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Hagsploitation: Degrading or Empowering?

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

What could be more terrifying than ageing? The horror, the horror.

‘Hag Horror’, ‘psycho-biddy’, ‘batty-spinster’, ‘Grande Dame Guignol’, this subgenre goes by many names, but for the sake of this article, we’ll go with ‘Hagsploitation’. The name is arguably as degrading as it sounds. The name, as well as terms like ‘biddy’ and ‘psycho’, has been heavily criticised over the years for its insinuation of the link between unattractiveness, ageing, and psychotic behaviour. As writer Caitlin Gallagher points out, the term ‘Hagsploitation’ shows “a certain lack of respect for the actresses who starred in these types of movies”. The negative interpretation of this subgenre goes deeper than just its name. Nancy McVittie and Timothy Shary claim in their book ‘Fade to Gray: Aging in American Cinema’, that Hagsploitation films ‘other’ ageing women as monstrous objects, and film scholar Tomasz Fisiak condemned Hagsploitation films altogether, stating: “the degradation of these women becomes a source of entertainment…Grande Dame Guignol humiliates not only its characters but the actresses who impersonate them”.

Everything about the term and its criticisms imply that this subgenre is an exploitative one that degrades actresses who have past their prime because they are desperate for work.

This is true to an extent, but it’s more nuanced than that. You can identify a ‘Hagsploitation’ picture by the following elements:

  • The stars were no longer considered ‘leading lady’ material

  • The stars had not worked in some time

  • The stars have the “airs and grace of a grande dame”

  • The main character is a formerly glamourous and beautiful woman who terrorizes those around her as her mental health becomes increasingly unbalanced

  • A kitsch/camp aesthetic that blends Romantic Gothicism with the Golden Age of Hollywood

The consensus at the time these films were being made – the early 60s, after the fall of Hollywood’s studio and star system – was that these actresses were lowering themselves by appearing in horror and that their previous work was superior. In recent years, the subgenre has been condemned as misogynistic and agist. It has been deemed unintelligent, devoid of legitimate entertainment, and sexist. Fisiak has been particularly vocal about this, arguing that “hag horrors, besides their unrestrained camp aesthetic value, reveal a highly sexist image of their female protagonists. The heroines evoke the resentment of the audience because they are repulsive, look withered, fight with insanity, or often live thoroughly submerged in a frenzy”.

I disagree.

These films are not only highly entertaining precisely because of their camp qualities, but they are intelligent explorations of patriarchal pressure on women. They have rich cultural origins and influences, star some of the best actresses the screen has ever seen, and their self-reflexivity gives them a timelessness unmatched by many other subgenres. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Origins and Influences

The roots of Hagsploitation films can be traced right back to the decadent and grotesque eroticism of the Victorian era’s fin-de-siecle literature, but the key influence on these films is the Grand Guignol plays of the Parisian Théâtre du Grand Guignol (The Theatre of the Great Puppet). These plays, which started in 1897, specialised in naturalistic depictions of violence, horror, and sadism. They were graphic, amoral, and sought to arouse the feelings of their spectators. Their emphasis on naturalism, with elements of melodrama, was a conscious decision. Scholars Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson explain that, “whereas melodrama produced plays of sentimental and sermonising morality in a world where the righteous who suffered misery and poverty were rewarded in Heaven, naturalism was a far more radical doctrine, in which bourgeois society was blamed for the brutalization of humankind.” Combining melodrama and naturalism enabled the Théâtre du Grand Guignol to feature realistic settings, often indicative of bourgeoisie exploitation, to create verisimilitude while simultaneously highlighting the representational nature of the plays. These plays were both grounded and visceral, and applicable to situations and ideas in a more conceptual sense. Their name, ‘Grand Guignol’, comes from a Lyonnaise puppet character named Guignol, whose contemporaries included the political and social commentary puppets Punch and Judy.

Rather than focusing on the supernatural, these plays explored madness, panic, and hypnosis through a naturalistic but bleak lens. They purposely disregarded the horror genre as a means of escapism and instead portrayed the cruelty of contemporary life, full of visceral gore but also philosophical examinations, intelligent insights, and social commentary. They wanted the horror to be something their audience connected to, something they could emphasise with. Understanding and appreciating the value of these plays, film historian Peter Shelley uses the term ‘Grande Dame Guignol’, first coined by actor and playwright Charles Busch, to highlight the cultural, political, and social value of the Hagsploitation subgenre and consciously align it with a respected artistic movement.

