Joan Crawford made her entrance on stage wielding an axe.
In January 1964, at the age of fifty-eight, the Hollywood grande dame began an exhaustive tour across the United States, with personal appearances at big city and small town cinemas to publicize her new horror film, Strait-Jacket, directed by B-movie master William Castle. Attracting huge audiences of all ages, Joan was only too happy to meet the adoring public who clamored to see the star in full glamor; a movie legend of the 30s and 40s, which now seemed like the distant past.
Because she sat on the board for Pepsi-Cola, she was able to travel across the country on the luxury Pepsi jet, with Columbia Pictures distributing a list of her requirements for each stop. These included a bedroom each for her publicist, her maid Anna Brinke, known as “Mamacita,” and the two pilots; and a rider including pens, pencils and paper, red and yellow roses, one bowl of peppermint lifesavers, several buckets of cracked ice, 100 proof Smirnoff vodka, Beefeater gin, Moët and Chandon champagne, and a case of Pepsi-Cola. As the list of instructions made clear, “Miss Crawford is a star in every sense of the word; and everyone knows she is a star.”
The tour kicked off in New York, traveling to three theaters a night for seven days across Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. The first stop was Loews cinema in the Bronx, and William Castle remembered: “Two blocks away from the theater I could see the beams from the klieg lights traveling across the sky – and then I saw the people. Mob would be a better word. Hundreds of people surrounded the theater. Police were trying to hold them back. As the bus pulled up in front of the theater and Joan Crawford, magnificently dressed, stepped down, there was a roar. The crowd went wild…Joan threw kisses to the crowd, thanked them for coming, and then disappeared backstage. The theater was sold out for the six o’clock show.”
To introduce the movie, Crawford appeared on stage with a cardboard axe, and this moment of pure camp thrilled the young audience, many of whom hadn’t been born when she was starring in The Women in 1939, or even when she won her Academy Award for Mildred Pierce in 1946. When the screening began, they might not have understood the significance of her entrance in Strait-Jacket, doing the Joan Crawford walk, where her broad shoulders become their own character. They may have howled with laughter at the over-the-top moments of horror, with fake heads being lopped off and rolling on the ground, or when, as a woman in her sixties, she seduces her daughter’s boyfriend by teasing her fingers into his mouth. Yet Crawford was utterly convincing in the over-the-top role and despite being widely panned by critics, audiences embraced the film.
“Joan Crawford has picked some lemons, some very sour lemons, in her day, but nigh the worst of the lot is Strait-Jacket, in which she showed up at neighborhood theaters yesterday,” wrote The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther in January 1964. But the film’s success affirmed Crawford’s reinvention as a horror queen.
Strait-Jacket was one of a new breed of horror movies that exposed a big name star to thrills and shocks, and which would later be referred to as “Hag Horror,” “Hagsploitation,” “Psycho-biddy” or “Grande Dame Guignol.” It was a sub-genre launched on the back of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the hugely-successfulgothic horror starring Crawford and her long-standing rival Bette Davis, whose decades-long feud had become the stuff of legend. It was also the rare film that demonstrated that two older women could headline a successful movie, and triggered a trend for other older actresses to ham it up in horror, while cashing the often-generous check.
“Of course she rationalized what she did,” said director George Cukor. “Joan even lied to herself. She would write to me about these pictures, actually believing that they were quality scripts. You could never tell her they were garbage. She was a star, and this was her next picture. She had to keep working, as did Bette.”
As a way to boost their flagging careers, silver screen beauties like Gloria Grahame, Ann Sothern, Tallulah Bankhead, Miriam Hopkins, Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Yvonne De Carlo and Ruth Roman all took up the horror mantle to varying degrees of success. The characters they played were typically once-glamorous women preoccupied with their past and unable to move on. The films often showed old clips and real life glamor shots of the actresses from their glory days, which their character displays in their home; a knowing reference first used in Sunset Boulevard (1950), where Gloria Swanson’s younger glamor shots and film clips stood in for her character Norma Desmond. Similarly, in Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) Tallulah Bankhead lent real life portraits of herself from her twenties to be used for a scrapbook belonging to her character, Mrs Trefoile.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that once actresses reached their mid-thirties, they would find the good roles were few and far between, and that if they didn’t maintain their youthful vigor, the powerful studios could label them as “has-beens.” For women, youth has always been entwined with beauty, and as actresses got older, they were considered to now be lacking some of that original appeal. Leading men like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable continued to romance much younger women on screen, even when they were in their sixties, yet a woman who was over forty was unlikely to be considered as a viable love interest. There were, of course, exceptions. Ingrid Bergman was 42 when she starred with Cary Grant in the romantic comedy Indiscreet (1958), and fifty-something Anna Magnani simmered with brooding sensuality opposite Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind (1960).
