A documentary based on the tragic death of young Elisa Lam, aged 21, but what is really tragic is how Netflix presents her story…
The producers tactically maintained our attention by presenting her death as a chilling mystery
This docu-series soon gained a social media presence leading up to its debut on Netflix this month; crime series lovers were frantically tagging each other in the comments section, excited to get to grips with the story of Elisa Lam, but quite frankly, I found the presentation of her story quite disappointing. Elisa Lam sadly passed in 2013 following a history of troubles with mental health conditions including depression, which often led to her experiencing traumatic episodes when not taking her medication. Officially ruled as accidental, Lam suffered an overwhelming spiral, with nobody to help her, leading to her death, where she presumably drowned in the water tank on top of the Cecil hotel building.
From the very start of this documentary, the producers tactically maintained our attention by presenting her death as a chilling mystery, suggesting the hotel was haunted, that Lam may have been a victim of foul play or stalked by one of her Tumblr followers. Repeatedly, we saw footage of her in the lift of the hotel, pressing the buttons in sheer desperation to escape what was presented as this mystery person, when in actual fact, this was her inner self, a victim of mental health struggles. It’s true that this hotel had history of crime, the infamous Night Stalker even having stayed there, which of course, had to be mentioned to enhance this thrilling plotline. But really, what is criminal about this hotel, is the fact that they were oblivious to a young woman in a troubled situation, despite it being clear that she yearned for help. Lam wrote words showing distress such as “get out” and “go home” which were overlooked by staff members, despite reports of her ‘strange behaviour’. Instead of showing concern for her well-being, hotel staff simply isolated her in a private room on a higher floor of the building, in the hope that she’d cause less ‘trouble’ as they seemed to see it.
For me, the footage in the lift is truly harrowing, not because I see this young woman as ‘possessed’ as described in the documentary, but I see a young woman in desperate need of help, which she did not receive. The tragedy of Elisa Lam’s death is that she was only discovered days after she had passed, with hotel residents in the documentary even claiming to have drank fluids excreted from her corpse, reporting the water as having an obscure taste and being discoloured. This young woman was truly failed, even by police who failed to acknowledge the true devastation of her death initially, after being influenced by external factors such as pressures from individuals online who sought to investigate the death of Elisa Lam for themselves. After all this, will people be more wary of the consequences of mental health struggles, or will they be left simply disappointed that the series didn’t have the gruesome ending it was rumoured to have? This potentially anti-climatic ending for some, highlights a very important issue to viewers, yet it feels as though the creators didn’t draw as much attention to this, and instead sensationalised her condition, making her a source of spectacle.
The documentary doesn’t seek to educate us about the effects of mental health here, but unfortunately makes it a subject of entertainment
At the end of this series, we are left with a message displayed on screen which recommends a website to visit to “find more information and crisis resources” if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health (www.wannatalkaboutit.com), yet to me, this feels slightly ironic and oddly placed. Throughout the documentary, Elisa Lam’s mental health is presented, whether directly or indirectly, as a form of entertainment, creators aiming to entice us by presenting her behaviour as bewitched and falsely drawing us towards the idea that she is a victim of serious crime, when in fact, she is simply a girl in need of mental health support, which is completely overlooked. In my opinion, the documentary doesn’t seek to educate us about the effects of mental health here, but unfortunately makes it a subject of entertainment – an insensitive approach to enhance viewer statistics. Ultimately, it is down to the viewer to interpret the tragedy of this story, since up until the very end, we are misled into thinking Elisa Lam was murdered and her story is, for the most part, misrepresented and tainted by the desire to create chilling atmospheres for viewers.
Television can be used to educate audiences and raise awareness of key issues like mental health, but unfortunately, in this case, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel fails to do so. Elisa Lam did not vanish, she suffered to a point where she could no longer protect herself, and there was nobody there to do so for her. I can’t begin to image the suffering endured by Lam’s family and do wonder how they felt about these depictions of their beloved daughter and sister, as demonic, twisting the facts into what almost feels entirely fictional, to entertain Netflix viewers – her own Tumblr posts manipulated to invent storylines and take the documentary in the desired direction.
If you or someone you know is suffering with their mental health, here are some helpful links for those living in the United Kingdom, alternatively, you can make contact with your GP.
In article trailer courtesy of Netflix via YouTube.
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