Defining exactly what ‘Folk Horror’ is, is a question that has arisen among the Facebook Folk Horror Revival group several times—a question that has provoked numerous answers and not a single agreeable definition. So in a bid to answer ‘What is Folk Horror?’ one may as well attempt to build a box the exact shape of mist; for like the mist, Folk Horror is atmospheric and sinuous. It can creep from and into different territories yet leave no universal defining mark of its exact form.
The term ‘Folk Horror’ in its modern context, though it had been used before in references to folklore and art, appears to have been created by Piers Haggard in a 2003 interview with Fangoria magazine (see Note 1) in reference to his own 1971 movie The Blood on Satan’s Claw. The term was later popularised by Jonathan Rigby and Mark Gatiss In the ‘Home Counties Horror’ episode of the 2010 documentary series A History of Horror. In it, three movies are mentioned in relation to ‘Folk Horror’ and as such have become the unholy trinity of Folk Horror cinema, namely, Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Using these excellent, evocative movies as a blueprint, some have come to define ‘Folk Horror’ as British movies of the late 1960s and ’70s that have a rural, earthy association to ancient European pagan and witchcraft traditions or folklore. Other examples that also fit well into this definition are movies such as Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Twins of Evil (1971), as well as some creepy British children’s television shows of the era, notably Children of the Stones (1976) and The Owl Service (1969) and also television plays such as Robin Redbreast (1970), Penda’s Fen (1974) and Red Shift (1978).
Some have taken this to imply that Folk Horror refers only to a few British films of a particular era. It must be remembered, however, that Gatiss was speaking on a documentary whose specific remit was British horror movies of a limited time period. Had he broached the subject on a show specifically about Folk Horror, other examples from other countries and eras may very well have been discussed then.
A theory put forward on the ‘Free Radio Santa Cruz Folk Horror’ edition of the Other Side of the Tracks music show suggests that the Folk Horror of that period emerged from a sense of post-hippy disillusionment in which the ideals of the back-to-the-land movement no longer seemed ideal. Coupled with the 1960s resurgence of interest in paganism and the occult, Folk Horror movies arose when, to paraphrase a line from horror writer Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, ‘The ground became sour’.
Whilst many of the strongest examples of Folk Horror were created in Britain both in those decades and again now (and certainly the ambiance and aesthetic of the media prevalent in the mentioned examples have endured to some extent in more modern examples of the sub-genre), it does to me still seem too rigid a definition.
Similar aspects of witchcraft and paganism had also featured in earlier non-British movies such as Häxan (Denmark 1922), Il Demonio (Italy 1963), Viy (Russia 1967) and Kladivo Na Čarodějnice (Czechoslovakia 1970), for example. America also produced its own examples in Crowhaven Farm (1970), The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) and, in a different manner, later with The Blair Witch Project (1999). Japan also produced numerous movies of note that were spun from its own folk tradition, such as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Onibaba (1964) and Kwaidan (1964).
So we can see, looking at aspects of Folk Horror more widely than the British celluloid trinity, that it is not necessarily bound by era: Folk Horror movies have again risen to the fore notably through the works of Ben Wheatley such as Kill List (2011), but also in Hammer Horror’s own revival—Wake Wood (2010)—and in indie productions such as Lawrie Brewster’s Lord of Tears (2013). Nor is it bound by geographic location, though a sense of place is often a major factor.
In an interesting paper written for the ‘Fiend in the Furrows’ conference on Folk Horror held at Queen’s University Belfast in September 2014, Adam Scovell, writer, filmmaker and creator of the Celluloid Wicker Man blog, put forward an intriguing chain of elements that comprise a Folk Horror film:
- Skewed Moral Beliefs
To relate my thoughts briefly on each link of Scovell’s chain:
Landscape: Some consider that the setting should be rural for the film to be ‘Folk’, but I think a broader view may be considered. The tradition of the horror may indeed have rustic roots and pastoral locations may provide the setting for many of the stronger examples, but people carry their lore and fears with them on their travels and sometimes into a built-up environment. Also, below the foundations of every town is earth with a more ancient past. A good example of this is Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV drama The Stone Tape, in which a group of researchers investigating ghosts find via their technological equipment that an ancient presence resides within the very fabric and stones of the building they are investigating. In a similar slant, movies such as The Legend of Hell House (1973) and Burnt Offerings (1976) also suggest that not only is a particular building haunted but that it has its own foreboding presence like a malevolent genius loci—a spirit of place. Australian movies also frequently display a strong sense of place in which the landscape is crucial to the plot, as evidenced in movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Walkabout (1971), and Long Weekend (1978) .
A means of Folk Horror existing in an urban landscape is through people taking their old ways with them. In Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), we see a historical coven still practicing their dark traditions within the middle-class society of New York’s apartments. More recently, the tower block in the Irish film Citadel (2012) casts a dark, domineering shadow.
