psycho-biddy+Grand (Dame) Guignol

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 1 11:45:10 UTC 2011

The Wiki entry for psycho-biddy, describing a literary and cinematic
genre originated and inspired by Henry Farrell, currently has a bunch of
terms that appear to elude dictionaries, yet do not appear to be
particularly representative of literary criticism jargon. I'll just copy
a couple of paragraphs and you can decide what's worth pursuit. [the
relevant terms marked*]

> Psycho-biddy* is a colloquial term for a sub-genre of the
> horror/thriller movie also known by the name Older women in peril,
> which was most prevalent from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s.
> The genre has also been variously nicknamed by the press as
> "hagsploitation*," "hag horror" and "Grande Dame Guignol*."
> ...
> Psycho-biddy thrillers are a bricolage of many genre elements and
> themes: gothic, Grand Guignol*, black comedy, psycho-drama, melodrama,
> revenge, camp* and even the musical. But none of these, nor their
> combination, mark a particular movie as belonging to this peculiar
> sub-genre.
> A psycho-biddy movie, by its very nomenclature, must possess a
> psycho-biddy: a dangerous, insane or mentally unstable woman of
> advanced years. In some cases, the woman may be in jeopardy of some
> sort, with another party attempting to drive her to mental
> instability. Often (but not always), there are two older women pitted
> against one another in a life-or-death struggle, usually the result of
> bitter hatreds, jealousies, or rivalries that have percolated over the
> course of not years, but decades. These combatants are often
> blood-relatives and live a life of relative wealth.
> The psychotic character is often brought to life in an over-the-top,
> grotesque fashion, emphasizing the unglamorous process of aging and
> eventual death. Characters are often seen pining for lost youth and
> glory, trapped by their idealized memories of their childhood, or
> youth, and the traumas that haunt their past.

Psycho-biddy ends up with 195K raw ghits, so it's not a locally made-up
term. Grand Guignol was a French theatre (1897-1962) "specializing in
naturalistic horror" (with both the theatre and the style having been
replicated several times in both London and NYC), but "Grand dame
Guignol" is something else entirely (Mommie Dearest?). OED has Grand
Guignol from 1908, with etymology credit to the theatre.
"Hagsploitation" is a rather obvious formation, paralleling
blacksploitation, etc., in the most unflattering way. (I suppose, "hag
horror" is in a similar position, but it's less interesting--and I don't
expect to find either one in a dictionary.) And "camp" has an OED entry
(n.5 and adj.) that only partially matches the meaning (also campy adj.,
which simply redirects to camp).

> A. adj.
> Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or
> homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals.
> B. n.5
> 'Camp' behaviour, mannerisms, etc. (see quot. 1909 at sense A.); a man
> exhibiting such behaviour.

Only the later quotes are approaching the right sense (matching the one

> 1954    C. Isherwood World in Evening ii. iii. 125   High Camp is the
> whole emotional basis of the Ballet... and of course of Baroque art.
> 1964    S. Sontag in Partisan Rev. XXXI. 515 (title)    Notes on 'Camp'.

"Gothic" is meant to match a late OED addition (2007). And, again, as
with "camp", there are shades of meaning that the OED definition does
not quite reflect. (But it's close enough--as long as it includes drama
and film.)

> Of or designating a genre of fiction characterized by suspenseful,
> sensational plots involving supernatural or macabre elements and often
> (esp. in early use) having a medieval theme or setting.

Interestingly, there is one film that combines all these elements but
musical--"gothic, Grand Guignol, black comedy, psycho-drama, melodrama,
revenge, camp"--with an apparently aging heroine (that turns out not to
exist) in an apparent parody on the genre. I'm speaking, of course, of
Psycho (which even got multiple meaning of "camp"). It makes me wonder
if people editing the Wiki article were thinking of Hitchcock when they
wrote it.

The two earliest OED quotes on Grand Guignol don't appear to refer to
the style but rather to the theatre itself--only in the most charitable
view can one conclude the opposite.

> A dramatic entertainment in which short pieces of a sensational or
> horrific kind are played successively. Also transf.
> 1908 Sat. Rev. 397/2   To act well in the Grand-Guignol postulates...
> as much art as in any other theatre.
> 1920    H. B. Irving in M. Level Crises p. iii,   M. Level has given
> literary expression of a high order to the compact horrors of the
> Grand Guignol.

