Psycho-biddy is a colloquial term for a subgenre of the horror/thriller movie[1] that features a formerly-glamorous older woman who has become mentally unbalanced and terrorizes those around her. The genre officially began in 1962 with the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (though it had some antecedents) and lasted through the mid-1970s. It has also been referred to by the terms Grande Dame Guignol, hagsploitation and hag horror.[2] Renata Adler, in her The New York Times review for the 1968 film The Anniversary, referred to the genre as "the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre."[3]

Definition, themes and influences

The subgenre feature a mentally unstable, dangerous, or insane woman of advanced years with a somewhat glamorous past, living a life of relative wealth. In some cases, the woman may be in jeopardy of some sort, with another party attempting to drive her to mental instability. Often (but not always), there are two older women pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle, usually the result of bitter hatreds, jealousies, or rivalries that have percolated over the course of, not years, but decades. These combatants are often blood-relatives. The character is often brought to life in an over-the-top, grotesque fashion, emphasizing the unglamorous process of aging and eventual death. Characters are often seen pining for lost youth and glory, trapped by their idealized memories of their childhood, or younger days, and the trauma of a past episode that haunts them.

This subgenre includes elements of many other genres, including gothic, Grand Guignol, black comedy, psycho-drama, melodrama, revenge, camp and even the musical. Science fiction and Western films have also been part of the genre.


The genre began in 1962 with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? directed by Robert Aldrich. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? bolstered the flagging careers of its stars, Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson and Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson. The 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard shares thematic similarities (their respective central characters both psychotically deranged formerly-glamorous older women) with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and can be seen as a precursor to the genre.[4]

Baby Jane set many trends and more-or-less defined the genre: the theatrical performance, the trappings of wealth and Hollywood, and psychologically complex melodrama. Jane goes quite insane over the course of the movie, torturing her crippled sister and venting long-pent up hostilities and guilt. At the end of the film, Blanche makes a confession which details and admits of her own complicity in the whole affair. The film was quite successful, garnering Academy Award nominations, including one for Davis.

Crawford then starred in director and producer William Castle's Strait-Jacket (1964) as Lucy Harbin, the accused axe-murderer of her husband and his mistress, who is released from the asylum for the criminally insane after 20 years to be reunited with her beloved daughter and other friends. When a new string of axe-murders begins, it is naturally assumed that it is Lucy committing them.

The two actresses were reunited again with director Robert Aldrich for a Baby Jane "follow-up", Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), despite a hyped, somewhat exaggerated feud. But genuine mutual dislike between the two actresses led to Crawford bowing out. She was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, who knew how to get along with Davis. Veteran actresses Agnes Moorehead and Mary Astor also appeared in the film.

In Charlotte, Davis was not only the one going nuts, but the "officially" sympathetic character, who suffers exhausting mental anguish at the hands of her cousin (De Havilland) and her doctor, the cousin's lover (Joseph Cotten). In this movie, Davis's character is again haunted by guilt, though this time the ante is upped: instead of believing herself responsible for a crippling, she believes she is responsible for the murder of her lover. Charlotte is one of the most successful examples of the genre, using Southern Gothic atmosphere to great effect.

Mad Magazine poked fun at the genre in 1966 with a movie musical satire entitled "Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been -or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?"[5]

Notable films

Shelley Winters in What's the Matter with Helen? (1971)

Wealth is a more prominent theme than revenge in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). Claire Marrable (Geraldine Page), a socialite, finds herself (apparently) penniless when her husband dies. She then begins hiring financially independent older cleaning women, murdering them, taking their savings and planting the corpses in her garden. The corpses apparently make the ground quite fertile, and it's not until the third cleaning woman drops out of sight that someone (Ruth Gordon) begins to suspect something is amiss. Gordon applies to be Page's maid to figure out what happened to her friend, the third maid. The movie has a certain status as a cult classic, and is fairly well-regarded.

What's the Matter with Helen? (1971) features two older women, Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds), who move out to Hollywood during the heyday of Shirley Temple. Their sons have gone to prison for a Leopold and Loeb-like murder and the two mothers are on the run from a man who threatens to kill them in revenge. Helen, an increasingly unstable and violent religious fanatic and repressed lesbian, may have murdered her husband years before (and possibly led to her son's criminal behavior). Helen's increasing obsession with Adelle, her roommate, leads to a graphically violent climax, which would recur in future excursions into the genre.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) has only one older woman, Mrs. Forrest aka Auntie Roo (Shelley Winters), featured prominently in the cast. A young orphan becomes a surrogate in the troubled woman's mind for her own long-dead daughter. Roo visits the mummified remains in her daughter's bedroom. The themes of deep-seated past guilt and youth are explored. The story is a variant of the Hansel and Gretel theme; however, unlike the witch in the story, Roo is seriously unstable, as well as subject to con-artist clairvoyants and blackmailing servants. She tries to keep the young orphan girl with her, as the girl reminds her of her daughter, but the girl and her brother fight back, and are quite cunning, having stolen, by the film's end, the woman's valuable jewelry. Roo dies in a fire the children set while trying to escape.

Another example of the genre are the 1965 UK films The Nanny, starring Bette Davis in the lead role as the said nanny, and Fanatic with Tallulah Bankhead, released in the US as Die! Die! My Darling.

Later films like Mommie Dearest (1981) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) also contain elements of the psycho-biddy genre in their respective portrayals of aged women who descend into mental instability.


  1. Nastasi, Alison. "The Scariest Psycho Biddies in Cinema." Flavorwire. Oct. 9, 2012.
  2. Shelley, Peter (September 15, 2009). Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from "Baby Jane" to "Mother". Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland and Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0786445691.
  3. New York Times review
  4. Shelley, Peter (2009) Grande Dame Guignol Cinema McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London
  5. "Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been -or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?" Written by Mort Drucker, Illustrated by Larry Siegel. MAD Magazine, Issue No. 100, January 1966.
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