The Roommate has become a surprise winter hit, earning $15.6-million (U.S.) in its first weekend. The dim-witted slasher film begins in the first days of college when Sarah, a frosh in a jaunty hat, is paired in her dorm room with Rebecca, an art-loving blonde prone to late-night staring. Those eyeballs equal loco, of course: Rebecca's idea of friendship is eliminating anyone else in Sarah's life, preferably by stalking and/or killing. And worse, she borrows her roommate's necklace without asking. The tag line for the film is: "2,000 colleges. 8 million roommates. Which one will you get?"
It's a brilliantly creepy sentiment, tuned to the inherent anxiety in the roommate lottery. A roommate shares your walls and your bathroom, lives with you but is not (or not at first) friend, family or lover. Anyone who's ever answered a roommate-wanted ad or waited on an empty bed in a residence double knows the fluttery feeling of the great unknown up ahead: A roommate can be one of the most significant relationships in one's life, a well of uncontrollable stress or meaningful friendship. The one certainty, even when friends shack up, is that the outcome is random. The Roommate taps into the strangeness of non-romantic cohabitation just like the superior film it rips off, Single White Female from 1992. Then, Jennifer Jason Leigh proved her devotion to roomie Bridget Fonda by stabbing a dude in the eye with a stiletto - borrowed, like her haircut, without asking.
With a still-tender economy, rising interest rates and new mortgage rules pushing many people away from buying, non-romantic cohabitation is both modern reality and abstract fear. In 2006, 769,000 Canadians, mostly from 20 to 29 years old, lived with one or more non-relatives. Those with roommates in Canada generally have lower incomes than those without. As one economist told The Boston Globe: "When employment is falling, people start doubling up."
Multigenerational homes are also on the increase in Canada across cultures, while grown "boomerang" offspring don't mind wandering back to mom and dad's house. Today's adults are thrust together in ever new dynamics of intimacy. Forget nubile young co-eds; a 35-year-old borrowing mom's car is the stuff of the next big horror movie.
All the attendant griping of these shifting household formations lands, naturally, on the Internet, where one thing is clear: Hell is other people, and the roommate is the ultimate Other - strange, foreign, incomprehensible. On sites like ihatemyroommate.org, complainers vent about roommates who don't flush or prefer watching TV naked. The site passiveagressivenotes.com (and spinoff book) contains amazing epistles of cohabitation fury: "My esteemed housemates … It appears that our ongoing experiment to see if the dishes would indeed wash themselves has ended and ultimately failed…"
The flip side of the psychopathic killer roommate in pop culture is the jocular mismatch. As in Three's Company, roommates are the best way for screenwriters to get opposite characters - Oscars and Felixes - in one place: Mix your sphincter-clenched Monica with your slovenly Rachel and voilà! Gold!
But such comical dissonance may become more rare as roommate matches are now less random and more controlled by technology. Certainly, prospective roommates on Craigslist can reveal themselves in a way they never could in classifieds. If you, too, are a 20-ish hedge-fund manager who is "420-friendly" (code for pot), there's a dude in downtown Toronto who wants to split Wi-Fi costs with you. Many Canadian universities have begun to use programs like StarRez, which allows students to select roommates themselves. It may eliminate some friction to have all the vegans in one apartment, but what's lost?
Back in my roommate days, I remember spotting a cat calendar in my kitchen and dramatically calling a house meeting to discuss (impose) decorating policies. I can see now that my anti-cat-calendar stance and repetitive ring-out-the-sponge rants were, uh, unbecoming. But seeing myself as others saw me prompted a kind of self-awareness that can occur only by living with people who don't love you.
I also remember the roommate with whom I had nothing in common but a music fetish, who introduced me to Nick Drake. And another who told me of Hong Kong. And another whom I fell in love with. None of us would have met had we not needed a roof over our heads the same winter.
Life experiences are becoming increasingly niche: Our iTunes suggestions and crowd-sourced modes of consumption keep us clustered with people like ourselves, sharing the same perspectives in the same comments areas. A Newfoundlander and a New Yorker shoved in a dorm room together sounds better than a sitcom - it sounds like life, which demands the negotiation of difference and rewards us for it, often in surprising ways. Unless, of course, we kill each other first.