Since the early days of the found-footage subgenre, the movies have tried to pass themselves off as true pieces of footage. This attempt to present genuine footage has proven effective in the horror genre. Horror has become synonymous with the tagline, “Based on true events,” and found-footage movies go one step further in aiming to maintain realism to maximize the scares. These movies have been popular with audiences for over twenty years, and have been particularly appealing for the immersive elements the subgenre offers. A clear link can be established between the found-footage combination of a raw, often rough style and the rise in popularity of true crime stories – in the last thirty years, interest in true crime has grown rapidly with documentaries, podcasts, and books becoming immensely popular.
The establishment of social media influencers has also impacted found-footage horror movies with additions to the subgenre. Screenlife movies were practically birthed from the rise of social media with movies such as The Collingswood Story, Searching, and, most recently, Missing, serving as commentaries on the dark side of social media and the potentially disturbing influence it can have on people’s lives. Antoine Le’s Followed takes all of these ingredients and conjures up one of the strongest found-footage horror movies in recent memory, taking particular inspiration from the dark history of the Cecil Hotel.
What Is the Cecil Hotel and Why Is It So Infamous?
Since the Cecil Hotel’s opening in Downtown Los Angeles in 1924, there have been several instances of crimes, suicides, and unsolved mysteries. The first suicide came just three years after its opening when fifty-two-year-old Percy Ormond Cook shot himself in one of the rooms. Over the next few decades, the hotel gained notoriety for its alarmingly high amount of suicides. As well as tragic incidents, there have been plenty of shady people who have checked in or been seen at the hotel; Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger was a guest there, murder suspect Eric Reed escaped from jail and was found at the hotel, and the infamous “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez was frequently seen at the hotel and he even lived there for a short period due to its cheap price of $14 per night. Modern assessments of the Cecil Hotel’s history theorize a possible supernatural presence is responsible for the dark and violent occurrences. Interest in the hotel and its history has become more prominent recently, especially since Netflix’s 2021 docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, which particularly focused on the death of Elisa Lam.
The Death of Elisa Lam
The tragic and mysterious circumstances surrounding twenty-one-year-old Lam’s death have been much discussed and it remains a truly baffling case. By the time Lam had checked into the Cecil Hotel, it had been renamed Stay on Main. As was covered in the Netflix docuseries – as well as other true crime investigative series’ – she was prescribed medications for bipolar disorder and depression, and in the days leading up to her disappearance, her odd behavior was noticed by other guests and the hotel staff. On January 31st, 2013, she was reported missing. The LAPD conducted a search and found few clues as to her whereabouts. Almost two weeks after her vanishing, a video of Lam entering an elevator in the hotel was released to the public. The video attracted widespread attention and went viral for Lam’s unexplainable behavior. In the two-minute clip, she moves very erratically, appears to be hiding from someone, and frantically presses several buttons in the elevator without anything happening. Less than a week after this video was released, her body was found in a water tank on the roof of the hotel.
Once her body had been discovered, accidental drowning was listed as the cause of death. However, there are still many unanswered questions and despite the coroner’s conclusion, people are unconvinced that her death was an accident. It has been noted how the case shares similar elements of the J-horror classic Dark Water and its subsequent American remake. Lam’s case has served as inspiration for episodes of American Horror Story, Castle, and How to Get Away with Murder, and industrial rock band SKYND released their debut single titled “Elisa Lam” about the case. The mystery of Lam’s death and the potential role the Cecil Hotel played is one of Followed’s most prominent explorations.
How ‘Followed’ Was Inspired by the Cecil Hotel
As is virtually compulsory in the found-footage subgenre, an explanatory title card is shown before the movie begins. Generally, this title card explains how the footage was found, who was shooting it, and their purpose for filming. Followed’s opening explains the footage was uploaded to a social media website before being removed. The short block of text goes on to explain that the footage could previously only be found on the dark web and ends – rather cheekily – with “Until now :).” The footage in question follows a vlogger named DropTheMike (Matthew Solomon) and his team as they attempt to spend the Halloween weekend at the supposedly haunted Lennox Hotel.
Mike has a very eccentric personality and the reason he vlogs at the sketchy hotel is to boost his subscribers. Initially, Mike and his team are hopeful that they will capture some haunting activity on video to boost the vlog’s popularity, and the behavior some of them display disrespects the hotel’s history, especially when they find out about David Olmos (Ethan Alexander), a serial killer who resided in the very room they are staying in. They mock danger signs, make jokes about the tragic deaths in the hotel, and bribe a security guard to access restricted areas. The arrogance and egotistical nature of Mike seem to be commenting on current content creators such as Logan Paul – who caused outrage for a video he filmed in Japan’s Aokighara forest.
One of the reasons the Lennox Hotel is an ideal location for Mike and his team is the recent discovery of the body of a Korean tourist named Meghan Kim (Sarah Chang). Kim’s story is clearly inspired by Lam’s death at the Cecil Hotel – right down to the last surveillance footage of Kim in an elevator. A theory that has arisen about Lam’s death is that she was playing a game in which the player presses a sequence of buttons in an elevator in a bid to end up in a new dimension. This game is attempted by Mike in one of the movie’s tensest scenes. He follows the rules of the game and gradually becomes more alarmed by the unusual activity occurring around him. This claustrophobic, dizzying sequence builds to a chilling reveal.
Followed is a smart commentary on social media for the way the characters deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations simply for views. Following the Netflix docuseries, events from the movie were somewhat mirrored in the way YouTubers flocked to film videos at the Cecil Hotel. YouTubers including Peet Montzingo, Kelsi Davies, TFIL, and Omar Gosh have all done videos at the Cecil Hotel since the rise in the public interest. Followed does an uncanny job of mimicking the way videos like these are shot. Despite its clear inspiration, the movie still offers up a twist on reality, and it manages to make an impactful statement in its conclusion. A devilishly brilliant reveal in the dying moments serves to demonstrate the cycle content creators inevitably find themselves in, and even five years after Followed’s release, it is arguably more relevant in its message. In the same way, found-footage movies don’t always fool audiences, many have not been fooled by the stories of the supernatural at the Cecil Hotel. Nevertheless, the hotel’s dark history is almost tailor-made for a found-footage movie and Followed cleverly blurs the true crime stories with its own found-footage fiction.