The Fetishism of True Crime: What Web Sleuths and Medieval Witch Hunters Have in Common

The Cecil Hotel, where Elisa Lam went missing

Several years ago, I watched a short video that had gone viral. The footage was taken from the camera of a hotel elevator and in it, a young woman seemed to be running or hiding from someone. Several times, she peered slowly outside of the elevator, as if checking to see if she was being followed, before darting back into the corner so she wouldn’t be seen. She pressed all of the buttons rapidly. She moved erratically. I remember thinking she must have been in some sort of danger. I didn’t learn anything else about the woman in the video until years later.

Last month, Netflix released a four-part documentary series called Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The series told the story of Elisa Lam, a 21 year old college student who went missing in Los Angeles in 2013. Months after she was first reported missing, her body was found in one of the Cecil Hotel rooftop water tanks. Her death was ultimately ruled an accidental drowning, which would usually mean the case itself was closed; after all, just because we don’t know how exactly she ended up in the tank, doesn’t mean it wasn’t her own doing. When someone drowns in the ocean during a midnight swim, there is very rarely video evidence of the drowning itself. But due almost entirely to a lack of understanding — and, honestly, even an interest in understanding — of Elisa’s bipolar disorder, her name has remained in the mouths of true crime enthusiasts for years after her death.

Plenty of people have discussed The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and how it failed to truly focus on Elisa Lam rather than the superstitious conspiracy theories that sprouted up around her. Personally, I’m less bothered by that than many others; after all, the documentary isn’t called The Vanishing of Elisa Lam. For better or worse, the Cecil Hotel itself is the true protagonist of the series, not Elisa. My outrage — and I was outraged throughout most of the series — lies not with the lack of focus on Elisa Lam’s personhood, but with the amount of spotlight and sympathy given to the group of armchair detectives who, led by an obsession with a person they knew nothing about, expanded what was an explainable tragedy into an explosion of conspiracy and superstition comparable to witch-hunters in medieval Europe.

Prehistoric skulls and cave art from as early as 6500 BC reveal that the surgical drilling of holes through the skull (trephination) was used to treat mental illness by releasing evil spirits which had become trapped inside the mind. In the 13th century, the mentally ill began to be persecuted as witches who were demonically possessed. In 1486, at the height of the witch-hunts, two Dominican monks published the ultimate guide to witch hunting; Malleus Maleficarum. In it, symptoms of demonic possession include speaking to invisible spirits, hearing voices which are not there, erratic movements, and so on. It could almost read as a very crude and callous version of the DSM, in which almost every “treatment” is simply death.

Engravings from 1525 showing trephination

Many self-titled “web sleuths” have pointed to the elevator footage of Elisa Lam acting erratically as evidence that she might have been haunted or possessed. In the footage, we see Elisa act as though she is hiding from someone we cannot see. She moves erratically. She speaks to no one. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with deciding a bipolar woman was possessed, rather than simply experiencing the symptoms of a psychotic episode.

The Vanishing is far from the first series of its kind, and it isn’t even the first to focus on the work done by web sleuths. Don’t F**k With Cats, a 2019 documentary series also from Netflix, centers on a group of Facebook armchair detectives who spent years hunting down a murderer named Luka Magnotta. But that’s where the similarities between Magnotta’s sleuths and Elisa’s end. In Don’t F**k With Cats, Luka Magnotta is alive and well, and his crimes are on-going. His Facebook hunters want to prevent him from committing more harm just as much as they want him to face justice for what he has already done. Magnotta also often harassed and threatened the web sleuths themselves, toying with them as he did with his feline victims and, ultimately, Jun Lin, who was murdered and dismembered on video by Magnotta.

In the case of Elisa Lam, her sleuths proved more detrimental than not, tying up police tip-lines with conspiracy theories leading nowhere. Their relationship to Elisa Lam was entirely one-sided from the start, and based on their perception of her rather than any real knowledge of her as a person. They were the harassers this time, terrorizing black metal artist Morbid until he attempted suicide — all for the crime of staying at the Cecil Hotel a year prior to Elisa Lam, and for writing songs about death. Again, I find myself circling back to witch-hunts.

The fetishization of true crime is nothing new. Even in the 19th century, satirists were criticizing the public for sensationalizing and dramatizing the crimes of Jack the Ripper. There are hundreds of dark tourism sites across the world — places known for death and tragedy, frequented by a select group of people. Some of them were the sites of disasters and accidents, like Chernobyl, but others are altogether more voyeuristic in nature.

While in Milwaukee for a work trip two years ago, I asked the hotel clerk if there was anything to do in the area. He happily told me I could take the Cream City Cannibal Tour, which walks the streets where Jeffrey Dahmer lured seven of his victims. “You get a free drink at the end,” the clerk told me.