Even a bombshell like Marilyn Monroe began to worry she would become less relevant as she reached her mid-30s. For actresses, the fear of aging was not just for vanity; it was deep-rooted in their career. They would lose out on lead roles in quality scripts and would instead be relegated to the spinster, the matron or the tragic, desperate older woman. If she’d lived, Monroe would likely have been considered the past-it sex-pot, ridiculed and pitied as if she was desperately trying to cling to her looks.
Myrna Loy, star of MGM’s hugely popular The Thin Man in 1934, found out for herself that older actresses were treated badly by Hollywood. “The studio no longer cared about us,” she said. “They kept us locked into our old images while they concentrated on giving the good roles to newcomers. If we complained they had ways of forcing us out, of making us quit.” But she also wondered if exploitative horror films were detrimental to these stars, particularly Bette Davis. “Is it worth playing all those demented old ladies to maintain that status?”
Rather than continuing to play romantic leads, older, unmarried women on screen were typically shown to be pathetic figures or mentally unstable, driven mad by their single status and their lost looks, and it was this trope that formed the basis of “Hag Horror.” Peter Shelley, in his 2009 book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema noted that there were two roles for a woman in this genre. “She could be a mentally unstable antagonist, pining for former glory or her lost youth, or as a Woman in Peril.” He adds that, “Even if she is not unstable at the start, her mental health deteriorates as the film progresses. As a Woman in Peril she is also more vulnerable due to the loss of youth and of her looks, which brought her power.”
Melodrama, gothic horror, stylized death scenes and a faded star slipping into mental deterioration were the defining markers of these films. They were what critic Roger Ebert in 1971 referred to as “the macabre genre of the menopausal metaphysical mystery movie.” He described how they “seem to involve a couple of middle-aged ladies with shameful pasts, who make lots of trips up and down dark stairs and into unlighted cellars, get the hell scared out of them when dust mops fall out of the shadows, and end up hideously, with blood and feathers all over the place. Well, it’s a way to pass an evening.”
The titles of these films were also a literal description of the troubled, reclusive woman at the center of the story – there was What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971). Even Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), director Robert Aldrich’s follow up to Baby Jane, was originally to be called What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?
John Baxter in Hollywood in the Sixties described “Hag Horror” as celebrating “sado-gerontophilia,” which insultingly implied that a woman over fifty couldn’t be considered a viable sex symbol. The women in “Hag Horror” are spinsters, recluses and alcoholics, and tend to have a limited, or non-existent, sex life, which perhaps leads to their frustration. In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? two unmarried sisters are forced to live together despite their hatred for one another, due to their rejection of societal norms.
The mentally unstable spinster was just one type of female monster in horror movies. Stereotypes also include the psychopathic mother in Psycho (1960) and Carrie (1976), the beautiful but deadly killer in Sisters (1972), the dangerous adolescent of The Exorcist (1973), and the woman who transforms into a mythical creature in Cat People (1942).
The older woman often exhibits unstable behavior because of a trauma of the past, typically the result of the loss of a child, or because they missed their chance of having a family due to the abandonment, or death, of a lover. They’ve either rejected the proper gender roles of being a good wife and mother, in favor of their unnatural desires, as in Strait-Jacket, or perhaps their child has died, as experienced by Mrs Trefoile in Die! Die! My Darling.
Without being able to fulfill their function as a mother, they are incomplete and driven to madness. They carry a deep wound from grief or from their resentment at a past rejection, pushing them further into a demented state, particularly as they realize, when looking at their aged reflection in the mirror, that their beauty is now gone. Sometimes their domineering maternal instincts, or their neglect through being a single mother with different lovers, prevents their child from being able to function normally in society. The mothers in Strait-Jacket (1964), Berserk! (1967) and The Killing Kind (1973) are blamed for their children being murderers, due to their atypical behavior outside the realm of what a “normal” mother should be like.
The tropes of the bad mother or twisted spinster are so ingrained in culture that they can be traced back to the myths of ancient civilizations. As Jude Doyle, author of Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, writes: “This is the primal threat in our earliest stories: a woman who lives on the outskirts of civilization, rejected by her community; a woman who is old, ugly, asexual; a woman who is, alternately, too beautiful, too sexual, too self-possessed; a woman who knows things others don’t know, and can do things others can’t do. When the loop of patriarchy closes, it can feel inescapable.”
