I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about « Cancel Culture » here, but then the crime scene happened, so I guess I have to
Every two Wednesdays at Fashions! Quirks! Panic!Luke T. Harrington examines one of the random obsessions that have gripped the public mind in the recent past and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
IThere wouldn’t be a pandemic without true crime documentaries on Netflix, which is why I found myself checking out the extremely generic title Crime scene on Netflix the other day.
It’s possible that the title implies the arrival of a series, but for now, Crime scene, subtitled The disappearance at the Cecil Hotel, is a single four-episode mini-series that explores the mysteries and conspiracy theories that have swirled around the 2013 death of Canadian college student Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. It’s become enough of a phenomenon over the past eight years that you’ve probably at least heard of it (the 2015 season of american horror story drew heavily on it, for example) but the series managed to dig into its cultural impact in ways I hadn’t considered, ways that made me think a little deeper about (wait for it) fads, fads and panics. Oh, and that slogan we’re all sick of too: « erase the culture. » (I cringe just writing this. But please stay with me.)
If you don’t know, the case in question began when Elisa Lam disappeared without a trace while in notorious Los Angeles Cecil Hotel (the hotel has a century-long criminal history and a reputation for being haunted, but at the time it was trying to escape its past by rebranding part of itself as a hip loft called « Stay on Main. ») After searching for her for several days and failing to find even a trace, the LAPD asked the public for help by releasing the last known footage of her on line. The video received a lot more attention than they expected, mainly because Lam’s behavior was bizarre. The footage, taken from one of Cecil’s security cameras, showed Lam boarding an elevator, pressing a dozen buttons, hiding as if being watched, appearing to interact with empty air, and getting on and off the elevator several times. times, all while the elevator door refuses to close for several minutes. When they finally found her body several days later, none of the oddities were cleared up: She was found floating in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks, having apparently climbed up, closed the hatch behind her , stripped and then drowned. To add to the grisly details, she was only discovered after guests complained of discolored water coming from their faucets.
With such a bizarre case, and with the details already public, it probably stands to reason that public speculation about the truth of the case was everywhere. Was there foul play? Was there a cover-up? Did the cops agree? Had the ghosts of the Cecil claimed another victim?
Conspiracy theorists and paranormal enthusiasts will likely be extremely disappointed by Crime scene, which ends up strongly arguing that the circumstances of Lam’s death, while horrific and tragic, were actually quite mundane. It turns out that Lam suffered from bipolar I disorder, a disorder known to cause psychotic episodes, for which he rarely, if ever, took his meds. There were at least two ways to access the roof, neither of which were far from the elevator or difficult to reach. The conspiracy theorists’ trump card – that the hatch to the water tank had been closed behind her – turns out to be a case of bad information: the cops did indeed find the tank closed, but that was because it had been closed by the janitor who originally she discovered the body, not Lam herself (or her imaginary killer). Elisa Lam’s death was almost certainly an accident, self-inflicted due to mental illness.
The reality is that the whims of the internet mob are, at best, only occasionally driven by moral clarity and a sense of true justice.
For several years, however, there has been a contingent of internet denizens firmly invested in believing otherwise. Crime scene it’s by no means a great docuseries, but it shines when it dives deep into the obsessive online community dedicated to digging to the bottom of the disappearance – and by « digging to the bottom of the disappearance », I obviously mean « fussing around casually with very little concern for the facts real people or how real people were being shot. Once true crime enthusiasts discovered the security camera footage, every millisecond and every pixel of it was dissected, analyzed, and otherwise tortured. Because it was half a second away here and there? Was it someone else’s foot poking into the frame? Why was the timestamp so blurry? What were the cops and/or the Cecil trying to hide???
No doubt the LAPD and the slumlords who run the Cecil are used to, and often deserve, this kind of public scrutiny, but that’s not to mention the mountains of collateral damage the blogger investigators have left behind. One casualty of the fuzzy fervor, who the filmmakers interviewed extensively for the series, is the Mexican musician Paul Vergara, who recorded death metal under the (unintelligent) pseudonym Morbid. Vergara has nothing to do with Lam’s death – his alibi, that he was in Mexico at the time recording a new album, is unambiguous – but the fact that he made ghostly music and was once at the Cecil is was enough to convince bloggers that he was responsible. Countless people on the internet began stalking Morbid with hate mail and death threats, demanding he confess, eventually leading him to the point of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Vergara ended up in a hospital and hasn’t recorded music since (though he branched out into filmmaking).
And, well, not to put the point too nicely, but I feel like it dovetails pretty well with a lot of the stuff I’ve talked about in this column.
The sentence « Clear Culture » it behaved like any other cultural label that becomes overly mainstream: it became so abused and weaponized that it lost all meaning. As I mentioned earlier in this column, the American right is exceptionally gifted at taking almost any phrase that gains cultural traction and twisting it into an insult to the left, which has led to a dynamic of « Cancel culture is out of control! » on the one hand and « It is not Cancel culture, it’s just consequence culture! » on the other. At its root, however, the cancel culture phenomenon is not exclusively a leftist phenomenon, nor is it essentially one of the right consequences for evil.
The reality is that the vagaries of the internet mob are, at best, only occasionally guided by moral clarity and a sense of true justice. Morbid’s music isn’t to everyone’s taste, and might even have been tacky, but the guy hardly deserved to be charged with murder and haunted almost to death simply because he was a little too interested in death as a phenomenon. When you leave justice to the mob, it is rarely directed in the right direction or proportional to the crime.
Several years ago, I was writing a column called LOL Interwebz around here. I gave up, in part because there were just so many different ways to write: « Wow, people are really awful on the internet! » (Not long after I gave up, the Trump era kicked in and things somehow got a hundred times uglier.) For these reasons, I’ve tried to keep this column as far away from internet culture as possible. A common theme, however, seems to be that crowd behavior is almost never governed by fact or reason. They get things right from time to time; more often, they start wear silly wigs OR spending thousands of dollars on stuffed toys. Too often, the « wisdom of crowds » means chasing conspiracy theories and ghost stories, or chasing innocent people to the brink of death.
I confess that there was a time, when this kind of phenomenon was just emerging, that part of me expected it to be a good thing – « Hey, » I thought, « maybe if all our actions were subjected to public scrutiny , we’re all going to be better people » (note I was also a teenager when I had these thoughts, so, huh). The problem with that optimism was that it assumed that the crowd would always have all the facts and always make moral judgments in line with my preferences. The crowd, however, does not need to clarify the facts to come and get you. Nor does staying meticulously in line with the zeitgeist of the moment guarantee that you will be spared—something can always be dug up from your past.
I am routinely struck, when I read the gospels, by how narrow Jesus’ teaching is. Most, if not all All of it – seems straightforward as an answer to the implied (or occasionally explicit) question of “Good teacher, how can he I inherit eternal life?” Responses almost always aim to ensure that the listener’s behavior is right and righteous. Countless individuals over the centuries have tried to politicize Jesus’ teaching, but it stubbornly resists. The teacher tells us to remake ourselves, not the world around us. Yet if we merely obeyed, the world would be remade.
Elisa Lam’s death was tragic, but the swarming internet crowd did nothing to bring her back and nothing to do justice. A blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut, but that in itself is no argument for the goodness of blind squirrels.
What if we, fellow Internet squirrels, all… open our eyes?