Posted on December 16, 2015

Eden Lake (2008): Folk Horror For A Disenchanted World

Dawn

Eden Lake, released in 2008 and directed by James Watkins, has been generally classified as “hoodie horror”—a British sub-genre that exploits middle-class fear of hoodie-wearing, underclass youth.[i]  Mark Featherstone aptly describes the way in which “feral youth” become stand-ins for the “poor or underclass,” forming the central “evil other” of “hoodie horror.”[ii] While there is no doubt that Eden Lake is indeed hoodie horror, the film also borrows liberally from folk horror.[iii]

1. Eden Lake, kids

The film follows Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) as they travel to Eden Lake, a beautiful natural space that Steve frequented as a child but which is about to be converted, as the billboard tells us, to “a secure gated community of fifty superior New England homes.” Jenny and Steve have a couple of encounters with young hooligans on bikes, who then appear almost uncannily right beside them on Eden Lake’s beach. One thing leads to another and soon Jenny and Steve, trapped in the woods, are being hunted by the increasingly menacing children.

Adam Scovell has laid out the principal elements of folk horror on his website, Celluloid Wicker Man—and Eden Lake unambiguously exemplifies three of the four characteristics he identifies. It is set in a lush natural landscape; Jenny and Steve become isolated, removed from their familiar urban environment; and they soon realize with horror that they are beset by characters whose moral beliefs are at best bewilderingly skewed, at worst entirely absent.

The beautiful landscape of Eden Lake

The beautiful landscape of Eden Lake

Before I move on to the characteristic of folk horror that seems to be absent from Eden Lake, I want to point out two ways in which the film develops the idea of the landscape.

First of all, Eden Lake is about to be developed: the area is already fenced off, and signs from the construction company warn people away. This clues us in to the fact that folk horror generally doesn’t deal with unmediated nature; rather, the horror is almost always generated by humans interacting with nature, exploiting nature. One of the canonical folk horror films, The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971), begins with a scene of someone ploughing, turning up (surprise, surprise!) Satan’s claw in a furrow. Later in the film someone uses the phrase “fiend in the furrows” (the title of the 2014 conference on folk horror at Queen’s University, Belfast)—and it is critically important (and not just for its alliterativeness) that this phrase is “fiend in the furrows” not “fiend in the soil.” Other exemplary folk horror films like The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and The Hallow (Corin Hardy, 2015) similarly center on landscapes that are being cultivated. The horror that emerges from and in nature in folk horror, then, is inseparable from us.

It is also important that landscape in Eden Lake is not just present but powerful: it has agency. It doesn’t just wait for us to come in; it doesn’t just inertly countenance us; it acts on us, sometimes against us, sometimes with us. Jenny, in particular, discovers something as she inhabits the forest of Eden Lake—a strength, a violence, that she (and we) had no idea she possessed. What she does in the forest around Eden Lake shocks her, and I would argue that the strength and rage she finds within herself is in part incited by nature: the shots that mark her transformation show her imbued in mud and blending in to the natural world around her.

3. Eden Lake, Jenny in mud 4. Jenny, mud, window

These shots are deeply evocative, moreover, of a moment in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), where nature (“the heart of darkness”) finds an echoing resonance in those who inhabit it. (I wonder, in fact, if you couldn’t see Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness [1899] as part of the folk horror tradition?)

5. apocalypse-now_mud

The glaring omission from Eden Lake, though, which would seem to exclude it from the category of folk horror, is the absence of any kind of supernatural element—of religious/pagan ritual or sacrifice. Several films embody the conventional culmination of folk horror, most notably The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010), and Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011), which all end with main characters stumbling into (and becoming the subjects of) pagan/occult sacrifice.

Eden Lake, on the other hand, is bereft of religion. Indeed, the world the film depicts seems utterly disenchanted—devoid of all spiritual and even moral value. There is the occasional glimpse, though. When the gang attempts to burn Jenny and Steve, their leader, Brett (Jack O’Connell) yells, “Burn, you little witch.”

6. Eden Lake, burn you little witch, 1 06

And when Jenny gets away, the kids burn the most marginal member of their group, who has to pay the price of her escape. While these horrifying scenes enact the necessity of blood sacrifice, which pervades folk horror, they seem like vestigial remnants rather than rituals that carry any deeper significance. Appalling, yes. Meaningful, no.

7. Eden Lake, Indian boy burns

It’s the ending, though, that really crystallizes Eden Lake’s place in the folk horror canon. After Jenny thinks she’s escaped and stumbles into the backyard of a house to get help, she discovers a group of adults having a drunken party. That they are the blissfully-unaware parents of the kids out in the woods terrorizing people adds a clear moral commentary to their debauchery. The film closes with the suggestion that there will, indeed, be a culminating sacrifice.

8. Eden Lake, Jenny arrives at party

In ending with a scene that suggests the ritual sacrifice that concludes so much folk horror, Watkins is making a point, I think, about what is and (most importantly) isn’t here—at the end of Eden Lake. The scaffold, the gestures, of sacrifice are present, but there’s no substance, no belief, no meaning, no purpose, no sense of renewal. The ending of the film leaves us only with the horrifying spectacle of the absence of belief and meaning. This is folk horror in a debased world that’s lost any hope of transcendence—indeed, that’s lost any hope at all.[iv]


 

[i] The 2009 Guardian article, “Hoodies Strike Fear in British Cinema,” offers a good summary of the sub-genre: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/nov/05/british-hoodie-films

[ii] Mark Featherstone, “’Hoodie Horror’: The Capitalist Other in Postmodern Society,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 35.3 (2013).

[iii] In his great introduction to his edited collection, Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2015), Andy Paciorek includes Eden Lake as an instance of “Backwoods Horror,” which he rightly claims is a sub-genre that shares some characteristics of folk horror (p. 11).

[iv] There is LOTS more to say about Eden Lake—about how it takes up debates over parenting, as well as its politics of class, race, gender, and nationalism. It has been criticized, in particular, for its portrait of the working-classes, a point Owen Jones takes up in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, 2011), pp. 130-132.

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