Since we could walk on two legs we have feared the dark and so we drove it back with fire and with electricity and eventually with screens. We realised our fears on pages and paintings and film. We gave them names and faces and shapes. Humanity invented horror to fight back against the shadows in our heads and in the woods. Our fears originated in the form of ancient rites, dark forests and weird women. So we named it folk horror and it lay mostly forgotten as we moved into big cities with bright lights and IMAX screens but we never got rid of it. It’s still there in the dark, just behind the treeline, watching…
Folk Horror for Beginners: Pagan Rites and Puritanism.
Never mind folk horror it can be hard to know where to start with horror. There are so many variants like ghost stories, monster movies or possession films. It really depends on how you like to be scared. Do you want to jump out of your seat? Do you want the hairs on the back of your neck to stay standing for two hours? Would you rather be left looking over your shoulder on the dark walk home from the cinema? Folk horror, being its own unique genre, can’t provide atomic lizards or monsters born from grief but it can provide a whole lot else.
About halfway through cinema’s lifespan folk horror came into being. It had been there before in books and paintings and folk tales but 1968 was the first time folk horror would appear on screen. Guiding it into its new life was horror luminary Vincent Price. Witchfinder General is a cruel, brutal film about Mathew Hopkins (Price) a conman lawyer turned phoney witch hunter during the English Civil War. After he kidnaps and brutalises Sara (Hilary Dwyer) the fiancée of English soldier Richard (Ian Ogilvy) Hopkins finds himself chased across a lawless land by the vengeful Richard.
Witchfinder General is pretty basic as folk horror goes but it’s effective as it is and would have signalled a long career for director Michael Reeves had he not died months after its release. Still the movie paved the way for colder, crueller and more brutal films in the folk horror mode especially Blood on Satan’s Claw in 1971 and The Wicker Man in 1973. The Wicker Man – not the Nic Cage version – was made in a reactionary time and its period setting reflects the rise of a conservative right and the fears they projected onto everything outside of their high iron gates.
The land beyond the borders of the big cities is a terrifying place. It’s rife with pollen and manure and biting insects but that’s not what bothers religious policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) on his investigation into the mysterious pagan inhabitants of the remote island of Summerisle. What bothers him is how, in the relatively modern setting of the 1970s, a pagan cult can practice its obscene rites in plain sight. Much like Witchfinder General nothing supernatural actually happens in The Wicker Man but its pagan trappings along with another horror icon – Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle – in the antagonist role ensured it’s success as much as its brightly lit yet nightmarish ending did.
Intermediate Folk Horror: The Woods and the Witches Within.
In the same year as The Wicker Man came out in England legendary director George A. Romero was making Season of the Witch in America. The occult exists only on the margins in Season of the Witch with main character Joan Mitchell (Jan White) practicing spells to make herself younger and more attractive but witches are a distinct part of folklore and as such they are a distinct part of folk horror. But it’s hard to find a lot of folk horror between the initial unholy trinity of films Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man. Horror took a different turn from the late 70s onwards. Masked men with knives, aliens and Japanese ghosts all came and went in popularity but the woods were permanent.
The darkness beneath a dense canopy provokes a distinct sense of unease especially in forests that have clearly never known human habitation. That feeling of threatening otherworldliness is something that people often bring themselves to or that invades and takes over our safe spaces. Unprepared tourists are gutted and eaten by an ancient Nordic god that inhabits an oppressive, dark wood in The Ritual. Arrogant, prideful settlers attempt to farm the land beside grim, brooding trees that harbour a witch in Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch.
The Witch kicks into motion with a game of peek-a-boo. Eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing with her new-born brother Sam. The scene is beautifully done, transitioning from childish exuberance to cold dread in an instant. After the third peek-a-boo we see Thomasin’s face frozen in a grin before fading to anxious dread. Cutting to where Sam was there is only dead grass. The camera looks up at that dreadful wood and a lone conifer sapling moves as if something has brushed heavily against it. All is not well in Puritan New England.
