I’m a sucker for the horror genre, specifically films that involve older women tormenting younger people. I am drawn to these films for a few reasons. Maybe I like to imagine myself embodying one of these characters when I am older, or perhaps there is something amusing about older women challenging the Hollywood stereotype.

Psycho-biddies, short for psychological thrillers and “old biddy,” is a unique film genre. It may be difficult to understand what it is upon first hearing the term, but after watching a film of this kind, one will be well-versed in this style. Psycho-biddies possess cult classic roots, but they play a vital role in film history.

In this article, you will explore the genre, its importance, and examples you can draw on to create your own psycho-biddy movie.

A black and white image of Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis in 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte'Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis in 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte'Credit: 20th Century Fox

The Disaster Genre in Film and TV Explained (Definition & Examples)

The psycho-biddy genre is vague in its definition, but a few examples of the genre in film and TV will help paint a clear picture of what makes one of these films possible.

Let's take a look at what makes a psycho-biddy movie possible by exploring the definition of a psycho-biddy film, its limitations, and some examples you can use for reference.

What is the Psycho-Biddy Genre? 

Psycho-biddy films, sometimes referred to as “hagsplotiation,” “hag horror,” and "grand dame guignol," are a subgenre of horror/thriller movies that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

These films typically feature an older, wealthy woman as the protagonist, who is usually in a state of psychological distress or trapped in a situation where she is threatened by a younger woman, typically a relative or caregiver. The films often involve themes of madness, paranoia, and control, with the main character often being haunted by their past or driven to the brink of insanity.

The genre began in 1962 with director Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? However, the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard shares many thematic and plot similarities with Aldrich’s film and is often referred to as the precursor to the genre.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stars Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson and Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson. It shot the older movie stars back into the spotlight as the film garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, including one for Davis as Best Actress.

As Hollywood shifted from the old era to the new in the 1960s, the actresses that dazzled in the Golden Age of Hollywood as romantic leads and heroines were now a little too old for producers to know how to market them. Naturally, schlock and exploitation came in to save the day, and a new trend took over in which aging stars started appearing in horror movies, portraying women who were dangerous, damaged, and where unhinged.

While the psycho-biddy genre did offer opportunities for older actresses to play significant roles, it was ultimately a niche genre that reinforced ageism and sexism in Hollywood, as it was often difficult for actresses over a certain age to find work in mainstream films.

A black and white still of Bette Davis as Jane Hudson in 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane''What Ever Happened to Baby Jane'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Tropes of Psycho-Biddy

Baby Jane defined many of the tropes within the psycho-biddy genre. Some of these tropes in these domestic horror films that we often see include:

  • The aging female protagonist

  • Isolated setting

  • Threatening younger woman 

  • Twist ending

  • Flashbacks

  • Gothic aesthetic

  • The portrayal of mental illness 

Not all of these elements have to be present for a film to be considered psycho-biddy. However, these tropes ground these films into a genre that is no longer well-known to the film community.

Elizabeth Taylor as Ellen Wheeler in the 1973 film 'Night Watch'Elizabeth Taylor as Ellen Wheeler in 'Night Watch'Credit: Avco Embassy Pictures

The Shortcomings of Psycho-Biddy Films

While psycho-biddy films have their place in cinema history and offer a unique and intriguing subgenre of horror/thriller movies, they also have their flaws and limitations.

One criticism is that the genre reinforces negative stereotypes about aging women, portraying them as haggard, demented, and unattractive, and often victimizing them. Additionally, some argue that the genre exploits and mocks the actresses who play the leading roles, reducing them to caricatures of their former selves.

Some argue that the genre perpetuates the patriarchy by presenting a distorted view of women’s relationships, where they are either enemies or victims of each other, rather than supporting and uplifting one another.

Another issue with the genre is the portrayal of mental illness. The films often depict mental illness as something to be feared and sensationalized, rather than a serious medical condition that requires treatment and empathy.

Toni Collette as Annie Graham in the 2018 film 'Hereditary'Toni Collette as Annie Graham in 'Hereditary'Credit: A24

Psycho-Biddy Genre Examples

While the psycho-biddy genre isn’t the most well-known or flourishing genre in film, it does provide older actresses with scene-stealing roles that are captivating while subverting traditional gender roles, addressing important social issues, and influential horror films that step outside the boundaries of the genre.

Some of the most notable psycho-biddy films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Nanny. While the genre become oversaturated and died by the 70s, there has been a small comeback with films like Ma, Greta, Notes on a Scandal, Hereditary,and Misery.

Psycho-biddy films are an important part of film history that challenged traditional gender roles and addressed important social issues. They paved the way for later horror films and helped to create a more nuanced portrayal of women in film.

Since the genre is relatively unknown and varies in quality, I recommend that you try to write your own psycho-biddy. It might help you to think of your mother (or a friend’s mother) in the most unhinged way possible when outlining the plot of your screenplay. There’s a good amount of fun in writing a heightened reality, and it looks even better on film.

What other psycho-biddy films do you love? Let us know why in the comments below!