Social media is a cursed necessity of modern life. The hunt for likes, RTs, comments, and shares is never-ending. Most days, it feels as though you’re just circling the drain and waiting for that next dopamine fix. The crushing weight to constantly level-up in the online world is insurmountable and forces users to push their own psychological and emotional limits to get a bigger payback in virtual currency. Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Spree and Brandon Christensen’s Superhost play in extremes, both films delving into the world of online streamers and YouTube content creators.
“We’re all kind of sad, pathetic, and desperate regardless of what side of the ideological spectrum we’re on,” commented Kotlyarenko in an interview. He later noted his film as “anti-ideological” in many ways, particularly in how it cultivates a collective unease around online identity and the lost art of nurturing actual value. Desperation to be liked fuels the film’s central character, Kurt Kunkle (played by Joe Keery), who leverages even the most mundane real life interactions for digital ones.
Seeing his platform (known as Kurt’s World) hemorrhaging subscribers, Kurt becomes a Spree driver and decides to stream his day as a way to lure back his audience. He quickly learns, however, that his once-thriving viewership is just not interested 一 even Bobby (Joshua Ovalle), a kid he used to babysit, sees through his veneer and calls him out on his feeble attempts. Bobby, firmly Gen Z, sees Kurt’s pathetic behavior indicative of the aging millennial generation, barely clinging onto faux authenticity and old ways of digital curation. He has his own problems, too; his own digital empire is all in illusion.
There’s no sustainability when the goalposts constantly recalibrate and the glass ceiling rises higher and higher. Thresholds that once gave a satisfying dopamine injection are no longer effective, and you must push further and higher to get the same level of pleasure. It makes sense when you really think about it. It operates just as traditional drugs do.
“Social media is basically a way to drugify human connection,” Anna Lembke, MD, psychiatry professor and Chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University, observed in a deeply-probing Teen Vogue report last year. “We’ve evolved over millions of years to want to connect with people because it helps us protect ourselves from predators, use scarce resources, find a mate. One of the ways our brain gets us to make those connections is [to] release dopamine.”
From Kurt’s perspective, the only way to get that same high again is to double-down on the antics at whatever cost necessary. He’s even willing to commit murder, if he has to, and boy does he ever. He has it all planned out in his head: he’ll live-stream his shift, pick up as many passengers as he can, and offer them drug-laced water bottles. What’s most disturbing is he is completely transparent in his live feeds, yet no one takes him seriously. It all happens in plain sight, but the world is so self-absorbed and addicted to their own dopamine chase they don’t even read (or understand) the signs.
He first poisons a real estate agent (Jessalyn Gilsig) and later drives a group of rich kids out to a secluded spot before slaughtering them in gruesome fashion. It’s the name of the game, and the game is murder for subscribers. But it doesn’t seem to be enough. Kurt goes one step further and confronts Bobby at his house. In a heated conversation, he stabs Bobby and assumes his account and the massive following it entails, claiming the deadly scuffle was a prank. Throughout the rest of the night, Kurt spirals further out of control (if you can believe that), and he’s only stopped when another prominent influencer Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), the single most honest, real person in the entire film, deals him a deadly blow.
The same Teen Vogue report later cuts to the heart of the matter. By design, social media is meant to “influence and manipulate your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors” and that often involves greatly exacerbating mental illness. In the extreme case of Kurt Kunkle, his world became about equating value as a human being to what people said about him online and how they mindlessly flocked to his account. And it was never about what he could bring to the world or even the joy that he may have once had for his content. It’s a dehumanizing system that repeats.
Christensen approaches these issues through a slightly different lens. Superhost follows two popular vloggers, Claire (Sara Canning) and Teddy (Osric Chau), our anti-heros who become consumed alive by the system they once exploited. Their content centers around traveling the country and taking up residence in various Airbnb rentals, detailing their experience, and then giving a rating. Many of their video reviews have gone viral and led to a fairly lucrative living. However, they’ve experienced a recent dip in both viewership and subscribers. They begin to feel the heat to deliver top-notch content, and the lengths they’ll go to be controversial test their bounds as creators and human beings.
Their previous experience with a woman named Vera (Barbara Crampton) brought a new host of unwanted problems. Their scathing assessment directly contributed to Vera’s own business crumbling, suggesting how online activity, no matter how small, can have a dangerous outward ripple effect. And all it takes is one erroneous tweet or Instagram post or TikTok video and someone’s life is ruined.
But Claire and Teddy hope to turn things around.
They’ve finally managed to book a secluded cabin from a seemingly normal young woman named Rebecca (Grace Gillam). The vacation rental is quite the hot spot, requiring a reservation months ahead of time. Only woods and mountains surround them, and it could be the place that gets them back on track. When Claire and Teddy arrive, they immediately start filming the trip, pouring on the overly dramatic reactions and obvious on screen personas on thick. It’s like a peek at the wizard behind the curtain. Streaming is all smoke and mirrors 一 and behind the camera, it’s two people desperately wanting to be liked.
Everything immediately starts going sideways. First, they have the wrong door code to get into the rental, and then, the primary toilet appears clogged. It’s all downhill from there. A toothy smile and wild eyes, Rebecca always appears a little off, almost as if she is some modernized pod person. Much like her new occupants, there’s always a façade behind which she moves through the world. She attempts to give them the best possible trip with little fuss, but everything comes unglued in the third act.
Rebecca is the highly concentrated version of Claire and Teddy. When all is revealed that she’s actually a serial killer, who slaughtered and hid the bodies of the property’s actual owners, she flips the tables on the vlogger team and films their deaths. In Claire’s final moments, she’s managed to upload a video pleading with her subscribers for help 一 but everyone believes it’s just another stunt. Looking on, blood dripping down her face, Rebecca simply smirks into the laptop camera. It’s a downright chilling turn of events that drives home the entire film’s thesis.
What people want more than anything on social media is transparency 一 not authenticity. Authenticity is one of those loaded buzzwords that don’t actually mean anything these days. Claire and Teddy were two mice on a wheel, chasing imaginary cheese and going nowhere. Their exploitation of real life 一 Teddy secretly plotting the trip as an engagement announcement, and Claire not even believing his sincerity 一 is not far removed from our own.
Each of us are manipulating ourselves into sharing and posting every thought that runs through our heads; and it’s not totally our fault, platforms are built to be addicting. We engage 24/7 because we just want to be liked. From Facebook’s reaction panel to quote RTs and Insta Stories, we compartmentalize our moments and feelings into easily digestible chunks and then only exist to feed the machine until nothing about it is human anymore.
Much like many Black Mirror episodes, Spree and Superhost capture the disastrous present and the downward trajectory we’re not likely to escape. Where Kurt Kunkle, Rebecca, and Claire and Teddy reside on opposing extremes, we’re all comfortably occupying a slot somewhere on the sliding scale. And hopefully, none of us have exploited tragedy (think Logan Paul and that gross “suicide forest” video) or committed murder. There’s still time for the rest of us, I suppose.
Double Trouble is a recurring column that pairs up two horror films, past or present, based on theme, style, or story.