Couches, Curtains and Creepypasta: Using Proxemics to Feel Safer in Your Apartment

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Humans are territorial creatures. There’s a whole branch of scientific study within the field of anthropology which explores just how territorial we are. It’s called “proxemics” and it takes into account how we respond to people touching us, standing close to us, and making noises in our general vicinity. You’ve probably heard of the terms “personal space” and “comfort zone.” Both of those concepts arose out of the study of proxemics.

When we’re forced to live in small apartments or small apartment buildings with strangers our territorial boundaries are challenged. Our instincts in these situations force us into a state of heightened awareness, much closer to the “fight or flight” threshold. We’re more prone to getting into fights and flying off the handle. Today we’ll be using the science of proxemics and a study of common factors in creepypasta/horror stories to help renters choose an apartment that minimizes this sense of perpetual invasion. We’ll also look at ways to arrange your furniture to help minimize conflicts between roommates.

Proxemic Boundary Distances

We each carry with us an envelope of personal space, a kind of invisible bubble. If someone encroaches into that bubble we feel threatened.

The size of the bubble is different for family, friends or strangers. It also changes depending on what we’re doing and where we are. We will subconsciously do everything we can to enforce that bubble even if we know we’re in a situation where we’re going to be in close quarters. If we’re on a crowded bus or train we might set our bag on the floor, put in our earphones, or “manspread” to carve out as much space as we possibly can even if we know it’s rude.

Our boundaries will ease a bit if we believe someone trustworthy has vetted the people around us. We’ll be more at ease with strangers in a classroom, office or apartment where we know everyone has been interviewed and screened. However this doesn’t change the fact that strangers are still strangers. We still hold classmates and coworkers at a distance until we have shared a project or drunken holiday party with them.

According to the folks who’ve studied these things in-depth, our boundary distances are pretty consistent from person to person, although cultural values and gender differences do have an effect. With strangers in public places we use the “public distance” of 12 to 25 feet, or as drivers know it, the difference between a safe following distance and “wow this guy is really riding my bumper.”

We prefer to keep people we don’t know at the “social distance” of 7 to 12 feet away. Close enough to hear them easily, but far enough away that they can’t touch us without making a big effort. If we’re dealing with someone we know well such as a family member, close friend or significant other we will decrease that margin by about 3 feet. If you get onto an empty city bus, chances are you will instinctively choose a seat that’s within 7-12 feet of the bus driver. If you get into an Uber or taxi by yourself, can’t get 7 feet away but you’ll probably take the back seat position furthest from the driver to approximate the social distance.

We rarely let people get closer except in very specific scenarios. When we’re eating together we move into the “personal distance” of 1.5 to 4 feet apart as we sit at the table together. We can reach them at that distance if we extend our arms. We can pass the potatoes without stretching. We’ll let our close friends sit “shotgun” in our cars. However, as high school cafeterias clearly demonstrate, we only allow a select group of people to join us at that distance.

The closest boundary is the “intimate distance” of a few inches away. Only our most trusted people are allowed within this sphere where they can touch us, hug us or pat us on the head.

But what happens when these distances are violated? What happens if we’re in situations where we constantly have strangers living within the social distance? It’s terrifying. It’s uncomfortable. We get aggressive, we pick fights, we threaten to sue, and we write horror stories about it later.

Creepypasta Gone Scientific

If I bust out too many ten dollar words here you’re going to doze off on me. To make things easier to understand I’m going to explain proxemics and the risks stemming from high density living arrangements using creepypastas.

If you’re familiar with online meme culture you’re probably aware of the creepypasta. If you’re not, it’s basically another word for a short horror story told from a first person perspective or a closely related third person perspective (“this happened to my cousin”) with a mostly realistic feel. The word “creepypasta” is a combination of “creepy” and “copypasta”, or “copied and pasted”, as many of these stories have indeed been copied and pasted throughout the world of social media.

If you spend any amount of time surveying the collective mass of creepypasta literature out there, you’ll find that many of them have elements in common. As someone with a keen interest in folklore and story archetypes, I find it fun to play “spot the trope” with these stories.

