The Haunting Effects of Time: Exploring Aging and Anti-Aging in Horror Stories
Horror literature is infamous for exploring the darkest corners of human — and inhuman — existence. Daring authors tap into primal fears to craft haunting stories of the unknown. Aging is a universal and inevitable aspect of the human experience, yet it remains one of the most feared and haunting concepts in our collective consciousness. In most literature, you’ll find themes of mortality, isolation, illness, bodily changes, and even the afterlife that weave an intricate web of what it means to be human and the fear that makes us so.
For years to come, stories will very likely tackle this real-life topic in varying, evolving ways. The following is an exploration of the implications of how horror literature has depicted aging and how it may do so going forward.
Aging and Mortality as Central Themes
In Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the eponymous vampire embodies the allure of eternal life and the fear of the unknown. Count Dracula’s immortality is rooted in his ability to avoid the ravages of time, allowing him to exert control over life and death. The characters in the story, however, are bound by their mortality, and their struggle against the vampire reflects their innate fear of aging and the ultimate end. Dracula’s power to manipulate and extend life is both captivating and terrifying, reflecting humanity’s fascination with the possibility of transcending the natural aging process.
In Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the titular character’s portrait bears the brunt of his physical deterioration and moral decay while he remains outwardly untouched by time. This tale highlights the wish for eternal youth and beauty and the hidden cost of such desires. Dorian Gray’s story serves as a cautionary tale about the pursuit of everlasting youth, exposing the psychological toll of avoiding the natural cycle of aging.
Symbolic Significance of Aging
Aging becomes a metaphor for the inevitability of death, the loss of control, and the fragility of human existence. The fear of aging is not merely about physical appearance. It represents the fear of losing agency, purpose, and identity as time marches on. The horrors depicted in these stories are not confined to the supernatural. Instead, they reflect the very real fears and anxieties that come with time.
This juxtaposition between wanting to live forever and having to face the consequences is indicative of a deeper understanding of humanity. Humans innately know that we are not supposed to live forever, yet the idea of doing so is so appealing. Exploring the possibility of immortality and illustrating the unnatural, horrific aftermath perhaps paves the way for readers to reconcile their fears of the unknown with their longing to avoid aging. It becomes a privilege, then, to age naturally. This gives new meaning to the famous line from an Emily Dickinson poem, “Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.”
Avoiding Aging Through Any Means Necessary
Anti-aging products are a real-life manifestation of the fear of aging. Creams, pills, and surgical procedures are all available to purportedly circumvent the effects of getting older. This is a, seemingly, tamer way of seeking eternal youth than depicted in horror stories. However, it’s important to think about what will happen when technology and medicine intervene.
Medical Interventions and Longevity
There are already medical interventions that aim to slow down or prevent the aging process. While scientific advancements have made significant strides in extending human life, the ethical and practical implications of these interventions remain subjects of debate, particularly in literature. The pursuit of longevity through medical means speaks to our age-old fear of aging and the lengths we are willing to go to delay its inevitable grasp.
However, horror novels often explore how this can go terribly wrong. For example, “Immortality, Inc.” by Robert Sheckley is a 1959 novel about transcending death by transferring consciousness into other bodies — whether those bodies are willing or not, which violates the natural right to agency for every human. It discusses ways in which people willingly commit suicide and donate their bodies to these transplants to allow them to live on. In other instances, people are trafficked to do the same thing.
Set in the 2110s, this novel explores what it would be like to be one of the first people to go through something like this, detailing the way the press makes the main character a publicity spectacle rather than focusing on his needs. These and countless other stories speak to our fears of what might happen if we try to defeat natural aging through medical means.
Technological Means of Immortality
The human obsession with immortality has transcended into the metaverse, a virtual reality space accessed via headsets and other wearable tech. It is proposed to be a place where individuals are proposed to live as avatars of themselves. If you think this sounds like “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, you are on the right track.
Without a body to age, people in the metaverse can supposedly achieve a form of digital immortality. Various companies are capitalizing on this obsession by offering ways to access the metaverse and preserve one’s identity beyond the limitations of the physical body.
For instance, Somnium Space has come up with “Forever Mode.” This amalgamates the data collected during gameplay while the user is alive. Then, that data is used to continue that avatar’s “life” online. Many people have privacy concerns and reservations about interacting with someone they love who has already passed on in the physical realm. This convergence of technology and the desire for immortality reflects our ongoing struggle with aging and the quest for transcendence.
The Future of Aging and Anti-Aging Horror
Body horror is quintessential in many novels where the author hopes to elicit a visceral response in readers. Something about imagining horrific things happening to the human body is a transcendent experience that defies any differences and boils humans down to their most vulnerable state. The body is inevitably going to age, and with age comes changes. Exploring these changes and how thwarting them can have unintended effects will likely be a topic of horror novels for years to come — if not forever.