don’t have the full story in front of you. You don’t have all the facts.”
Tim Marcia, a LAPD homicide detective assigned to the case, says in another interview that investigators had information not shared with the public, including knowledge of the severity of Lam’s mental health history.
Lam’s sister had revealed to detectives that Lam had a history of not taking her medication. Among her possessions left at the hotel were several prescription medications, seemingly untouched. Lam had previously been diagnosed with an extreme form of Bipolar Disorder. She had suffered mental breakdowns where she became delusional, fearing someone was chasing her. During one episode, we learn Lam had to be hospitalized.
“Based on the evidence that we have, Elisa looked like she had Bipolar I,” says Dr. Judy Ho, a clinical/forensic neuropsychologist interviewed for the series. An individual with such a disorder could spiral into a psychotic state. “In that state, you have very disorganized thinking, where the logic doesn’t make sense and it’s hard to separate fantasy from reality,” says Ho. “I think that when you look at the reports of her behavior at the hotel [Lam had been disruptive, causing her to be moved into a new room] … and even the infamous elevator video, that, to me, is completely consistent with somebody in the middle of a psychotic episode.”
Ho explains that the elevator is consistent with someone suffering from delusions of paranoia. Lam, she says, may have been having hallucinations consistent with her history of delusions. “The voices can be saying very frightening things,” explains Ho. “That somebody may be out to harm you or that you should go kill yourself. And there’s no way to shut them out.”
Greg Kading, a former LAPD homicide detective interviewed for the series, said Lam’s sister informed detectives Lam would often hide during her episodes. He believes she felt pursued during the night of her disappearance. “She made her way up to the roof,” Kading concludes. “And it would make perfect sense that she saw the water tank as her place to hide.”
Concerns about the lid of the water tank, the fact that Lam was found naked, her access to the hotel’s roof, the dating on the autopsy, the editing of the elevator video—all these concerns expressed by internet sleuths are systematically explained away by evidence presented in the final episode.
Lam, detectives and coroners and psychologists believe, climbed into the tank to escape a perceived threat and then drowned.
What about all the other theories?
The word is “apophenia.” It denotes people’s tendency to falsely perceive meaningful relations or patterns among unrelated things. Think of a person who plays lottery numbers based on “signs” from their day.
In the case of Elisa Lam’s death, many people, missing crucial information about the case, made logical leaps. For instance, they blamed the LAPD and the Cecil Hotel management for conspiring to hide evidence; the lack of connections between events signaled to them a conspiracy. Other connections stood out, including Lam’s name and its supposed link with a tuberculosis test, her death’s similarity with a horror film, and the address she listed at the hotel, which takes google map searchers to a Canadian cemetery. While strange, the phenomena only demonstrate coincidence, not evidence.
Statistics can logically explain away almost any seemingly unbelievable set of phenomena. In the wake of 9/11 conspiracies and a cluster of medically-linked murders, a 2002 article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Odds of That” gave an explanation for all the supposed “patterns”:
What are the odds? The mathematician will answer that even in the most unbelievable situations, the odds are actually very good. The law of large numbers says that with a large enough denominator—in other words, in a big wide world—stuff will happen, even very weird stuff. “The really unusual day would be one where nothing unusual happens,” explains Persi Diaconis, a Stanford statistician who has spent his career collecting and studying examples of coincidence. Given that there are 280 million people in the United States, he says, ”280 times a day, a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur.”
And that’s what all the patterns and peculiarities of the Elisa Lam case are: coincidences. The “answer” is relatively straight forward. But why do people still insist on calling conspiracy?
Dr. Doug Mungin, a historian of Skid Row interviewed for the documentary, best summarizes the internet’s motivations. “I think that people hope there was a killer, or they hope that their own conspiracy theories would come true, because the reality of it is much sadder.”
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