I recently learned that something called the “Lutheran Society” once commissioned an anti-ageism film from the horror director George Romero, The Amusement Park, which is going to be available in June from the horror streaming service Shudder. Needless, perhaps, to say, after they had seen it, the Lutheran Society did not go ahead with showing it. Nevertheless, age, memory, dementia, and the loss of control over one’s life that often comes with age—especially with people living longer, which in turn produces additional medical challenges—remains fertile ground for horror films.
Actually, it might be surprising that more films have not been made dealing with age and the effects of our bodies breaking down. The one I usually mention in this connection is The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), in which a documentary film crew comes to the house of Deborah Logan, whose caretaker is her daughter, Sarah. It deals not only with dementia, but with traumatic events of the past, which cannot remain buried. The horror genre allows the film to deal with suppressed memories in a fantastical way, which actually emphasizes the true horror of the events.
[SPOILERS FOR RELIC AHEAD]
Most recently, Relic (2020; Redbox or for purchase on streaming platforms) is an Australian film with a lot of thematic similarity to The Taking of Deborah Logan. When Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are notified that Edna (Robin Nevyn), their mother and grandmother, respectively, is missing from her home, they drive to the relatively isolated house to find her. After a day or two, Edna shows up in her house, seemingly unhurt except for a black bruise on her chest. She’s alternately confused and competent, and anyone who has had a family member or acquaintance with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia will recognize the whiplash character of the changes and the uncertainty they produce in caregivers. Kay’s position is a familiar one as well: not wanting to act against her mother’s will, but at the same time wanting her to be safe.
Relic is a horror movie, though, so it is not simply the external relationships that are depicted (as in, I would assume, The Father, which is on my to-watch list). Relic turns inside out Edna’s confusion and deterioration and shows us the fear that is normally only mental and interior. At one point, Kay and Sam are fleeing and on the verge of leaving Edna alone because, as Kay tells her daughter, “it isn’t her anymore.”
I cannot count the number of times I have heard those words from family members of one suffering from dementia. And yet, even in the anxiety and terror and disorientation, we know about our family members what Kay knows about her mother: in a real sense, in spite of everything, it is still her. It is still him. However much he or she has lost, however far from the “person we knew,” that is still his or her body; that is still the person. It is not possible to separate the person from the physical form in which that person lived and existed in the world.
This is why Christians hold so firmly to the resurrection of the body, and the conviction that death is fundamentally un-natural. We are made as people who are body and soul and mind (however we might define the last two). Our “life” is lived in these bodies, and when the life leaves the body—whether in dementia or in death—we try to reassure ourselves that that body is no longer the person, but we are fooling ourselves. We have never known that person outside or separate from that body, and therefore the person is not actually that person apart from their body.
This has a theological basis, and not just an anthropological one: if Jesus no longer has His earthly body, or can be somehow separated from it, it is no longer the Jesus who appeared in the world, both before and after His resurrection. Apart from His body, He is literally a different Jesus. This is why He shows His disciples His hands, feet, and side after His resurrection, because it is actually Him, and not someone or something else.
Dementia and the deterioration of both what people know as well as the people who are known are fearful realities—horrifying realities. Relic and films like it show us that reality made physical and terrifying. While such films may strike too tender a spot for those who have recently dealt with a loved one’s dementia (or those who simply don’t like horror movies!), we are prevented from denying or down-playing the other-worldly and unnerving changes that take place. It really is outside our ability to understand what has happened to these people we used to know.
But Relic doesn’t end with merely the shocking or horrible. The final scene (as gruesome as it is visually!) subordinates even the horror to the love of daughters for their mothers. Death comes for all of us in its fearful reality. Will we shrink from it as too appalling, cutting off the suffering person from the consolation we have to give? Or will we quell our horror under our love for this person, however far he or she seems to have drifted? Though many times we are tempted to the former, it is the latter that is truly human, because it is truly Christ-like.