In that essence, Folk Horror is related to psychogeography, a thought form put forward initially by the Situationist art movement regarding ‘the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments’.
Isolation and Skewed Moral Beliefs: In these instances, ‘Isolation’ does not refer to being entirely alone but may refer to characters such as Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man finding themselves alone within a group whose moral beliefs and practices are utterly alien to their own. In that case the altercations are based on religious belief, but even in secular situations the attitudes and behaviour of different people vary greatly and here a relationship can be drawn between Folk Horror and films sometimes called ‘Backwoods Horror’ such as Straw Dogs (1971), Wake in Fright (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Calvaire (2004), Wolf Creek (2005) and Eden Lake (2008). All of these films share the factor of a principal character or characters finding themselves amongst people who do not think or act the way they do, often with dire consequence.
Happening / Summoning: The Happening/Summoning that falls close to the conclusion of such films may involve a supernatural element such as an invocation of a demon, or it may be an entirely earthly (though no less horrific) event such as an act of violence or a ritual sacrifice.
Some of these chain links may be also found in a variety of films that seem to bear no relation to Folk Horror, and this difference may simply be a matter of delivery, because as mentioned before there appears to be a ‘Folk’ ambiance and aesthetic that more often can be felt intuitively rather than defined logically. As Adam Scovell himself admits, there may be further links added to the chain.
One of these links is the seemingly unlikely association between Folk Horror and Science Fiction. The Science Fiction to which we refer here is not the Sci-Fi of laser battles and robots in far flung galaxies, but speculative fiction occurring within our own times. A couple of names that always arise in this train of thought are Nigel Kneale and his creation, Bernard Quatermass. Kneale, a British scriptwriter whose work also included The Stone Tape (mentioned earlier) and Against the Crowd: Murrain (1975), a television play with a strong Folk Horror sensibility, explored both ancient secrets and modern technology in his adventures of Quatermass, which have been filmed several times. In Quatermass and the Pit (1958), Bernard Quatermass, a scientist heading a research organisation known as the British Experimental Rocket Group, investigates the finding of an alien spaceship unearthed beneath the London Underground and its pilots, whose presence on Earth has made its mark upon the lore of the land. In the four-part 1979 TV serial Quatermass (sometimes known as The Quatermass Conclusion) the elderly eponymous hero is now living in a dystopian Britain where strange disappearances of members of a cult known as the ‘Planet People’ are happening at megalithic and ritual sites.
Another author whose book fiction, though markedly different, also treads similar ground to Kneale’s script-writing is John Wyndham. In his books, alien invasions do not occur with silver ships and ray guns, but with the infiltration of young minds by alien intelligences—benignly as in ‘Chocky’or with more malignant purpose, as seen in The Midwich Cuckoos (first filmed as 1960’s Village of the Damned). Folk Horror, then, also can be seen not solely as a celluloid phenomenon, since it also has its representatives in literature too. The horror fiction of Arthur Machen, which often drew inspiration from his native Welsh folklore is a good example, as are works by Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Robert Aickman and Alan Garner.
Inspiration for the films and fiction has been derived from weird (or, more specifically, ‘wyrd’) history, folklore and folk tales. The anti-witchcraft tomes of centuries past such as the Malleus Maleficarum, The Discovery of Witches and Daemonologie, complete with their woodcut illustrations of devils and brutality, are an obvious source of inspiration, as are more modern books compiled by folklorists and authors. The Reader’s Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (1973) is a book many contemporary Folk Horror creators have referenced or been inspired by.
Personally, for years in my illustrations and writings of darker entities and scenes from world folklore and myth, I have been creating Folk Horror long before I heard those two words referenced together. The raw versions of tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm, as well as the modern retellings of old stories by authors such as Angela Carter, have given birth to movies that may be referred to as ‘Dark Fairy-tales’, such as Valkoinen Peura (1952), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), The Company of Wolves (1984) and The Juniper Tree (1990)—movies that are not strictly Folk Horror, perhaps, but which certainly graze in a nearby field.
Elements of Folk Horror may also be found in some of the ‘Cosmic Horror’ writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Containing Science Fiction elements also, some of Lovecraft’s tales combine the presence of powerful alien lifeforms with ancient cults and crazy locals. Such facets can also be found more frequently in the contemporary charity project, Cumbrian Cthulhu. Within the pages of the Cumbrian Cthulhu books, tales inspired by Lovecraft’s mythos also integrate segments relating to the landscape, history and folklore of the British county of Cumbria, which is resplendent with mountains, lakes and megalithic structures.
