Deep Thought: The Heroism of Thinking Responsibly
Last night, I watched a four-part documentary series on Netflix that I thought was pretty well made. I'd recommend it, but before I go on, I'm going to completely spoil the plot for those who don't already know: the Cecil Hotel is not demonstrably haunted. The musician from Mexico never murdered anything but a tune. No crime was committed by anyone in the Los Angeles hotel. It's just a really sad story that is completely understandable, unfortunately. But there are some quiet heroes in that documentary. I'd like to talk about them.
The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is not exactly enjoying good ratings or reviews. Screenrant opined, correctly in my estimation, that it failed to please people looking for a truly sensational story – while at the same time it annoyed people who wanted to get to the thoughtful analysis of the case and find out the 'take-home messages'. The series gets to the take-home messages, but takes three hours to do it. Me, I don't fit into either category, so I liked the approach. If I wanted to jump to the take-home messages, I'd go look it up in W*k*p*d** and start searching footnotes. A documentary isn't always a reportage, and this one offers us something else – an opportunity to observe people thinking in real time.
Short version: in 2013, people who (like me) tend to watch Youtube videos featuring 'unsolved mysteries' noticed a strange video clip of a nervous young woman in a lift. This was Elisa Lam, a student on holiday from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The video shows some puzzling behaviour on her part: she appears to be talking to someone we can't see. She pushes a number of buttons on the lift. She seems to be trying to hide in the corner. Finally, she abandons the lift and exits down the corridor. She is never seen alive again.
A thorough search of the premises by police yielded no results. Nineteen days later, her body was found in a water tank on the hotel roof. Suicide, accident, or foul play? It would take work to find out. And that's where the story took a very weird turn.
'Web sleuthing' by armchair detectives on the internet caused a Mexican 'black metal' artist (and award-winning filmmaker) to be accused of murdering Elisa. Never mind that he wasn't in the hotel at that time: he'd recorded a very dark video that had disturbing references… Conspiracy theories sprang up, linking the hotel management, government vaccine projects, and the fact that the hotel was located in a dangerous neighbourhood…nobody believes in coincidences. 'There are no coincidences' is a truism of detective fiction. But real life doesn't work like fiction.
The Cecil Hotel was a prestigious venue when it was built in 1924. It has come down in the world since then. Transients live there, poor people. There is prostitution. The hotel is located in Skid Row, where thousands of homeless people camp out in tents. The history of the place makes for somber reading. A serial killer may have stayed there once. Somebody took a photo of a ghost. Besides, the place is creepy and none too clean. Obviously, something horrible happened must have happened here.
Something horrible did happen, but it wasn't a murder. It took painstaking forensic work on the part of actual police officers and technicians to figure it out. Elisa struggled with bipolar disorder. She wasn't taking her medication as directed. She was stressed. Her death in the water tank was a tragedy. The hotel staff noticed her erratic behaviour, but erratic behaviour wasn't unknown at the Cecil.
What the documentary shows: people who get their information on the internet often skip the process when it comes to thinking through events. They can be working with incomplete information, as the Youtubers and other internet sleuths in the interviews acknowledged. The conclusions they jump to can often have unfortunate results, as you see from the interview with Pablo Vergara, the falsely accused musician. In other words, crowd-sourcing a research project can sometimes yield more heat than light. That doesn't mean, 'Don't be informed.' It means, 'Realise the nature of the information you're getting, and check your own thinking.'
The detectives on the case explained their methodology. They walked the filmmakers through their reasoning. They showed their work, from forensic evaluation to witness interviews. It takes persistence, patience, and objectivity to reach conclusions like this. They did a good job in the face of media pressure. To me, this is a form of heroism. Especially when everyone around you is yelling that they know how reality works – and besides, they've read a lot of crime novels.
Watching this documentary provides opportunities to observe people explaining their thought processes. We can learn from them. Nobody's being attacked or blamed. They're invited to share their experiences. Looking at this sad story from multiple perspectives – including those of Elisa Lam, through her online writings – can teach us lessons that we can use. That's why the series doesn't start from the conclusion and work back: it takes you through the process from ignorance to some sort of knowledge, step by step.
We often read, 'The Information Age is different. It presents us with so many new challenges. We have to learn to adapt.' Fine, but how? Here's one way: by looking at a story. Carefully, without praise or blame. By asking ourselves how we 'consume media'. Maybe we should stop 'consuming media' and start reading and listening with our brains turned on. Maybe we need to slow down and learn to think more logically. Even better, maybe we need to learn to recognise when we don't have enough information to solve the puzzle.
Elisa Lam's death makes us sad. We feel for her family, and we mourn a young life cut short. We can take away lessons about mental health, the need to stay connected and have each other's backs while travelling, and, most importantly, the need to evaluate what we read and hear in a rational manner. This could be a way for a planet-full of perfect strangers to honour her memory.