Milwaukee is not alone in recognizing the profit to be made from their more infamous headliners. In Los Angeles, you can take a three and a half hour tour about the Manson cult and murders, using audio recordings from the murderers themselves. The Lizzie Borden house is now a museum and bed and breakfast named for her. Seattle offers a two and a half hour tour on Ted Bundy. The Zodiac Killer Tour offers participants two options between a one hour tour around San Francisco, and a five hour, more in depth version that circles the whole Bay Area.

Many true crime enthusiasts claim to enjoy these tourist traps because of the history they offer, or the “dive into the killers’ psyche.” I think, for some, that may even be true. But I fail to see how spending a night in the bedroom of a murder victim, or drinking a cocktail named for a serial killer, would do more to educate than simply reading a book on the subject.

And for those with money and even darker taste, there are websites dedicated to auctioning off things owned and made by the killers, themselves. Scrolling down one of these sites, I can see a painting done by John Wayne Gacy of Pogo the Clown, his clown persona used to get close to the children he then rape, torture and kill. The painting recently sold for $4,000.

I’m not very interested in analyzing the motivations of dark tourists — and I can’t bring myself to consider the motivations of people buying serial killer memorabilia. I think it’s safe to say that some tourists are in it for the history, and some are in it for the thrill, and some are in it for something to do on a Wednesday afternoon. I won’t say I’ve never been curious about what was going through Jeffrey Dahmer’s head when he did what he did. I think it’s natural to wonder “How could someone do that?” when faced with a monstrous act. And beyond that, the tourists’ motivations don’t matter to me so much as the motivations of the people running the tours and museums and bed and breakfasts, which is almost always the same: profiting from someone else’s death.

The true crime genre has always focused more on the crime aspect, rather than the true. People love narratives. Reality is often less clean, less cut and dry, and altogether less titillating. The Elisa Lam web sleuths didn’t just spin a dozen different half-baked theories about what could have happened because they didn’t understand bipolar disorder, although that of course played a part. They did it because the truth of Elisa Lam’s narrative wasn’t as interesting to them. The tragic accidental drowning of a young woman in the midst of a manic/psychotic episode was not as interesting as the idea that she might have been murdered, or some sort of government agent, or a biological weapon. Ted Bundy being charming and attractive fits the narrative better than the reality; that he broke into women's apartments, and pretended to be injured to lure sympathetic women into his van, and was considered socially awkward and strange by his peers. Jeffrey Dahmer and Dean Corll, who each raped and murdered dozens of teenage boys and young men, have been used as a morality lesson against the dangers of homosexuality. Overwhelmingly, what these skewed versions of each case have in common is a refusal to acknowledge and respect the truth of the victims’ experiences.

Dozens of books have been published about Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia and the Zodiac Killer, pointing fingers at various suspects over the years. Many of them read more like badly conceptualized detective novels than anything else. Still, they draw in the true crime audience time and time again. These unsolved cases are almost preferred; after all, since no one knows the killer, they can make up the ending however they want.

This trend of foregoing the truth in favor of the narrative is mentioned by both The Vanishing and Don’t F**k With Cats, although a little too late for it to matter. After spending hours detailing each conspiracy around Elisa Lam’s death and allowing the conspiracy theorists themselves three times the screen time of the documentary’s only psychologist — it should be noted that there was not a single bipolar person interviewed — the last episode attempts to lay to rest the misconception that Elisa’s case is unsolved. Similarly, after three episodes filmed like a pulpy cat-and-mouse chase, Deanna Thompson, the main web sleuth in Don’t F**k With Cats, turns to the camera and asks the viewers at home if they are complicit in giving killers like Magnotta the notoriety they want. It’s a valid question, but a strange one to ask after spending hours doing just that.

This is a type of self awareness that seems to be cropping up in the true crime genre more and more; people are questioning if the genre itself and the way it is handled is too voyeuristic in nature. Too focused on the murderers rather than their victims. After all, most people can name Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and Charles Manson, but not necessarily their victims. Even high profile victims, like JonBenét Ramsey, are often only known because their killer is unknown (and doesn’t have a helpful moniker). The Black Dahlia, one of the most famous cold case victims, is almost exclusively referred to by nickname.

Elizabeth Short, better known as The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short’s murder has been dramatized drastically in the decades since her death. Novels, television shows, and a badly received 2006 movie have all played their part to cement unproven and sometimes even disproven theories about her case in the minds of the general public. That she was an aspiring actress; that she was a war widow; that she was a waitress; that she was a prostitute. None of these things were true, but they made the narrative more interesting, and so Elizabeth Short became a fictional character in the story of her own life. The first lead about the discovery of her body, written for The Daily News by a man who had never seen her, read: “The nude body of a beautiful young woman, neatly cut in two, at the waist, was found early today on a vacant lot near Crenshaw and Exposition Blvd.” They had already decided she was beautiful. That fit the narrative.

