I recently visited with two of my favorite crazed older ladies at a theater performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. The stage play, written nearly 80 years ago, is a madcap romp that takes place in the living room of Martha and Abby Brewster. The sweet, spinster aunts are serial killers – strictly to give peace to nice, older gentlemen, you understand – but unfortunately, they aren’t the only killers in the family. You could say there is some family competition on who is better at it.
The Brewster aunts of the 1940’s gave rise to a plethora of unhinged film ladies in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a genre that became known as Hag Horror. The movies were garish horror/thrillers, with middle-aged women creating chaos, exacting bloody revenge and generally chewing the scenery. My parents shared these scary old movies with me at a young age, and I fell in love with the ladies of Hag Horror.
My favorite actress of the genre was Bette Davis. My parents favored her in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but I loved her the most in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I sang the theme song at school. I sang the other theme song, too, the one that begins with “Chop, chop, sweet Charlotte.” I practiced cackling.
It probably helped that I grew up with eccentric women, some of them rivaling the raving biddies of my favorite horror movies. Call them deranged, but those women got stuff done. Or, they at least gave you amazing stories to tell.
Some horror fans feel that Hag Horror is a disparaging term. Peter Shelley, author of Grande Dame Guignol Cinema, prefers that term because it evokes the raw nature of the genre, while elevating its characters to a high status. I’m fond of Hag Horror because it cuts to the center of what makes these characters so frightening. They are refined women whose madness is glaring. They are driven and deliriously unpredictable. From an era when older women were portrayed as reserved and helpless, these women are powerful and terrifying.
These women are not the plucky final girls of slasher films, who face the killer and survive. They are the ones swinging the axe.