When it comes to film and television, old people pretty much serve only two functions—look either sweet and innocent or just flat out creepy. This is the nature of old folks in film. Many filmmakers and TV directors use the classic trope of nice-looking old people becoming evil or evil-looking old people becoming nice (think Old Man Marley in Home Alone). One of the things that both of these tropes have in common is that at one point or another, old people scare the hell out of us. Now, we want to throw out fair warning here. This list is about old people so if you have granny on your mind or you are old yourself, some feelings are gonna get hurt. We love our elders, but we can’t deny how they’ve been used in film. They scare us because they’re frail, unpredictable, mysterious, a bit smelly, and pretty much the closest things to zombies we have in real life. At least these are the “truths” that film and television have taught us.
Since the early days of horror cinema, old people have been considered villains or victims with no middle ground. In one of the first ever horror films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we were confronted by an old man villain. Tropes like the mad scientist, the ancient evil, and the harbinger have been around forever and often showcase our worst fears in old people. Gerontophobia is both the fear of growing old and the fear of old people for a good reason. Many believe that it is because of our own fears of getting old and losing control of our mental faculties that we become frightened of old people or even get to the point of hating them. Let’s look at the elders that have scared us all the most over the years. Here is a list called Gerontophobia: 15 Most Terrifying Old People in Film and TV History.
15. Gladys (Legion)
Legion was a terrible film that suffered horribly from its trailer revealing every single one of the good scenes in the film. Granted, there were only a few good scenes; but still, slow your roll trailer-makers. Hands down, the best scene in the film was the old lady in the diner. Played by Jeanette Miller, the old woman named Gladys totally stole the show in her short amount of screen time. Hobbling to her seat in the diner ever so gingerly, the smiling Gladys orders a steak in her most polite voice. She then introduces herself to a few of the other patrons and awaits her water. Once she gives a cryptic remark about it all being “over soon,” we know something’s up. But she’s so smiley we’ll give her a chance. We like her. Then she starts talking about Charlie’s unborn baby, slyly telling Charlie that it’s going to burn in the nicest way possible. When she repeats herself, she adds in some anger and profanity. Not long after, Gladys is swearing like a trucker, biting throats, and climbing on the ceiling. It’s a great scene.
14. Captain Spaulding (House of 1000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects)
Our apologies up front to Sid Haig. Considering the actor was only in his early 60’s when House of 1000 Corpses was being filmed, it’s questionable if he should be considered an old man, but Captain Spaulding has some hard miles on that body so we’ll allow it. In the first film, Spaulding was a bit cartoonish, which might have made him feel less threatening in a way for some. But by the time The Devil’s Rejects came around, Captain Spaulding was a full-on psychopath. Still, in both films, the dried-up, unstable, and dirty clown is a haunting image. We’ve been tortured by clowns in many films throughout history, but adding in our fear of old people was a cruel trick by Rob Zombie.
13. Tall Man (Phantasm)
Phantasm is a true classic in horror cinema. It’s scrambly, campy, confusing, and overall, a really fun film to watch. The film plays on some of our natural bodily fears, age, and the extremes of height. First of all, we have one of the most iconic villains in B-movie horror, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). The Tall Man is an old mortician and is the film’s main antagonist. Then, there are dwarfs on the opposite end of the height spectrum. If you’re looking for a more modern example of these three bodily fears being used in a horror film all at once, look at It Follows. In that film, we have the “it” or “the entity” embodying an old woman, a very tall man, and children. In every one of these examples, the evil entity is awfully frightening.
12. Jigsaw (Saw Franchise)
While the Saw franchise might have hit a few potholes along the road, the villain, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), is as sinister as they come. Sure, he’s not the focal point of the majority of the frights in the series, but as he ages, he seems to become more frightening. That probably says more about our sense of old people dread than it does the films. Bell was only in his early 60’s when the first film came out; so calling him an old person is pretty harsh. Truthfully, we’re not focusing too much on that first film since he was barely even in it. If for no single reason, Bell’s Jigsaw makes this list for his collective work and contribution to the genre. No matter what you think of Saw as a collection of films, Jigsaw is a bada*s villain.