We know early Hollywood was influenced by theatre – after all, where did all the actors come from? – but how did the Théâtre du Grand Guignol factor into a system that had become a worldwide powerhouse in a little under two decades?

Film as we know it emerged in the early 20th century. Its actors and actresses were young, talented, and as integral a part in establishing Hollywood as its directors, screenwriters, and editors. The Big Five film studios in the 1920s and 1930s – MGM, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, RKO – recruited and moulded their actors and actresses as they saw fit, often giving them new names and personas that they could market to cinema-going audiences.

"A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I'd have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest . . . We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting, and spitting." - Louis B. Mayer

While the star and studio systems gave young actors a shot at fame, it came with a price. Many stars had to stick to their prescribed persona on and off screen – Judy Garland, for instance, was constrained by her ‘girl next door’ persona for years and was put on a strict diet to maintain her figure, resulting in major physical and mental health problems, including addiction – and many had to take part in projects they did not like as part of their contractual agreements.

Audiences began to expect certain films and certain performances from these stars. Humphrey Bogart was expected to play the cynical but sentimental American Everyman, Mary Pickford the innocent and childish “American Sweetheart”, Elizabeth Taylor the dark and mysterious sex object. And don’t even get me started on Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson.

As the star and studio systems began to decline in the late 50s due to the influx of New York trained method actors like Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, and James Dean (who were still typecast to an extent because…Hollywood), so too did the stars who had been made by them. Actors and actresses who had been made by the likes of MGM and Paramount were ageing. Film offers were coming in less frequently.

Well, for female stars anyway. Male actors such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Dick Van Dyke went on to star in films about older men. But what about films with older women? They were practically non-existent. The same systems that made female stars spat them right back out as soon as they showed some wrinkles or a grey hair.

These women – Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, and dozens more – couldn’t find work. Or at least got work significantly less frequently than their male counterparts, and it was simply because they were deemed ‘too old’. In Hollywood, women could not be old and beautiful. These things couldn’t exist simultaneously. And because a woman’s worth in Hollywood was intrinsically tied to her physical appearance and perceived sexual desirability, leading lady roles were few and far between. Older actresses were pushed to the side-lines.

Film scholars Dafna Lemish and Verda Muhlbaeur note that the “glorification of women’s external appearance as the most characteristic aspect of a woman’s essence is the result of the media’s overemphasis on the portrayal of women as sexual beings whose central function is relegated to being objects of male sexual desire and pursuit”. Veteran actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood went from sex symbols to old-bittys, in an instant. No transitional period. They went from sexy to not sexy, simply because they aged. And if they weren’t sexy, they had no appeal, and thus no box-office draws.

What were actresses to do? They turned to horror.

Where It All Began: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

Horror has always been a genre that has been looked down upon. Though Classic Hollywood’s Gothic horrors won big at the Academy Awards – 1932’s ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ for Best Actor, 1943’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ for Best Art Direction and Cinematography, and 1945’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ for Best Black-and-White Cinematography – horror was not a genre any ‘respected’ performer wanted to work in.

But horror, then and now, is a genre that welcomes women of all ages; even in 2022, we have legendary Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis dominating our screens.

The horror genre was the perfect place to explore taboo subjects like ageing alongside the decay of Old Hollywood. As the old star and studio systems declined and the subversive and violent New Hollywood emerged, the Hagsploitation subgenre was born. Combining Classic Hollywood aesthetics (embracing its camp and hyperbolic nature) and female-centred melodramas, the subgenre welcomed older female stars with open arms. It gave them a chance to express themselves creatively beyond the restrictive star personas their careers had been dominated by, and really show their impressive range for the first time.

Peter Shelley dismisses the notion that these films are “B-Grade and embarrassing post-scripts to the careers of the star actresses who appear in them” and challenges the idea of horror movies as less-than: “horror movies tend to get a bad rap in the universe of movie genres, as if many one requires less skill than, say, a comedy or a drama. There is an implication of inferiority and lowbrow appeal to them which I think only reveals a cinematic snobbery.”

While the idea of declining beauty, and therefore fame and star power, had been explored in commercially successful films like ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ was the film that really kickstarted the genre.

‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’? starred real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Davis plays an ageing former child star who torments her former movie-star paraplegic sister Blanche, played by Crawford, in an old Hollywood mansion. The plot is simple enough, but the film is a deep, psychological exploration of the perceived perils of ageing in an environment that will let you do anything but. Part of the audience appeal of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ is that perverse curiosity about the third act of these Golden Age actresses' lives. What does happen to Hollywood stars when they aren’t beautiful anymore?

The contrasting make-up of Davis and Crawford in the film is an especially telling way of exploring the complexities of beauty and ageing in Hollywood. Davis wears dramatic, heavily powdered white make-up with bright red lipstick, usually an indicator of sensuality, and a feminine and childish heart painted on her cheek. Her obsessive desire to return to her days of childhood fame manifests itself in her make-up. It’s theatrical, almost clownish, and that is done on purpose. Davis refused to let the production team’s make-up artists touch her and insisted on creating her own look for the film. Davis’s make-up is an extreme and unsettling way of commenting on the unrealistic beauty standards placed on Hollywood actresses who had professional make-up artists at their beck and call to make them look beautiful. Now that Baby Jane isn’t famous, she must do it herself and she can’t. Drawing on the likes of Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, Davis transfers her character’s (and perhaps her own) inner turmoil at her lost youth onto her face, a desperate and failed attempt at maintaining her beauty. Of her make-up, Davis said: “I wanted to look outrageous, like Mary Pickford in decay”. While some viewers dismissed Davis’s look as grotesque and misogynistic, it’s actually very…sad. Women watching her can emphasise with Baby Jane. Has Jane gone mad by clinging to unrealistic expectations of beauty? Patriarchal culture expects certain behaviours from women to prove their worth and yet simultaneously shames, mocks, and condemns them for it. Davis’s performance brought this concept to life.

Crawford’s make-up is more traditional, and that is also purposefully done. While Davis insisted on making herself ‘unattractive’, Crawford wears make-up that she would have worn in her Hollywood days, more aligned with social norms and expectations. Of her decision, Crawford said: “I am aware of how Miss Davis felt about my make-up in Jane. But my reasons for appearing somewhat glamourous are just as valid as hers, with all those layers of rice powder she wore and that ghastly lipstick. But Miss Davis was always partial to covering up her face in motion pictures. She called it ‘Art’. Others might call it camouflage – a cover-up for the absence of any real beauty. My character in Jane was a bigger star, and more beautiful than her sister. Once you’ve been as famous as Blanche, you don’t slip back and become a freak like Miss Davis preferred to see her character”.

Crawford believed in upholding and maintaining her typical American beauty, whereas Davis relished in destroying it, in shining a light on the façade of Old Hollywood glamour, and it is here we get real tension between both the characters and the real-life performers. Crawford aligns herself with societal expectations (an internalised misogynist, perhaps? Another sad effect of patriarchal culture), Davis delights in dismantling it. Davis’s and Crawford’s very real feud shines through their performances and gives the film a unique depth and intertextuality. Davis and Crawford were so in tune with their character’s psyches in a way they had never been before, and it is evident throughout their performance. Crawford hates Davis, Blanche hates Jane, and vice versa.

Their make-up and performances call attention to the performative nature of beauty, make-up, and gender more generally. ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ not only engages with the performative personas of Old Hollywood’s star system, but with being a woman. Gender is non-binary and can be expressed in a multitude of different but equally valid ways, and in acknowledging that, one must understand that traditional notions of masculinity and femininity are socially conditioned performances. Gender studies theorist Judith Butler’s insights on gender performance are especially helpful in understanding this in a Hollywood context: gender is a “performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to perform in the mode of belief”.

Joan Crawford’s real name was Lucille Fay LeSueur but from the day she was rechristened by MGM, she never looked back. She so believed in her performance as ‘Joan Crawford’ that the persona became her reality, as did the morals, behaviours, and expectations of a ‘female actor’. Bette Davis kept her name - Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis – and did not conform to the persona of ‘Bette Davis’ as rigidly as her counterpart did. While she was typecast to an extent, the characters she played were not like Crawford’s; they were villains, unsympathetic and cynically humorous, unconforming to the general expectations of women. Lucille lost herself in ‘Joan’, but Bette remained Bette throughout her entire career. Whether conscious of it or not, this aspect of their real lives informed their performances on screen and made it so much deeper than perhaps any other actresses could have achieved at the time.

‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ received mixed reviews upon release, but it’s especially important to look at the negative ones to highlight not only how Davis and Crawford’s performances were looked down upon, but how important their subversive performances were and how influential they would become.

The film’s effort to explore the decadence of two Old Hollywood veterans was dismissed by Bosley Crowther at the New York Times. He described it as a “feeble” attempt and that any message of “pathos of their deep-seated envy having brought them to this” is washed out “very quickly under the flood of sheer grotesquery”. Note the use of the word grotesque. The reviewer was so caught up in the visuals of an older Davis and Crawford that he couldn’t look at the deeper meaning of their physical performance, which is kind of the point of the film. The word grotesque was also used by The Los Angeles Times’ Philip K. Scheuer, who was dismayed at Davis and Crawford being turned into “grotesque caricatures of themselves” and that the film “mocks not only its characters but also the sensibilities of its audience”. I think Scheuer missed the point. The film does not mock the audience; it invites them to reflect on their own perceptions and expectations of Davis and Crawford and of women more generally.

A very basic reading/interpretation of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’, which the negative reviewers seem to be convinced of, is that older actresses grow bitter, resentful, mad, and even murderous. And while yes, that is true to an extent (except the murderous part), the film looks at why this happens, how women have been victimised by the patriarchal entertainment industry to associate their self-worth with their physical appearance, and what traumatic damage this does to a woman’s psyche. This subject matter was previously untouched territory, but Davis and Crawford’s willingness to take part in exploring these topics, at a perceived risk to their career and image, was not only brave but an important part of the development of second-wave feminism.

Second-wave feminism, inspired by the tenacity of the suffragettes, focused on broader issues that women faced in the late 50s and early 60s: sexuality, domesticity and family obligations, reproductive rights, legal and workplace inequalities, and the relationship between beauty, aging, and self-worth. Without Davis and Crawford, not only would many Classic Hollywood actresses have not had the opportunity to continue working and explore their creativity, but these feminist issues may have been swept under the surface by the media. Hagsploitation films had a powerful message wrapped up in a Gothically camp bow, and they weren’t going to be ignored. While other Hollywood films fought to maintain the gendered status quo, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ started something new. Davis and Crawford, who were already respected for their career-driven feminist characters in previous films, were pioneers of the older woman in the horror genre.

The Legacy of Hagsploitation

Davis and Crawford did not stop with ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ Crawford went on to star in one of her best films, ‘Straight-Jacket’, directed by the gimmick king William Castle, and Davis starred in the iconic ‘Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’. After the success of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’, many Old Hollywood actresses jumped on the bandwagon, including Shelley Winters in ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’ (check out our review here), Debbie Reynolds in ‘What’s the Matter with Helen?’, and Geraldine Page in ‘What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?’. Notice something? Many of these titles feature women’s names and are posed as questions. This derives from the traditional notion of women as gossips, who are usually looked down on with derision, but the questions encourage the audience to engage with the questions and seek answers, which they will find by the end of the film. These questions are an alluring invitation.

While this specific subgenre died out after the 70s, older women still have a special place within the horror genre more generally. The ‘Insidious’ franchise has the tenacious Lin Shaye, ‘The Conjuring’ universe is driven by one half of the Warrens, Vera Farmiga, and Essie Davis made her unforgettable mark on the genre with ‘The Babadook’. Irish actress Olwe Fouere has turned to the horror genre in recent years and we’ve also got the likes of Toni Collette in her mesmerising role in ‘Hereditary’ and who could forget Jamie Lee Curtis. More recently we have also seen the release of ‘The Manor’ (read our review here), a psychological folk/witchy horror about the perils of ageing and Alzheimer’s, with Barbara Hershey as its leading lady.

Television has also become a haven for older horror actresses. Season Three of Ryan Murphy’s ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ paired Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett together as two rival witches who share common goals: eternal youth, eternal beauty, and power that isn’t dictated by men. The show regularly features older actresses, including Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, and Connie Britton. Jessica Lange is a wonderfully talented actress who plays a fictionalised version of Joan Crawford in Ryan Murphy’s mini-series ‘Feud’, which depicts the troubled relationship between Crawford and Davis during the filming of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ There’s a nice symmetry to that – women who pioneered the space for older women in cinema being played by contemporary veterans of the silver screen.

Hagsploitation is not a subgenre of degradation. It is empowering. It opened a door for older women on screen and I hope we open that door a little wider.

- Victoria Brown


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