On the ease of conspiracy theories: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

A new series of Netflix conveys the power of conspiracy theories.

The recent Netflix series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is an interesting but overlong and repetitive true crime investigation about Elisa Lam’s disappearance at the infamous Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

The investigation is the starting point of a look at the Hotel Cecil, which despite its impressive façade and foyer, is the hotel of choice for those who want cheap accommodation and are not overly concerned about hygiene or the safety of life and limb.

It was a cheap hotel in the middle of one of the poorest zones in Los Angeles. Such a setting makes Lam’s disappearance all the more intriguing. We understand from interviews that the place is the site of deaths and suicides and drug deals. Elisa Lam booked a stay at the hotel and then disappeared. She did not leave the building, and no body was found.

During the investigation, a fascinating video sequence was found of the poor woman terrified out of her mind in an elevator. The footage, coupled with her disappearance, makes for the spine of the documentary. The disappearance reminded me of one of those closed room killings favoured by the crime novelist John Dickson Carr and his impossibly clever mysteries.[1]

The investigators of disappearance work along traditional lines looking for evidence of how she would go missing. Their investigation is logical and thorough, but it takes time to discover the truth.

In today’s era, where there is a mystery, there must be social media, and then there must be conspiracy theories. With giving away too much, Elisa Lam’s disappearance is explained clearly by the end of the show. The conspiracy theories are shown to be nothing much more than wild speculation.

Perhaps the most farfetched is that Elisa Lam was an agent spreading TB – a type of biological warfare. After all, there was a TB break out at the time, and the test for TB was called the LAM-ELISA.[2] It is an astonishing coincidence, but that is all it is. The conspiracy theory’s remarkable nature is that they take a coincidence and then build their case. It has an internal logic, but nothing more. The cases bounce off each other, and they present an erratic and enticing sequence of events.

How social media users made a relatively simple set of circumstances into something tangible that many people still believe is remarkable. [3] In this case, a whole body of conspiracy theories was uncovered. One unfortunate soul, who had been at the hotel a year before, was named the killer and subjected a vicious social media hazing.

At almost every level in society, facts have become irrelevant as people seek the most convenient version of the truth. The United States is presently working through the fallout of an insurrection against the Senate. Those participating were pushed along by a stream of unfounded complaints against the election’s conduct on social media. The simple fact was that the courts rejected the claims for lack of evidence. Yet, the conspiracy theorists continue to spread their savage distortions, and a fair proportion of the population took it up. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel shows the dynamics of how all this works.

Before the social media barrage of conspiracy theories, films such as The Parallax View (1974) and Executive Action (1973) offered their take on political assassinations, arguing that a large corporate body was behind the political violence in the United States. [4] One the Hollywood 10, Dalton Trumbo wrote the script for Executive Action, which proposed that a group of right-wing politicians, businessmen, assassins and intelligence agents developed a plan to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

In the 1970s, Executive Action, and The Parallax View harnessed some of the conspiracy theories. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

These films fed into the widely held view that a sole deranged assassin in Lee Harvey Oswald did not murder President Kennedy, and there was a broader conspiracy. These conspiracy theories do not stand scrutiny, but are widely held.[5] The theories were later reinforced by films such as JFK (1991) which a complex web of conspiracy theories weaved together. These films are joined by Flashpoint (1984), Ruby (1992), and Interview with the Assassin (2002).

Conspiracy theories centre on great stories, which is always a sound base for some fine films. What is alarming is how easy it is to create a plausible – albeit evidence-free – conspiracy theory. While not the greatest of documentaries, the TV show has shown how simple it is to construct a conspiracy theory based on little or no evidence or simple speculation. What was once laughable has now entered the political and cultural mainstream.

The political implications are serious. It shows the astonishing ease that complete and utter nonsense can be translated into a creditable belief. The commentators had no special ability in research, aside from a fascination with the subject of Elisa Lam’s disappearance. This disappearance was tragic, but the detectives reveal a perfectly logical sequence of events. Even the social media theorists admitted that their conspiracy theories were unfounded. However, there appears to be no concession to reality for those in the crowd who stormed the Capitol building.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dickson_Carr.

[2] The test for the tuberculosis was her name in reverse order: LAM-ELISA, which stood for Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). 

[3] Lucy Devine, “People Are Still Convinced Elisa Lam’s Death Was Connected To TB Outbreak,” Tyla, accessed at:

https://www.tyla.com/news/tv-and-film-what-is-the-elisa-lam-cecil-hotel-tb-outbreak-theory-skid-row-death-20210216 on 19 February 2021

[4] Art Simon, In The Parallax View, Conspiracy Goes All the Way to the Top—and Beyond, Slate, 21 July 2021, accessed at https://slate.com/culture/2017/07/the-parallax-view-is-a-70s-paranoid-classic-about-evil-corporations-and-political-assassinations.html on 22 February 2021.

[5] Gerald L. Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Doubleday, 1994, provides an overview of the weaknesses of all the major conspiracy theories.

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