The endless quest for online validation in ‘Spree’ & ‘Superhost’ [Double Trouble]
Social media is a cursed necessity of modern life. The hunt for likes, RTs, comments and shares is endless. Most of the time it feels like you’re going around the drain and waiting for the next dose of dopamine. The crushing weight of constant upselling in the online world is insurmountable and forces users to push their own psychological and emotional limits to achieve greater return on investment in virtual currency. Eugene Kotlyarenkoit is Party and Brandon Christensenit is Superhost play to extremes, with both films delving into the world of online streamers and YouTube content creators.
“We are all a bit sad, pathetic and desperate, no matter which side of the ideological spectrum we are on,” commented Kotlyarenko in an interview. He later called his film “anti-ideological” in many ways, particularly in the way it cultivates a collective unease around online identity and the lost art of nurturing real value. Desperation to be loved fuels the film’s central character, Kurt Kunkle (played by Joe Keery), which leverages even the most mundane real-world interactions for digital interactions.
Seeing his platform (known as Kurt’s World) hemorrhaging subscribers, Kurt becomes a driver of the Spree and decides to broadcast his day as a way to attract his audience. He quickly learns, however, that his once thriving audience just isn’t interested 一 even Bobby (Joshua Ovalle), a child he used to babysit, sees through his tackle and calls him out on his weak attempts. Bobby, a staunch Gen Z, sees Kurt’s pathetic behavior indicative of the aging millennial generation, barely clinging to fake authenticity and old ways of digital curation. It also has its own problems; its own digital empire is all in illusion.
There is no sustainability when the goalposts constantly recalibrate and the glass ceiling goes higher and higher. Thresholds that once gave a satisfying injection of dopamine are no longer effective, and you have to push further and higher to get the same level of pleasure. It makes sense when you really think about it. It works just like traditional medicines.
“Social media is essentially a way to drug human connection,” observed Anna Lembke, MD, professor of psychiatry and head of the Dual Diagnosis Clinic in Addiction Medicine at Stanford University. an in-depth report from Teen Vogue Last year. “We have 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 leads us to make these connections is [to] release dopamine.
From Kurt’s perspective, the only way to get the same high again is to double down on the antics at any cost necessary. He is even ready to commit murder, if necessary, and he never does. He has it all planned out in his head: he will broadcast his shift live, pick up as many passengers as possible, and offer them drug-filled water bottles. What’s most disturbing is that he’s completely transparent in his live streams, but no one takes him seriously. It’s all happening in plain sight, but the world is so self-absorbed and addicted to its own dopamine chase that it doesn’t even read (or understand) the signs.
He first poisons a real estate agent (Jessalyn Gilsig) and later leads a group of wealthy kids to a secluded location before slaughtering them in gruesome fashion. It’s the name of the game, and the game is murder for subscribers. But that 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 fatal brawl was a prank. For the rest of the night, Kurt spirals out of control (if you can believe it), and he only stopped when fellow high-profile influencer Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), the most honest real-life person in the whole movie, deals a deathblow to him.
The same Teen Vogue report later gets to the heart of the matter. By design, social media is meant to “influence and manipulate your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors,” which often results in drastically worsening mental illness. In the extreme case of Kurt Kunkle, his world became the assimilation of value as a human being to what people said about him online and how they thoughtlessly flocked to his account. And there was never any question of what it might bring to the world or even how much joy it might have once had for its content. It is a dehumanizing system that repeats itself.
Christensen approaches these questions from a slightly different angle. Superhost follows two popular vloggers, Claire (Sara Canning) and Teddy (Osric Chau), our anti-heroes who are consumed alive by the system they once operated. Their content centers around traveling around the country and staying at various Airbnb rentals, detailing their experience, and then giving a rating. Many of their video reviews have gone viral and led to quite a lucrative life. However, they have recently experienced a drop in viewership and subscribers. They’re starting to feel the heat for delivering top-notch content, and the lengths they’ll go to controversially test their limits as creators and as human beings.
Their previous experience with a woman named Vera (Barbara Crampton) brought a whole new host of unwanted problems. Their scathing assessment directly contributed to the collapse of Vera’s own business, suggesting how online activity, no matter how small, can have a dangerous outside ripple effect. And all it takes is one misguided tweet or Instagram post or TikTok video and someone’s life is ruined.
But Claire and Teddy hope to turn things around.
They finally managed to reserve a secluded cabin for a seemingly normal young woman named Rebecca (Grace Gillam). Vacation rental is a hot spot, requiring booking months in advance. Only woods and mountains surround them, and this could be the place that puts them back on track. When Claire and Teddy arrive, they immediately begin filming the trip, gushing over the overly dramatic reactions and obvious characters on thick screen. It’s like peeking at the wizard behind the curtain. The streaming is all smoke and mirrors 一 and behind the camera are two people who desperately want to be loved.
Everything immediately starts to go wrong. First they have the wrong door code to get into the rental, then the main toilet seems clogged. It’s all downhill from there. A toothy smile and wild eyes, Rebecca always comes across as a bit quirky, almost like she’s a modernized pod person. Just like its new occupants, there is always a facade behind which it moves through the world. She tries to give them the best trip possible with few fuss, but it all comes unstuck in the third act.
Rebecca is the highly focused version of Claire and Teddy. When it’s all revealed that she’s actually a serial killer, who slaughtered and hid the bodies of the real owners of the property, she turns the tables on the vlogger crew and films their deaths. In Claire’s final moments, she managed to upload a video begging her followers for help 一 but everyone thinks it’s just another stunt. Watching, blood running down her face, Rebecca simply smiled at the laptop camera. It’s a downright chilling turn of events that drives home the whole thesis of the movie.
What people want more than anything on social media is transparency 一 not authenticity. Authenticity is one of those loaded buzzwords that mean nothing 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 from ours.
Each of us manipulates ourselves to share and publish every thought that crosses our minds; and it’s not totally our fault, the platforms are designed to be addictive. We are committed 24/7 because we just want to be loved. From Facebook’s reaction panel to quotes from RT and Insta Stories, we compartmentalize our moments and feelings into easily digestible chunks and then exist only to power the machine until nothing is human anymore.
A bit like many black mirror episodes, Party and Superhost capture the dire present and the downward trajectory we are unlikely to escape. Where Kurt Kunkle, Rebecca, Claire, and Teddy reside at opposite extremes, we all comfortably occupy a place somewhere on the sliding scale. And I hope none of us exploited tragedy (think Logan Paul and that crude “suicide forest” video) or committed murder. There’s still time for the rest of us, I guess.
Double trouble is a recurring chronicle that combines two horror films, past or present, based on one theme, style or story.