The true-crime genre has been growing for decades, with the increase in streaming platforms and podcasts allowing what used to be a niche interest to go mainstream. Despite popularity amongst viewers, the genre has always had its critics. Claims that these works were insensitive to victims and their families, glorify criminality, or even traumatize audiences, always existed in the background. As an increasing number of true crime productions are released for millions around the world to watch, it is difficult not to wonder what responsibility or duty of care, if any, is owed by creators to the victims of the stories they feature. However, the deeper one digs into this rather grim topic, the vaguer and dissatisfying the answers surrounding privacy and accountability seem to become.
Generally speaking, the term ‘true crime’ is used to describe a nonfiction film, series, podcast, or book, in which an actual crime is recounted, and the lives and actions of real people are examined. About 40% of true crime pieces focus on serial killers, and overall, most explore murder. Some of the most well-known works examine high-profile or sensational crimes, such as the cases of OJ Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, and Aaron Hernandez. Others centre on more mysterious, bizarre, or particularly horrifying crimes and deaths. Often they are documentaries, sometimes focusing on the legal proceedings or police work, or profiling a particular criminal like Ted Bundy or the Night Stalker, but they are all supposedly geared towards telling true stories of real crimes.
Netflix’s new four-part documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, was released in February 2021 after months of media hype. Like many people, I was excited to watch. I had heard of the Cecil Hotel in California and the mysterious and often grim events that had reportedly occurred there, so I was interested in seeing a documentary about the dark history of the infamous site.
The series follows the disappearance and death of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian who went missing from the Cecil Hotel in 2013. The case was highly publicized in no small part due to publicly released CCTV footage that contained unsettling scenes of Elisa Lam acting erratically in a hotel elevator on the night of her disappearance. Nineteen days after she was last seen, her body was discovered floating in a water tank on the roof of the hotel following guest complaints about the water pressure in their rooms.
The subsequent investigation into Lam’s death was surrounded by internet drama and conspiracy theories, ranging from unfounded claims of high-powered police cover-ups and tales of an inside job undertaken by hotel staff, to bizarre accusations levelled at death metal musicians who weren’t even present. YouTubers visited the Cecil and vlogged their macabre attempts to retrace Lam’s final steps. Claims of paranormal activity began to pop up and everybody seemed to think it was their place to voice half-baked speculations, undeterred by the fact that they had little to no evidence to support them.
It was eventually found that there was no foul play in Elisa Lam’s demise at all. She suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic features, had stopped taking the prescribed dose of her medication, and accidentally drowned during a psychotic episode. She was not murdered, she was not stalked, she was not assaulted, and she was not a part of some huge international crime cover-up. The disappearance of Elisa Lam was a heartbreakingly tragic story of an extremely distressed 21-year-old in a country she didn’t know, who died without anyone to help her. It should be a warning of the potential dangers of ignoring those around us crying out for help, and the horrifying impacts that unhinged conspiracy theorists and internet sleuths can have on both a criminal investigation and a grieving family.
So why wasn’t it told that way?
In the US, Canada, and Australia, true crime media can be produced without the consent or cooperation of the victim’s family, even if they specifically ask you not to, so when we look at moral responsibility or duty of care, legally speaking, there just isn’t one. While it could be argued that this allows increased accessibility to stories of public interest, it can also be problematic and retraumatizing for those affected.
The family of Robert Mast, a 25-year-old who was killed in 2015, have been publicly critical of the Netflix docuseries, I Am A Killer, which shone a sympathetic light on the woman currently serving a 60-year sentence in prison for his murder. Netflix reportedly reached out to Mast’s family to be a part of the filming. They responded by begging for the story to be abandoned. The prospect of having the public see a forgiving interview of Robert’s killer was deeply traumatizing. Similarly, the McCann family refused to be involved in the production of Netflix’s 2019 series, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, as they were concerned that it could hinder the ongoing investigation. The documentary went on to paint the McCann family in a less than sympathetic light, at times, even though claims of their involvement in their daughter’s disappearance were found to be baseless years prior.
To the Cecil Hotel documentary’s credit, the last four to five minutes did mention that Lam’s death was simply a terrible accident and not the result of foul play. However, after four full hours of irrelevant YouTuber interviews (depicted as if they were experts replaying the elevator CCTV footage of her final moments ad nauseum) the phrase, “too little, too late” comes to mind. The series all but encouraged the continued harassment of Elisa Lam’s family members by heavy-handedly rehashing preposterous and disproven conspiracy claims that plagued the case from the very beginning.
It certainly seems to be blatantly irresponsible filmmaking regardless of how you look at it. Watching a lot of YouTube videos does not make you a detective; reading a redacted autopsy report does not make you a coroner, nor does Googling the symptoms of bipolar disorder does not make you a psychiatrist. The fact that Netflix would not only give airtime but credibility to these people is nothing short of troubling.
It should be acknowledged, though, that the true-crime genre can serve an important purpose, often transcending mere entertainment. Another Netflix series, The Innocence Files, followed the cases of wrongfully convicted inmates in the US, raising awareness and encouraging financial support for The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization committed to exonerating the wrongly convicted and reforming the criminal justice system. Similarly, the Australian podcast, Trace, which investigates the unsolved murder of Maria James in Melbourne, prompted a fresh coronial inquest into the case it covered. Making A Murderer, a series covering a ten-year period of the investigation and trials of Steven Avery, has been shown in law schools as instructional material and raised fresh questions about the power and methods of police and criminal investigators.
However, there is a point in true crime filmmaking and viewing where it stops being helpful or informative, and starts becoming voyeuristic and exploitative. It is often either overlooked or willfully disregarded that there are real people involved in these cases, with real lives that continue to be disrupted by the trauma of these events. These are not characters somebody imagined. The creators of the Cecil Hotel series seem to have forgotten that Elisa Lam was a daughter, a sister, and a friend.
In making a true-crime piece, there ought to be a certain level of respect for the victims and families whose story is being told. These filmmakers are exploring the most traumatic event of people’s lives and there should be a responsibility and duty of care that comes with that. If it was your family member or friend’s story being spotlighted, how much would you trust a production company to recount their experiences truthfully, without any input from anyone who actually knew them?
Elisa Lam, Robert Mast, and Madeleine McCann were more than just victims: they had hopes, dreams, hobbies, and a favourite food like everybody else, and they deserve to be remembered as whole people with whole lives.
So where do we go from here? I understand that asking viewers to research the production and development standards of every documentary before they watch it might be a bit unrealistic, but I do think that demand for regulation and accountability from viewers is the only way forward. While we continue to give our streams and plays to this genre, these documentaries will continue being made, and they won’t always be handled responsibly unless we demand they are. We, as viewers, need to put our money where our mouth is if we truly want to see the standards and expectations of true crime filmmakers and podcasters raised. At the very least, perhaps next time we see “the family declined to be interviewed” flash across the screen, we should consider why that might be, and how reliable the information we’ve been provided actually is.
The true-crime genre can be an amazing opportunity to spread awareness and tell stories of people whose tales would otherwise be overlooked or forgotten. I even think it can be genuinely compelling and moving when handled with grace and respect. Nevertheless, those who choose to tell these stories need to be respectful of, and accountable to, the wishes of families and communities whose stories are being shared.
Our entertainment should not come at the expense of a victim’s dignity, or the emotional devastation of a grieving family who may very well just wish to be left alone.