The Furies of Ancient Greek mythology were vengeful crones who tore men apart, and were described as having snakes for hair and blood dripping from their eyes. Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters, is similarly so hideous in appearance, with boar’s tusks, snakes for hair, a gaping mouth and a beard, that she can turn men to stone if they look at her.
In Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, before she fled the Garden of Eden, and her marriage, so that she could be free from his control. As punishment, she was transformed into an evil demon of the night who preyed on children and women in childbirth. While she is sometimes hailed as an independent woman who chooses to reject the patriarchy, her isolation after being banished from Eden drove her to madness, transforming her into a terrifying figure and threat to the sanctity of the family.
During the witch trials of the sixteenth-century, women were accused of everything from cannibalism to child murder, from destroying crops to bringing on natural disasters like storms, fires and the plagues. Reginald Scot wrote in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) that witches were “old, lame, blearie-eied, pale, ffowle and full of wrinkles; poore, sullen superstitious, and papists…” The witch is frequently portrayed as an older woman who has never had children, or whose children have died. She is lacking because she isn’t a mother, and doesn’t share the natural maternal instincts that women are expected to possess.
Midwives in the Middle Ages were considered suspicious, and often declared to be witches, because of their knowledge of women’s bodies, particularly around childbirth and menstruation, which was often outside of the realms of men’s understanding. A woman’s body has long been thought to be full of horrors, from the moment when she has her first period to the gore of giving birth, and then with the changes that come through menopause.
Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History that contact with menstrual blood “turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seeds in gardens are dried up, the fruits of trees falls off…to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison…” He underscored how women’s bodies were considered to be grotesque, and despite their exterior beauty, they were dangerous and rotten inside.
“When woman is monstrous, it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions – the archaic mother; the monstrous womb; the witch; the vampire; and the possessed woman,” writes Barbara Creed in The Monstrous Feminine.
Women in the horror genre are often in fear that they are slowly going mad. In reality, women who suffered anxiety and depression in the nineteenth-century, and well into the mid-twentieth century, faced the possibility they would be committed to an asylum or forced to undergo electric shock treatment. There was a real lack of understanding around the issues affecting women, such as post-partum depression, PTSD and the menopause. These themes would play into the depiction of misunderstood women. Charlotte Hollis in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) is traumatized by the violent death of her lover, and is trapped in her family home because of her grief, as well as the rumors and gossip around her mental state, and she becomes the eccentric who the local children are both curious and terrified of.
In Victorian gothic literature, women were frequently victims of gaslighting; slowly driven mad or labeled hysterical by men. The female gothic tale can be traced back to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the tales of Ann Radcliffe, where a weak woman is overwhelmed by the house she is trapped in, and haunted by memories, and people, from the past.
From its first incarnations in gothic stories, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and Jane Eyre, the gothic house is where danger lurks – on the staircase, in the creepy attic or basement and, later, in the bathroom. The house is always something frightening, and which is reflective of the insanity that is central to the story. Important scenes take place on staircases, because they are treacherous, unstable, and act as a gateway between sanity and madness. This is evident in The Haunting (1963), where Hill House’s staircases are the site of mysterious deaths. In the prologue, Hill House is occupied by an elderly woman, Abigail, whose mother died after falling down the stairs. Abigail hires a female companion to live with her, but when this assistant is too busy with a sexual transgression to come to Abigail’s aid as she dies, she is eventually driven mad by the spirit of the house. She climbs up the spiral staircase with a rope in her hand, and flings herself off it with the noose around her neck.
The bathroom is the most private room in the house, a space for cleansing rituals, and where one is at their most vulnerable – because of this, violence in this space is particularly shocking. The basement or attic has a habit of luring in the hapless victim, and which represents the darkness of the womb; where Norman Bates hides the body of his mother, and where he takes on her persona.
While the female characters of “Hag Horror” allude to well-established fears around older women, the sub-genre, also sometimes referred to as “Grande Dame Guignol,” can be traced back to the Grand Guignol Theater in the Pigalle district of Paris. André de Lorde was the most significant writer at the theatre, and from 1901 to 1926 he often used the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to create shocking, naturalistic depictions of violence on an underclass of prostitutes, criminals and urchins. He transitioned into silent film, working with D.W. Griffith on a 1909 short film called The Lonely Villa, and on several French films, including The System of Doctor Goudron in 1913.
Grand Guignol made a striking impression on genre director Curtis Harrington when he visited the theater on a trip to Paris with fellow avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger in the early fifties. He credited it as being one of the “most meaningful” experiences of his time in Europe, even above meeting Jean Cocteau.
