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When body horror becomes hag horror: exploring older women in X and Barbarian

Contains spoilers.

If you watched two of 2022's most well-received horror films, X and Barbarian, you could be forgiven for misunderstanding what body horror is. Body horror, which evolved from 1950s B movies, explores the grotesque and violations of the human corpus. It is not the image of an old woman's sagging breasts.

Both films deploy a naked old woman as a villain and focus on her breasts to disgust their audience with gross-out horror. In Barbarian, the horror stems from the breastmilk of the villain, known as The Mother, who forces her adult captives to drink from her aged breasts. X, meanwhile, is ostensibly a slasher, deploying bloody acts of violence to incite fear in its audience. However, a naked old couple are introduced later on in the film to produce the most disturbing scenes. (The inclusion of a naked older man somewhat balances out the focus on the ageing female body while also reinforcing the notion that older bodies are disgusting). Like Barbarian, X forces a younger character (presumably meant to represent the audience) to interact with the older bodies – Mia Goth’s character has to witness the older couple having sex. Once again, the woman’s breasts become a horrific symbol, not of motherhood but of sexuality. This is hag horror, or hagsploitation: a manifestation of ageist misogyny that harkens back to early modern witchcraft, most famously visualised in the naked witches of Macbeth and yes, their sagging breasts.

Hag horror is a reflection of discrimination in the film industry; it’s well-known that Hollywood is obsessed with youthfulness and has a problem with older women in particular. There is a notable age-gap between male and female Oscar winners in acting categories: data suggests that 40 is often a cut-off age for women. (Of course, there are still some successful actresses whose careers have spanned decades, notably Meryl Streep or Judi Dench, who only established herself on-screen in her forties after a successful career in theatre, but these are exceptions). In both X and Barbarian, older women are not even given the casting opportunity; while the 29-year-old Mia Goth had prosthetics applied to play the older woman alongside her role as a twenty-something main character, a male actor and lots of CGI portray The Mother. Thus, the presentation of the sagging breasts feels particularly offensive, a caricature of the female form. And yet, older male actors are continuously cast as heroes; far from the evil deception of the witch or hag, their age is understood as useful experience or wisdom. The legendary gothic actor, Vincent Price, was able to continue playing older men until he reached almost 80 years old; his final role as the fantastically creative inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990) could not be further from the evil hag stereotype.

It’s also well established that Hollywood, in sharp contrast to European cinema for instance, is deeply uncomfortable with nudity. Where it does show nudity is as a manifestation of lust, and the male gaze ensures this is always a shot of breasts, that is young, perky breasts – the most famous example of this trope is in The Godfather (1973). Some strides have been made in other recent horror films, for instance another A24 feature, Midsommar (2019), subverts this gender-dynamic entirely by deploying full-frontal male nudity to demonstrate Christian’s emasculation at the hands of his girlfriend. It feels particularly frustrating that X and Barbarian refuse to problematise our relationship with nudity in ageing bodies, challenging why they are so easily exploited for disgust when nudity and ageing are unavoidable parts of everyday life. What really is so disgusting about an older woman's naked body or her sexuality? To me, this is what horror is about – deconstructing what makes us feel repulsed or frightened and why. Is our discomfort with older women’s bodies something to do with existing beyond notions of fertility and reproduction? If so, Barbarian could have experimented with its breastmilk imagery, as opposed to presenting it to its audience as inherently horrific, complete with a horror soundtrack and close-up on Justin Long’s character’s disgusted peril. (For those who say that it is inherently horrific, consider the adult-breastfeeding scene in the Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath: in this context, Steinbeck argued that, “the giving of the breast has no more sentiment than… a piece of bread.”)

Used by both filmmakers for cheap moments of revulsion, the caricaturisation of older women’s bodies as saggy-breasted hags is becoming akin to the notoriously lazy jump scare – it does not offer any commentary, but merely says, “look at this disgusting thing”, purely to get a reaction from the audience. Beyond making for disappointing horror films, hag horror perpetuates the stereotype of a woman’s ageing body as dangerous and ultimately disadvantages older women from being taken seriously on screen.

For further information on hag horror, listen to the podcast episode, ‘Hag Horror: Older Women in Film’, from Betwixt The Sheets: The History of Sex, Scandal & Society or read the Refinery29 article, ‘Hagsploitation: Horror’s Repulsion Of The Ageing Women

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