Within the darkness of the woods as the wind howls, an old woman emerges from the trees and offers you cookies. Creepy, right?
Despite the fact that most of us find comfort in the warm, overly buttery cooking of our grandmothers, old women in horror are the creepiest. You know granny means trouble in a horror movie when she walks into a room dressed in that classic granny cardigan, compassionately offering tasty snacks for lost, cold, and hungry travellers.
I recently watched two really excellent horror films, Mercy (2014) and The Talking of Deborah Logan (2014), which both have terrifying old women as the antagonists. Both movies sufficiently scared and intrigued me. It got me thinking: what is our perception of the elderly, and what makes them so frightening in horror?
It’s no surprise that our society is uncomfortable with aging. We have an obsession with youth and it’s painfully obvious in the beauty aisle of any store. Rows and rows of creams are stacked next to each other promising youthful rejuvenation, improved skin elasticity, and the destruction of wrinkles. Crows feet are our enemies. Laugh lines scare us. The battle against aging is a multi-million dollar industry. We are a society in denial of the reality of growing old.
Old-age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and dementia feel like inevitable epidemics waiting to ensnare us as we grow old. It can devastate entire families to watch our loved ones become someone who they’re not. It’s the bogeyman of aging. In both Mercy and The Talking of Deborah Logan, the old women have age-related illnesses. Deborah has Alzheimer’s, and Mercy’s sickness is unspecified but leaves her as a shell of her former self. In each film these illnesses make the women vulnerable to evil influences, suggesting that a demon is really to blame.
It poses a strange question. Are old-age related diseases the demons of aging? Are we afraid of old people because we are afraid of what we might become when we age?
On one hand, I love the creepy old lady movies. They always get to me. There’s a scary possessed old woman in The Exorcist III and I screamed during a close-up scene of her face as she began lunging with a kitchen knife.
But on the other hand, while diseases and deteriorating minds is a frightening thought, I’m comfortable with the idea of aging. I’m actually stoked to be a gentle kind grandma, rocking on the front porch with my ice tea and pet goats (don’t ask). But our deep discomfort with old age and the unpredictability of mental illness in seniors is clear from the scary old lady trope of mainstream horror.
From the films mentioned above to others such as Drag Me To Hell (2009) and Dead Silence (2007) to the notoriously evil old couple in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), there’s no doubt we all have a secret fear of grannies gone bad. In horror movies grandma’s not there to rock you to sleep and give you extra cash when your parents aren’t looking; she’s the Nana of your nightmares. Perhaps we also get a thrill out of the strange juxtaposition of an old lady wearing knitted sweaters and bedroom slippers suddenly becoming a hell-bent minion of Satan. It reminds me of that diner scene in Legion where the granny with the kind smile and pink cardigan suddenly leaps onto the ceiling with jaw outstretched and a thirst for blood in her eyes.
Next week I examine the opposite of the frightening old women: the creepy little kid, e one of the greatest tropes of horror.