Years after the fact, the story of a woman who was found dead in a water tank on the roof of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel is what sprung to mind when I heard that the notorious building was the focus of a new true-crime series.
Opened in 1924, the Cecil Hotel’s opulent design and furnishings once reflected the boom era in which it was constructed, but in the century since, it has developed a questionable reputation.
Over the decades, it has been the setting of several murders and suicides, and was also the temporary home for the serial killer, Richard Ramirez, dubbed The Night Stalker in the 1980s.
It was even the inspiration for a season of American Horror Story, which drew upon the chequered history to form the basis of the series’ Hotel Cortez.
But in 2013, it was the scene of yet another grisly death when Canadian college student Elisa Lam’s body was found atop the building, nearly three weeks after she was reported missing.
When CCTV videos emerged of Lam acting bizarrely and seemingly distressed in an elevator, conspiracy theorists came out in force, suggesting that the 21-year-old had been the victim of foul play — or even supernatural forces.
While I believed I knew about the case, a new documentary series — that has been embraced by audiences who have made it one of the most-watched shows on Netflix — opened my eyes to my own misgivings.
Although I believed the case had never been solved, the truth of the matter — and the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding Lam’s death — were peeled back in this series, which offers a sensitive take on the case, rather than the sensationalist coverage and social media chatter that occurred at the time.
While the internet sleuths who tried to uncover the “truth” are given a bit too much air time and we don’t get to hear from those who actually knew Lam, the exploration into the poverty surrounding the hotel is an important aspect into why it has been a place where so much tragedy has unfolded.
The salacious details have undoubtedly drawn people to tune in, but the latter part of the series presents a sobering look at the hotel’s presence as a temporary home for many homeless people, who have been rounded up into a nearby area called Skid Row, while also conveying how our obsession with true crime means that the human cost of the infamous cases has been overlooked.