Sometimes a Rose is Just a Rose (and a Zombie's Just a Zombie): A Critique of the article "Hell is Older People"
I am a feminist. I really enjoy reading feminist zines, watching feminist films, engaging in feminist discourse. But every once in a while I read something that just makes me want to be like, "Oh COME ON. Are you really gonna play the gender card on THAT?"
Such it is with the article "Hell is Older People: Aging as the Ultimate Cinematic Horror"*. Even the title annoys me. Really? The ULTIMATE cinematic horror? Ok. Let's arbitrarily pick the first 25 movies that I reviewed in my sidebar at Come Play With Us, Danny and see if that holds true. Out of the 25, only ONE of them even remotely deals with aging or someone aged (Burnt Offerings). A far cry from aging being the "ultimate cinematic horror" I'd say. So when Prochuck again asserts, "the genre's movies are often dominated by elderly characters--usually elderly women", I can't help but roll my eyes. Again, out of 25 films, ONE features an elderly person, and indeed it is an elderly woman. But again: one. Not exactly a "domination" of a genre and thus, possibly not even something worth remarking upon.
These statements alone left me wondering: Have you ever WATCHED a horror flick, Alana Prochuck? Or a horror flick BEYOND the 6 that you use as examples here? Because if you HAVE, then perhaps you'd realize what a fierce exaggeration both assertions are. But wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt, I trudged on through the article.
Prochuck's main thesis in this article is that the elderly (particularly elderly women) are negatively stereotyped in horror films in a sloppy attempt to reveal our culture's fears of "isolation, frustrated attempts to communicate, bodily decay, imminent death." And she argues this point by picking apart examples of the elderly in 6 specific horror films: Drag Me to Hell, Dead Alive, The Exorcist III, Homebodies, The Skeleton Key, and The Hunger.
The main problem with the article is that Prochuck takes often minute examples of the elderly in films and forces what are frequently ridiculously overblown readings (that I'd argue aren't even within the text of the film) on them and then criticizes them based on these readings which are highly debatable in the first place. Her readings are often a ridiculous stretch, oftentimes just a mere second or two of a film expounded upon and given much more attention than it receives in the movie itself, and sometimes flat-out misappropriated to make her point. For example, when discussing Dead Alive, she mentions the elderly mom's transformation into a zombie, stating, "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." (Really? Orgasmically? And not just disgustingly?) But let's roll with that and give her the benefit of the doubt that this sexualized reading is accurate. She then goes on to say, "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..." Hmmm, yes. Surely the lurching, slurring of words, and messy lipstick are a commentary on healthy orgasms in the elderly AND NOT JUST THE HUMOROUS END RESULTS OF A WOMAN WHO JUST TURNED INTO AN EFFING ZOMBIE. In critiquing horror films, we can't overlook the basic machinations of the film in favor of our reading just to make a point, and we can't just tack on a modifier ("orgasmically") so that our readers will assume that the movie intended it to be read as such. Sometimes a zombie transformation is just a zombie transformation and not a commentary on orgasms in the elderly. Prochuck tends to overlook the function of certain scenes AS PLAIN OLD PLOT in order to foreground her feminist reading of the scenes, and to do so means overlooking the fact that sometimes a rose is just a rose (or in this case, a zombie is just a zombie) and not a sexless but orgasmic old woman.
Another of her extreme overreadings of a very minute moment in a film deals with Exorcist III, in which she mentions a scene where an elderly woman crawls across the ceiling, stating "This woman is both infantile (crawling) and animilastic (hovering like a fly), but certainly not a responsible adult." Ha ha ha. WHAT?? The woman is CRAWLING ACROSS A MOTHER-EFFING CEILING, and you're critiquing whether or not her character was stereotyped as "not being a responsible adult"??? I think this is part of the problem in critiquing horror films in such a way: such critiques fail to acknowledge that pretty much EVERYthing in the horror film is no longer functioning within the realm of the realistic. If you can have an old lady who can crawl across a ceiling, is it even possible to critique her character within the realm of normal standards (whether or not she's being represented as a "responsible adult")? I mean, yes, perhaps she's not being depicted as a responsible adult, but SHE'S ALSO BEING DEPICTED AS BEING ABLE TO CRAWL ACROSS A CEILING, so I'm pretty sure we've moved out of the realm of realism at this point. So what does this mean for a critique that hinges upon the "realism" of certain characters' depictions within a film? It seems an enfeebled house of cards once that fact is acknowledged.
