When watching horror movies makes you cry

Relic uses the ambiance and metaphors of the genre to help viewers organize the chaos of trauma

Lidia Zuin
6 min readDec 16, 2022

--

I recently found a piece that discussed how some horror movies turn the naked body of old women into monstrous representations. This is what happens in movies such as X, but also The Shining or The Barbarian. The writer suggests that this trope (also known as hagsploitation) does not simply explore our common fear of death and decrepitude which comes with age, but how aging is differently perceived and accepted from a gendered perspective.

I am not going to delve into this area, but share my thoughts about the psychological horror movie Relic, directed by Natalie Erika James. It is commonly listed as an example of hagsploitation as it tells the story of a mother (Kay, played by Emily Mortimer) and a daughter (Sam, played by Bella Heathcote) who travel to the countryside to visit grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin). Just like Dracula is a tale that “fantasizes” syphilis as vampirism, this Australian film turns dementia into a ghastly possession as the main character starts to act weirdly, not like herself at all.

While the shadow and light give an extra layer of drama to the photography, Relic portrays usual incidents among those who suffer from dementia, such as forgetting where they are or what they were doing, as well as simply lingering in the darkness staring into nothing as the mind wanders. From an outside point of view, even daydreaming can get scary if you do this in partial shadow and add some creepy soundtrack to it. That’s the “secret formula” of horror: creating an ambiance to show you how horrific reality is, if you think twice.

In Relic, we see the typical emotional distress that mother and daughter can grow between each other. Time is an important factor in the intensification of that distress when you consider that Edna and Kay have a more complicated relationship than Kay and Sam, or even Sam and Edna. It is the youngest woman who keeps reminding her mother to be kind: the same way grandma took care of you, now it is your turn to take care of her.

But there is no infantilization here, despite this being a common metaphor to think of aging — the point when you start to close the cycle of life by growing shorter, weaker, more dependant on others, like a toddler who is experiencing such an extended sleepiness until the time they finally repose.

However, Edna does not victimize herself or even accept what is happening with her. While there are a few lucid moments, there are also sudden outbreaks of rage which make everything much harder for Kay and Sam to follow. And it is too much. Kay needs to work while at her mother’s house, while at the same time take care of the house, her daughter, and Edna. It just makes it even harder to be kind and empathetic when you are exhausted and overwhelmed.

But there are moments of calm and contemplative silence, especially between grandmother and grandchild. Though it is in the most abrupt, strange acts like disappearing into the forest to bury a family photo album that Kay is expected to be the one to sort things out.

That gives Sam some time to explore the house. As much as our own homes look huge when we are children and “new” rooms are discovered now and then, Sam whirls into a labyrinthic version of grandma’s house where rooms are too tight, too short. It is like the small places where she once fit as a child are now too short and suffocating for her. More literally, it reminded me of the time I broke my aunt’s cabinet because I didn’t realize I had grown up and no longer fit in that space. In other words, do we really perceive ourselves growing old or is it only when we are confronted with a challenge that we acknowledge how time has passed and marked us?

Suddenly and quickly, Edna’s decay is evident. She no longer recognizes her family, she starts to peel her own skin out as it corrupts into blackness. The possession seems to be taking place, and slowly grandma is replaced by another devilish entity that attacks her daughter and granddaughter. Fearing for their own life, both women respond by assaulting Edna, who has now turned into a feral being.

When both Kay and Sam succeed in restraining Edna, they decide to leave the house and run away. But Kay realizes she cannot do that. She needed to stay with Edna, as she is her mother and needed her. While this sounds crazy to Sam, Kay is committed to that. She carries the fragile, almost weightless body of her mother back to her bed. She helps her peel off her damaged skin — just like elderly people might have their skin thinned and thus more easily and gravely bruised.

Edna is now breathing loud and hard; she has a hoarse moan of failing lungs, of a body shutting down, of life that is extinguishing despite the persistence of the subject. Kay helps Edna get rid of her skin and release her ultimate form as a blackened mummified version. She no longer speaks, she can barely breathe. The only thing Kay can do is to lie with her mother, hug her and wait for her own time to die in her arms.

Sam decides to join them in this fetal embrace, realizing now that her mother’s skin has also started to decay, like grandma’s. This is not because Edna is contagious, but because the realization of her death makes Sam more aware of the finitude of her mother, and her own.

This was such a heavy scene which I could relate so deeply and personally that I can barely avoid the tears now that I am writing. It does look like Natalie Erika James and her team have experienced death on first hand: not just by seeing someone at the very moment they close their eyes to never open again, but how they witnessed the slow, oppressive, irreversible, overwhelming experience of descent into death and decay.

Some research suggests that horror movies can actually benefit your mental health. Among the reasons is the creation of a safe space to explore trauma, the ability to gain coping skills, achieving relief, and getting a sense of control. Not all movies tick all the boxes, but Relic definitely explores trauma in a safe space created by metaphor and ambiance.

On the other hand, another research suggests that some people might be attracted to horror movies because they are “addicted to trauma”, a feature that is supposedly tied up in our biology. In their words:

The films rev up the body’s sympathetic nervous system, inducing stress and anxiety. In some, the stress is a welcome thrill. The payoff comes when the movie is over. We are flooded with a sense of relief, which makes us feel good and safe once again.

While I don’t feel safe and confident enough to address my own experience in comparison to what is portrayed in Relic, seeing that so clearly represented on screen made me cry copiously. But it was good. Those were somewhat apotheotic tears as those images and metaphors could summarize and materialize what is stuck in me in the chaotic form of trauma.

Though I never really dealt with people who suffered from dementia, there were other things that talked to me there, which means that even in the most explicit portrayals, there is space for universality. It is mostly when women direct hagsploitation movies that we are rewarded with such subtleties, something that the essays I mentioned right at the beginning of my piece have also pointed out.

This is less about feeling disgusted by wrinkles and sagging as substitutes to monstrous, hideous creatures, but it is the realization that aging can indeed be scary, but that’s something most of us will luckily have to deal with.

Did you enjoy the post? Would you like to Buy me a coffee? :)

--

--

Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.