I thought there was room to squeeze in another Halloween special before the magic begins; and what better than an article on the hottest creepy sub-genre of recent times!
Now largely undefined by location or tropes, ‘folk horror’ was originally used to describe a particular genre of British films spanning the late 1960s to 1970s. It was first mentioned by Piers Haggard in reference to his film: The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).
An unsettling je ne sais quoi, folk horror is like country mist in a magic bottle placed on an altar in the deep forests of a faraway sea-lashed isle. At least that’s probably the best way I can describe it!
Not sure where to start? Read this great article on the BFI website which introduces the reader to the famous trilogy of 20th century folk horror: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wickerman (1973).
As my favourite sub-genre it’s something I would love to try as part of widening my writing palette, so I’ve analysed some common elements to try and pin it down.
Let’s take a closer look…
Pre-Christian, uh, stuff
Although technically speaking it doesn’t have to be Christianity (this could be any established religion to which the majority conform), folk horror has made fine use of contrasting this with a pagan/folkloric belief system, most commonly Celtic paganism.
Why does this make us feel uneasy?
Well, apart from the fact that it often belongs to a cultish group that doesn’t comply with the norm as in The Wicker Man; I think there are many reasons we find this unsettling.
For a start it’s the unknown, taking us out of established beliefs into an existential crisis where we’re not quite sure what we should believe in. In other words, we can’t rely on what we ‘know’ anymore.
Another reason is that on some level I think we have an uneasy relationship with our forebears, who in some ways were so different from us (#ritual, #rites), that we find it hard to marry this with our modern sensibilities.
Although we have to take actual wicker men with a grain of salt (we know how kind the Romans were when writing their histories), it’s true that practices we’d consider abhorrent today were part of day to day life thousands of years ago. This fact makes us feel, well, a bit weird.
Ah, the elegance of simplicity. Perhaps the reason why folk horror counts amongst the scariest of horror sub-genres is that the audience or reader is presented with something so simple, the imagination begins working very hard indeed.
One of my favourite creepy stories when I was little was called Witch Hill (1982) a kind of children’s folk horror. The young protagonists are convinced an old tale of ‘The Witch of Shackleton’ is true and that she’s returned to the area: a rural English village and sleepy surrounding countryside.
Instead of trying too hard to make the witch frightening herself, author Maggie Prince has the children read an old local poem. It mentions mist covering the land and obscuring a local hill as an indication that she’s nearby.
It’s a simple thing but highly effective! The next time the children see that the hill has disappeared, it creates a particular kind of tension. Is it true that the witch exists? Or is this just a natural occurrence that would happen anyway?
Need some inspiration? If my brain’s too overworked to write, or it just wants an excuse not to, I find reading a great way to make myself feel less guilty. Here are some popular titles that include elements of folk horror:
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) by Washington Irving.
- The White People (1906) by Arthur Machen.
- The Willows (1907) by Algernon Blackwood.
- The Ritual (2011) by Adam Nevill.
- The Lonely (2014) by Michael Hurley.
Do you feel a bit cut off?
Folk horror can take place pretty much anywhere but it’s more likely to be set in an environment that’s separated in some way from the rest of the world. In Ari Aster’s film Midsommar (2019) for example, the story takes place in a rural setting in Hälsingland, Sweden; with its vast meadows, farmhouses and folk art.
There’s a sense that the community has continued its traditional way of life without the interference of modern influences, and its this kind of separation that creates anxiety. Not only does this make it physically challenging for a protagonist wanting to leave once the flowers and ritualistic wine hit the fan, it’s a poignant topic of modern times.
How many of us start to panic if the internet goes down? If we can’t find our phone? Technology has become a dependance significant enough that if we lose it, our world as we know it disappears. Folk horror is a great place to explore such themes.
So before we lose network, you might want to check out this ‘folk horror’ style app. Year Walk is a highly rated game involving, oh what a surprise! Sweden, some dark woods, the supernatural and puzzles. Nice.
Nature? One Powerful Chick.
Speaking of technology, a common theme in folk horror is that however advanced we’ve become, nature and spirituality are always more powerful in the end.
In Koji Suzuki’s Ringu trilogy, antagonist Sadako is able to burn her thoughts, memories and emotions onto a video tape film that when watched, kills the viewer after seven days.
Sadako can be seen as an embodiment of vengeful nature and her presence ties in deeply with Japanese folkloric traditions. One could even interpret natural occurrences as the direct result of her influence.
When protagonist Kazuyuki Akasawa is desperate to leave the remote island Sadako once called home, a typhoon whips up, preventing him from leaving. Would this storm have happened anyway or was it Sadako’s influence? We’ll never know.
Check out this cool podcast on iTunes from Niel Paananen: The Folk Horror Podcast, which delves into the sub-genre across the board. Even in music!
Loss of Control
Linked with many of the elements previously mentioned, psychologically, folk horror often causes the protagonist(s) to feel as though they’re no longer in control of their own destiny.
Loss of control is a deep fear for most people, whether that’s metaphorically, such as being at the mercy of a certain group or physically if there’s no means of escape. Poor Edward Woodward is all I’m going to say.
I’ve noticed that within folk horror there often isn’t a central ‘baddie’ as such and if there is, their presence is somewhat obfuscated.
They might take different forms, cause nature to do something weird or leave traces to alert their presence. This serves to create a sense of mystery and wherever there’s mystery, there’s always room for fear.
In The Blair Witch Project (1999), a great example of American folk horror, the witch never makes a single appearance in the film. Instead, her presence is inferred by reported sightings, creepy humanoid stick figures and piles of stones left outside the tents of the documentary film makers.
Films to watch apart from ‘The Unholy Trilogy’:
- Häxan (1922)
- Kill List (2011)
- A Field in England (2013)
- For Those in Peril (2013)
- The Witch (2015)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2018)
- Midsommar (2019)
So we’ve come to the end of Halloween season on janedoewrites.com (the next one will be cheerier, I promise). Researching folk horror has been super interesting and really helpful for brainstorming themes I might not have considered writing about.
Now over to you. Where do you think folk horror ends and other genres begin e.g. Gothic horror? Do you disagree with anything I’ve said or have more points to add to the list?
Until next time,
References: (1) Rodgers, Diane A. (2009), ‘Something ‘Wyrd’ This Way Comes: Folklore and British Television’, Folklore (journal), Volume 130, 2019 – Issue 2.