A sexual encounter between two teenagers turns into a bloodbath with one or both of them no longer amongst the living. A few friends passing the dutchie discover how hazardous smoking is for your health when a maniac with a crossbow turns their bodies into compost. And so on, and so on. Horror films traffic in people paying for their sins. Most importantly, the genre redefines sinful behavior as time progresses and societies shift like tectonic plates. Those teens having sex and friends smoking weed fare better today than 40 years ago.
But the one transgression that horror consistently confronts? Generational sins. Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher continues the genre’s tradition in which older family members make momentary decisions with little or no regard for the future. And when push comes to shove, the past catches up to their progeny, leaving blood stains and residue in its wake. Mike Flanagan’s latest reinforces the belief that those charged with protecting us don’t always have our best interests at heart. And the scariest thing is how far they go convincing themselves that they do.
Obviously, this article spoils The Fall of the House of Usher.
Roderick and Madeline Usher make moves that serve them well. Are they ethical or morally correct? Not even remotely. But like anyone dabbling in dubious deeds, they rationalize every scheme and maneuver. They go along for the ride even when told the terms of this proverbial handshake with the devil. It doesn’t matter that their entire family tree wilts if just one of them dies because, like so many horror villains, the ends justify the means. But their actions are more insidious than Hannibal Lecter or even Krug Stillo from The Last House on the Left because their attacks go beyond a few people on a random killing spree. The Usher brother and sister damn an entire group of people and give them no shot at a long life filled with mistakes and second or third chances. Without even knowing it, Roderick’s children and grandchild live on his terms. And worst of all? He doesn’t care until it’s too late.
Regardless of one’s politics, the parallels between the Ushers ordering everything on the menu and leaving the bill with the kids are deafening. While many debate the argument’s finer points, one look out of a window paints the picture clearly: Millennials and Gen Z see themselves as worse off than their parents and grandparents. Some see homeownership, once the golden ticket into the chocolate factory that is the middle class, as a pipe dream at best. They’re mired in about $1 trillion student loan debt that increases as interest accumulates. To say nothing of the rising tuition costs for current and future students. And some even put off continuing their family legacy because they can’t afford it.
The adults in charge created a world focused on winning today rather than prospering tomorrow. Like Madeline and Roderick, they became enamored with filling their bank accounts and saw no stop signs on the road to riches and diamond rings. They, too, did what they considered the right thing at the moment, whether that meant eliminating financial safeguards, allowing universities to raise tuition to the point that a four-year education costs more than a brand-new house in some states, or simply making that vaunted “American Dream” more attainable for those willing to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” while ignoring the fact that the costs of that metaphor increased over 40 years and that these days, only a privileged few know the secret handshake for access to said boots.
Films like A Nightmare on Elm St., Sinister, My Bloody Valentine, and the Paranormal Activity series echo that shortsightedness. They all feature older folks doing what they think is best for the youth in one way or another. Sometimes, it’s covering up the past or omitting truths for “the greater good,” but they all examine the emotional and physical fallout from making choices that look misguided in hindsight. While many no doubt empathize with the parents in A Nightmare on Elm St. and understand why they took justice into their own hands, the denial and delusions once Freddy Krueger returns put them on the wrong side of the ledger. Like Roderick Usher, the Elm St. parents ignored the truth because it made their lives easier. Rather than confront their pasts and own their choices, they hid from them while their children suffered.
But it’s not just the devil deal-making that put the Usher lineage in jeopardy. It’s never just the one thing in horror; it’s multiple things. Selling out a younger generation sounds awful, but it’s an entirely different beast when one nurtures their worst qualities. Roderick, the parent, represents an institution, one of those foundational bricks upon which society functions. The businessman Roderick runs a drug company that works with the medical community, another trusted institution. And in both facets, he perverted them both for his own self-interest. The Usher patriarch corrupted his first two children with his wealth. And he did so, initially to coax them away from the only positive influence in their lives, their mother.
The more kids he sired with various women, the more that corruption spread like a virus. While that doesn’t make the Usher crew blameless victims or remotely saints, it makes their deaths more tragic. They never stood a chance, even without their father forfeiting their lives. That belies a fiercely cruel form of evil: A parent who drags their children to their level rather than helping them rise above. Horror almost exclusively deals with the broken kids’ side of that equation, and in another story or franchise, Usher’s children are the main baddies. They’re the Billy Loomis types who blame everyone but themselves for their misdeeds. Fall of the House of Usher inverts that trope and shows that it really is on the parent. Usher killed his children the minute he showed them that who they are as people means less than how many commas sit in their bank account.
In business, Roderick and his sister exacerbated (or caused) the opioid crisis, effectively dismantling the trust between doctors and patients. Horror often turns trusted entities into monsters because it shows nothing or no one will save us. Rosemary’s Baby revealed amoral gynecologists. Cat People wrestled with shady psychologists. George Romero’s zombie flicks featured untrustworthy law enforcement officers or an entire government that checked out of the whole living dead situation. And The Dentist…well, that’s self-explanatory. Through their influence and promises, Roderick and Madeline reveal that even doctors aren’t above reprieve. An institution responsible for caring for a generation hurt them with higher costs and turned them into dependents in the name of the almighty dollar.
The Ushers, like so many in their age group, established their wealth by slowly but surely chipping away at every boundary designed to protect the world from people like them. They did it so well that the younger cohort paid dearly when they and their ilk grayed or retired. Unfortunately for Roderick, those losses became more than simple statistics when he watched his seeds and his innocent and far too-good-for-this-world grandchild perish in front of his eyes. Like many well-meaning members of an older generation throughout horror history, he lamented his mistakes a tad too late. While his sister Madeline essentially said she’d do it all over again. Even with her nephews and nieces underground and all the devastation they caused to the country writ large, she regretted nothing because she got hers. It’s not quite Nero fiddling while Rome burns, but it’s close enough.
It’s a horror tradition that society’s elders screw over those younger than them, even if it’s not on purpose. Those stories revolve around the latter cleaning up the former’s mess and establishing a new normal. Or at least making their best attempt. However, The Fall of the House of Usher presents a situation where rebuilding isn’t an option. Unfortunately, the story’s prescience makes it less of a cautionary tale and more of a crystal ball. One hopes there’s enough time to fix our rotting house before it collapses on top of us. Optimism is a premium in times like this, so stashing some away for a rainy day sounds prudent. Sometimes, it feels like everyone after Generation X got the short end of the stick before most of us took our first breath. Thinking the generations before you are the worst is a rite of passage worldwide. Most of the time, it’s an exaggeration. This is one of those moments in history where it’s more than likely true. And that’s terrifying.