The hottest accessory for any billionaire tech entrepreneur these days is a prestige limited series about their company. Shows like this year’s Super Pumped, WeCrashed, and The Dropout have become a genre unto themselves, illuminating the rocky terrain of any tech unicorn’s trajectory. However, only a special kind of tech unicorn—or an especially cursed one—could spawn an entire genre of horror movies about its services.
With the September 9 release of Barbarian, the most high-profile Airbnb Horror entry to date, this emerging subgenre has now become too big to fail—or at least too resonant to ignore.
Long before starting a partnership with Scream last year, promoting overnight stays at a house featured in the franchise, horror was already embedded in Airbnb’s DNA. The company’s very premise is a bit horrifying: You pay a stranger to stay inside their home overnight, because an unregulated third-party declares it safe. No wonder venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that he rebuffed the founders’ pitch, saying: “This is super dangerous. Somebody’s going to get raped or murdered, and the blood is gonna be on your hands.”
Airbnb’s faint illusion of safety has always provided thin cover for vulnerabilities that villains could exploit, and primal fears that horror filmmakers could play like a symphony. It was only a matter of time before both possibilities happened.
Millions of people (including the staff of Fast Company) were enchanted with Airbnb in the early days. When the company first arrived in 2008, it revolutionized the texture of travel. All the adventurousness of hostel-hopping, but with more amenities and relative privacy. It was the most cost-effective way to house a flock of friends for a weekend wedding, and a low-effort means to glimpse How People Live in a foreign city. Airbnb quickly became the kind of service that people would ask whether you had used “yet.” On the road to reaching its current $73 billion market cap, however, the issue of safety persisted and Sacca’s objection proved prophetic.
As much as Airbnb is widely used, horror stories about it are nearly as popular as the service itself. Many are rather innocuous: an annoying or intrusive host, arduous cleanup requests, or infantilizing rules for how to behave in a house. These are the kinds of mishaps that fueled the website AirbnbHell, which brought in enough traffic to spin off a book in 2017. Some horror stories are far more serious, though—involving surveillance, robbery, scamming, or getting stranded—and others are as serious as it gets. Several people have been murdered in Airbnbs, many guests have perished due to a host’s deadly negligence, and according to former Airbnb safety agents in an explosive Bloomberg report from last summer, the company handles thousands of allegations of sexual assault every year, many involving rape.
Some of these horrendous crimes are circumstantial, with the victims simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others, though, happen because a host manages to slip past the filter of Airbnb background checks and safety workshops to target their guests. In one such incident, a male superhost—meaning one who has been repeatedly praised by guests—sexually assaulted his tenant and then reportedly told her, “Don’t forget to leave me a positive review.”
It happened in 2017, just a couple years before a disparate group of filmmakers started making horror movies like 2021’s Superhost, in which the murderer repeatedly reminds the Airbnb guests she terrorizes to leave her a nice review.
Art imitates life
Rent, relax, run for your life.
That’s the tagline for one of the first Airbnb horror movies, 2019’s A Perfect Host. The micro-budget indie is perfectly unremarkable, except for the fact that it establishes a basic template for the subgenre. A couple or slightly larger group, always with some internal tension baked into its dynamics, rents a charming Airbnb from a creepy host—and chaos ensues. The chaos either comes from the creepy host (as in A Perfect Host and 2019’s Tone-Deaf), a creep pretending to be the host (2021’s Superhost), or a separate creep altogether (2020’s The Rental.)
In each case, though, the real villain seems to be Airbnb itself.
The most effective of these movies thus far, by leaps and bounds, is The Rental. According to a Collider interview with director Dave Franco—yes, that Dave Franco—the idea for the film was inspired by Franco’s paranoia about the concept of Airbnb. “I think about how the country is as divided as it’s ever been, and no one trusts each other,” he says in the interview. “Yet we trust staying in the home of a stranger just because of a few positive reviews online.”
