Even before seeing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for the first time, I’ve always loved a good horror story. Even some that aren’t that good, so long as they fit into what has been dubbed the psycho-biddy subgenre of film.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? generated ten times its budget at the box office and got one Oscar out of its five nominations. Hollywood, never afraid of mining the same vein twice, took a short story called “What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?” and turned it into Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, providing another hit for Bette Davis—but not for Joan Crawford.
And so a whole line of similarly themed productions was born, often with dramatic punctuation included in the title. Tallulah Bankhead made her last big screen appearance in Die! Die! My Darling!, and Miss Crawford got one last money maker in Berserk! Even Geraldine Page got in on the action with What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? Henry Farrell had written Baby Jane and Charlotte, and he made another foray into this world with What’s the Matter with Helen? starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.
Arguably the last of these movies, starring Miss Winters again, is the least entertaining one but with perhaps the best title of them all. Who Slew Auntie Roo? just has such a ring to it, don’t you think?
Then there are the scary stories that can be found in books and short stories. Ira Levin is probably most remembered for writing Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, both of which were wonderfully terrifying books before he adapted them for the screen. Rosemary, the baby and the wives are not the scary ones in these works. Even Satan himself takes a backseat to the husband who offers up his wife to be the mother of the Anti-Christ so he can get better roles on Broadway and a shot at a Hollywood career.
And is it really murder if one replaces the wife with a robot, or fembot if you will, while retaining the essence if not the personality of one’s missus? The Stepford husbands didn’t seem to think so.
When it comes to mixing horror with sex, there’s Harvest Home. Take one “Harvest Lord” and one “Corn Maiden,” add a Connecticut village practicing pagan rites to ensure a good harvest, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a “Corn Play” that puts hoeing the fields in a whole new light. But once the field is plowed—so to speak—well, let’s just say there’s no future in being a former Harvest Lord. In fact, he isn’t even around to be appreciated for having made the ultimate sacrifice for the common good. Funny how that works out.
There’s a plethora of other works that merit mention for all the shivers that they have caused over the years, but the single one I can’t fail to mention is one of American literature’s most famous short stories, and many of us first read it in English class early in our high school years.
As you may remember, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” takes place in a small village of “about three hundred people” where a most unusual rite takes place on June 27 of each year. Even with its spare writing style, the story is told with an attention to detail that builds tension and suspense from the sighting of the first red flag: “Bobby Martin had already filled his pockets full of stones.”
Do you remember where this going? If you’ve ever read it, you probably do. In a place with a saying like “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” even the average 13 or 14 year old can figure out that somebody’s about to be sacrificed, ostensibly for that common good again, and that those stones in Bobby Martin’s pockets are going to be put to not-so-good use.
Perhaps you recall being horrified upon first reading this story. I know I couldn’t understand how about 299 people were either stuck in stupid or suffering from what might delicately be called guanophrenia. Of course, if you look at it by the numbers, the sacrifice rate is only 0.33%. Does that number work for everybody?
It’s fun to visit these scary make-believe worlds where people will do such things to stimulate the crop production or enhance their career opportunities or just avoid the inconvenience of troublesome spouses. Thank goodness we don’t live in one, right? Right.