What follows is a scene so horrifying that it confirms we are still unbearably close to the nightmares of madness and disease presented in that earlier spiritual trilogy. Folk horror, any horror even, is mostly effectively gruesome window dressing on themes that could be just as easily tackled in a drama. But where’s the fun in plain old drama? Following Sam’s kidnap at the hands of the Witch, Thomasin’s Puritan family begins to disintegrate. Katherine (Kate Dickie), the mother, falls into despair while the father William (Ralph Ineson) pridefully, stubbornly sets himself to the task of saving his failing farm at the expense of saving his family. All under the patient, watchful eye of the billy goat Black Phillip.
The Witch tells a very modern story despite it’s 16th Century setting. The breakdown of the nuclear family is something we’ve been terrified of ever since the term was coined. Eggers presents it as outside Satanic forces working with something that was already there to begin with. It’s a nasty, mean idea that all we need is a little push and we’re hurtling over the edge. So it goes in The Witch and so it went in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.
Advanced Folk Horror: Disconnection and Disillusionment
Kill List is about the gradual breakdown of the modern nuclear family as outside forces push against it and widen the cracks in the unit. Wheatley, who would later make the hallucinogenic folk horror A Field in England, brought folk horror into the grey urban spaces of suburbia with Kill List. The film opens with hitman Jay (Neil Maskell) at home after being injured while carrying out a contract killing abroad. The film sets its tone quickly as Jay cooks and eats a rabbit the family cat kills. Soon Jay, along with his friend and fellow hitman Gal (Michael Smiley), takes a new job out of financial pressure. Oddly he signs the contract in blood.
From there Jay and Gal kill a priest, a librarian and a politician. After killing the priest they are forced to reckon with the fact that the librarian is actually a snuff movie peddler and the politician is the leader of a cult. The film’s third act descends into a torch-lit nightmare as Jay races to save the family he was originally so distant from. Folk horror, as films like Kill List show, is perhaps the most effective at prodding the area of the mind where our deepest fears lie.
It’s all too easy to become disconnected from the people we love in the modern world but it’s just as easy to become disillusioned with the modern world as a whole. Midsommar acknowledges this. Graduate student Dani (Florence Pugh) is the sufferer of a recent triple bereavement and finds little comfort in the arms and words of her shitty, cowardly boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Rather than manning up and breaking up with her, Christian instead decides to extend their loveless, strained relationship by inviting Dani on a retreat to a small Swedish village. Of course little do Dani, Christian and their companions know that these Swedes are committed pagans bent on ritual human sacrifice.
From the viewpoint of most of the characters as well as most of the audience Midsommar is a folk horror film full of gory sacrifices, burning effigies and secret fertility rites. In the eyes of Dani and its director Ari Aster though, it can just as easily be seen as a fairy-tale power fantasy. Disconnected from everything she knows and loves Dani, unlike the others, begins to feel a sense of belonging and family with the cult known as the Harga.
Almost from the very start she is disillusioned with what modern society with its contemporary values can offer just as she is disillusioned with her relationship. The agrarian lifestyle and unique harmony of the commune give Dani a sense of peace while shredding the nerves and eventually the flesh of her companions. In that final fiery and flowery climax we see how folk horror can offer something else entirely to those willing to look; a sentiment shared by The Witch and last year’s Netflix release Apostle.
New Nightmares of the Natural World
It’s easy to see a change between the old guard and the newer folk horror films in how they address real world issues. In Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man the rejection of the status quo and the rules of modern society meant death. In films like Kill List, The Witch or Midsommar it can be seen in a slightly more positive note. Stepping away from modern society and all of its imprisoning rules can offer palpable relief. After all isn’t it modern society that’s destroying the natural world? Embracing nature is perhaps the only way to survive in these films. In this we see a parallel theme in eco-horror movies like Annihilation, In the Tall Grass and Color Out of Space. Treating the natural order so poorly might mean that the natural order will strike back. Best perhaps to let sleeping woods lie.