This is not Folk Horror’s only foray into music. The Wicker Man movie is noteworthy also in the fact that it is a musical. On paper that sounds worse than it actually is: the soundtrack by Paul Giovanni and Magnet is a quirky yet magical experience that actually strengthens the unsettling nature of the film considerably. There have always been dark threads that run through folk music, death and dismay often being a good theme for a song. Murder ballads, frequently based on real crimes, have been covered time and again by different artists over the years. Modern acts, however, have also found inspiration both from the old folk tradition as well as from horror movies and television shows such as the ones previously mentioned. Artists such as The Hare and the Moon, English Heretic, The Unseen and The Rowan Amber Mill, for instance, are producing very evocative and at times rather frightening music. Another unusual crossover occurs in the mingling of the horror and folk sounds with electronic music. Such sounds are inspired by Musique Concrète and the tape music created by artists such as Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Mainly produced as sound effects and soundtracks for television and radio programs, strange and unusual sounds were created using a variety of unusual tools and components that were recorded onto tape and then edited together in a process akin to film-making. In recent years the manual implements have been replaced by computers, samplers and sequencers, but the sound remains oddly archaic.
Frequently, horror movies provide inspiration to artists producing music that is known as Hauntology. The word ‘Hauntology’ actually derives from a philosophical political concept but in respect to art and music has been likened to a sense of nostalgia for yesterday’s vision of the future. A noticeable factor that has often recurred upon the Folk Horror Revival Facebook group page is a keen sense of nostalgia. Another aspect of nostalgia linking Hauntology to horror are memories of the Public Information Films (PIFs) that seemed omnipresent in childhoods past. Whether stretched out to feature length such as the farm awareness film Apaches (1977) or the rail safety film The Finishing Line (1977), which presented children with the sights of other children dying in various grisly manners, or lasting mere seconds like Dark and Lonely Water (1973), these cautionary tales have lingered in minds and inspired the generation mainly producing contemporary British Folk Horror as much as the horror movie double bills shown on weekend TV have.
Ghost Box, a record label created by the musician Jim Jupp and the designer/ musician Julian House, is notable for its Hauntological acts, including The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group, Eric Zann and Pye Corner Audio. The track ‘Scarlet Ceremony’ by Ghost Box act Belbury Poly is notable for its repeated use of a chant from the horror film The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Another electronic band with a Folk Horror feel, Broadcast, produced the soundtrack for Berberian Sound Studio (2012), an unusual movie that is Hauntological in nature and that, although its subject matter differs quite vastly from rural occult horror, also has a folk-like ambiance to it.
Blending Folk Horror and Hauntology with a marked nod of the head to Public Information Films with a witty and macabre effect is the work produced by Richard Littler under the moniker of ‘Scarfolk Council’. Scarfolk manages to be disturbing whilst also being very funny.
Other acts that have also integrated Folk Horror into their dark comedy shows include The League of Gentlemen (not surprisingly, as Mark Gatiss is counted amongst their number) and, to a lesser extent, The Mighty Boosh and also Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in their guise of Mulligan and O’Hare. Folk Horror has extended its roots to include conventions and live occurrences such as the ‘Fiend in the Furrows’ academic gathering in Belfast and the ‘Unearthing Forgotten Horrors’ music and movie event in Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as various theatre shows such as The Crucible and Struwwelpeter. So what is Folk Horror? From a perhaps limited purist core of films, like the roots and crown of a great old tree, it may be seen spread to and from historical events, folklore and mythology, literature, other movies, television shows, music, theatre shows, comedy and live events.
So can it be seen that Folk Horror spreads far and wide? The answer is both yes and no: traits of it can be found in many different places, but those same or similar traits can also be found in some other works that generally would not be considered Folk Horror. The reason why this would be the case is not easily answered, for as mentioned earlier, the style of delivery, the atmosphere and aesthetic are key points. There is frequently an indefinable ‘certain something’ that makes a work appear more or less Folk Horror. It is not a simple subject for analysis, but rather than analyse, perhaps it is better just to relish, to be intrigued by and to be delightfully afraid of. However this book explores the folk horror landscape, looking more closely under stones and logs and into the billowing undergrowth. Enjoy the trek, but do not wander too far from the path.
- Piers Haggard Interview (via Russell Smith)
- A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss
- Celluloid Wicker Man
- FRSC Other Side of the Tracks
This is a revised version of an essay that first appeared in Spectral Times magazine issue 12 (2015)
Note 1: Since this essay was written it has been discovered that Caroline Tisdall used the term in relation to a Henri Fuseli art exhibition in the 19th Feb, 1975, edition of The Guardian newspaper and in 1982 in the US by Laura Stewart in a review of a Beverly Brodsky art exhibition (with thanks to Johnny Mains https://twitter.com/ohsinnerman and Richard Hing).