|photo by John Ubancik|
Nancy Holder: NY Times best selling author. Winner of multiple awards, including 5 Bram Stoker awards. Trustee and former Vice President in the Horror Writers Association. More than 80 novels to her credit, plus 100 or so short stories and some graphic novels as well. She writes contemporary horror, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and YA horror and urban fantasy, and does it all so well! She’s also a hoot to hang out with at conventions. Her next book is The Rules, a teen thriller.
By Nancy Holder
I teach in the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program, and today a student’s third-semester project on fairy tales reminded me of that strange film sub-genre, “hag horror”—also know as “grand dame guignol” and “psycho-biddy horror.” In these films, mental instability arrives along with the wrinkles—an echo of the demonization of old women as witches since the Middle Ages, which also repeats in the form of the evil stepmother in so many fairy tales.
The first seeds of the movie-going public’s fascination with a woman obsessing for decades to the point of insanity over faded glory were planted in Sunset Boulevard 1950, which starred Gloria Swanson. Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a silent film star whose sun has indeed set—but she can’t let go of her insatiable hunger for adulation and fame.
But the film that launched the craze for crazy old women was 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, featuring Bette Davis in the titular role as a child star whose faded glory and dark family secret have driven her to the brink of insanity. Battling back the years, she is terrifying in extreme makeup with a painted-on heart-shaped beauty mark, ringlets and little-girl dresses as she bludgeons the family maid to death and starves her wheel-chair using sister. Despite its over-the-top melodrama, the script was clever, macabre, and frightening, and the performances by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis netted an Oscar nomination for Davis and revived the careers of both actresses.
After Jane came Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), again starring Davis, this time as a faded Southern belle who has lived as a recluse in her family’s Southern mansion because of the scandal surrounding the sensational murder of her married lover decades before. Other films included Strait-Jacket (1964), The Nanny (1965), Die! Die, My Darling (1965), The Mad Room (1969), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), Blood and Lace (1969), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971).
It is my student’s MFA study of the passive princess heroine versus the woman of action villain—the crazy, evil one who poisons Snow White with the apple because she’s jealous of her beauty; the one who entices Sleeping Beauty to prick her finger on a spindle because she wasn’t invited to the christening; the one who tears Cinderella’s ball gown to shreds because she doesn’t want her own daughters upstaged—that put me in mind to write about hag horror for Women in Horror month. In these various incarnations, there is a sense of Woman Unleashed—of frustration over wrongs real and perceived boiling over in ungovernable fury.
In hag horror, the energy of madness gives these older women the agency they were missing as young women. Besides, when these films were coming out, it was thrilling for audiences to see glamorous movie stars “of a certain age” embracing wrinkles and frowsy hair, wielding axes and hammers as they completely lost their minds on screen. To my thinking, hag horror is also a precursor to our fascination with zombies—but that’s a topic for another day. More pertinent to this blog is a trembling tip of the hat to the character of Lady Lucille Sharpe in the recent Guillermo del Toro film, Crimson Peak—which I novelized—not a hag but definitely a woman of evil claiming agency after suffering traumatic wrongs when she was younger.
So, thanks to student Kelsey for providing me with a topic. And Happy Women in Horror Month to Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Tallulah Bankhead, Shelly Winters, Geraldine Page, Debbie Reynolds, Jessica Chastain, and all your sister psycho bitches. Long may you bludgeon!
NY Times bestselling author Nancy Holder is a 5-time Bram Stoker Award winner (among other awards) and the author or co-author of more than 80 novels, both original works and tie-ins and novelizations for TV shows and movies, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Smallville. Her 100-plus short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. She writes contemporary horror, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and YA horror and urban fantasy. You can follow her at www.nancyholder.com