The Horror of Aging
An opinion piece on tropes and the horror of growing older.
One of my least favorite tropes in horror movies is “scary old people.”
There are plenty of examples of this, but one that comes to mind is in the movie Drag Me to Hell, where the elderly Roma woman who plays the antagonist goes as far as to latch onto the jaw of the ‘poor young girl’ with her dentured-mouth. The scene is designed to be disgusting, using the elderly body as something so abhorrent it produces revulsion and fear. You see this played out in other movies, such as The Visit or The Taking of Deborah Logan.
When considering why I hate this trope so much, I believe it speaks to my place in life. I’m nowhere near old age, but as I edge closer to the second half of my life, I can’t help but notice how the world expends its energy trying to apparel to the youthful eye. Social media is full of young people parading around half-naked and carefree, doing everything they can not to appear/seem/act ‘old.’ The world nods, following each trend the younger generation sets, and companies spend millions on marketing to appear relevant. That’s not to say the older generation isn’t equally targeted, especially if you’re a woman over 40: “Here are some face care products, you wrinkled old hag. Have fun dying soon.”
Horror seems to agree, still actively churning out movies of teenagers being torn apart in cabins and on road trips. The age-old warnings embedded in: don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t be anything other than a mousy last girl standing. I realized I’d reached a turning point when I watched The Fear Street movies on Netflix, and the thought crossed my mind: you know, it’s kinda nice to watch these annoying ass kids get murdered.
That’s not to say there are no horror stories/movies with older protagonists. Fortunately, there are plenty. In fact, my husband and I are enjoying the hell out of the new series on MGM+ called From, which offers enough different perspectives to keep us entertained. Primarily Harold Perrineau, who most remember from Lost, but I remember from Romeo & Juliet in the 90s. Side note, it is pretty fun to grow up alongside the actors from our youth.
Recently, hubs and I sat down to watch Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story. I saw the advertisements for it a while back, but as the founder of a publishing company plus a mother of four, I rarely have downtime. I forgot it was the prequel to the movie X, so I went in backward and blind. I absolutely fell in love with the character Pearl (Mia Goth has been stealing my heart lately), and we stayed up to watch X right after. I wonder if my experience of that movie would have been different had I watched it in the order it came out. Or if I even would have watched the whole thing through.
But, knowing Pearl’s backstory, I found myself enjoying the hell out of the movie, and I rooted for her the entire time. Fuck those kids (except Kid Cudi; we’re from Cleveland, too, and hubs and I love his music). We especially enjoyed the crazy, toxic love between Pearl and her husband, Howard. We found ourselves laughing during their sex scene, joking about how we will be one day when our bodies fall apart. Offering Pearl a backstory was a brilliant idea; it gave me such an appreciation for a movie I probably would have watched and forgotten about.
“There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me then. That’s the power of beauty.” — Pearl, X
Going back to that scene, with a horrified Mia cowering under the bed, it obviously used the elderly body as a gross-out factor. But in my opinion, the true horror for young people is not the sight of wrinkly skin or dentures. It’s growing older. It’s the thought of being trapped in a shell that is literally withering away. It’s knowing our sexual desires, our hopes, and our dreams don’t just disappear as our body decays. We’re still us inside.
Talk about body horror.
“You don’t think I know who you really are? We’re the same. You’ll end up just like me.” — Pearl, X
So many of us spend our youth in blissful ignorance, shunning old age as if it will never happen. Until it does. Then cue the mid-life crises and Karen meltdowns. People don’t prepare for what I believe can be the best time of our lives.
Society is set up to foster our growing up stage, but when it comes to the long process of dying, we’re left to our own devices. A great commentary on this is in the book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis, where he explains that the second half of life feels like navigating through the dark woods alone. We’re generally unprepared and afraid, unable to predict where we will end up or how we will get there.
As someone who not only digests a fair amount of horror but writes it too, I can’t help but think the “old people trope” used just for gross-out purposes only skims the surface. It sits right there with directors using torture porn in place of a plot. These devices are not scary, they’re just appalling. The real horror goes much deeper.
Let’s examine the terror of slowly rotting away.
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