Horror genres and subgenres rise and fall like bubbles in a cauldron. Since horror reflects the fears and insecurities of societies and since societies change over time, this isn’t surprising – but it’s worth noting when a set of story ideas or tropes is on its way in or out, if nothing else because we might glean something interesting about what’s going on in larger society from horror’s reaction thereto. I’ve been following, for example, the emergence in recent years of a subgenre I call “Airbnb Horror.”
Like some (but mercifully not all) horror subgenres before it, Airbnb Horror movies have their roots in the terrifying reality that crimes ranging from voyeurism to worse have been committed by predators renting their property to strangers. As an unforgettable Gay Talese article from 2011 pointed out, this phenomenon is hardly limited to our era of universal timeshares; also, just ask a few of the unlucky residents of the Bates Motel about their rental experience. Still; the mystery of other people’s homes, and, especially, of what secrets may lay hidden behind the banal day-to-day reality of life have given rise to a boomlet in stories addressing these issues. 13 Cameras and its sequel, 14 Cameras, are both excellent examples of the form, deeply unsettling portraits of surveillance, the landlord class, dark web black markets, and more. The last few years have seen the subgenre begin to heat up: we have The Rental and Tone-Deaf in addition to the Cameras franchise.
The most interesting film to mine this vein of sociological horror recently is You Should Have Left, which stars Kevin Bacon (full disclosure: I am a big ol’ Kevin Bacon fan). It’s a deeply textured, twisty, dark piece of work. It bears within the its story’s DNA not only the paranoia and menace of other Airbnb Horror, but some of the more rarefied and esoteric feel of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I’m not going to spoil anything here; You Should Have Left has to be seen to be fully appreciated, and I don’t want to detract from its weird, multifaceted mysteries. Kevin Bacon is, of course, excellent – even more so than usual, I’d argue, as his portrait of a man in a decaying spring-winter romance has a lot of unexpected nuance.
The anxieties that these movies play to are obvious; when we rent a property from strangers, we are engaged in an act of trust that can go terribly awry for us. Given the short supply of trust going around at the present moment, I think those fears and anxieties are well-founded, if somewhat misplaced. It’s also worth wondering whether the age of COVID will kill not only Airbnb Horror but Airbnb itself; it’s one thing to trust that your unseen host is not a murderous psychopath (usually a fairly safe bet, although results may vary). It’s quite another to trust that your rented environment has been thoroughly enough sanitized that you need not fear invisible infiltration by the virus.
Only time will tell, although the recent spate of movies like Color out of Space and Sea Fever indicate that COVID-influenced cinema could become the next big (small) thing in horror subgenres. If that is the case, I look forward to authors’ and filmmakers’ creative responses to our current crisis. Troubled times, after all, often make for great art.