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In the Pre-Apocalypse, Vacation Homes Are the First to Go

What a new doomsday film says about American wealth

“If you have more than one home, you can't be in all of them at once. That's a risk you take being rich, I suppose.” —“Union of Arsonists

The new movie Doomsdays bills itself as a pre-apocalyptic comedy, which means it’s set in the present. It’s about two friends who live off the land. But Dirty Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick) aren’t urban farmers or primitivist dumpster-divers: They break into empty vacation homes in the Catskills and hang out until they get bored or caught or eat all the food.

The movie’s landscape is sparse, with empty houses speckling the woods and only an occasional furious owner. Like in a zombie movie, Fred and Bruho are always on the run. But since the apocalypse hasn’t happened, it’s not clear if they’re the zombies or the survivors. “If you were on the Titanic, and you knew there weren’t enough lifeboats for you,” Fred asks, “wouldn’t you live it up at the bar?” The Titanic metaphor is apt: Who cares about property rights on a sinking ship? A bottle of booze belongs to whoever drinks it, because everything is going to hell anyway.

And as far as Bruho is concerned, we’re going to get there in a car. A believer in the Peak Oil theory of imminent global catastrophe (generally regarded as a wacko conspiracy mystification), Bruho refuses to ride in cars. He relaxes by taking a crowbar to any gas-guzzling automobile he can get his hands on. Though Bruho is probably wrong about how exactly humanity ends, pre-apocalyptic is as accurate a description for our current epoch as any; global warming isn’t any less disastrous than Peak Oil in its implications.

The way I see it, the pre-apocalyptic happens when the unspoken social rules that keep everyone in their place begin to fail, when scientists first see the inescapable meteor coming and the people learn about it and start looting. It’s the disaster before the disaster. Are we there yet? How would we know? The latest trend among the ultra-wealthy is to make dire predictions about social disintegration. Most recently, South African billionaire Johann Rupert warned Bloomberg Business about the impending crisis: “We cannot have 0.1 percent of 0.1 percent taking all the spoils. It’s unfair and it is not sustainable,” he told the reporters. “How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare? … We’re in for a huge change in society. Get used to it. And be prepared.” Be prepared, in other words, for many more Dirty Freds and Bruhos.

Once we’ve entered the pre-apocalyptic, well-stocked vacation homes are especially at risk. By definition they’re vacant most of the time, and, as Fred points out, far from the city’s dense policing. There are also a lot of them. The George W. Bush Administration’s “Ownership Society” failed, and now homeownership rates are back where they were in the mid-’90s. But as wealth has further concentrated, the market for vacation homes has stayed strong. According to the National Association of Realtors, over 1 million vacation homes were sold in 2014. That’s 21 percent of total home sales, the highest share ever recorded. “Affluent households have greatly benefited from strong growth in the stock market in recent years,” the Association’s chief economist Lawrence Yun said, “and the steady rise in home prices has likely given them reassurance that real estate remains an attractive long-term investment.” 

But how attractive is the long-term? Forty percent of 2014 vacation home purchases were in beach areas; investors may not be thinking that long-term, or at least they haven’t consulted the latest coastal sea-rise models. But for now, the greatest threat to that investment might very well be social rather than ecological. Not the rising sea itself, but people looking at those models and deciding they no longer give a fuck; the Internet’s “lol nothing matters” turned into IRL practice. It’s what would happen if people actually accepted what they know. Who would begrudge themselves a party at a beach house before they’re all swallowed into the ocean, especially if no one is using it anyway?

Like art theft, borrowing vacation homes isn’t the kind of crime that traditionally inspires a ton of sympathy for its victims. For homeowners (especially billionaires) it may be disconcerting, but people lend out their extra houses to friends all the time. It’s a temporary theft of class position, and that inspires more people than it frightens. Take the case of Colton Harris-Moore. The teenaged “Barefoot Bandit” lived for years by breaking into vacation homes in the Pacific Northwest before being caught in the Bahamas, where he had flown a stolen Cessna. Not yet 25, Harris-Moore became a folk hero. He gained renown for stealing as little as a meal or as much a car, boat, or plane, depending on what he needed at the time. Casing vacation homes was part of his profile as a smart, resourceful young man who sought to minimize the harm he did to others while on a truly astounding crime spree. In the end, he is serving concurrent 6 ½- and 7-year terms for his state and federal convictions. Not bad, all things considered. 

Cop-killers Christopher Dorner and Eric Frein aren’t quite as popular as the Barefoot Bandit, but they both seem to have made use of vacation homes to evade the authorities. After declaring war on the LAPD on February 7, 2013, the former officer and soldier Dorner fled to the woods of Big Bear Lake, California—a vacation destination with twice as many housing units as year-round residents. After days of intense manhunt, he was finally caught when two owners found Dorner hiding out in their empty cabin. The fugitive tied them up but left them unharmed as he went looking for refuge. Dorner died in another unrented cabin when authorities surrounded him and burned the unit to the ground. Unfortunate timing produced one of the most disturbing and in my mind iconic images of the young century: The State of the Union split-screen with a burning vacation cabin.

In September of 2014, Frein fled to the Pike County, Pennsylvania woods after assassinating a state police officer. It took authorities a month and a half to capture the survivalist and World War II reenactor. Police hypothesized that Frein was using vacation homes for shelter and resources, though he was later found to have a hideout in an abandoned airplane hangar. Still, Frein monitored the police search via pilfered WiFi, and he had to charge his laptop somewhere. Even the hardest core survivalists aren’t above using the full terrain, which includes unlocked wireless networks. Vacation homes and their well-stocked pantries are a resource just waiting for our social mores to fray. As soon as people stop following the rules and anarchy descends on America, vacation houses will be a natural place to go if you’re not interested in dying immediately.

As I write, two convicted murderers are on the run after a daring escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. They are suspected to have been in Willsboro, New York, a small town near the Canadian border and the twin tourist destinations of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The town’s paper mill closed in 1965; now it’s “a famous vacation home location,” at least according to the Willsboro local government. The escapees’ presence hasn’t been verified, but with fewer than 2,000 year-round residents, Willsboro is the kind of place Dirty Fred and Bruho might wander. By design, vacation homes are too far away from law and order to rely on the police for security, and instead use distance and people’s general unwillingness to trespass. When that latter prohibition fails, vacation houses are sitting ducks. The rich have inadvertently built nice refuges for prison escapees, cop-killers, and other social malcontents. 

The warnings from Doomsdays and scared billionaires like Johann Rupert aren’t so different: We may have entered pre-apocalyptic times without noticing. The more I watched Fred and Bruho break in and make themselves at home, the less strange it seemed. Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s time we stopped hoping things stay the same, stopped trying to be people from a different, orderly era. As our climate and social relations shift, it’s only natural that our behavior will change as well. Maybe the end of the world as we know it doesn’t start with the flashy pyrotechnics of Fight Club or 9/11. Maybe it starts with a thousand broken cabin windows.