Assuming this is the case, I can push this one back.
How Paris amuses itself. By Frank Berkeley Smith. 1903
p. 88
> Just such realism is typical of the Grand Guignol.
> Even smaller than the Grand Guignol is the cozy "Theatre des
> Mathurins," with a pretty foyer twice the size of its small
> auditorium, which scarcely holds two hundred.

Note that the first sentence above, taken out of context, can be very
easily read as representative of the definition, but, in reality, talk
about the theatre.

Not all is lost, however, on the other front, as there is one other,
perhaps closer to the more general sense desired.
The Bystander. March 14, 1906
Paris Week by Week. p. 532
> An amusing incident has been "suffocated"--as they say here--in Nice,
> but not before a popular playwright had heard of it and introduced it
> to a /théâtre à côté, /one of the side-shows where success depends on
> the culling and preparing of the events of the day. In culinary
> parlance, these events must be served hot and seasoned to taste. And
> at the Grand Guignol the seasoning is not stinted. Some would have
> liked the dish passed twice. But everybody knows that in polite
> Society this is impossible. The incident is sensational and very
> up-to-date. A certain lady, young, elegant, and pretty, with an
> exquisite distinction of manner and the slightest foreign accent,
> found her way into a smart set in the yachting world.
> ...
> Who was she? What was she? An adventuress? No. Something much more
> up-to date--a Society business-woman! A beauty doctor. ... As she
> expected, the ladies at once turned their backs upon her as a Society
> woman--and all went to her as clients.

Clearly this does not refer to THE Grand Guignol theatre, as it is in
Paris. In fact, nowhere does it show that it refers to a specific
theatre by that name.

The really interesting bit appears still earlier.
Harper's guide to Paris and the exposition of 1900
Preliminary Promenade. p. 149/1
> The sixth section of the Exposition maybe rapidly disposed of. It
> stretches, on the banksof the Seine, from the Alma Bridge to the
> Invalides Bridge. Starting from the former bridge, the first building
> we notice is the Palace of Congresses and of Social Economy, following
> which is the Palace of Horticulture. Most of the congresses organized
> in connection with the Exposition take place in the first-mentioned
> building. On our left, we observe quite a number of small restaurants
> and minor Exposition attractions, which have been studded here and
> there on Cours-la-Reine; these are the " Haunted House," the "Gay
> Authors," the "Guillaume Marionnettes Theatre," the "Grand Guignol,"
> the "Black Cat," the " Roulotte," the "Tableaux Vivants," and the "
> House of Laughter" /(Maison du Rire)./

The Attractions of the Exposition. p. 178/1
> The various attractions of the Exposition may be divided into prices
> range from 40 cents to 1 two groups, A and B, the first comprising the
> more important amusements, the second the minor shows:
> Group A.
> 1. Around the World.
> 2. Aquarium of Paris.
> ...
> Group B.
> 1. Alpine Club.
> 2. Algerian Section.
> 3. Panorama of French Congo.
> ...
> 11. Grand Guignol.
> ...
> 14. Translatlantic Panorama.

There is little doubt that the referent here is some kind of theatre
set-up, but, again, it does not appear to be THE theatre Grand Guignol.
Whichever way it cuts, this does appear to be the earliest available
mention in English. [No non-mistagged hits in English show up pre-1900.
There are a few mentions of the theatre between 1900 and 1903, but they
all use the full French name.] In fact, all four accounts of the Paris
Exposition include a mention of the Grand Guignol among other paid
attractions (including one that says that American Biograph took up
residence there). It's not THE Grand Guignol but it's certainly a Grand
Guignol set-up away from the main theatre, so from the same company.

There is one more find worth mentioning in this context. It's a
publication slightly earlier in 1908 than the OED citation. But it has
an advantage of referring to the "Grand Guignol" performances, rather
than theatre, and makes an explicit connection to the Punch-and-Judy
show, which is where Guignol comes from to begin with.
Punch. April 1, 1908
Why Not? p. 236/1
> The "Grand Guignol" performances by the Parisian company at the
> Shaftesbury Theatre have so successfully tickled the palates of jaded
> British playgoers in search of a really cheery entertainment that
> before long we shall probably see some enterprising London manager
> providing them with something similar, in a language they understand
> even better than French. The theatre will perhaps be re-christened
> "The Grown-up Punch and Judy Playhouse," or "The Snippet Show," and
> the morning after the opening /Mr. Punch /anticipates finding in his
> daily journal some such notice as the following: --

The claim proved to be prophetic, although it took another 12 years.


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