In Feud: Bette and Joan, (2017) Joan Crawford, played by Jessica Lange, noted that, “everything written for women seems to fall into just three categories: ingénues, mothers or gorgons.” The series is about the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) and the alleged feud between Crawford and Bette Davis when both actors were in their 50s.  The tradition of older Hollywood “actresses” playing roles in B-movies was established in the 1960s. At this time, appearing in horror films and B-movies was seen as a humiliating, degrading step down for these onetime glamorous and desirable Hollywood stars.1 The misogynistic and ageist terminology such as Hagsploitation and Hag horror used to describe these films reveals that aging women were seen as grotesque; something to be reviled. Examples include Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964) and Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964). Later Dario Argento cast Joan Bennett as one of the witches in Suspiria (1977).

This review asks if attitudes towards older women in horror films have shifted in the 2010s. It considers the horror franchises to argue that in this context older women are represented as hard women either physically or emotionally. Older women do appear in less generic horror such as Suspiria, (Luca Guadagnino, 2018); Greta (Neil Jordan, 2018); The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019) and Ma (Tate Taylor, 2019). These films reflect a different set of themes that warrant discussion elsewhere.  Significant, early feminist writings have not focussed on mature women in horror explicitly, stressing instead the abject aspects of menstruation, puberty and child bearing associated with girls and younger women.2 3 During the 2010s, older actors in their 50s, 60s and 70s played older women in a variety of horror movies that construct the aged women as an integral part of the narrative, rather than an oddity to be ridiculed or despised. It is possible to see a trend of “hard women” who have been tempered through trauma, age and experience and the lines on their faces signify this. Acting in these films does not have the demeaning connotations associated with the 1960s’ films. Maybe this is due to the horror genre moving away from its B-movie status and becoming more mainstream.

Insidious: The Last Key, Adam Robitel, 2018

The Insidious franchise beginning with the first 2010 film directed by James Wan introduced the character Elise Rainier, a professional psychic, played by Lin Shaye. Elise is seen to die in the final act; however, the character is revived in subsequent films in 2013 and 2015. In 2018, Insidious: The Last Key, directed by Adam Robitel, Elise is now the main protagonist in the story. In keeping with the Insidious franchise the film received mixed critical reviews, containing slick art direction and copious jump scares. However, in spite of the film’s flaws, Elise is not represented as a two-dimensional figure but someone who is stoic, wise and resolute with her own back-story. Lin Shaye’s character fits in with a tradition of middle-aged or older women as seers, mediums or psychics. Examples include Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964); Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973) and Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982).

Although not a central role Meg Foster’s portrayal of a grieving mother, Gaylen in Jeeper’s Creeper 3 (Victor Salva, 2017) is memorable. Gaylen sees a vision of Kenny her son, who was killed by the Creeper; he warns it will come for what he buried on the property and will kill anyone still there. The Gaylen character is not glamorised, nor is she represented as abnormal; she is a strong older woman struggling against the evil that has corrupted her community. Foster plays the role without obvious makeup; visually, she seems to come from the arid landscape in which the film is set. In contrast, Foster’s famous, searing eyes remind the audience of the creeper’s theme song, “Oh, jeepers creepers, where’d ya get those peepers? Jeepers creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?” Foster’s performance seems to pre-empt Jamie Lee Curtis’ much acclaimed return as Laurie Strode in Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018). Even though years of post-traumatic stress disorder and associated paranoia have destroyed the relationship with her daughter and family, Laurie’s concerns eventually prove to be vindicated.  Her age and experience make Laurie a powerful adversary for her nemesis Michael Myers. Laurie is a survivor and a protector – not a final girl, but the final woman.  Lee Curtis, when interviewed about the cultural relevance of Halloween (2018) claimed that the film sat within the context of the #Me Too campaign, saying that, “We are not going to allow you to write our narrative anymore!”4

Halloween, David Gordon Green 2018

The hybrid of action film and horror genre, Terminator: Dark Fate (Tim Miller, 2019) heralds the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner as very much the lead Character. Previously, Hamilton was in Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991) directed by James Cameron. Very much like Foster and Lee Curtis, she wears minimal makeup. Visually the focus is on her striking silver hair and aviator glasses. Hamilton trained for over a year in order to gain the “hard body” required for the role, in a recent interview she commented “Oh my god, you need hormones to put muscle on!”5

The roles Shaye, Foster, Curtis and Hamilton play are of powerful, mature women who have histories. They are situated in intergenerational spaces often alongside younger female characters. By sustaining horror franchises and story lines, the ageing horror audiences and horror directors remain loyal to original casts and characters.  The conventions of sequels, prequels and flashbacks used to extend horror franchises are necessarily concerned with time and narrative. This opens up opportunities for actors of all genders to confront the physical signs of ageing. Older women are not constructed as monstrous but as “hard women” whose backstories have given them the steely resolve to survive.

Endnotes:

  1. Anne Billson, “‘Hagsploitation’: Horror’s Obsession with Older Women Returns,” The Guardian, 18 January 2018, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/18/hagsploitation-horrors-obsession-with-older-women-returns
  2. Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992)
  3. Barbara Creed, Monstrous Feminine: Film Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Oxon: Routledge, 1993)
  4. Kevin Smith, Interview with Jamie Lee Curtis (San Diego, 19 July 2018).
  5. Derek Lawrence, “Linda Hamilton Explains Why She’s Finally Back for Terminator: Dark Fate,” Entertainment Weekly, 15 July 2019, ew.com/comic-con/2019/07/15/linda-hamilton-tim-miller-terminator-dark-fate-interview/

About The Author

Dr Samantha Broadhead is the Head of Research at Leeds Arts University, UK and is interested in the fabric of film.