Hell Is Older PeopleAging as the Ultimate Cinematic Horror

Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush in Drag Me to Hell (Photo credit: Universal Pictures)

This article was published in Old Issue #46 | Spring 2010

Isolation. Frustrated attempts to communicate. Bodily decay. Imminent death. These are the hallmarks of Western horror movies—and also of old age, if stereotypes are to be believed. While horror’s target audience is young (and supposedly characterized by delusions of immortality and indifference to anyone older than 40), the genre’s movies are often dominated by elderly characters—usually elderly women. In a culture obsessed with female youth and beauty, the horror of aging is hardly gender-neutral, and there’s remarkable overlap in the stereotypes about women and those concerning old folks (you know: needy, frail, and irrational).

But unlike horror-movie fates such as, say, decapitation by paper cutter, aging is the ultimate fright because viewers recognize that they cannot escape it. Moreover, the feminized traits associated with the elderly carry a universal shiver factor because they are fundamentally human characteristics, repressed by our culture of superheros and Final Girls. The blood-drooling, cackling witches and crones of horror cinema don’t seem especially fragile, of course. But their over-the-top violence offers a convenient excuse to hate them, rather than acknowledge that aging is what truly freaks us out.

1. DRAG ME TO HELL

Drag Me To Hell (2009) - Official Trailer (HD)

{ Universal Pictures }
Release Date: May 29, 2009

In Drag Me to Hell, a slick young bank employee finds herself hellishly bound to a destitute old lady. When the elderly Mrs. Ganush begs for a mortgage extension, she’s the very picture of a charity-case granny, from her cataract-clouded eye to her threadbare coat. But when twentysomething loan officer Christine Brown refuses the extension and dispossesses Mrs. Ganush of her home, the old lady curses her, haunts her, and tortures her in bizarre and brutal ways. Many of the film’s freaky-funny encounters between Christine and Mrs. Ganush involve uncomfortable physical intimacy: More than once, Christine finds herself essentially French-kissing her tormentor and getting a mouthful of slime.

These moments of horrifying closeness suggest another type of closeness between the two women: Both are caught in a gendered double-bind. Mrs. Ganush is vilified for being both too helpless and too powerful; Christine, in a subtler way, struggles to assume an appropriate level of personal power, one that won’t disadvantage her in relation to her male coworkers. Her male boss urges her to be more authoritative if she wants to be promoted, yet minutes later, he sends her on an errand to pick up lunch. But when Christine exerts her professional power by denying Mrs. Ganush the mortgage extension, she is punished spectacularly for her lack of feminine compassion.

Mrs. Ganush’s wild vacillation between the elderly stereotypes of needy grandma and bloodthirsty witch is ultimately a hyperbolic version of Christine’s own good-girl/bad-girl dilemma. The real horror, then, is that Christine, despite her demeanor of polished professionalism, cannot escape her own oppression—represented by the older double who shadows her every move. Christine wants to believe that she controls her own fate and that a little nuisance like workplace sexism can’t possibly hold her back. But Mrs. Ganush, the archetypal disadvantaged old lady, proves that reliance on others—including chauvinistic higher-ups—is a fact of life, as inevitable as aging itself.

2. DEAD ALIVE

Dead Alive (1992) Official Trailer #1 - Peter Jackson Movie

{ Trimark Pictures }
Release Date: February 12, 1993

Dead Alive (released under the title Braindead in New Zealand, where it was made) also features a youthful heroine pitted against a monstrous old woman who alternates between feeble and fierce. Young Paquita initially comes into conflict with the elderly Vera because Paquita wants to date Vera’s son Lionel, whose relationship with his mum is uncomfortably close. The old woman’s transformation from imposing matron to fragile fossil is swift and horrific. She ages overnight after being bitten by a zombie-diseased rat-monkey, and as she writhes and moans in pain, her wound pulses orgasmically, and her arm twitches in what can only be described as a masturbatory motion.

Both the humor and the horror of this scene are rooted in the assumption that elderly women are sexless: As if to emphasize how harmful orgasms are to the health of little old ladies, Vera wakes up from her post-bite sleep lurching, slurring her words, and making a mess of her lipstick application (enacting what we’re probably supposed to understand as the horror of youthful femininity gone wrong). When her face starts falling off, Lionel pastes the skin back on with a glue stick. (Later, over lunch with prim society types, Vera’s ear falls into the custard and she slurps it up, blood mixing with the lipstick smudged around her mouth. She is clearly past her prime.)

Soon enough, Vera becomes a marauding zombie. In a final face-off with Lionel, she is transformed into a dinosaur-like hulk and captures her son in her belly. As Paquita struggles to stay alive while everybody around her zombifies, the symbolic horror of elderly motherhood—and elderly desire—is hard to miss.

