“I have arrived in Laland [sic] and there is a monstrosity of a building next to the place I’m staying,” Elisa Lam wrote on Tumblr in January 2013. “When I say monstrosity, mind you, I’m saying as in gaudy. But then again, it was built in 1928, hence the art-deco theme. So yes, it IS classy, but then since it’s LA, it went on crack.”
At the time she typed those sentences, the 21-year-old Canadian student was in the middle of a solo trip through California. She started in San Diego and made an obligatory trip to Sea World before Amtrak-ing north to Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. At least that’s what was supposed to happen: Lam made it to “Laland,” but she was reported missing five days later, and was never seen alive again.
Her disappearance was further complicated by the fact that she was staying at the Cecil Hotel, a once-opulent building that didn’t have enough Beaux-Arts charm to overcome its dark reputation. All told, more than a dozen guests have ended their lives on the property.
The Cecil opened in 1927, and its first suicide was reported just four years later, when 46-year-old W. K. Norton checked in under a pseudonym and downed a handful of poison-filled capsules. In 1964, “Pigeon Goldie” Osgood’s stabbed and brutalized body was discovered in her room, and it’s believed that Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez stayed there during his mid-1980s murder spree.
Lam may not have known anything about the Cecil’s history when she checked in on that otherwise normal Saturday, but her death has become another listing on its undeniably grim ledger. But for those who were familiar with the hotel’s macabre backstory, it provided more “evidence” that it was haunted or just full-on cursed—especially after the Los Angeles Police Department released several minutes of surveillance footage that showed Lam behaving strangely in and around its elevator.
A new four-part Netflix docuseries, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, attempts to untangle the sad truth from the continued speculation about Lam’s final days, including around the role the 97-year-old property may have played in her death. VICE spoke with the series’ director, Emmy-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger, about Lam, the true-crime genre, and the dangers of conspiracy theories. (Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)
VICE: You’re no stranger to true-crime stories, with your two Ted Bundy films [Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile]. but what attracted you to Lam’s story, and the story of the Cecil Hotel?
Berlinger: Back in 2013, I saw the elevator footage and was fascinated by it, but never really took the time to explore it. Last year, [journalist] Josh Dean, who did some reporting on the case, brought it to me and thought there might be an interesting series there. It would be something I hadn’t done before—looking at a place and the social and economic forces that create a perception of it.
We pitched Netflix about doing an ongoing series about one place and its criminal history—or the perception thereof. I liked the idea of starting with the Elisa Lam story because, without ruining it for readers, the fact that a crime actually didn’t take place allowed me to play with the conventions of true crime a little bit, and turn the genre on its head.
Past tellings of this story have really leaned into the paranormal aspects of it, but I think it’s dangerous to perpetuate those kinds of myths. I wanted to pull the story apart and understand why the reputation of the hotel convinced a legion of web sleuths to think that there was some massive conspiracy going on.
The participation of the web sleuths was one of the most challenging aspects of the documentary for me—the way they inserted themselves into the investigation and pushed their own, sometimes nonsensical theories. Do you think they were well-intentioned about trying to solve this case, or were they just doing it for likes and clicks?
It’s hard to paint everybody with the same broad brush. I think the people we interviewed for the show were well-intentioned. I think web sleuths historically have had a positive impact on some cases. I don’t know if you know my series Paradise Lost, but they’re given a lot of credit for having liberated the West Memphis Three from their wrongful convictions. When that movie came out in January ‘96, like-minded people were just kind of finding each other on the internet, and they became outraged about what they saw. Tens of thousands of people banded together to create the Free the West Memphis Three movement. They created a website for it, and back in those days, that was a lot of work.
So yes, I have seen amateur investigators using the internet in very positive ways, literally in my own work. One of the reasons I wanted to dissect this case is that there’s obviously a danger to trading in conspiracy theories, and I wanted to understand how that happens. In this case, there are a lot of strange coincidences, including the lore of the hotel itself, but that doesn’t replace the search for the truth.
And when you learn the truth about what happened to Elisa Lam, it’s just sad. It’s not a horror story or a ghost story, it’s a tragedy.
That’s a great point. I’m not trying to be hard on the other shows that have traveled this road, but to me, it’s disrespectful to the victim to dismiss her tragedy as a ghost story. That takes away her humanity. That was an important element of this show: to make it very victim-focused. And I’m being careful in how I say this, because I don’t want to ruin it for everybody [who doesn’t know the case], but the fact that there was no crime is really the point. I chose this for the first season, because it’s all about perception: a perception of the history of sensational crime at the hotel, and the perception that there might be something evil and haunted about it. That allowed people to offer up some pretty wacky theories about what happened, but the truth is that there was nothing sensational about it. It was just a sad circumstance.
Yeah, it took so much bravery on her part to plan her first big international trip, and then you learn how it ended.
When I started looking at her Tumblr posts, and realized what a real impact she had on this web sleuth community—even if one needs to question some of their methods and conclusions—at the end of the day, I think a lot of people were drawn to it because they were inspired by her, or felt a connection to her. So to do anything other than give her a portrait as a full human being would’ve been a mistake. And that’s the danger of ghost-story approaches to this topic.
Did you reach out to any of Elisa Lam’s family to participate?
We did, and they chose not to. I had to pause and think, “Should I go ahead and do this?” but they weren’t against us doing it; they just didn’t want to participate. I felt like it gave me added motivation to live up to one of my basic tenets of a filmmaker, which is never to take on a crime story and a victim’s story without telling it in a way that honors the victim and the truth of what happened.
Was anyone else reluctant to talk about the case, or about their own experiences at the hotel?
It took a lot to convince Morbid, the musician, to do the show, because he has really been burned by the entire experience [of being pulled into some web sleuths’ conspiracy theories]. I’m very proud that we did get a bunch of people to participate who hadn’t participated [in a documentary] before, and they all needed reassurance that we weren’t going to do the “ghosts and goblins” thing. Amy Price, the hotel manager; Tim Marcia, one of the detectives; Jason Tovar, the pathologist on the case—they all needed reassurance that we were going to treat it responsibly. Luckily, I have a track record for doing even sensational subject matter quote-unquote “in an intelligent way.” I think my resume helped assuage them, as did just being very straightforward that our goal for the show was not to continue the mythology, but to dissect it and understand how those perceptions came to be.
You have immersed yourself in some really dark places, like with the two Ted Bundy films and Paradise Lost. Have you found a way to limit the way these stories affect you, or do you go into each of them knowing that they have the potential to change you, in some way?
In the early days, it used to bother me a lot. I’ve been able to compartmentalize more as the years have unfolded. I remember when we were editing Paradise Lost, in the days of still cutting on celluloid. The whole editing process was 20 times slower, and I would be spending hours and hours looking at really disturbing crime scene photos and autopsy photos. I remember coming home after looking at some particularly disturbing imagery, going into my 18-month-old daughter’s nursery, picking her up, and flashing on some of the images of really horrible things that were done to those kids.
At that time, I felt like the project had stolen some of my innocence, during this very precious time in my life of being a new father. Ever since, I have really made an effort to try to compartmentalize it. Any project is a two-year investment of your life, generally speaking, and the motivation that allows me to power through some of the negative feelings I get is knowing that this is a project that’s going to help people in some way. I can’t just be a purveyor of dark stories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, February 10.