The Allure of the Roommate Horror Story

A new Netflix series taps into frightening tales that feel like modern urban legends in an age of housing instability.

The Allure of the Roommate Horror Story
Alex Miller, one of Jamison Bachman’s victims. Image:Netflix

At first, Jamison Bachman was the normal kind of terrible roommate. He’d rearrange his housemate’s plants, or clog the toilet with cat litter. In one case, he took all the dining room chairs from the communal living space and used them to create a makeshift desk in his room. His transgressions would escalate, however, and eventually he’d refuse to pay rent and refuse to move out, menacing his roommates and leaving them on the hook for all the bills.

The ripped-from-the-headlines stories of Bachman and other nightmare housemates are chronicled in Netflix’s new anthology show Worst Roommate Ever. The series was created by Blumhouse Productions, which is best known for horror films like Get Out, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge, movies full of fictional scares, not real-life terrors. Still, though the Worst Roommate stories are real, the fascination they hold feels similar to the allure of the creature features that make up the usual Blumhouse fare. Bad roommate stories are modern urban legends, reflecting cultural fears back at us—in this case, fear around housing instability.

Scary stories can hold a paradoxical appeal by calming our anxieties and making fright feel manageable, so it makes sense that the housing market, which offers plenty of reasons to be afraid, should have its own popular horror tales. Last year, a quarter of American households reported that they faced housing insecurity, according to a census poll. One out of every seven households spends more than 50 percent of its income on rent or mortgage payments. Over two-thirds of millennials say that they can’t afford to buy homes. The expectation that adulthood would bring stable housing—a mortgage, or at least a sustainable rent—always excluded the poor. Now, it feels increasingly unattainable to all but the wealthy. In a world in which many people are living with roommates for longer than they once imagined, it’s unsurprising that New York Magazine’s story of an accused roommate grifter dominated Twitter for days after its publication last year, or that the most popular streaming service in the world would dedicate a series to these highly specific tales.

Bachman gained national recognition through another New York Magazine story published in 2018. He was a teacher and law school graduate, and spent years hopping from apartment to apartment, refusing to pay rent. One victim featured in the series is an ex-girlfriend in whose home he squatted for four years; another is a woman who, struggling to pay her mortgage after a breakup, invited him to live in her spare room. He wound up sharing the apartment of a Philadelphia woman named Alex Miller after she needed a roommate to help cover her rent.

Each time, a similar pattern unfolded as Bachman slowly took control of the apartments. He’d stop paying rent, and when his roommates attempted to evict him, they were stymied by his prodigious knowledge of local housing law. His housemates were forced to cower in their bedrooms, and take on extra work to pay the bills. Eventually, he’d leave, moving on to terrorize another household, and his spree only ended after he was arrested for attacking Miller with a knife. When his brother bailed him out of jail, Bachman murdered him, and later hanged himself in prison.

The violence and murder are shocking, but the bad behavior that preceded them somehow feels even scarier, if only because the nightmare roommate story has yet to fully work its way through our cultural digestive system and emerge as something as familiar and ubiquitous as the true crime murder story. Instead, it has the feel of a campfire tale spread by word of mouth, despite occasional moments in the media spotlight. Rather than the killer with the hooked hand, it’s the roommate from Craigslist who clogs the toilet with kitty litter and refuses to pay his bills. I’ve never experienced anything on the scale of Bachman’s transgressions, or had friends report situations nearly as dangerous. But I’ve invited strangers from Craigslist to become my roommate, without knowing whether the worst aspect of living with them would be something relatively harmless—that they don’t do dishes or have too many guests—or more consequential—that they would refuse to pay their share of the bills, or threaten the household’s safety. In moving in with me, they assumed the same risks, and certainly had the same concerns. It’s always a gamble, and taking in bad roommate stories feels like peering over the shoulders of those who drew particularly unfortunate hands.

Serial roommate squatters are a rare breed, but there’s a much more common form of bad roommate: the abusive romantic partner. Stories of intimate partner violence rarely go viral, and instead are often treated as private matters. Perhaps in a culture built around fantasies of the nuclear family, there’s a strong motivation to minimize the problems that occur within that structure. Bad roommate stories represent not only shifting trends in housing stability, but an evolving conception of domestic life, one in which even David Brooks thinks that the nuclear family was a “mistake.” New forms of family life abound, as people live with multiple partners or buy homes with friends. It seems that fewer people expect or want to spend the majority of their adult lives living with a single romantic partner and any children they may produce, and roommate stories take on a new resonance as an arena for sorting out anxieties surrounding norms of domesticity.

One of the ways we neutralize the fear caused by scary stories is to believe, usually falsely, that the misfortune befalling the victims of the tale could never happen to us. Netflix’s last true crime hit, The Tinder Swindler, which recounted the dating app-based romance scams of a prolific con artist, didn’t particularly alarm me because I like to imagine that I’d never give a near-stranger my passport information or take out a massive loan and hand over the cash to a guy I’d met online. With bad roommate stories, it’s harder to indulge such comforting myths: Almost anyone might have to one day create a joint household of necessity just to cover the rent. In a desperate bid to keep her home, one of Bachman’s victims put a giant tent in her living room after he stopped paying his share of the bills. Even then, she was able to rent it out to another woman, who moved into the tent with her two cats.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin