clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A dark-lit, creepy scene shows an old woman with long white hair in a long white dress with bloodstains covering it, hunched over and holding a pitchfork, her shadow cast on a wooden barn wall in front of her.
The aged Pearl as the Grim Reaper in Ti West’s X.
Christopher Moss/Courtesy of A24

Filed under:

In 2022, nothing horrified us as much as old age

A year in horror movies about the nightmare of aging, from X to Pearl, Barbarian to Old People.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

For as long as horror has existed, it’s served as both a window into our cultural fears and anxieties and an outlet for them. By weaving stories of things that terrify us, we give ourselves permission to be terrified, and perhaps even to confront the things and people that terrify us.

That permission to confront our fears head-on is crucial when it comes to narratives about aging, because they’re often among the most harrowing stories we have to tell. The deterioration of our bodies and brains, the dismissal of the elderly by society as a whole — these things are truly terrifying. There’s something else unsettling here though: the sins of the past, made manifest in human form. We’re anxious about what we’ll do to the old, but also upset about what they’ve already done to us.

In an age when we’re constantly reexamining the past, what do we think of the people who helped create it?

Perhaps that explains why so much 2022 horror was abruptly fixated upon fear of aging, fear of becoming old, and fear of how age might transform us into something ugly and unrecognizable.

This idea certainly isn’t new to horror; certainly “old people are scary” is a tried and true horror trope. In 2014’s It Follows, the shapeshifting “it” that followed took the resting form of a haggard old woman, perpetually stalking closer and closer; in 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, it’s an elderly lady who curses the protagonist to the titular location. And on and on, think: the upstairs neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby, the witchy figure emerging from the bath in The Shining; the suspicious grandparents of 2015’s The Visit. Just last year, there was nothing scarier than a beach that could make you Old.

But in 2022, not only is death gaining on us, but for the first time in recent human memory, we face, collectively, an experience of aging that’s relatively unknown: Not only do we have no idea what Covid will do to us as individuals in the far term, but various factors — climate change, the ongoing economic crisis, ideological extremification and the waning of democracy around the globe — render society itself equally uncertain.

The 2022 German-Romanian movie Old People, one of Netflix’s surprise hit fall films, upfronts all of this directly in its opening moments, listing off a number of dystopian but very real societal possibilities. “Our society is aging drastically,” a voice-over informs us. “Our social system will collapse in the coming years. Intergenerational conflicts will escalate.”

In the film, the promised societal conflict manifests abruptly and directly through a sudden inexplicable virus-like wave of violent rage afflicting only the elderly, who suddenly begin to massacre everyone around them. Simultaneously, they devolve into humanoids who can no longer speak; instead, they communicate in feral grunts, moans, and brays. As a metaphor, it’s brazen: The most fundamental horror trope is that of a marginalized member of society, outcast and treated as though they are subhuman, finally embracing their villainy and becoming the thing everyone feared they might be.

In Old People, the marginalized are the elderly, cast aside by their superficial children and left to rot in retirement homes; it’s here, among residents of a nursing home in a remote village, that the strange affliction breaks out. There’s no love lost among them; after a 90-minute killing spree in which the senior citizens indiscriminately attack everyone else, only one man, an elderly grandfather, retains enough humanity to protect his grandkids.

The old people in Old People might be beyond family bonds, but they’re not alone: while other genres in 2022 were exploring the need for parents to apologize to their children, horror’s elder generation were unapologetic and frequently out for blood.

Our greatest 2022 fear was becoming our parents. (To be fair, our parents were awful.)

Just before Ti West’s lush 2022 horror melodrama Pearl goes off the rails, the titular character’s repressive mother (Tandi Wright) laments her own thwarted life spent caring for her paralytic husband, stuck on their picturesque but isolated farm. “I was supposed to be his wife, not his mother!” she screams, before declaring she’s done “suffering” for her increasingly sociopathic child and asking Pearl what she wants.

“I just don’t wanna end up like you, is all,” Mia Goth’s Pearl replies, and then the scene turns gothic, a candlelit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by way of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“I will not let you flaunt your arrogance in my face!” screams mom. “You are not better than me!”

YES I AM!” Pearl shrieks, deranged. “I’m gonna be a star!”

But we, the audience, already know the aspiring actress is kidding herself, because Pearl is a prequel to West’s earlier 2022 film X, in which Pearl — also played by Mia Goth — is still trapped on the farm, this time as an aged, decrepit failure who’s stuck caring for her own husband, still eking out her rage one violent act at a time. In her old age, Pearl is creepily obsessed with the waifish would-be stars who visit her farm, especially the young Maxine (again, also played by Goth), who, like Pearl, dreams of becoming a star.

Instead, Maxine narrowly escapes being murdered by Pearl and her husband, whose resentment and jealousy at Maxine and her porn star troupe for their youth, sexuality, and bright futures spills over into bloodshed. Pearl has not only failed to escape becoming her mother, but become exactly what her mother feared: a monster. And thanks to the brilliant double-casting, we know Maxine is also now a part of that endless cycle of would-be starlets in danger of becoming failed, jaded wives and mothers. (A third film in the series, Maxine, promises to follow Maxine after the events of X, and perhaps double down on the prior films’ suggestion that if we live long enough we inevitably do see ourselves become the villains.)

A man, barely visible in dim light, shines a flashlight toward the viewer and yells, mouth open.
A shocked Justin Long confronts the horrors of the past — and his own potential future — in the 2022 hit Barbarian.
Courtesy of Disney

The horror of women becoming their mothers also runs throughout Umma, Iris Shim’s film about another mother-daughter pair whose life on an idyllic farm is abruptly shattered. This time, daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) has no idea her mother Amanda (Sandra Oh) has constructed a flimsy web of lies around them both — a result of a life spent fleeing from the memory and trauma of her own mother’s abuse.