Again and again Prochuck also points out, with a weird bit of surprise (which again makes me think: have you never WATCHED a horror film, Alana Prochuck), how horror films embrace and reinforce *gasp* stereotypes (in her case, particularly stereotypes about the elderly). Well, good god, lady. That's like being shocked and perturbed by the fact that westerns *gasp* typically have cowboys in them or gunslingers and often take place in the west. THE HORROR. Those are the tropes and machinations of mainstream pop horror films**. Is it a brag-worthy quality for a movie, this embracing of stereotypes? Well, of course not. But that's the construction of modern horror. Most of these films rely on a standard horror film equation (one that was mocked by Scream for example) and that equation is RIPE with stereotypes and tropes and unsurprising story-arcs. So yes: they are reliant on stereotypes. This really is no surprise to anyone even remotely fluent in the genre. So is the problem here that they stereotype? Or is the problem that they're stereotyping the elderly? Or is the problem that, when it comes down to it, she just doesn't like what makes a horror movie? It's never quite clear.
The other problem with Prochuck's argument is that she fails to contextualize the examples she gives within their place in the movie. Using Drag Me to Hell as an example, it is indeed true that the elderly female lead in it is DISGUSTING and her "elderliness" is horribly exaggerated to the point of being nauseous. But so is everything else in that movie. She is not being given special treatment. The movie itself is over-the-top to the point of being absurd, and that was the joy of the ride. It might be different if the one character was being singled out, but indeed, the movie itself is a lesson in ridiculousness and camp. EVERYTHING is exaggerated and silly and gross and overdone. Mrs. Ganush isn't being singled out. So should we be singling her out in our criticism of the movie? I mean, in a movie where flies spew forth from a woman's mouth, is the depiction of an old lady as "gross" really that surprising?
What bothers me even more about this article though is that while it's criticizing stereotypes in horror films, the article itself is embracing stereotypes to make its point. In criticizing Drag Me to Hell, for example, Prochuck makes the statement "But when Christine exerts her professional power by denying Mrs. Ganush the mortgage extension, she is punished spectacularly for her lack of feminine compassion." Wait a minute. Yes, she's punished for her lack of compassion. I concur. But the movie doesn't make a statement about it being a lack of FEMININE compassion. Prochuck herself has tacked this modifier on to make her point and connect this back to gender. But in doing so, it's SHE who's stereotyping compassion as feminine, not the FILM. How much weight can we give an argument that, while criticizing stereotypes, uses stereotypes to clinch its own point?
I do indeed think a critique could be made of the depiction of the elderly (particularly women) in horror films. But this article does not even come close to making a good argument due to its failure to a) acknowledge that once, for example, an old lady is able to crawl across the ceiling in a movie, perhaps we need to acknowledge that we're no longer working in the realm of realism any longer and critique with a working acknowledgment of that, b) avoid stereotyping while criticizing others' stereotypes, and c) have some working knowledge of the horror movie genre beyond only 6 films.
Horror movies ARE the primary exploiters of our fears. That is HOW THEY WORK. They exploit our fear of the dark. They exploit our fear of the unknown. They exploit our fear of death. That is why we watch them. They scare us with our own fears. So really, is it any surprise that they offer "the exploitation of elderly folks... as cinematic shorthand for everything our culture most fears: powerlessness on one end of the spectrum and unrestrained evildoing on the other"? You could take this statement and replace "elderly folks" with any other subject, and the statement would be just as valid. This is the nature of the horror film: to exploit the subject matter (which is a representation of our fears) in order to scare us. It's not just elderly folks they exploit as cinematic shorthand for these fears, it's EVERYthing and ANYthing. The woman running blindly through the woods in an attempt to escape her pursuer = fear of powerlessness just as much as the elderly person does.
So ultimately, I'm not even sure how to respond to this article, other than with a "Seriously?" and also a "Duh."
*Bitch Magazine, Issue No. 46, p. 66
**Let us be clear that both Prochuck and I are differentiating between the artsier, interesting horror films out there and the mainstream American (or "western") horror films that are pumped out to mainstream movie theaters across the country. We're talking the cookie cutter horror films. (Her only debatable exception would be the 1983 film The Hunger which was more of an art film.)