The Hag in Modern Horror Cinema

According to a study done by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, Women represent 24% of lead roles in Hollywood film, with less than 50% of those women being over the age of 40.  With around 50% of women in America being over 40, it is a strange disparity. As it stands, women on screen are perpetually youthful compared to their male counterparts.  But oddly enough there is a specific genre that seems to have an abundance of older women: Horror.

Horror has always been an experimental genre. Trying out ideas that more popular action, comedy, or drama films might not risk. It’s been a genre where sometimes crazy, sometimes stupid, but always fun ideas flourish and the genre that’s always looking to try out things others won’t. This experimental nature also encompasses casting. It’s a genre that allows women as a whole to show off more than others. Unfortunately for older women, they only get to show off as villains.

Whether it’s the satanic Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby, vengeful Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th, the woman in room 237 in The Shining, the eponymous witch of The Blair Witch Project, Sylvia Ganush in Drag me to Hell, or numerous ghosts, demons, and entities; horror is where older women get to shine. Even when they’re not shown, in movies such as Psycho, their ever looming presence is palpable, often directing the course of events from beyond the grave.

All of them had differing appearance, differing effects on the characters and story, and differing levels of sympathetic appeal. But they were all terrifying in their own way. And that terror was intrinsically linked to the power they held over other characters. Their ability to kill, maim, curse, control, and hide in plain sight were all traits not commonly given to female characters. And yet once they were stripped of their youth they were awarded them.

Stepping back in time for a moment, this seems to have been a running idea in many traditional stories. In European and Western folklore, the archetype of the hag is a reoccurring one. Described as an elderly woman, the hag is usually a dangerous and ugly creature, but also wise and cunning. Popular iterations can be found in Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Cinderella. The repeating theme being their threat to the youthful and their anger, greed, gluttony, and variety of other sins often seen as unfitting of a woman.

Being old and therefore, by society’s standards, undesirable, made women unsettling. It made them scary.  But in turn another link has been made. That caution and fear they inspired was empowering in its own way. Already hated by society, the hag does not need to follow society’s rules. They could be as disgusting, loud, angry, and evil as they might like. With their age came fear and with that fear power. And as a result, that same archetype continues on to this day, enabling women to play powerful characters at the cost of playing more despicable characters.

But over the past few years it seems even this archaic trope is starting to change. Horror has started to see older women take on roll beyond that of the monster.

The Babadook was a small but popular release about a 40 something mother protecting her child from an evil entity while dealing with her own grief and mental suffering.

Elise Rainier from the Insidious films has become a more serialized example. A powerful medium who can speak to spirits, crawl back from the dead to protect those she cares about, and who once beat a ghost up with a chair in an otherwordly smack down.

This month we will be seeing the return of Laurie Strode from Halloween, one of the original final girls of the 70s. Now decades older, it appears her years have gifted her with military levels of preparation and excellent aim with a shotgun. All readying her to fight Michael Myers when he inevitably rears his masked face on the 31st.

It’s slow going and could flip back around at any time. It’s still mostly relegated to horror and it’s still mostly white and straight women who get the role. But it is a weirdly positive spin on a thousand years old tradition and one that hopefully sticks around. At the very least, it’s a trend that we’ll be able to enjoy in the coming weeks as the horror season continues.


by Anna Crawford

Anna Crawford is a writer currently based in the middle of nowhere just looking to get her career going. She likes writing, reading, playing video games, and listening to music. All of which she usually does at 3am due to a bad sleep schedule. You can find her on twitter (@zizskobyrd) where she is probably still getting hate messages cause of that time she said Fallout New Vegas had a few problems in its writing.

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