On the Dread of Aging in a Low-Budget Horror Film
by Vivian Sobchack

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On Saturdays in Brooklyn, when I was a child, my younger sister and I used to go to the movies where we’d sit all day watching the cartoons, coming attractions, and double feature loop themselves several times over until it was almost dark outside and we knew our mother was just starting to get anxious. I loved science fiction films, tolerated westerns, was indifferent to musicals and melodramas and--like all the kids around me--squirmed whenever a couple kissed on screen. Both my sister and I loved horror films especially--at that time, before Psycho, often set in the Carpathians, or at least not in Brooklyn, and remote from our quotidian life. Nonetheless, they still seemed close enough to fire our imaginations and make the walk home in the darkening twilight titillating and perilous. Insofar as my mother confirms my recollection, the wolf men, the Frankenstein monster and his bride, Dracula and his daughters, never invaded my dreams, but my more susceptible sister almost always had nightmares on Saturday nights. In contrast, I never found those early horror films all that horrible or really scary, although I did find them incredibly poetic, and I almost always identified with the monsters, whatever their gender (assuming they had one). Now, a grown woman and film scholar, I am surrounded by the intellectual discourse on horror, a discourse that is thoughtful but never quite gets to a description of my experiences--either then when I was very young and gloried in a sense of my own difference and its power, or now when I am middle-aged and often surprised by moments of fear and horror--both at the movies and in my life.

The horror film has been seen by many contemporary, psychoanalytically oriented, feminist scholars as a misogynist scenario elaborated within a patriarchal and heterosexual social formation and based on the male fear of female sexuality. To put it simply and reductively, on the one hand, male fear is generated by male desire--and the power women have over its satisfaction. On the other hand, male fear is generated by female desire--the desire of the Other, which provokes the specter of male "lack" in the face of sexual difference and manifests itself in castration anxiety (an anxiety justified recently by Lorena Bobbitt’s castration of her husband and revealed in his testimony that she was angry not because he repeatedly abused and raped her, but because he hadn’t been able to satisfy her sexually). The elaboration of this male dread of women is played out in horror films at both manifest and latent levels, and all of us, whether practiced in psychoanalytic readings of popular culture or not, are certainly familiar with the genre’s dual articulation of women as both "scared" and "scary." Generally speaking, these two "female conditions" are intimately and systemically related--not only to each other but also to the regulation of heterosexual desire and biological reproduction in patriarchal Western culture. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to think about the threat of "scary women" in horror films without recognizing that threat as emerging from a woman who, first, was scared. Nonetheless, perhaps because it’s more interesting and certainly more empowering, feminist scholarly emphasis has been on the "scary" rather than "scared" women of the horror film and on describing the relation between the psychic dread they cinematographically engender and their sexual and reproductive potency.

Here, however, I want to talk about another sort of "scary woman" in the horror film--one whose scariness, while related to her sexuality, has less to do with power than with powerlessness, and whose scariness to men has less to do with sexual desire and castration anxiety than with abjection and death. Here I want to talk about the middle-aged woman who is both scared and scary--the woman who is neither lover nor mother, the woman who becomes excessive by virtue of her being regarded as excess. This is a woman who can’t be dealt with as either the object or the subject of the gaze, Indeed, up until very recently and under the pressure of changing demographics and actuarial tables, in films (whether horror films or not) and in culture, she has been so threatening and disgusting a sight that the gaze slides quickly over her and disavows her visibility. Not yet static and frozen in time as a feisty but safe Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes, not yet clearly physically and peacefully "old" (as if there were such stasis, as if it would be sweet), this woman evokes in herself and to others the horror and fear of an inappropriate and transgressive sexual desire that lingers through the very process of aging, physical degradation, and decay.

Myself a fifty-three year old woman, this scary woman scares not only men but also me--although I am ashamed to admit it. Much as I attempt to counter my fear of aging with intellectual rationalization, cultural critique, or humor, I find myself unable to laugh off a recurrent image that truly horrifies me even as I joke about it. The image? It’s me, and yet her, an Other--and, as her subjective-object of a face has aged, the blusher I’ve worn every morning since I was a teenager has migrated and condensed itself into two distinct and ridiculous red circles in the middle of her cheeks. This image--which correspondingly brings a subjective flush of shame and humiliation to my cheeks for the pity and unwilling horror and contempt with which I objectively regard hers--is that of an aging woman who not only deceives herself into thinking she is still young enough to wear makeup and poorly applies it, but who also inscribes upon her face the caricature both of her own desire and of all that was once (at least to some) desirable.

Clip from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
786K quicktime movie
This, to me, is the image of a really scary woman--and all my demystified knowledge of the cultural practices that posit her as such do little to demythify or rob her of her negative affective power to scare me. Subjectively felt, she engenders humiliation and its ancillary horrors. Objectively viewed, she is ludicrous, grotesque. Subjectively felt, she is an excess woman--desperately afraid of invisibility, uselessness, lovelessness, sexual and social isolation and abandonment, but also deeply furious at both the double standard of aging in a patriarchal culture and her acquiescence to male heterosexist values and the self-contempt they engender. Objectively viewed, she is sloppy, self-pitying, and abjectly needy or she is angry, vengeful, powerful, and scary. Indeed, she is an excessive woman, a woman in masquerade, in whiteface. She is the Leech Woman, the Wasp Woman, the 50 Foot Woman. She is Norma Desmond and whatever happened to Baby Jane.

This quasi-autobiographical confession is meant to point to the doubled nature and complex phenomenological affect of the cinematic figuration I want to address here--namely, the explicit engendering of the cultural fear, loathing, and anger directed at the mortal fact and process of physical aging in the scared and scary women of a number of low-budget horror/science fiction films made in the American context, primarily from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s. In chronological order of release these are Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959), and The Leech Woman (1960), this last providing my primary or "tutor" text for its explicit and sustained focus on the process and horrors of aging. Indeed, in their variations on a theme, all three films are explicit.