The Rental is a proper Airbnb horror movie even before things start to get bloody, ably depicting several reasons why users’ trust may be misplaced, in ways that are subtler than murder. One of the main characters, Mina Muhammadi (Sheila Vand), faces discrimination from an Airbnb host, presumably due to her Arabic last name. After her application is rejected, one of her white male cohort’s is accepted at the same location. (Airbnb is currently working on solutions to some hosts’ racism, including an experiment in Oregon that only reveals the guest’s initials to hosts until a booking is confirmed.) Once the doomed trip begins, the movie demonstrates how, if users get a bad vibe from an Airbnb host, that host’s presence might still remain all over the house . . . where they can technically come and go as they please. They also might have surveillance cameras set up somewhere they’re not supposed to be.
In these unfortunately common ways, the first half of the movie is just as chilling as the half where bodies start piling up.
Why Airbnb horror works
The new Barbarian similarly starts as an Airbnb Hell-style horror story before the real horror begins. Solo traveler Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb in Detroit, only to find it already occupied by a polite young man whom we know is bad news because he’s played by Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Given her limited options, Tess accepts that man’s invitation to take shelter from the pouring rain inside while they sort out the double-booking snafu. It is no spoiler to say Tess ultimately would have been better off driving to the nearest Holiday Inn.
It will be only too easy for many viewers to put themselves in Tess’s shoes. Traveling has a way of wearing people down into a state of desperation. By the time they bump up against any impediment at the end of a long day’s journey, one might agree to things they never would otherwise, out of pure exhaustion, exasperation, or because, hey, things usually turn out alright.
This is what most people are afraid of: that the very moment they let down their guard, a predator will pounce. It’s the reason why Airbnb horror has the potential to be so terrifying. Barbarian‘s Tess may let her guard down a little more than most Airbnb-ers, but every user is taking a leap of faith to some degree. Seeing people get punished for it onscreen may hit a little too close to home, so to speak, for some viewers.
Horror movies are supposed to offer cathartic release by providing a visceral fear experience without ever putting you in danger, kind of like a roller coaster. With Airbnb horror, however, the danger is very much real. Spoiler alert for 2020’s The Rental, but at the end of the movie, the killer is revealed to have previously stayed at the titular property before the main characters arrived—and made his own copy of the door keys. The filmmakers couldn’t have known at the time, because it wasn’t revealed until that Bloomberg report last year, but in 2015, a woman was raped in an Airbnb at knifepoint by a man who had mysteriously obtained keys to the building somehow. The story only remained unreported for so long because Airbnb ultimately wrote the survivor a check for $7 million, in exchange for a signed agreement not to talk about it.
Considering how many real-life horror stories there may be out there, watching Airbnb horror as someone who uses the service is more like riding a rickety old roller coaster that may actually send you plummeting into the abyss, rather than just make you feel that way.
The real villain
The timing on these movies is interesting, too. They started to arrive in 2019, just over a decade into Airbnb’s run, right as the tide started to turn against the company. For instance, 2019 was the first year Airbnb struggled to make money since its initial ascendance, partly because it had recently started investing more in safety initiatives. However, it was also the year that five people were killed in a gunfight that broke out during a Halloween party at an Airbnb, leading the company to announce later that year a ban on house parties.
While sure to prevent further shootings, the ban, which officially went into permanent effect this past June, will also prevent some of those weekend wedding outings and bachelorette parties that helped build up Airbnb in the first place. Between the party ban, the safety issues that inspired it, and the fact that Airbnbs are often no longer as cost-effective as they once seemed, a lot of people are starting to rediscover the magic of hotels.
hotels vs airbnbs
Of course, many Airbnbs are still cheaper than hotels and more convenient to book, so there is little danger of the company evacuating from our lives any time soon. Many users still love it and many others are instead resigned to it. Dave Franco, for instance, mentioned in his Collider interview that even while filming a horror movie about Airbnb, he stayed in an Airbnb.
This is what Airbnb horror has in common with haunted house movies. Since there is no “poltergeist clause” that nullifies mortgages upon detecting some paranormal activity, people who live in haunted houses often have too much money tied up in the property to move. They are financially trapped—similar to the way some people can’t afford to stop searching for potential savings on Airbnb, even after knowing the potential risks.
In both cases, maybe the real villain is actually capitalism.