11. Old Man Corcoran (Are You Afraid Of The Dark, “The Tale Of Old Man Corcoran”)
Maybe you’ve forgotten about Old Man Corcoran, the old crazy groundskeeper in the graveyard whose ghosts wanders endlessly playing the harmonica and freaking out trespassing children. To be fair, Old Man Corcoran isn’t nearly as evil as he looks, but simply for the fact that he has a nasty habit of sneaking up on people in the dark and speaking loudly and abruptly, he makes it to this list. Add to that the fact that Are You Afraid of the Dark is a children’s show and the episode is honestly scary and you’ve got yourself a worthy candidate. Out of all the show’s episodes, “The Tale of Old Man Corcoran” ranks highly on the scare-o-meter, blending elements of The Others with Home Alone.
10. The Old Woman (Inland Empire)
Though she was only in the film briefly and was only about 65 at the time, Grace Zabriskie’s performance in Inland Empire as the Old Woman Visitor was as unsettling as any “old” villain on this list. Often overlooked because of it’s riddle-like qualities, David Lynch‘s strange mystery-horror film is entirely captivating if you let it. Zabriskie’s role starts off as one that many old people play in film, the inquisitive or nosy neighbor. Her foreignness and her age seems to make her unpredictable from the onset. But once her tone and her language escalates, so do our heartbeats. Lynch doesn’t necessarily do anything new with Zabriskie’s role, but he calls on a tradition that has proven to work. If you observe this role alongside all the others on this list, it becomes as clear as day why Zabriskie is so effective and off-putting.
9. Rev. Kane (Poltergeist II)
Poltergeist II may be a ridiculous film, but it has some genuinely scary scenes and great special effects. Sadly, before this film was released, Dana (Dominique Dunn), the eldest daughter that was supposed to be mentioned in the movie, was murdered so they cut any mention of her out of respect. Julian Beck, the actor who played the creepy Reverend Kane also died before the film’s release, so we apologize for the fun we’ll have at his expense. In this unloved sequel, Kane takes on a number of monstrous forms. But honestly, the scariest of all his forms is his standard old man outfit. The director, Brian Gibson, knew he could use Beck’s age and frailty to the film’s benefit. But we have to wonder, with Beck being sick at the time of filming with stomach cancer, are we supposed to feel good about being so scared of a terminally ill man? Once again, this calls into question the nature of our fears of old people. Is it the proximity to death that scares us?
8. Old Witch (The Witch)
The witch in the incredible 2015 film, The Witch, uses some of the grotesque imagery of witches of yesteryear, hooked noses, warts, and toothless mouths. In many ways, witches mirror our wary feelings of attractiveness. We’re comfortable with people who occupy the middle ground. If you’re too attractive and seductive or too ugly and threatening, something is up. Witches embody the extremes of human looks, either young and beautiful or old and hideous. The Witch chooses to use both images, but it’s the freaky old woman that we’re most interested in. Even though the film resists giving us long extended looks at the witch, opting to play with ambiguity more than most films, the few shots we have of her in the beginning, the end, and in the stable are enough to scare us. In fact, it might be because she’s shown so sparingly that the images we do get are seared in our mind.
7. Helena Markos (Suspiria)
Famed director Dario Argento is no stranger to using age as a fright tactic. In his “Three Mothers Trilogy,” Argento uses older women of varying degrees as his antagonists. In this set of films, Argento deals with the classic witch and puts a modern spin on it. The best of these films (by a landslide) is Suspiria, often considered as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Even though she’s only seen briefly at the end, the terrible Helena Markos, Mother Suspiriorum or the Black Queen, was nightmare material for many film fans growing up. The breathing, the voice, that face—she was the worst. The actress who played Markos went uncredited, but was later said to be Lela Svasta. Jessica Harper, the actress who played the protagonist, Suzy Bannion, famously said, “the witch was a ninety-year-old ex-hooker Dario had found on the streets of Rome.” Who knows if that’s true?