Alongside Robert Aldrich and William Castle, Curtis Harrington was one of the most creative directors in the female-led B-movie horror genre. His work included Games with Simone Signoret, What’s the Matter with Helen? with Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, and The Killing Kind with Ann Sothern and Ruth Roman. His love of the golden age of cinema was evident in his desire to cast some of Hollywood’s most famous stars in his independent movies. In his films, Harrington also brought sympathy to his own monster women. Dennis Bartok, director of the American Cinematheque, and a friend of Harrington’s, said that: “He may have sympathy for Ann Sothern’s tyrannical mom in The Killing Kind or for Shelley Winters’s hopeless, pathetic Helen Hill [In What’s the Matter with Helen?] but he understands that they’re monsters, true monsters of a very human kind, and that’s what makes them so haunting.”
As the feminist movement gained ground in the sixties, and women were being given agency over their reproduction rights with the advent of the pill, the concept of the independent woman was becoming a threat to patriarchy. The fifties had pushed family values to the fore, supported by a conservative sway in Hollywood which used female tropes to demonstrate to women that marriage was the only way to have a fulfilling life. By depicting older women in horror films who were mentally disturbed and scarred by the lost opportunities in life, they served as a warning to others – that this is how you’ll turn out if you don’t perform your assigned gender roles.
The supposed lesson for women was that if they were too focused on their career, they were destined to be pitiful figures who were single and childless, or would have their child turn against them. In Rosemary’s Baby (1966) and The Witches (1966), starring Joan Fontaine, older women were shown to take up witchcraft as a substitute for sex, as it was a “secret power when normal powers are failing.”
While these “Hag Horror” films, of mixed quality, were seen to be a low career point, many of the actresses enjoyed showcasing their acting skills to play complex, twisted characters. After all, it could be fun to camp it up, wield an axe and drag a dead body. “Hag Horror” was successful on two points – it appealed to the nostalgia of older moviegoers who wished to relive their youth by seeing their favorite icons on screen, and for younger horror audiences who watched these aging stars with a degree of irony.
Camp horror films could not match the quality of classics like Grand Hotel (1932) and Mildred Pierce (1945), Dark Victory (1939) or All About Eve (1950), yet these films were, by the sixties, considered old-fashioned and over-the-top, and often ridiculed by the counterculture generation. Bette Davis recalled that “Warner Brothers sent me a letter saying they wanted to use a clip from Now Voyager in The Summer of ’42. They implied that they wanted to use it as a laugh. My lawyer wrote back saying, if they wanted a clip to laugh at, why didn’t they choose a scene from one of their current films.”
Young people had rebelled with rock ’n roll in the fifties, and the beat generation was introspective and mimicked the poorest in society, but it was the sixties that was marked by huge cultural changes, as the baby boomers came of age. The hippie movement became a phenomenon that encouraged a generation of “drop-outs” who chose the concept of “free love” and burnt their draft cards to protest against the Vietnam War. In this context of a newly switched-on, politically-active and promiscuous generation, classic movies seemed outdated, and they demonstrated a clash between modern youth culture and the traditions of the thirties and forties.
“Peace and love and all of that is just fine,” said Joan Crawford, “but there are limits to be observed. When I was young, I also broke some of the stuffy conventional rules. But, damnit, we obeyed the laws, respected our elders, and we always earned our own way. Kids today say they don’t trust anyone over thirty. Does this apply to their parents, who seem to be paying for their freedom and rebellion?”
Older movies also seemed tame and out-of-touch due to the Motion Picture Production Code which insisted Hollywood studios follow strict moral guidelines to ensure there was no nudity, sex or graphic violence on screen. From its introduction in 1934 the Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after its creator Will H Hays, held a grip on Hollywood, but by the late fifties films like Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Psycho (1960) circumvented the strict conventions to deal with shocking subject matters.
Through the sixties the Production Code was increasingly ignored as more violence and sex was shown on screen, and by 1968 it was abandoned in favor of a new film rating system. The decline of the Production Code allowed for a rise in horror films throughout the sixties, and laid the groundwork for the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the grittier and more exploitative female-led horror movies going into the seventies. What could be more appealing than seeing these former A-list stars, who had only appeared in heavily-censured films of the past, now being tortured on screen or wielding sharp objects?
Having watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? over fifteen times on its release to marvel at its huge success, director William Castle dreamed of creating his own version with a grande dame of cinema. When he fortuitously met Joan Crawford one night at a party in the Hollywood Hills he immediately courted her, telling her he had a script written especially for her by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch. The film was Strait-Jacket. “I’m listening, Mr. Castle,” she replied. It was here, in front of an audience of teenagers, that Joan Crawford found a new lease of power, enjoying every moment where she was treated like the star she was.