The threats are almost always the same. Home invasions, stalkers, hidden cameras and thieves lurking in closets. The setting may change to a campground, a school locker room, a hospital ward or a military base, but the concept remains the same: an outsider invading a safe haven.

The build-up of excitement in creepypastas is almost always framed as a series of border crossings. The bad guy makes noise in the bushes, then the front gate, the windows or the doors to the property, then the door to the bedroom. From a scientific perspective, these are repeated breaches of territorial boundaries.

The interaction of the narrator with window treatments is another common element. The narrator might forget to close the blinds, or they may peek through the blinds to detect the presence of a threat. Window treatments are a clear and obvious form of territorial markings.

The description of the villain is almost always the same as well. They might be of any race or class but almost every one of the stories will use the word “tall” to describe their bad guy. We respond to vertical distances as much as we respond to horizontal ones. If someone is higher or taller than us, we might see them as an authority (parents, public speakers, teachers) or we could see them as a threat.

However, there are some cases where the bad guy is a family member, significant other or close friend who suddenly starts to behave in a peculiar way. When the trusted person becomes a stranger, we feel threatened. We move away, sometimes without realizing that we’re doing it. Someone whom we’ve trusted to use the personal distance must now urgently be pushed to the public distance, if not completely out of range.

Even the introductions to these stories make sense from a proxemic perspective. The settings are often described as places where people don’t have to lock their doors. In other words, they do not have to display the more obvious territorial markers that we use in threatening environments to enforce our boundaries.

We can see some interesting cultural differences in the creepypastas from different areas of the world. Those written by western authors from a culture where each person has their own bedroom and ample living space tend to involve strangers entering the home or bedroom. But creepypastas are also popular in Japan, which is a culture with more compact living spaces and far less privacy within the home. In Japanese creepypastas the invaded location shifts from the house or bedroom to the bathroom, the only room where a Japanese resident can reasonably expect to be alone.

Most apartment living situations are not horror stories. Creepypastas by their very nature take things to the extreme. However, it is very easy to see how quickly a high density living situation can flip from minimally uncomfortable to terrifying. Even if a renter never crosses that threshold, their constant exposure to fluxed territorial boundaries both within their apartments and within the building will eventually build up, causing irritability and hostility even between the closest of friends.

Choosing Apartments Which Minimize Neighbor Threats

The standard Chicago lot size is 25 feet by 110 feet. This means that someone living within a single family home is keeping all of their neighbors at the public distance of 12 to 25 feet. (Interesting fact: these lot sizes were standardized in the 1830s, about 130 years before the study of proxemics defined the public distance.) However, in an apartment, particularly in high rises, we may have neighbors living closer than the public distance on 5 out of 6 sides of our living space. While we have walls and doors and peepholes to help us mark our territory, every noise from our neighbors reminds us that there’s a stranger within our social distance.

People have been studying the proxemics of apartment life for decades. Chicago’s Marina City (the corncob buildings) with their unique wedge-shaped living spaces were prime fodder for an early study of territorial boundaries in urban environments. College dormitories are another high density living arrangement ripe for scientific observation. One of the primary observations from these studies states that smaller distances between individual dwelling units lead to a corresponding decrease in willingness of neighbors to interact with each other on a social basis. They do not want to risk inviting strangers into their circle of friends who can enter their social distance because they are afraid of what will happen should the friendship turn sour.

Many of the social cues which westerners use to mark their territory around the home cannot be used in apartment life. Renters can’t put up fences or hedges. They can’t install security systems. Instead, we decorate. We paint the walls, we install curtains, we put wreaths on the door and shoes in the hallway. Every one of these choices may seem to be purely for looks, but from a scientific standpoint they are clear territorial markers. Your window and a dog’s fire hydrant have a lot more in common than you’d think!

So, if you are a person who gets freaked out by living in apartments, here are some steps you can take to minimize the ways in which neighbors encroach on your social space.

  • Pick apartments with bedrooms that are isolated from neighboring apartments by other rooms. Corner apartments are great for this.
  • Get as high in the building as you can to help you feel like you’ve got some authority.
  • Go for the smaller buildings with apartments which take up the full width of the structure, such as two flats or three flats.
  • Make sure the landlord will let you decorate and change the locks so you can satisfy your instinctive need to mark your territory.
  • Choose buildings which have fences, hedges or other landscape features already installed.