Chris’s naive trust in her own mother evaporates when Amanda’s brother scornfully brings their mother’s ashes from Korea with him to Amanda’s California farm, so that Amanda can give her mother a proper send-off into the afterlife according to Korean tradition. Instead, all of Amanda’s fears of her mother are reignited, and her mother’s ghost is soon possessing her, leading to a confrontation in which Chris has to reassure her that, no, she hasn’t become the thing she fears most.

In Umma (the title is Korean for “mother”) isn’t just about mother-child bonds or the lack of them; the terrifying mother figure may be a source of generational trauma, but she’s also a catalyst for confronting that trauma. In Zach Cregger’s hit Barbarian, it at first seems to the viewer as though the titular barbarian is a terrifying deformed creature referred to as “Mother” who kidnaps and attacks visitors who’ve been lured to a creepy Airbnb in an abandoned corner of Detroit. The woman, like the elderly in Old People, is humanoid and nonverbal, but she tries to be gentle to her captives, wanting to nurse them and care for them, only to fly into a rage when their fear and repulsion overwhelms them.

In one of the film’s several twists, however, we realize that the actual barbarian is the house’s original owner, a now-elderly serial predator who built a byzantine underground bunker where he abducted and assaulted women over generations. This torture eventually results in the birth of “Mother,” who ultimately enacts a form of revenge against her father by murdering another predator, played by a smarmy Justin Long. In Umma, cycles of generational trauma can be healed and overcome by embracing family and accepting one’s origin story; in Barbarian, you have to shove the source of your pain off a building — and possibly even die yourself — in order to break the chain.

But if part of our fears about aging involves confronting our parents, then inevitably, we must also confront ourselves — and finally, ultimately, Death itself.

Even Halloween ends

Much of the fear surrounding the aging process is purely physical. Even the year’s horror-adjacent offerings gave us scenes in which younger characters are abruptly confronted with the horror of age and infirmity — like the scene in Todd Field’s Tár when Cate Blanchett’s unraveling conductor must pause in the middle of her spiraling life and help her neighbor’s aging mother, an encounter that leaves her more shaken than nearly anything else in the film.

Or consider the moment, eight episodes into HBO’s fantasy drama House of the Dragon, when the dying king Viserys (Paddy Considine) forces his bickering family to confront the sight of his disease-eaten face, rendered partially skeletal on one side. Instead of a shocking, Lon Cheney-esque reveal, his dinner guests, and us along with them, must squirm uncomfortably while he asks us to see him, not as a figurehead, but as a dying old man. It’s hard to look and hard to look away.

But perhaps an even more primal fear, as evinced in many 2022 films, is of an aging process that turns us into something unrecognizable to ourselves. We need not even be monsters — at least not of the subhuman variety. In the spare horror-thriller Old Man, the mind of Stephen Lang’s senile title character has trapped itself within a recurring limbo in which he repeatedly encounters a younger man, only to gradually realize the younger man is himself, holding memories he’s distorted and forgotten.

The Old Man’s confusion renders him an unreliable narrator; but unlike most other onscreen depictions of senility or dementia, Lang’s character is a willing participant in his own forgetfulness. When he finally fully confronts himself, he pushes the revelation away, further retreating into the cocoon of memory loss, only to be disturbed out of it by restless unease once again.

Two men, one old and one young, face each other. The old man, on the right, bows his head and looks away, while the young man on the left looks straight ahead.
Stephen Lang can barely confront his past in Old Man.
Courtesy of RLJE Films

Perhaps the most unexpected entry into 2022’s terrifying elderly catalog came from one long-lived specter of death himself: Michael Myers. While finally, even gently, slicing his wrist toward the end of Halloween Ends, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie unmasks her lifelong nemesis (played here by James Jude Courtney) and reveals that he is not an immortal supervillain. Rather, he’s now an old, faded man whose brief attempt at bequeathing his malevolence to a younger would-be copycat has been unsuccessful.

The entire sequence, after 13 whole movies of rampaging violence, is quietly anticlimactic; Michael squirms and fights a little, but perhaps his heart’s not in it — or perhaps he’s finally just tired. The film, and for now the whole franchise, ends just as the first film did: with a sequence of shots of empty rooms in the house where we last saw Michael. Now, however, instead of those shots being dark and dramatic, filling us with dread, they are light, calm, safe: Death has finally had its fill of Haddonfield and moved on.

This conclusion arguably would not have worked as well as it did (though to be fair, the film deeply divided fans) had we not spent over four decades with these characters, watching Michael do his thing time after time, endlessly reviving and apparently never growing older. In a film that offers few twists, the ultimate one may be the audience’s realization that old age comes even for one such as this: subsequently Laurie, who has confronted death again and again, is finally the victor.

This, if anything, may be the key to understanding what the litany of horror films about aging suggest: that confronting aging, in all its grotesquerie and mystery, is a form of overcoming it, at least psychologically. It’s significant that most of the horror works mentioned here take place in some far-flung corner of the world, removed from the epicenters of modern civilization. Their remoteness provides a form of clarity, a liminal space for the past, present, and future to converge and reconcile. Perhaps this is why West, in the middle of X, devotes two full minutes to a guitar cover by actress Brittany Snow of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” a song that’s famously all about aging and reflecting upon aging. Interspliced are lingering pans over the desiccated cosmetics of Pearl’s ancient beauty routine, and over Pearl herself, equally moribund.

Shortly, she’ll push Snow’s character into a pond and leave her to be eaten by alligators. After all, if you can’t reconcile with your past trauma on the way to your morbid future, you might as well leave a blood trail along the way.