The Terrifying Real Life Story Behind The Horror Movie ‘Vacancy’

Vacancy is one of the scariest horror movies I’ve seen. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but the idea is so claustrophobic and unsettling. I can understand the fear of being trapped in a room, knowing there’s bad men outside and it’s only a matter of time before they get inside. The hopelessness of watching a snuff tape knowing your fate may very well be becoming another tape in a stack of horrifying tapes. All this, and the killers run. Fast.

Today I learned the story isn’t complete fiction.


A New Yorker magazine article from 2016 tells the story of a couple who owned a small twenty-one room motel. They created a system of crawl spaces and aluminum screens in the ceiling of motel rooms that meant the couple could observe the going ons in most of the hotel rooms from what appeared to be a ventilation shaft to their patrons. They did this for decades without being caught.

The writer of the New Yorker article posts a letter he received from the motel’s proprietor:

“Dear Mr. Talese:

Since learning of your long awaited study of coast-to-coast sex in America, which will be included in your soon to be published book, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” I feel I have important information that I could contribute to its contents or to contents of a future book.

The reason for purchasing this motel was to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies and compelling interest in all phases of how people conduct their lives, both socially and sexually. . . . I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not as just a deranged voyeur.

I have seen most human emotions in all their humor and tragedy carried to completion. Sexually, I have witnessed, observed and studied the best first hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex deviations during these past 15 years.”


The man worried he would be caught and requested anonymity though he did not believe he was doing anything wrong, “There’s no invasion of privacy if no one complains.” He often spied on guests while working the front desk of his motel, leaving a buzzer in the front that would alert him in his attic crawl space/viewing platform if someone arrived looking for a room.

The man eventually grew bored of simply watching people have sex and moved on to more interactive experiments:

“These experiences prodded Foos to concoct an “honesty test.” He would leave a suitcase, secured with a cheap padlock, in the closet of a motel room. When a guest checked in, he would say to Donna, in the guest’s hearing, that someone had just called to report leaving behind a suitcase with a thousand dollars inside. Foos then watched from the attic as the new guest found the suitcase and deliberated over whether to break the lock and look inside or return the suitcase to the motel office.

Out of fifteen guests who were subjected to the honesty test, including a minister, a lawyer, and an Army lieutenant colonel, only two returned the suitcase to the office with the padlock intact. The others all opened the suitcase and then tried to dispose of it in different ways. The minister pushed the suitcase out the bathroom window into the bushes.”


The man even calmly observed a murder. Upon noticing a small time drug dealer was staying at his motel he went to his room and flushed his drugs down the toilet. The drug dealer blamed his girlfriend and strangled her to death… all the while being watched by the man from the vent in the ceiling. Nothing was reported to police until a maid found the woman’s dead body in the morning.

As the man grew old he eventually sold the motel in 1995 and it has since been demolished. Vacancy wouldn’t hit theaters for another decade and this story wouldn’t be published in the New Yorker for 21 years. Still, I can’t help but know that after reading this account, I’m never going to stay in a hotel room again without looking around and scrutinizing every vent and potential two way mirror. Knowing it’s happened somewhere once is enough to make me believe this kind of motel isn’t as rare as we might like to believe.

About the author

Emily Madriga