3. THE EXORCIST III

The Exorcist III (1990) - Official Trailer (HD)

{ 20th Century Fox }
Release Date: August 17, 1990

Loss of self-control can also imply susceptibility to evil control by others—yet another reason aging scares us. In The Exorcist III, patients on a senile dementia ward are possessed by the spirit of a deranged murderer and enact multiple killings. One scene shows an elderly woman crawling on the ceiling of the ward, unbeknownst to the investigator standing below her. The image suggests a profound lack of self-determination: This woman is both infantile (crawling) and animalistic (hovering like a fly), but certainly not a responsible adult. In a later scene, a different elderly woman nearly decapitates a teenage girl, quite out of the blue. Her brutality is juxtaposed with innocent senility moments before the attack: “Can you help me? Is it bedtime?” The murder attempt makes us jump, but it also distracts us from the closer-to-home terror of lost self-sufficiency.

4. HOMEBODIES

{ AVCO Embassy Pictures }
Release Date: June 23, 1994

In Homebodies, a sweet-seeming band of dispossessed senior citizens turns out to be just as volatile as the murderous old folks in The Exorcist III. Six elderly renters are evicted from their apartment building, which is slated for demolition so that a skyscraper condo can go up in its place, a clear metaphor for the new overtaking the old. Led by one devious granny, they go to extreme and grisly lengths to regain their home. The tenants’ battle is all the more horrific because it’s so obviously futile. Near the end of the movie, they start turning on each other: When one wants to report everything to the police, the ringleader offs her by dropping an urn of ashes on her head. The fatally injured woman’s last words—“I don’t want to go away, I don’t want to leave you”—hint that all the fuss about leaving the building really reflects the tenants’ unease about a larger imminent departure. The horror of this film lies in the fact that none of us can do anything about our eventual eviction from this life.

5. THE SKELETON KEY

The Skeleton Key (2005) Official Trailer | Fear

{ Universal Pictures }
Release Date: August 12, 2005

Some horror films present immortality as possible, but only at the expense of somebody else’s youth or health. Take 2005’s The Skeleton Key, in which idealistic 25-year-old hospice-care nurse Caroline takes a job with an elderly couple in an isolated Bayou locale, despite a friend’s warnings. (“No knitting, no joining a bridge club, and no playing bingo. I’m serious. They’ll try to suck you into their elderly ways.”) The Skeleton Key enacts the split-personality dynamic of the filmic elderly—vulnerable one moment, vicious the next—through two different characters: The evil Mrs. Devereaux and her sweet, stroke-afflicted husband, Ben, whose own personal horror is his inability to communicate or escape his wife’s abuses.

Caroline begins having nightmares in which her mouth and eyes are sewn shut like a voodoo doll’s; little does she know that her body has been targeted for occupation by the ghost of a murdered African American servant, who is depicted only in flickering clips. (Yes, The Skeleton Key manages to make a Black character the villain without giving her a real role.) Caroline’s soul becomes trapped in a decrepit body, speechless and paralyzed, while a 200-year-old imposter gets to live the high life in Caroline’s wrinkle-free skin. The movie suggests that Caroline is partly to blame for her fate because she stepped into the elderly couple’s senile world, making herself an easy target for hoodoo malfeasance. Looks like Caroline’s friend was right when she warned that working with old folks changes people.

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6. THE HUNGER

The Hunger Official Trailer #1 - Susan Sarandon Movie (1983) HD

{ MGM/UA Entertainment Co }
Release Date: April 29, 1983

The Skeleton Key fits into a larger horror tradition in which the old steal the life force of the young. Examples include Countess Dracula (1972), Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974), Alison’s Birthday (1981), and The Haunting of Morella (1990). But of all the films in this subgenre, The Hunger—starring Catherine Deneuve as a 3,000-year-old vampire who seduces and feeds on attractive women and men in order to remain eternally youthful—is probably the best known. Miriam Blaylock’s lovers stay young for several centuries, then age at warp speed before falling into corpselike decrepitude. (They never actually die, so she stashes them in boxes in her attic.) The horror here is not death but interminable old age, with all its indignities—particularly the indignity of sexual rejection. The moldy lovers, boxed and forgotten, are quickly replaced by sexier specimens, but eventually rise from their resting places and demand to be kissed by their former mistress. Since aging is depicted so terrifyingly, it makes sense that a whole subgenre of movies has grown up around the premise of villainous old people stealing the treasure of youth.

There are male villains, obviously—starting with that old vamp Nosferatu—but it’s hardly surprising that many such films feature a female baddie: The consequences of aging are treated as both more serious and more demoralizing for women, and women have been socialized to view their younger counterparts as threats, especially when it comes to sex. So, stealing young girls’ bodies or sucking their blood is really just being proactive, right? All this celluloid mayhem is pretty scary. What’s even scarier, though, is the exploitation of elderly folks (particularly women) as cinematic shorthand for everything our culture most fears: powerlessness on one end of the spectrum, and unrestrained evildoing on the other. The stereotypes are getting old.

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by Alana Prochuk
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Alana Prochuk is a high school English teacher by training, but she currently works in elder advocacy.