Inventing Conspiracy: How Netflix failed Elisa Lam


By Zoe Bracegirdle

In its most recent true crime venture, Netflix revealed the truth behind the much-theorised Elisa Lam case. While the series was posed as an illuminating problem-solver, the heavy focus on conspiracy theories and the dramatisation of mental illness was done at the victim’s expense.

On the tenth of February, Netflix released its highly anticipated docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Many people – including myself – were interested to learn the truth about the disappearance and death of Elisa Lam.

The series opens by giving an overview of Lam’s disappearance. The 21-year-old Canadian student was reported missing in Los Angeles, California in 2013 – her body was found submerged in The Cecil Hotel’s water tank almost three weeks later. Lam’s death was eventually attributed to accidental drowning as a result of her bipolar disorder. Yet, rather than presenting the factual story, the series spotlights conspiracy theorists (and their theories), as well as the whirlwind of intrigue and mystery that surrounded The Cecil Hotel.

Mental illness is no conspiracy

Netflix’s documentary spends a while delving into the grisly past of ‘The Cecil’, a budget hotel in downtown Los Angeles whose walls have witnessed a multitude of violent crimes (even prolific serial killer Richard Ramirez walked The Cecil’s hallways in blood-soaked underwear). The documentary’s presentation of The Cecil as an eerie and malevolent cesspool of murder aims to reinforce the existence of a conspiracy surrounding Lam’s death.

Ellen E. Jones of The Guardian writes that “the various attempts in this true-crime docuseries to lighten the mood with hints at a haunting are, at best, in very poor taste”. At the time of the case, conspiracy theorists, whom Netflix term ‘the obsessed’, latched onto Lam’s disappearance in a search for answers beyond what the police were giving. Some of the most ridiculous theories were that Lam was part of a government experiment, that she re-enacted the plot of a film, or that she was murdered by a heavy metal singer.

This was the problem I had with Netflix’s documentary; the attention they gave to such preposterous theories. Even after Lam’s death was confirmed to be linked to her bipolar disorder, theorists wouldn’t take no for an answer – and Netflix let them take centre stage.

Dramatizing Elisa Lam’s struggle

By presenting random conspiracies as plausible, and giving theorists so much airtime, it seemed like Netflix decided Lam’s mental illness wasn’t a good enough answer – wasn’t entertaining, thrilling, or shocking enough for its viewers. Netflix feeds into the public’s desire to consume ‘fun’, solvable true crime content, making sad stories an entertaining spectacle.

If we look at the facts, what we realise is that Lam’s death is nothing to solve, theorise or untangle and that it shouldn’t be portrayed as such. The unfortunate truth was that Lam was suffering from her mental illness and was acting in abnormal ways because she had stopped taking her medication.

The series interviews Dr Judy Ho, a clinical/forensic neuropsychologist, who provides insight into Lam’s mental state. Ho states that when those with bipolar disorder are unmedicated, they can often act out-of-character and take risks, explaining how and why Lam ended up in the water tank on the hotel roof. Lam’s own family corroborate these behaviours, revealing that Elisa had acted like this in the past.

At the cost of Elisa Lam

By the time the audience finds this out though, we had already sat through three episodes of dramatized ‘true crime’ nonsense. Waiting until the last minute to reveal the truth felt like a real low-blow; like the audience had been cheated out of the real story – a story that should have had Lam at its centre.

Aside from everything I have already mentioned, there was one specific element in the documentary that really didn’t sit right with me. That was the odd, teen-movie-esque personification of Lam, played by an actress who voiced Lam’s private Tumblr posts. This unnecessary detail felt massively exploitative and made the series feel more like a movie than a true story.

Not only did this addition to the series feel like a dramatization of a real victim and her struggles, but it also felt like a huge invasion of Lam’s privacy. Netflix took a part of the case that had not yet been dissected by so-called sleuths, and let its audience have free reign. Lam’s posts – which covered her battle with various mental illnesses – were personal and private, and hearing them spouted out on-screen felt gratuitous and hugely disrespectful. Anita Singh of The Telegraph says it best, the show was “exploitative, crass and insulting to its victim”.

It comes as more of a shock that Netflix sullied Lam’s story after their success with an earlier, similar docu-series Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer spotlighted two web-sleuths who tracked down killer Luka Magnotta. Unlike those in Crime Scene, these amateur detectives were useful. The pair, Deanna Thompson and John Green, examined Magnotta’s crimes meticulously, and ultimately solved the investigation. This time around, the sleuths solved nothing, took away from real issues, and made themselves the victims.

Too little too late

In what seemed like an attempt to backtrack, the last episode of Crime Scene saw Netflix urging viewers to speak out about their own mental health. However, these niceties – while probably sincere and well-meaning sentiments – just felt forced. Marred by hours of fictitious storytelling, this genuine appeal came too little, too late.

In the midst of the drama, Netflix lost sight of Elisa Lam, the story’s actual victim, and completely missed the mark on what could’ve been a helpful, eye-opening story about the struggles of mental illness.