Because these narrators are more interested in telling a captivating story than telling the truth, the loved ones of the victims are also not afforded a voice. They knew their child, sibling, friend when they were alive, and so they know the reality is not as thrilling and cinematic as the true crime audience craves. We do not hear from the family of Jun Lin in Don’t F**k With Cats — although his friend is briefly interviewed. Likewise, we do not hear from Elisa Lam’s family in The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

Perhaps the complete exclusion of the victims’ families is for the best. In 1947, shortly after Elizabeth Short’s body was identified, an Examiner reporter called her mother back in Massachusetts and told her that her daughter had won a beauty contest. He asked what Short was like growing up, and took notes as her mother happily talked about her daughter’s childhood. After he got what he wanted, he explained that there was no beauty contest; her daughter had been killed. She didn’t believe it until the police arrived at her door.

Throughout the Short case, detectives were flooded with calls from armchair sleuths, convinced they knew who had killed the Black Dahlia, or had details on some larger-than-life conspiracy that had led to her death. Over half a century later, detectives on Elisa Lam’s case received calls theorizing that she was a biological weapon sent to cause a viral outbreak in L.A.’s homeless population on Skid Row.

The creators of true crime media almost always decry past deliveries of the same story as sensationalist, or voyeuristic, or outright dishonest. Joe Berlinger, director of The Vanishing (as well as Conversations with A Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes, which received backlash for its sympathetic portrayal of Bundy), said “This story has been told before, but I think it’s been done very irresponsibly in the past. For the average viewer it’s another compelling story you watch and then move on to the next. But for who this happened to, it’s the worst moment in their life. It’s a real tragedy for that person and that family.”

He then said “We certainly need to talk about the ghost stories and contextualize them. It’s not like you can avoid it, because that’s a big part of the story.”

But whose story are they a part of? Certainly not Elisa Lam’s, whose true story is far more tragic and explainable than anything a web sleuth could divine. There are no ghost stories in Elisa Lam’s truth. There is just mental illness, which is in many ways treated the same.

Watching The Vanishing, the moment Elisa’s bipolar disorder was mentioned, the elevator footage was recontextualized in my mind. I thought back to every manic episode I’ve experienced, many of them accompanied by hallucinations and paranoia, and I understood. Every person with a psychotic disorder who watched that documentary understood. The moment the autopsy revealed only trace amounts of her medication, every bipolar person watching knew what happened. Still, I sat and watched as a dozen web sleuths, eagerly searching for answers to an already answered mystery, claimed her mental illness had nothing to do with her death. I watched them discuss how they “came to terms with what happened” — the tragic death of a young woman that they did not know, and only after canonizing her across the internet as the victim of ghosts and demons and government conspiracies in a self-centered refusal to learn about her disorder at all.

Daniel Milworth, a serial killer with bipolar disorder from Criminal Minds

The silence regarding mental illness’s place in discussions of true crime is just as dangerous as the history of demonizing it. Don’t F**k With Cats hardly mentions Luka Magnotta’s history with schizophrenia, likely both because they were worried about contributing to the slandering of a wildly misunderstood disorder, and because it would make the story more complicated than they wanted it to be. In Criminal Minds’ fifteen year long run, they have showcased six murderers diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They’ve had a whopping twelve who were schizophrenic. People with psychotic and personality disorders are used to seeing our disorders become the basis for fictional killers. Schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder are especially feared and vilified. Recently, there’s been a noticeable decline in the defaming of mental illness, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s nice that not every psychotic person in the media is automatically a villain these days (even if the use of the term psychotic still first brings to mind Norman Bates).

But the continuing lack of information and understanding of these disorders also causes damage. If those armchair detectives had known more about Elisa’s disorder, perhaps they would have accepted the truth much earlier. If the Cecil Hotel guests and staff witnessing Elisa’s behavior leading up to her death had recognized her symptoms for what they were, perhaps they might have been able to get her the help she needed. If Luka Magnotta’s history of schizophrenia was understood, perhaps Jun Lin could have been saved. The truth is, while the people with these disorders are by no means inherently evil or abusive, when left untreated and unsupported we often can become violent and even dangerous, especially to ourselves. Elisa Lam was a danger to herself. Luka Magnotta was a danger to others. In both cases, a better understanding of mental illness might have saved a life. And now, being honest about the role mental illness played in their actions will save future lives, even if it doesn’t make for such an entertaining story.

Writer of all sorts of things, but mostly the Dream subgenre. Professional traveler. Lesbian. Home cook. Philly.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store