Posted on July 20, 2015

The Leech Woman and the Horror of Old Women


As part of a series of posts on horror films of the 1950s, I’d like to revisit a 1960 film directed by Edward Dein, The Leech Woman. In my last post, I argued that The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) had much to say about environmental crisis and race; The Leech Woman is equally relevant—taking up the issue of aging, specifically the way aging women have figured in the horror film.

The film begins with Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry), who is in search of a way to slow the aging process and thus make himself a wealthy man. One day an elderly African-American woman, Malla (Estelle Hemsley) comes to see him, claiming she’s a 152-year-old former slave. Her story of a substance that can sustain youth, held secret by her tribe in Africa, lures Talbot into the jungle. He brings along his wife, June (Coleen Gray), who is a decade older than he is. All we need to know about the state of their marriage is implicit in a comment he makes early in the film (and which serves as a virtual tagline for the film): “Old women always give me the creeps.”

Paul plans to use June as his guinea pig, but she turns the tables on him, sacrificing him for her own return to youth. For it turns out that when Malla’s powder is mixed with fluid from a man’s pineal gland (in a ritual that involves that man’s death), an utter transformation takes place—from age to youth in a moment. June thus sacrifices with alacrity the dubious pleasures of her marriage for an instant return to youth and beauty. Unfortunately, the transformation is temporary—and June is forced to go to ever increasing lengths to stave off aging.

The Leech Woman is not subtle about its politics, preaching about the double standard that makes youth and beauty absolutely crucial to women while offering men other options. Malla makes this feminist message quite overt:

For a man, old age has rewards—if he is wise. His gray hairs bring dignity and he is treated with honor and respect. But for the aged woman, there is nothing. At best she is pitied. More often her lot is of contempt and neglect.

The dying Malla then performs the ritual sacrifice of a man in order to get her final return to love and beauty.

The aged Malla

The aged Malla

The transformed, young Malla (Kim Hamilton)

The transformed, young Malla (Kim Hamilton)

Vivian Sobchack has astutely written that The Leech Woman is “extraordinary” in its “explicit address of the horrors of female aging in a patriarchal society.”[1] But I want to push Sobchack’s analysis a bit further and argue that The Leech Woman not only presents the “horrors of female aging,” but also the “suddenness,” even the “trauma,” of aging.

What June experiences throughout the second half of the film is not a gradual process of aging but its sudden and horrific onset. June experiences the shock of aging. And indeed, the horror film, which trades in shock as part of the affect it routinely elicits, is the perfect venue through which to explore aging as shock.

The first time June transforms back from youthful beauty to horrifying hag, she is still in the jungle with Bertram Garvey (John Van Dreelen), who helped her escape from the Nandos tribe. They’ve clearly developed an intimate relationship, but when she becomes old he is utterly repelled: “Take your hands off me. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Get away from me,” he yells at her.

3. Leech woman

The second time, back at home, June’s turn is even more sudden, as she notices her wrinkled hand while she’s kissing another young man, prompting her to shove him out the bedroom door.

4. Leech woman, June turns2

The final time she changes, June is kissing the same young man, who has just proposed to her. This time, though, June realizes the anti-aging potion is no longer working and throws herself out the window in despair.

5. Leech Woman, June with Neil

6. Leecfh Woman, June turns3The final shot of the film is of her decomposing face—right after a shot of three men looking down at her in disgust.

7. Leech Woman, final shot

In its visual representation of women’s aging as shock, The Leech Woman anticipates philosopher Catherine Malabou’s exploration of aging as a kind of trauma—one that can alienate the self almost as fully and suddenly as a catastrophic brain injury. Indeed, Malabou suggests that aging is very much like a “lesion.” In the end, “it may be that for each one of us, aging arises all of a sudden, in an instant, like a trauma, and that it suddenly transforms us, without warning, into an unknown subject.”[2] Aging, according to Malabou, can effect such a radical change in the self that it ushers in a devastating self-alienation. It’s not surprising, then, that this idea—aging as shock—would make its way into the horror film.

And there is, indeed, a long tradition of making the old woman a “shock” in the horror film. 1960 also saw the release of Psycho, with its climactic moment in the fruit cellar when Lila discovers Mrs. Bates (an image not unlike the final shot of The Leech Woman).

8. Psycho, Lila finds mother

The ending of Insidious (2010) derives its shocking power solely from the sudden appearance of the old woman.

9. Insidious, Old woman, ending

Both Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) and Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) lead up to the shocking appearance of witches, who suddenly manifest in the frame.

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity 4

And at the heart of the recent It Follows (2014) is a scene in which the audience suddenly becomes aware of an old woman who is following the protagonist.

12. It Follows, old woman

All of these films encode the old woman as shock. In doing so, they certainly get at some of what it feels like to be an aging woman in a society that continues to value youth and beauty especially in women. Sadly, these films also, in trading on the old woman as horrifying, in using her for shock value, actually end up perpetuating that same valuation of youth and beauty.

[1] Vivian Sobchack, “Revenge of The Leech Woman: On the Dread of Aging in a Low-Budget Horror Movie,” in The Horror Reader, ed. Ken Gelder (New York: Routledge, 2000), 342.

[2] Catherine Malabou, Ontology of the Accident (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012), 49, 52.

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