“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” made an important point, then missed it horribly
Netflix’s trending docuseries and the exploitation of mental illness
If you have heard about Netflix’s new true crime docuseries featuring the story of Elisa Lam, you’ve also likely heard scathing reviews detailing the many ways in which the producers missed the mark. If you plan to watch the series, I don’t feel bad for spoiling the end. The documentary should not have been aired as a mystery in the first place.
The tragedy of Elisa Lam is that, like 5.7 million adults in the U.S. and 45 million individuals world-wide, she suffered from bipolar disorder. It is suspected that a lack of medical treatment led her into a manic episode with psychosis, erratic behavior, feelings of being chased and, ultimately, her accidental death. When law enforcement began investigating her disappearance from the Cecil Hotel, detectives suspected she was attacked or influenced by any of the many seedy people living in the hotel or in the surrounding Skid Row.
It almost seems like a zombie film, the undead coming after the young, innocent tourists.
Producers spend almost an entire episode illustrating the dangers of Skid Row, a 50-block district of unsheltered people who suffer from mental illness and drug addiction while inhabiting an area that is relatively lawless. Interviewees tell stories of gruesome homicides and rape in the area and within the hotel itself. The camera scrolls across city blocks of blue tarp and camping tents, showing footage of erratically-behaving people, either high on drugs or minds destroyed by disease and trauma. For a moment it almost seems like a zombie film, the undead coming after the young, innocent tourists.
There is a brief nod to how Skid Row was developed as a result of marginalizing the poor and mentally ill, then the narrative returned to the many ways in which a district of criminals could take advantage of an unsuspecting tourist.
The tragedy of mental illness is suggested again at the end of the series, in conveying the sadness and untimeliness of Elisa Lam’s death. What struck me as odd was the decision to infantilize a 21-year-old girl within her mental illness, while criminalizing people on Skid Row, who are also mentally ill. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel sympathy for Elisa Lam without also feeling sympathy for the thousands of people suffering around her. In this context, I’m also not sure how we are expected to divorce crime from incapacity and desperation.
What could have been a colorful discussion of mental health was instead a four-hour spectacle of misleading story.
Elisa Lam was an example of the many who suffer from debilitating illness in which the perception of oneself and the world are completely distorted. She was rendered dysfunctional, ignored, and ultimately died as a result of not receiving help. The hotel management in an interview describe how they regarded her erratic behavior as ordinary, since the hotel, its inhabitants, and Skid Row were no strangers to psychiatric disorder. The acceptance of a human being degenerating, even as it happens in real time, is not further explored in the documentary.
What could have been a colorful discussion of mental health was instead a four-hour spectacle of misleading story. If there was an important point made in this documentary, it is the tragedy of mental illness and the danger of actively marginalizing those who suffer from it. The producers completely missed the point to their own story, and in hoping for successful viewership seem to rely on us sharing their complacency or, possibly more sinister, their disgust.
I realize it’s fun to demonize others because it reinforces our own feelings of safety — that we are somehow different, better, distanced, cleaner. Even writing this article, shaming the producers of this docuseries, makes me feel oddly warm and fuzzy. In sorting out the fallacy of “othering” and implications on mental health, I feel I’m less likely to commit that crime. I’ll close my laptop and feel my mind is a little clearer, like a societal flaw has been lifted off me as an individual. I won’t apologize to the producers who, meanwhile, might be losing control of their careers and their lives due to the widespread rejection of their series, and even them as people. If they are like any of us, the producers have loved ones affected by mental illness, and I wonder how they react to reviews declaring them as greedy and unsympathetic. However, the hunger for othering people into the shadows is perhaps insatiable, even while making a point about how harmful othering is to mental health.
To this point, I could praise the producers for bringing mental health into public discussion. We could posit that the true mystery lies in the intention of the producers. Are they martyrs, releasing a docuseries in poor taste to reflect back to us viewers our own flaws? Was their exploitation of Elisa Lam’s tragic death an intentional exploitation of our desire for circus-like entertainment? Did they purposefully tell the story from the perspective of internet sleuths because, to some degree, we are all internet sleuths attempting to find truth among web trivia?