Not every grandmotherly type bakes cookies.
Scary movies often twist the familiar and benign into the weird and menacing, and what’s more frightening than finding out that the kindly old lady is anything but? The most recent movie to play into the “grannies gone bad” trope is The Visit, a surprise hit that’s spent the past month in the box office Top 10 and which features stage actress Deanna Dunagan as a grandmother who is just not quite right. (Thanks to her performance, Yahtzee will never be the same.)
And with a tip of the hat to Dunagan’s delightfully unhinged performance in The Visit, we’re listing off cinema’s scariest “women of a certain age.”
(Heads up: Some of the below clips may be NSFW. Horror movies, y’all.)
1. Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980)
Actress Besty Palmer famously hated the film (and reportedly only took the role because she needed to buy a new car), but nonetheless became a horror legend for playing Pamela Voorhees, who bumped off Kevin Bacon and the rest of the camp counselors in the original Friday the 13th before her son took over the family business in the sequels. Only 56 when the film hit theaters, Palmer nonetheless embodies a key “scary senior lady” trait: a veneer of kindliness that melts away into pure evil.
2. Grandma Lois in Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t started with this series yet – and you’d better get going, as there are already six of them – but all the badness happens as a result of Lois (Hallie Foote), grandmother to Katie and Kristi, the female protagonists in the first two movies, respectively. She’s made some sort of pact with the series’ demonic villain that makes life literal hell for everyone else in her family.
3. Norma Bates in Psycho (1960)
She’s possibly the most famous old lady in horror movies, despite the fact that she only exists in corpse form. However, this possessive, abusive woman lives on in the mind of her demented son, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Psycho 2 features two more biddies to watch out for: Vera Miles (star of the first film, reprising her role as the sister of Janet Leigh’s character), who plots against Norman upon his release from the asylum and Mrs. Spool (Claudia Bryar), who reveals herself to be Norman’s biological mother and who promptly becomes the new corpse being kept in the fruit cellar.
4. Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
One reason not to knock horror as a genre: Ruth Gordon scored an Oscar nomination for her role as Minnie, the neighbor whose nosiness into the personal life of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) turns out to be a lot more than grandmotherly concern. She’s actually the second-in-command in a cult that wants Rosemary to bear the son of Satan himself, and she’s flanked by a whole apartment building full of the evil elderly.
Celebs Reveal: My Favorite Scary Movie!
5. Olivia Foxwoth in Flowers in the Attic (1987)
Played by Louise Fletcher in the 1987 adaptation and Ellen Burstyn in the remake, this grandma is the absolute worst: cruel and abusive and quite likely driven mad by the fact that her grandchildren are the result of an incestuous union. Yes, the Dollanganger family has some major issues, but in either film, Grandma isn’t helping. No, it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense, but Flowers in the Attic is nonetheless a showcase for the evil humans can unleash on each other.
6. Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
A campy thriller that became a classic largely thanks to the fact that its stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, allegedly loathed each other in real life, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? tells the story about how hatred between two sisters can lead to madness when stretched out across decades. As the loonier of the two, Davis delivers a performance that elicits both fear and pity, and the film was so successful that it launched an entire thriller subgenre about old women doing awful things to each other: hagsploitation. Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave played the roles in a 1991 remake in which the former plays Baby Jane as even further over the edge.
7. The entire female cast of Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Initially intended as a reunion vehicle for Davis and Crawford, this film doubles down on the number of crazed old ladies, with Davis, Olivia de Havilland (replacing Crawford), Agnes Moorehead and Mary Astor playing four elderly women scheming to undo each other in a crumbling New Orleans mansion.
8. Helen Hill in What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)
Another brilliantly titled entry in the hagsploitation genre, this one has Shelley Winters playing the title character – a repressed lesbian religious zealot who slides further and further into madness while she’s trying to coach an acting school for Shirley Temple wannabes. Yes, there’s a lot going on in this one. Co-star Debbie Reynolds has some great scenes too, and it’s fascinating to watch two acclaimed actresses get enveloped by macabre mayhem.
9. Martha in Hush (1998)
Critically maligned upon its release, this thriller might be of interest today to American Horror Story fans interested in Jessica Lange’s earlier genre work. Hush has Lange playing the world’s worst mother-in-law opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. Lange camps it up as the villain, and why yes, in fact, there is a climactic slapping scene.
10. Helena Markos in Suspiria (1977)
Quite possibly the scariest of the old ladies on this list, Helena Markos (Lela Svasta) is an evil witch residing in a German ballet school that’s a front for a coven. She’s unseen for most of the film, but her dark influence causes all manner of horror for American dancer Suzy (Jessica Harper), who ultimately has to faceoff with Markos in her neon-glam boudoir.
11. Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell (2009)
The only horror movie that’s also an indictment of the banking industry, Drag Me to Hell features Alison Lohman as an assistant bank manager who makes the mistake of rejecting Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) for a loan. Loman’s character must consequently deal with a curse Ganush places on her for her insolence. It doesn’t end well. The moral? Be nicer to old ladies.
12. The grandmother in Grandma’s House (1988)
The Visit wasn’t the first film to squeeze horror out of the dread of an extended stay with Grandma. This low-budge thriller has a similar set-up, and the trailer tease says it all: “David and Lynn have been sent to live at Grandma’s House. They may as well have been sent straight to hell.” Another? “Grandma’s house: She’ll spoil you to death.”
13. Gladys in Legion (2010)
She’s not in the film very long, but in her brief appearance in the humans-versus-demons flick Legion, Jeanette Miller’s character exemplifies the “scary granny” character: sweet as fresh-baked cookies one moment, terrifying the next. (Miller, BTW, also played Aunt Edie on The Middle. Think of this scene the next time you catch her in a rerun.)