Folk Horror Films


Scene from The Wicker Man, 1973, folk horror, pagan
Scene from The Wicker Man (1973)


In his horror film documentary A History of Horror Mark Gatiss identifies a sub-genre of the horror movie called Folk Horror, a genre that reached its peak with 1973's The Wicker Man. A folk horror can be categorized as a story that contains or is influenced by folklore, superstition or ancient beliefs and practices. It will usually contain one or more of the following:

  • witchcraft, magic or pagan ritual
  • an isolated or rural setting
  • characters who belong to secret societies, groups or cults
  • a reference to megalithic stone structures like standing circles and burial mounds

 

The Difference Between Folk Horror and Occult Horror

 

Folk horror shares many of the attributes of occult horror and can be considered a sub-genre of it. What I think differentiates folk horror from occult horror are two things. First is the setting and the use of landscape. Folk horrors are usually set in the rural countryside or in isolated areas like small towns and villages. This creates an unnerving contrast between the picturesque and idyllic location and the menace that lurks within. Sometimes it is the landscape itself that is the malevolent force. Also a wide landscape can reinforce a character's sense of isolation and powerlessness. Secondly, although both occult and folk horror can describe the practices that take place as devil-worship or black magic, in folk horror the belief system has less to do with Satanism and more to do with ancient pagan beliefs and superstitions. Folk horrors demonstrate the intrusion of these past primitive beliefs into the rational and civilized world, thwarting ideas of social and cultural progression by suggesting that the old ways and ancient forces never really die and still have power.

Night of the Demon (1957)

 

  Night of the Demon, 1957, folk horror


Like all horror movies folk horror has its origins in literature and can be seen in the work of M R James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Night of the Demon also known as Curse of the Demon is loosely based on the M R James short story Casting the Runes. It follows skeptical American psychologist, John Holden who is investigating a so-called devil-cult and its leader Julian Karswell. Karswell claims that he has transcribed an ancient runic text which gives him supernatural powers and the ability to summon demons, which he then sets upon his enemies. He does so by giving him a piece of paper with runic symbols written on it. Although not a typical folk horror, Night of the Demon's use of runic symbolism anticipates the inclusion of European paganism into the horror film.

 

The Witches (1966)

 

  The Witches, 1966, folk horror


The Witches is one of the lesser known Hammer Horrors; it is based on the book The Devil's Own by Peter Curtis (pseudonym of Norah Loft) and was adapted for the screen by Nigel Kneale, creator of the Quatermass series. It is considered a forerunner of both the occult and folk horror films that would appear later in the decade. The story follows Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), who after a traumatic experience in Africa returns to England to take the position of headteacher in a small village school. Upon hearing that one of her students is being abused by their grandmother she begins to investigate and is drawn into the world of rural folklore and black magic. The Witches has been very much overshadowed by the later Hammer occult horror The Devil Rides Out (1968) and although some would also place that film in a list of folk horrors, I think that the film and certainly the Dennis Wheatley book it is based on, has more to do with ritualized Satanism rather than with folklore.

 

Eye of the Devil (1966)

 

  Eye of the Devil, 1966, folk horror


In its plot Eye of the Devil is a forerunner of 1973's The Wicker Man. It is about a rich vineyard owner, played by David Niven, who returns to his ancestral home in France following three years of failed crops. His wife (Deborah Kerr) and children join him, against his explicit wishes. Whilst there his wife has some strange and frightening encounters with the locals (including a young Sharon Tate). She discovers that the village still follows a pagan religion and that her husband has willingly made a pact with them to guarantee a successful harvest.

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

 

 Witchfinder General, 1968, folk horror


Witchfinder General together with The Blood on Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man make up what Mark Gatiss referred to as the trilogy of the British folk horror classics. However Witchfinder General does not fit the conventional pattern of a folk horror. Set in the 17th century, at the peak of the English Civil War, it is the fictionalized account of Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), a lawyer turned witch hunter who takes advantage of the turbulent times and preys upon old superstitions with the promise to (in exchange for money) locate and rid communities of witches. What follows is a grim and brutal story of violence, rape, torture and people's capacity for evil. Unlike other folk horrors there are no real witches or demons, no secret societies, there is nothing supernatural, the evil is entirely human. This is what makes Witchfinder General an equally powerful and disturbing film, perhaps more so because it is based upon a real period in British history. Some might argue that Witchfinder General belongs in the category of historical horror rather than folk horror. Folklore in the supernatural sense seems to have very little to do with it, however what is does share with other folk horrors is a demonstration of religious fundamentalism and the evil and insanity that it engenders.

