Occasionally older, strong-willed women creep into the sex-saturated narrative of horror that traditionally wallows in the terrorizing and disposing of young ladies. There is something to the fact that whether their presence maintains, twists or rebukes the genre’s stereotypically repressive lessons about female sexuality that so often end in the punishment of women acting out of bounds, aging females are just not surveilled, possessed or subjugated in the same ways as their less mature counterparts. This leaves space for some nuance of character to seep in, injecting a much-needed alternative depiction of gender that is based on agency instead of being acted upon. While the roles are few and far between, the following actresses have contributed iconic or under the radar performances in horror. (This post contains spoilers.)
In the Poltergeist trilogy, medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) provides comfort, perspective, and exerts a powerful influence over the well-being of a little girl named Carol Anne. Latched onto by spirits who desperately cling to the light of her soul as a means of escaping their torment and limbo, Carol Anne needs Tangina to illuminate a path out of harm’s way. In the first movie her wisdom and expertise in the spiritual world is called upon by a crew of parapsychologists investigating Carol Anne’s disappearance. In all 3 movies Tangina unites the love of the Freeling family members in person or by proxy in order to keep Carol Anne in the land of the living. She helps “clean” their first house, reveals generations of clairvoyance in the Freeling women, and eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice for them. With her short stature and lilting voice, Tangina has an affectionately calming influence, yet is dead serious in her ambitions. She lifts the family out of despair and enables them to act as one to regain control of Carol Anne’s lifeforce. Impressively, the original Poltergeist affords Tangina genuine respect and prominence in the storyline without being condescending about her gifts or appearance. Zelda Rubinstein did not leave an extensive body of film work but had a cameo in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
Lin Shaye’s Elise, of the Insidious trilogy, follows in Zelda Rubinstein’s steps as a cordial medium drawn to help a family targeted by malevolent forces. She is the glue that holds the family together as they journey into a dangerous realm that she calls “The Further” to retrieve their son. Her acting doesn’t come across as forced, but smoothly adept at sinking into the mental state needed to contact the dead or send others into the darkness. Flanked by two bumbling sidekicks, she is a cool customer who weighs danger and confrontation with every step she takes. A consummate professional, she is integral to their survival, and like Tangina, gives her life for the family. Despite her passing, her character was considered remarkable enough to be included in the sequel and to be a main character in the prequel, Insidious: Chapter 3. This third segment continues to spotlight her competence and delves into her private life as she recovers from the loss of her husband. Elise’s judgement is the moral center of the Insidious movies and supersedes the quivering incompetence of the parents. Shaye also made an appearance in the Ouija movie (yes, based on the Hasbro licensed game). Hopefully Shaye becomes branded to horror and is given more opportunities to take the lead.
A nurturing, grandmother-like figure who provides vulnerable Rosemary (Mia Farrow) with food and friends in a new, strange building, Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet is so overtly generous that it’s suspicious. Minnie in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is bombastic, blunt and more than a little pushy with her advice. Her bright blue eyeshadow, neon pink rouge, and colorfully loud frocks are lively deviations from typical depictions of women in their waning years. There’s a frisky demeanor to the portrayal that only the boisterous Gordon (Harold and Maude, cowriter of the Katherine Hepburn-helmed Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike) could convey. She may knit, have home remedies at the ready, and worry about the new carpet, but everything else about her personality screams that she has ulterior motives. Entrusted to deliver Rosemary as a vessel for the spawn of Satan, she slickly worms her way into every facet of the protagonist’s life with a smothering efficiency. She brings in a nightmare circus of kooky friends as she surrounds Rosemary with a protective coven of witches. Aiding the development of the Prince of Darkness’s demon seed, she is unfettered by any setbacks or Rosemary’s trepidation the during painful incubation. Gordon’s masterful comedic timing and the smart inflections she mines from her dialogue help cement Rosemary’s Baby as a classic with dark charm.
Pulling a reverse Psycho, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) in the first Friday the 13th film channels her dead son as she stalks unsuspecting camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, whose abhorrent behavior triggers memories of what caused her poor Jason to die from neglect. In making Mrs. Voorhees the killer, the movie inadvertently gives her undeniable physical strength and determination. She is a woman able to move mountains to avenge the memory of her boy. Palmer is persuasively unstable and does her best to show the not so subtle ripples of mental illness emanating from her every word. Broken by the death and fueled by sanctimonious mania, she goes about dragging bodies through the woods, throwing them through windows, hanging them from trees, slitting throats and puncturing Kevin Bacon from underneath a mattress. Palmer’s cable knit sweater looks innocent enough, but soon a twitchy, hell-bent monster emerges and only decapitation will stop her momma bear rage.
There is a soft fragility to Barbara Crampton’s fearfulness and a grounded significance to her onscreen confidence as an actress who continues to amass a diverse filmography. Horror fans may recognize her name from the cult classic Re-Animator. In Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, she briefly brushes with death before meeting her own grisly end. She doesn’t look like your average mom or grandmother, sophisticated and composed in a way that doesn’t bombard the audience with tropes of how she is supposed to conduct herself as an older woman. In We Are Still Here, she is a witness to gruesome death while still in recovery from her son’s untimely demise in a car accident. She is a pitiable epicenter of emotion, which surprisingly keeps her safe from spirits that slaughter a family every 30 years who happen to occupy the space that was host to their deaths. Although she is not strong or crafty in ways that help heroines usually survive such fare, her profound connection to what she’s lost guides her away from injury. We Are Still Here legitimizes her sentiments instead of trivializing them. The solemn deference that the film shows her character is consequential- a woman can’t always run away or hide from danger. There are some feelings that must be faced head-on to be excised.