I’ve always been under the impression horror is what you make of it. Stories and films relay on our innermost fears and phobias to make an impression with the viewer, hence the art of the scare. I don’t care if you’re badass Kurt Russell or Samuel L. Jackson, everyone has one thing or another that makes them uncomfortable.
Horror films have utilized a wide-range of phobias to attract audiences to give them the “safe” scare adrenaline rush. Sub-genre horror movies with the focus on clowns, kids, psychological warfare are some of the most popular among fanfare. However personally speaking, the use of older folks in horror films as the core of fears is some of the most powerful I’ve seen – and most effective. GERONTOPHOBIA, which means the fear of elders or aging, is actually a fairly common fear amongst the populous. We associate looking at our elders with our own mortality and it can be a hard pill to swallow- so we place a heavy fear on it. As authoritarian as it sounds to place our once care-givers who have aged in years at the center of what we fear most sounds inhuman at best, in horror cinema it works to a degree; and all too well.
I mean, who WOULDN’T be horrified of this?!
The first film I saw as a young girl with an elder in a terrifying role was that of Julian Beck’s portrayal of the malevolent Henry Kane in Poltergiest II. That being said, I’m fairly certain I wasn’t the only one his performance affected in a unfavorable manner. To this very day I get very anxious when an elder comes knocking on my door mostly thanks to his frightening exchange with Craig T. Nielson in front of the Freeling home. Knowing later in my older years, Beck was suffering from pancreatic cancer and basically dying at the time of filming haunts me in waves of periodic guilt trips for being so petrified of the man; who literally giving a dying performance and the one most people remember him by. Whether that was his intention, and I’m sure it was to give it his all, I still can’t help but feel horrible that I myself associated his deathly appearance with such fear; and still kind of do. Little Heather O’ Rourke was so afraid of her on-screen antagonist that she cried and ran away from him on set upon first seeing him. I’m not sure if the mall scene in the movie IS the actual first time she saw him as I can’t confirm it at this time, but knowing that it did indeed happen as stated by crew members, makes this scene all the more believable.
That had to have stung.
Four years later came a more prominent display of gerontophobia in film in the form of William Peter Blatty’s TRUE sequel to The Exorcist, The Exorcist III based off Blatty’s PHENOMINAL novel Legion. Most of the story is set in the gloomy atmosphere of a hospital, particularly in the disturbed wards and of those suffering from dementia and catatonics. The demon this time around, James Venamun, ‘The Gemini Killer” has possessed a once-thought deceased Damian Karras and is tormenting both the fallen priest and old friend Kinderman (George C. Scott) as a revenge tactic on behalf of “friends” for the McNeill incident 15 years prior. If that couldn’t get any more fucked up, the Gemini hops from body to body in the wards possessing the older dementia victims and feeble-minded to carry out murderous acts; hammering home how vulnerable and horrifying it can be to age. Because now we have to worry about getting possessed by demons to boot.
A more recent film by Adam Robitel, The Taking of Deborah Logan works on the same concept as The Exorcist III except the entire film is focused on this matter and not just an excerpt. Miss Deborah Logan (Jill Larson) is slowly slipping away with Alzheimer’s but something is obviously more sinister afoot with an actual possession going on here. This one really leans into the fears of mortality within us all and what happens when we have reached that bridge in our life span. The pain and the suffering can be tremendous and not only affects us as individuals, but our loved ones as well. The reality of the matter at hand is, if we so happen to live beyond our 70’s and 80’s, it is most likely to come with some painful challenges such as a degenerative disease as terrifying as that of Alzheimer’s- which mind you is displayed pretty accurately in this movie. If one has never suffered from good ol’ gerontophobia prior to seeing this one, chances are you’ll at least be thinking about it soon after.
There are many other film I could list here, some notable ones like The Visit or Ghost Story, but I think you guys are smart and get the point here. Old age in itself can be a source of true horror and is obviously an effective tactic as plot point in the genre. However, it can also be very damning unfortunately and further put a damper on our views of aging. The human experience is one hell of a ride isn’t it? Let’s just hope we don’t piss off any demonic entities’ along the way as we grow into our twilight years.