this isn't a dream

New Yorkers Will Endure Any Apartment Nightmare to Live Here

Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water. Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

Every horror movie has that “Go back!” moment when something isn’t quite right — when the setup reveals itself to the audience but the protagonist presses on. In the distinct subgenre of New York Apartment Horror, this often happens when a future victim is touring a prospective new place. In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) finds the piece of furniture that has been mysteriously moved by the previous (now dead) tenant to block the hall closet. In Dark Water, Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) meets the weird super of her new Roosevelt Island building before glancing up at an inky stain on the ceiling (which will eventually drown her). Miss Logan (Ava Gardner), a real-estate agent in The Sentinel, suddenly drops the rent of a giant floor-through one-bedroom on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade by $100 before casually waving off the blind old priest staring from an upstairs window.

The horror for the viewer isn’t the scary, creepy thing itself. What makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as a New Yorker is watching the protagonists ignore it, convince themselves that everything is going to be fine, that it’s worth it. There’s always something that makes it so — the view, the location, the crown molding. More than anything, it’s the price; if the victim can just afford it, they want it. The broker typically colludes with whatever evil presence is trying to lure in the renters. “There’s a line of people waiting,” they say. “I have another couple just around the corner.” “You don’t have to do this!” the audience screams. “Turn around! Go to New Jersey!” The main characters never do, so it always gets worse. Just like at a certain sixth-floor walk-up on Avenue C, where my roommates and I found mice the day we moved in, then roaches, then bedbugs: the trifecta. I was too afraid to sleep on the air mattress in the large closet that was my “room,” so my friend Claire offered to let me sleep in her bed. We stayed up all night watching the mice skirt the baseboards, telling ourselves they were kind of cute.

Reviewing Rosemary’s Baby in the New York Times in 1968, Renata Adler said it isn’t scary enough because it’s “too extremely plausible,” especially the meddlesome, loud neighbors who turn out to be a satanic cabal. “One gets very annoyed they don’t catch on sooner,” she wrote. Those also are familiar fixtures of the city’s dark and demonic apartment buildings: the other tenants. It can’t be so bad, you think, if so many other people live here too. But quickly the conspiracy is revealed — everyone is in on it. As one of Carly Norris’s (Sharon Stone) neighbors in the swanky building in Sliver asks after a sinister revelation, “What are we gonna do — move out?”

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New Yorkers Will Endure Any Apartment Nightmare to Live Here