If you come from a collectivist culture such as Scandinavia, Mexico or East Asia or have a roommate who does, you may need to take additional things into consideration. These cultures tend to have narrower personal and social distances but greater public distances, constructing homes which face a backyard but offer little accessibility to the street. To accommodate these folks, also consider the following:

  • Avoid housing with large, street-facing windows.
  • Choose apartments towards the rear of the building, or in buildings with large front yards.

Arranging Apartments to Minimize Roommate Threats

Most of us cannot afford enormous apartments. In many cases we’re sharing bedrooms and even have roommates sleeping in the living room. We may be living with strangers or acquaintances we don’t know very well. We are forced to allow these people we don’t necessarily trust into our social space and even our personal space. Many conflicts between roommates can be chalked up to prolonged exposure to violated territorial boundaries. But there are things you can do with furniture and choice of roomie that can minimize the friction within the apartment walls.

When choosing your roommates, ask to see a picture of their current bedroom. Don’t just look at how tidy they are. Look at how extensively they decorate. If there’s a huge amount of decor in their current place, translate that into a heightened need for strong territorial boundaries and tread lightly around them. The person who decorates the most should get the biggest bedroom.

Playing video games together is one of the most informative ice-breakers you can choose for sizing up your potential roommates and their respective needs for personal space. Observe how close a prospective roommate gets to other characters within the game. Most will instinctively gravitate to the social distance, or the closest thing to it that the game will allow, although everyone will stand at a different point within that 7-12 foot virtual space. Studies have found that gamers will behave in-game much the same as they would behave in real life. If a potential roommate is always right on your heels in a video game, they’re probably going to be all up in your business in real life too.

The larger the kitchen, the better. An open kitchen is preferable to a nook. Many kitchen implements are also weapons and kitchens get the most traffic in any living situation. If you must choose an apartment with a small kitchen, set ground rules that limit kitchen use to one person at a time. You want to avoid moving from your roommate’s social distance into their intimate distance as much as you possibly can, particularly if they’re holding a chef’s knife.

When arranging furniture in common rooms and shared bedrooms, make sure that you can walk past someone sitting down or sleeping without getting closer than four feet away. If someone is going to be sleeping in a common area with no door, extend that distance to seven feet.

Space out seating in living areas so that everyone has at least four feet between them. Seating should always face inwards so that nobody is forced to turn their back to the group. Some renters like to cram as many chairs as possible into their common areas, but if it’s a choice between more chairs or adequate social distance, ditch the chairs. A couple of easy chairs are a better choice than a couch.

Encourage roommates to decorate their sleeping areas. Go overboard on the apartment security to the fullest extent that you can to help put everyone at ease. Even if you don’t feel like the neighborhood demands it, go ahead and put that two by four across the back door and always use the landlord chain on the front door. Never purchase decorative items for a roommate’s bedroom, even as Christmas gifts. Make sure every roommate has a say in the decor of common rooms.

Some apartments have multiple levels inside. It might only be a single step up or down between the front and back of the apartment, but that vertical difference is important. Try to ensure that everyone sleeps on the same vertical level. If someone has to sleep in a lower area of the apartment, do what you can to grant some sort of concession to them to make up for the instinctive loss of status that will come with their sleeping location. Let them control the TV remote or something like that.

Happy Monkey, Happy Human

We are all animals. We may have learned to talk and read and use technology, but that’s all gloss on top of our inherent monkey instincts and biological responses. Those of us who choose to live in high density urban environments may be indulging all of those higher level human skills, but at the same time we’re making our inner monkeys very unhappy.

It may be uncomfortable or even against your religion to acknowledge that we’re all basically monkeys. But if we want to keep our living arrangements from turning into real life creepypasta we need to do everything we can to satisfy the needs of our inner primates. Keeping others in our housing at the social distance isn’t merely a matter of respect or etiquette. It satisfies a very primal need without which our fight-or-flight alarms will constantly be blaring. Until we can all move to that idyllic setting where nobody has to lock their doors and we each have our own yards and bedrooms, we can use what the study of proxemics has uncovered to keep our inner monkey happy so that our outer human aspects can thrive.

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

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Published by

Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.