Getting older is a primal fear. It encompasses the anxiety of illness and the loss of functionality that often comes with aging, as well as the loss of youth. Loss of good looks. Beauty is such a sought after trait that the physical signs of aging can be as detrimental as a loss of health to some, even those of us who are not supermodels.
How many people derive some sense of their self-worth, perhaps even their sense of identity, from the likes, favorites and comments on selfies posted on social media? How many people post gym selfies for the motivation to care for their bodies? I think most of us would agree that the public celebration of their fitness progress inspires more effort, and that the social media validation of one’s appearance is a critical part of many people’s self-esteem. Most of us are social creatures who long for acceptance and being desired. So naturally, aging often inspires fear and a longing for eternal youth, just as social media makes us crave more and more approval.
In my story, “House of Mirrors,” Brittney is one of those people who relies on her beauty to feel as though she matters. She is addicted to social media. When she enters the House of Mirrors, she confronts the inevitability of aging, a reality most of us (thankfully) won’t have to experience all at once, and she understandably has a nervous breakdown. Any kind of change is often scary, but dramatic, sudden change to the body is terrifying. That’s probably why it’s a common theme in horror, whether it’s rooted in natural changes like Carrie White’s psychic abilities tied to her beginning her menstrual cycle or some form of unnatural body horror like Iggy Perish’s devil horns springing up out of nowhere overnight. The fear of our bodies changing speaks to us on a primordial level. Ghosts, vampires, demons and other monsters often pale in comparison to the real-life horror of the things our body can do without our consent.
I think most women can remember the shock of their first period, regardless of whether they knew about menstruation. It’s one thing to be told about periods, it’s another to look down and see a bloodbath worthy of any slasher movie between your legs. I remember waking up to find a small freckle on my pinky finger I thought was a splinter for almost a week. (This is partly thanks to progressively deteriorating eyesight, another gift aging bestows upon on us). I’ve found small scars and stretch marks on my body not from childbearing but from who-knows-what. In fact, I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up and found something –a blemish, a freckle, mole, a fine line, etc.—I would swear wasn’t there the day before. Something that just decided to pop up on me overnight like a pimple, which I’ve also gotten more of and that stay longer thanks to collagen depletion—thanks Father Time! (I curse the health teacher that promised me my acne would only improve as I got older).
These rapid changes to the body provide an excellent basis for body horror—the werewolf archetype is strongly based on our body’s ability to turn against us. A man turning into a monster based on the cycle of the moon possibly represents one of the earliest forms of body horror. This exaggeration of natural bodily changes displays our subconscious fear of loss of control over our bodies, such as aging. Body horror is a strong subgenre because it brings this fear to the surface, and sometimes becomes a physical entity that can be defeated, at least temporarily, rather than one we must all succumb to someday.
Real life external changes associated with aging remind us that our bodies act of their own free will, that someday our kidneys or heart or other organs will fail us. The effects of time on our skin can be reversed to some extent with skin creams, botox and facelifts, but there are no ways to trick the other organs into youth. Diseased organs can be replaced, but eventually age creeps into our bodies and turns them against us.
Aside from waning looks, there is a more fundamental reason humanity often fears old age. Underneath the fear of aging and at the core of most body horror lies the deepest fear of all: the fear of death.
How sad it is that the greatest thing we fear is also the most inevitable. The truth is as simple as it is harsh. Our bodies can and do betray us at some point. It’s inescapable. It’s terrifying. It’s the perfect subject for any horror story.
Madison Estes has had work featured in Inkling, One Sentence Poems, Enter the Aftermath by TANSTAAFL press and A Wink and a Smile by Smoking Pen Press. Her personal essay is forthcoming in the anthology The Daily Abuse. In her spare time she reads Marvel fanfiction, goes to rock concerts, makes octopus sculptures and takes way too many pictures of her Chihuahuas. She lives in Texas with her family and three dogs.