 

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

 

  Cry of the Banshee, 1970, folk horror


In Cry of the Banshee Vincent Price returned to play another witch hunter, this time a magistrate in Elizabethan England. The film was chosen to tie in with other Vincent Price Poe adaptations and opens with a quote from The Bells, though that is as far as the Poe connection goes. (Witchfinder General was also strangely marketed as being connected with the Poe cycle and was renamed The Conqueror Worm for the American market.) Cry of the Banshee follows Lord Edward Whitman (Price) who together with a group of sadistic villagers torture and kill women, all under the pretense of protecting people from witchcraft. Whitman finally faces his comeuppance when he crosses a real witch, Oona, who places a curse upon him and his family. In an elaborate ceremony she summons a demonic presence, "the banshee" to take her revenge. Cry of the Banshee contains an odd mixture of Celtic mythology, voodoo and black magic, but despite the supernatural elements it is the behavior of Whitman and his cohorts that remains the most frightening and the most horrific actions within the film.

 

Tam Lin (1970)

 

Tam Lim (1970) aka The Devil's Widow, folk horror film


Tam Lin is based on the old Scottish folk tale about a young man who is enamored and then ensnared by a fairy queen. In this sixties psychedelic take on the tale Ian McShane plays Tom Lynn, a young man seduced by the wealthy and possessive enchantress Michaela Cazaret, played by Ava Gardner. "Mickey" as she is known, is a woman who surrounds herself with a retinue of groovy young people, first at her plush London flat and later at her large Scottish estate.  When Tom falls in love with the vicar's daughter (Stephanie Beacham) he incurs Mickey's wrath and she and her acolytes use witchcraft, magic and drugs to exert her revenge.

Tam Lin (re-titled The Devil's Widow for the American market) would be the only film directed by actor Roddy McDowall. However after production company bankruptcy, film rights changing hands, re-edits and its failure to find an audience, the film fell into obscurity. That was until the 1990s when in collaboration with Martin Scorsese McDowall's original print was restored.

Tam Lin is a strange mix of genre, part fairy tale allegory part horror, with unpredictable shifts in tone, from modern decadence, to pastoral romance, to phantasmagorical horror, all seen through the lens of 1960s counter-culture. In many ways this mixture of styles anticipates The Wicker Man which would combine humor, music, suspense and horror. Likewise Tam Lin's evocative folk score by Stanley Myers and the folk group Pentangle would also be a precursor to the more famous folk horror film.

 

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

 

  Blood on Satan's Claw, 1971, folk horror


The Blood on Satan's Claw (also known as Satan's Skin) is set in 17th century rural England and begins with discovery of a strange fur covered skull in a field. Following the skull's discovery and its subsequent disappearance the young people of the village start to grow thick hair on their bodies and begin to mutilate themselves. They then isolate themselves from the rest of the village and the violence escalates. A skeptical judge is called in to investigate and discovers that the young people, led by the aptly named Angel (seen above) are part of a demonic cult and that the creature found in the fields is trying to regenerate itself by using the body parts of the children. Although the film's title suggests Satanism, the ritualistic actions of the children are more in keeping with malign pagan festivity rather than with Satanic ritual. In fact it is the resemblance to fertility rites and the sexuality and perversion of the children that makes it all the more disturbing. Unlike Witchfinder General, which is set during the same period, in The Blood on Satan's Claw the supernatural evil is real and much like in Night of the Demon initial skepticism gives way to acceptance. What it does share with Witchfinder General is an atmospheric and chilling use of landscape. In Witchfinder General there is a harsh juxtaposition between the picturesque countryside and the acts of evil committed within it, in Blood on Satan's Claw it is as if nature itself is imbued with an inner malevolence. In A History of Horror director Piers Haggard explains that he tried to capture "the nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields, the ploughing, the labor, the sense of the soil ... We dug an awful lot of holes to put the camera in. It was important to me to have it often very low, to give you the feeling that we were somehow in the earth.” By placing the point of view from within the earth creates a constant sense of foreboding, suggesting that there is an omniscient power located there.