6. Sylvia Ganush (Drag Me to Hell)
Sam Raimi‘s Drag Me to Hell doesn’t get nearly the attention it should from horror fans. Too many people have overlooked the film, thinking it too campy for their tastes. But we strongly advise you to reconsider. This is one of Raimi’s best efforts and that’s saying a lot. The horror and comedic elements are blended seamlessly. It’s full of scares and laughs, often side by side. By far, the scariest element of the film is Sylvia Ganush, the elderly gypsy woman played by Lorna Raver. Ganush, with her glass eye, broken teeth, and European anger, is the perfect villain for the film. She’s everything you could ask for in an elderly woman antagonist and she’s both terrifying and mysterious.
5. Grandpa (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
When it comes to terrifying old people, the closer one is to death, the scarier they look. At least, that’s what we learned with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When Sally (Marilyn Burns) is the last of her group, she is bound and gagged and brought to dinner with Leatherface’s family. It’s here that the family wants to kill Sally, but they want Grandpa to do it. Frickin’ Grandpa! This guy is so close to death that we thought he was actually already dead. It’s only when he sucks Sally’s finger in the grossest way imaginable that we realize he’s still breathing. Fortunately, Gramps isn’t the hard-edged killer he once was. This walking skeleton can barely lift the hammer to kill Sally, so she ends up escaping. But what kind of life is she going to live with the memories of that saggy-faced old man sucking her finger forever lingering in her mind?
4. The Bride in Black (Insidious)
If you’ve watched the entire Insidious franchise, you’ll know a little more about the background of the Old Woman or the Bride in Black. But even during her mysterious appearances in Insidious, she’s got enough to be included on this list. While the first film is centered around the other demons, the Bride in Black hovers in the periphery of the film, a remnant from Josh’s (Patrick Wilson) past. In fact, when we do learn about the Bride in Black’s backstory, it actually ends up dispelling much of her fear-inducing ability, but she still looks petrifying. Perhaps one of the scariest things about the Old Woman is that she haunts photographs for the most part. This calls back to the type of haunted photos that the world was so obsessed with in the pre-digital age. Whether they were caused by double exposures, lighting, camera malfunctions, or…okay fine…ghosts, we have all seen some pretty scary photos that seem to show strange people lingering where they aren’t supposed to be. It’s a powerful memory effect that director James Wan employs to perfection.
3. Nana And Pop Pop (The Visit)
We mentioned the fact that one of the scariest things about old people in film and TV, and often in real life as well, is their unpredictability. The Visit, a film by M. Night Shyamalan, plays with this fear to great effect. Whether it’s caused by mental illness or something that mirrors those effects, elderly folks doing strange and unnatural things is a horrifying image, if only because it feels real and possible. Shyamalan takes that standard trope of nice-looking old people becoming scary and extends it, building tension by having the characters flip between moods during the day and night. He also uses movement well. To us, old people moving quickly and sporadically is scary because it’s uncommon. It’s like running zombies. We don’t expect it and it’s shocking because of that. This is what Nana and Pop Pop do to us in The Visit.
2. The Old Woman (The Shining)
The Shining is one of the scariest films of all time because of its use of extended cuts, Stanley Kubrick‘s classic use of sound, and of course, images that are traditionally frightening, like children and old folks. Maybe the scariest scene in the entire film is when Jack (Jack Nicholson) visits room 237. There in the bathroom, he watches as a beautiful woman emerges from the tub. After he approaches her, they start to kiss. At first, it’s sexy, but then the music changes and we know we’re in for a scare. During the kiss, Jack looks in the mirror and notices the woman has changed. We now see deep wounds in her back and backside where the skin has been worn off like old bed sores. The old woman then starts cackling and walks slowly after Jack as he backs out of the room. It’s both totally disgusting and terrifying.
1. Minnie Castevet (Rosemary’s Baby)
What kind of monsters would we be if we didn’t include one of the greatest creepy old person performances of all time? Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby made an entire generation of people suspicious of their elders and captivated critics everywhere, winning basically all the major awards including the Academy Award and Golden Globe. Playing the nosy and meddling but ultimately kind of sweet neighbor, Minnie, Gordon, and to a lesser degree her onscreen husband, Roman (Sidney Blackmer), suck us in to their lies and make us regret ever trusting their sweet old faces. In the end, without any real violence or shocks, we’re scared out of our wits by these old folks and their old friends because it feels authentic.
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