THE new television show 666 Park Avenue (ABC, Sunday p.m.) starts with a rental agreement. Pulling up to a historic Upper East Side New York apartment building, wide-eyed Henry says to his girlfriend Jane that they "couldn’t afford a closet in this neighbourhood."
Within an hour the two have acquired an airy, expansive third-floor residence.
So here are two Midwestern keeners, probably still paying off their student loans, and they somehow manage to snag a prewar Park Avenue apartment with two full baths, a fireplace in the master bedroom, and 12-inch mouldings.
Obviously, they’ve made a deal with the devil. I mean, duh. Lately, pop culture has been exploring the satanic aspects of real estate. And it goes beyond those horrible house flippers on HGTV. This new trend takes a more supernatural angle.
The house has long functioned as a metaphor in the horror genre — for a divided psyche, for a dysfunctional family, for a community’s buried history. It can still represent those things, of course, but lately the connections between homes and the forces of darkness have become more literal. The old "haunted house" trope has morphed into the spectre of cursed real estate. More pressing than any supernatural bogeys are the scary real-life concerns of massive mortgages, hidden repair costs, renos gone bad, and out-of-control rents.
Perhaps hampered by the demands of network TV, 666 Park Avenue is not particularly frightening. Still, the idea of signing away your soul for attractive, affordable housing will be a compelling theme for audiences in San Francisco, where one-bedroom apartments rent for about $2,700 a month, or New York, where an average non-satanic two-bedroom goes for $5,200. Winnipeg might not be quite so pricey, but it’s still a town of rising rents and tight vacancy rates.
It’s often said that real estate is the new sex, and it’s starting to get treated with the same heady mix of lust, anxiety and jealousy. We cruise the Internet to drool over the dream houses of shelter porn. We shudder to hear cautionary tales of crumbling foundations or carpenter ants.
We read The Real Estate News to compare our home’s value with that of our neighbours.
Horror films often pivot on conflicted attitudes to sex, with a queasy mix of desire and the need to punish desire.
No surprise, then, that this double-edged dynamic is now being applied to apartments with water views or houses with mahogany panelling.
Since the 2008 crash, which came home (literally) for so many people through their houses, real estate is also the epicentre of economic fears. The Paranormal Activity franchise, which opened wide in 2009, may involve a hellish backstory, but the real demons are flimsy, overleveraged SoCal tract homes where all the furnishings seem to have been acquired in one-day shopping sprees at a big-box power centre. Fright Night deals with vampires, but the horror lies in the surreal landscape of foreclosed homes in the recession-scorched American sunbelt.
And the F/X TV series American Horror Story kicked off its parade of terror with an increasingly familiar horror trope — a family being shown around what is clearly an irrevocably evil house by a chirpy but apprehensive real estate agent. After pointing out the "gourmet kitchen" and authentic Tiffany fixtures, the agent feels obliged, in the spirit of full disclosure, to inform the family that the last owners died in the basement in a murder-suicide.
This is basically the horror genre equivalent of ureaformaldehyde insulation or black mould, and it explains why the house is such a deal. But it is perhaps the current climate of real estate stress that explains why the family buys it anyway.
"My repulsion is tempered by the fact that this house is worth four times what we paid for it," says Dad.
Well, there you are. In the supernatural soaper 666 Park Avenue, expect to see a lot more people weighing the lure of affordable real estate against the looming legions of hell. It’s a surprisingly relatable storyline.