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

 

  The Wicker Man, 1973, folk horror


No doubt The Wicker Man is the defining British folk horror. The story follows policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, who travels to a small Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a girl. What he finds is a sinister pagan community who deny that a child is missing. What separates The Wicker Man from other folk horrors is that whilst other films combined old beliefs with black magic or devil-worship, in The Wicker Man it is strictly a nature-based paganism that the people follow. Throughout the film we see how these beliefs permeate every part of the small community's life; women dance in between standing stones and jump over fires, a child tries to cure a sore throat by swallowing a frog, school children learn about phallic symbols and people dress up in costumes. These scenes are perfectly combined with Paul Giovanni's soundtrack which blends traditional Scottish ballads with nursery rhymes and folk songs.

At first these beliefs and practices seem inoffensive and Sergeant Howie's intolerance and disgust is at times comical. However things become increasingly sinister as it seems that the whole island is colluding in the girl's disappearance and we begin to sympathize with Howie who, despite his strict conservative values, is always trying to do the right thing. What Howie discovers is that as part of the islanders' religion, when the crops fail a sacrifice must be offered to appease the gods.

At the heart of The Wicker Man is irony. In the Director's Cut we see that Sergeant Howie's conservative Christian attitudes alienate him even from the policemen he works with, suggesting that his beliefs and intolerance cloud his judgement, preventing him from realizing that he is being manipulated. The greatest irony though is in the beliefs and actions of the islanders. We learn that the islanders are not the descendants of an ancient pagan cult or religion. Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) recounts how his grandfather reintroduced paganism onto the island after he began to grow new varieties of fruits and vegetables. Presumably basing it upon the same books that Sergeant Howie later finds in the library. We also discover that it is these crops that are failing. As Sergeant Howie says, "Can you not see? There is no Sun god. There is no goddess of the fields. Your crops failed because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown on these islands. It's against nature." The irony is that for a people who worship nature they have gone against nature by trying to manipulate it, introducing a foreign species into an environment where it was not supposed to grow and where it would inevitably fail.


Modern Folk Horror

 

The Folk horror movie is mostly associated with films of the late sixties and early seventies, influenced in part by emerging neo-pagan religions, the popularity of folk music and the counter-culture movement that focused on uninhibited sexuality and living in harmony with nature. Arguably these films articulated the mainstream's fears of these philosophies and practices. However folk horror did not end with The Wicker Man. During the seventies and eighties it frequently appeared on British television.

Folk horror also continued to influence filmmakers and can be seen in films such as Rawhead Rex (1986), based on a Clive Barker short story and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which incorporated some of Halloween's pagan roots as well as the ancient monument of Stonehenge. Other American folk horrors include Children of the Corn (1984), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and arguably Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999) and M Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004). Folk horror has also seen something of a revival in both British and American cinema in films such as:
  • The Wicker Man (2006) dir. Neil Labute
  • Black Death (2010) dir. Christopher Smith
  • Trollhunter (2010) dir. André Øvredal
  • The Wicker Tree (2011) dir. Robin Hardy's follow up to 1973's The Wicker Man 
  • Wake Wood (2011) dir. David Keating 
  • Hollow (2011) dir. Michael Azelgaard
  • Kill List (2011) dir. Ben Wheatley
  • A Field in England (2013) dir. Ben Wheatley
  • The Borderlands (2014) dir. Elliot M. D. Goldner
  • The Hallow (2015) dir. Corin Hardy
  • Holidays (2016) an anthology of eight short films by different writer and directors, with each story based on the traditions or folklore of a particular holiday.
  • The Witch (2016) dir. Robert Eggers

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