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September 1, 2015

All-time scariest TV characters -- #7: Widow Fortune

by Liz Finn-Arnold, posted Oct 24th 2007 12:00PM
The Dark Secret of Harvest HomeCharacter: Widow Fortune
Show: The Dark Secret of Harvest Home
Episode: Mini-series

I recently watched R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour: Don't Think About it with my children and I had an epiphany -- TV was a lot creepier when I was a kid. We didn't watch water-downed kiddie horror. We watched what the adults watched when they obviously didn't know we were watching.

My parents didn't allow me to see scary movies, such as The Amityville Horror or The Exorcist. Yet, somehow they didn't stop me from viewing all sorts of frightening TV, including the The Twilight Zone , Chiller Theater, Salem's Lot, Frankenstein: The True Story, The Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

However, it was The Dark Secret of Harvest Home that left the greatest impression on me -- thanks in a large part to Bette Davis in the role of the creepiest senior citizen ever. Davis played the sinister Widow Fortune so brilliantly that almost 30 years later, I still remember it vividly.

The 1978 film was directed by Leo Penn (Sean's dad) and is based on the 1973 book by Thomas Tryon. The Dark Secret of Harvest Home begins when an artist, Nick Constantine, moves his family from NYC to the quiet Connecticut countryside. But things are not as they seem. This quaint town is home to a bizarre pagan fertility ritual in which the "Corn Maiden" and "Harvest Lord" mate right before the Harvest Lord is ceremoniously slaughtered.

By the time Nick discovers Harvest Home's dark secret, it's too late. His wife and teen daughter are under the spell of the town's controlling matriarch, Widow Fortune. And at the Widow's command, Nick has his eyes gouged out and his tongue cut off. He is a man stripped of his power and virility -- beaten by an elderly widow and her pagan posse.

Widow FortuneFor a long time after watching Harvest Home, I was afraid of old ladies -- especially widows with white hair. Bette Davis wielded those sharp scissors and a sharper tongue and convinced a whole village of young, fertile women that men were needed only for their seeds and nothing more. That she seemed so nice and maternal on the surface, and yet was really the head crazy in a town full of crazies, only made her that much scarier. After all, she wasn't a traditional monster. She was just a midwife and herbalist with healing powers. Plus she looked like a sweet little grandma. Only she was really Charles Manson with a bun -- a charismatic cult leader who could convince her followers to commit unspeakable atrocities.

I applaud Bette Davis for taking on such a bizarre acting role later in life. As a kid, I couldn't imagine she was anything besides the insane character of Widow Fortune. Later, I came to appreciate her larger body of work (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Jezebel and All About Eve). And I realized that throughout her long career, Bette Davis was an actress who wasn't afraid to play eccentric, unsympathetic characters. She probably wouldn't mind that some of us remember her best as Widow Fortune.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, like many other made-for-TV horror films that thrilled and chilled me as a kid, wasn't really appropriate for a child. And I'd never let my own kids watch half the stuff I watched back then. But sometimes I miss those good old-fashioned gothic TV tales with their unforgettable creepy characters. This probably explains why Dexter is currently one of my favorite shows on TV, as well as one of my favorite TV characters.

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I think I've seen this but as an adult. I love all those 1970s Devil Movies like "The Sentinel" They are creepy but nothing compared to the Freddy movies of my teens and the Saw movies of my 30s. I believe the 1970s Devil Movies were a poor man's attempt to cash in on Rosemary's Baby and the Exorcist.

March 30 2015 at 7:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


October 28 2007 at 9:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bette Davis was also in "The Watcher in the Woods," one of the creepiest movies Disney ever made.

October 25 2007 at 11:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This was quite a chilling movie. I still think of that poor man, trying to eat without a tongue.

October 24 2007 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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