Old people are the new villains of horror movies

From A24's 'X' to the new 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' sequel, the slasher villains of Gen Z horror movies are all boomers.

by Tom George
|
24 March 2022, 5:59pm

Still from X

It’s a scene that has become commonplace in horror. Our young scream queen sleeps peacefully in her bed when the door slowly creaks opens and a hunched silhouette creeps into the room. The bed sheets are dragged off the sleeper, exposing them to the cold night air that gently rouses them. But it’s not until they feel the rough, withered skin of the intruder caress their body that they realise they’re not alone. The predator is not a witch though, nor a ghost or even a crazed serial killer at their bedside. It’s the little old lady from next door, who our scream queen assumes has simply got lost. That is, at least, until the elderly intruder raises a kitchen knife with her arthritic arms and plunges it deep into the screaming teen’s throat.

In modern horror, the new villain is old age, and the figure of the elderly person is an increasingly sinister one. In A24’s new 70s porn slasher, X, Mia Goth plays Maxine, a pornstar filming an adult movie at a remote Texas farmhouse owned by an old religious couple who terrorise the actress, her castmates and crew for their immoral fornication. In the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre requel (a movie that is both a reboot and a sequel), Leatherface, now surely in his late 70s, is apparently in his muscle daddy era. We find him still swinging a chainsaw around and smashing heads to pulp like he did back in 1974, but this time against a group of annoying Gen Z influencers looking to gentrify his colonial town.

Likewise, in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2021 movie Old (in which a beach accelerates it’s visitors ageing process to monstrous levels) and 2015’s The Visit (where two kids go to live with grandparents who go batshit at night), the once comforting figure of the old person is twisted in dark, disturbing ways. Similarly, A24’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), feature creepy nude old people in cults who’re dead set on tormenting their family or diving off cliffs respectively.

The rise of old people as villains in horror movies is strange given the genre’s usual “Us vs Them” storylines. The whole point of a scary movie is that our heroes face supernatural or unknown powers with malicious intent and must overcome them, despite being weaker. In horrors such as X, our decaying villains – who look so close to death that listening to a Charli XCX song would probably send them over the edge – should be no match for the young stars of the porn film they look to kill, played by Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow and Kid Cudi. And yet, despite their inability to fire a gun without falling over and having to sit down every time their heart gets too excited, they still do a pretty good job of massacring the cast and crew of sex workers in a way that would put Ghostface to shame.

In the OG 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, old people play a minor part in the horror whilst acting as a goof. When Leatherface’s family let their decrepit old man patriarch kill Final Girl Sally, he can barely hold the hammer, let alone raise it to strike her with. Here, the humour and the horror play off each other. After watching Sally narrowly avoid being hacked apart by a chainsaw through much of the movie, she now, quite hilariously, faces “the best killer of the family” in his flop era. He, himself, is not scary; but with each failed murder attempt, the built-up threat that he might finally be able to clasp the hammer in his bony, gripless hands for long enough to do damage becomes torturous for the audience. In the 2022 movie, however, old people are no longer the butt of the joke, and the much older Leatherface becomes a very real threat.

So, what’s changed? Some have argued that the presence of old people in horror plays on our collective fear of ageing — especially prescient after a pandemic that has made us all acutely aware of our mortality and robbed us of important moments in our lives. “These characters are all monstrous versions of ‘respect your elders’,” argues Roxana Hadidi in Polygon, pointing out that a fear of old people’s treatment and their dissipated role in society haunts us all. She argues that old people are the ultimate fear in horror’s ‘Us vs Them’ stories because while one can avoid becoming a vampire, zombie or being murdered, becoming old is an inevitability. The “them” is even more frightening because that will one day be “us”.

Likewise, Alana Prochuk of Bitch Media argues: “in a culture obsessed with female youth and beauty, the horror of ageing 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).” This is a key plot point in X too, with a prosthetic covered Mia Goth playing the horny old lady who just wants someone to get off with and has bitter, sadistic resentment to those who can’t see past her fading beauty. Like Roxana, Alana adds that ageing is “the ultimate fright because viewers recognise that they cannot escape it”.

But while ageing definitely plays a role in old people being scary, what seems to have been missed is that these horrors are nearly always marketed towards the young people who make up the vast majority of the horror-viewing audience (a survey in 2016 found twice as many people under 25 watched horrors as those over 30). It feels especially significant that A24, the production company behind multiple ‘old people horror’ movies, have an incredibly strong Gen Z following. And while ageing is a universal reality we must all come to terms with, it’s perhaps not the most immediate concern to young people, when so much in the present — from climate change to police brutality — is currently affecting our lives. So why, then, have horror directors seemingly decided that old people are the creatures currently striking fear into the hearts of the young?

Horror films famously play on the political fears and anxieties plaguing generations of movie-goers to work as social critique. Mid-century alien invasions communicated fears of communism; ‘savage’ zombies infecting ‘civilised’ communities were metaphors for white America’s relationship with Black, brown and indigenous communities; and the satanic panic echoed through the horrors of the 80s in endless movies about demonic possession. For Gen Z, the anxieties faced are often about climate change, systemic racism and rampant transphobia — things that aren’t quite as important politically to Boomers. Studies have found 59% of Gen Z believe climate change action should take precedence over economic action, while just 39% of Boomers agree. A third of Gen Z were also found to support reducing police funding, compared to just 7% of those aged over 50. Similarly, while 56% of Gen Z say trans rights have not gone far enough, only 26% of Boomers agree with the sentiment.

These are all issues that desperately need to be acted upon and treated with importance right now, but are being either ignored or backtracked on by conservative and centrist Western governments and politicians — who are mainly voted in by older generations. To a lot of young people it can feel like much of the power over our collective future is out of our hands, with older generations pushing their own views and desires onto young people’s lives at their expense.

This is also something reflected in modern horror films. In X, evangelists on the radio permeate every inch of the old people’s homes and lives; indoctrinating them with an obsession with good and evil, sinner and saint, that warps their sense of right and wrong as they try to impose their understanding of morality in extremely immoral ways. At one point, their preaching even affects the mind of one of the young teen heroes. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022), OG Final Girl Sally returns 50 years older, now a gun-wielding Texas ranger – much like many of our once-beloved-now-giving-maga-vibes scream queens – and becomes everything she once hated. Like the man (who was secretly Leatherface’s father) who handed Sally over to her death in the 1974 film, the hardened Sally hands over the Gen Z survivors, putting them in danger so she can enact her own 50-year-long vigilante revenge.

Of course, not all Boomers are conservative — just like not all of Gen Z is progressive. The irony is that the scream queens of X, given the movie places them as teens in the 70s, are actually all Boomers. And yet they’re used to represent the way in which today’s progressive, sex-positive youth feel oppressed by elder generations. Weird thriller movie Old exposes the way in which older generations respond to ageing: either with a scared vendetta against the world like Charles and Chrystal in the movie, who use their power against young people rather than for them; or by accepting ageing more peacefully and supporting younger generations as they find their own power, like the film’s Cappa parents.

In each of these movies, the old people themselves are not all that scary. Neither is ageing itself. Instead, the horror comes from the power they wield and the lack of control young people are made to feel over their own lives and realities.

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