If you haven’t yet heard of folk horror, this post will serve as your introduction to a subgenre that seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance. It’ll also get you ready for the release onto VOD on Friday (November 6) of what promises to be a compelling example of that renaissance—The Hallow, a British-Irish co-production filmed in Ireland, and directed by Corin Hardy. The official trailer includes the tag-line, “Nature has a dark side,” getting at what I think is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of folk horror: Nature is no longer content to be background. Nature has power, agency, in folk horror. It lives, moves, acts, overpowers, destroys.
By most accounts, the term “folk horror” was coined by Mark Gatiss in a 2010 BBC documentary on the history of horror. Gatiss identified three films as the core of this tradition—Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). Recent discussion of this newly-defined horror subgenre (almost all on websites and blogs) has begun to uncover both its roots and its persistence, looking back to late nineteenth-century writers of “weird” fiction, like M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood, and recognizing the contemporary renaissance of folk horror in Wake Wood (David Keating, 2010) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013). I should add to the list, too, the upcoming The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and The Forest (Jason Zada, 2016).
Two particularly useful accounts of folk horror are Adam Scovell’s, “The Folk Horror Chain” (2014), along with many other great articles about folk horror on his blog, Celluloid Wicker Man. Another is Andy Paciorek’s essay, “Folk Horror: From the Forests, Fields, and Furrows,” in The Spectral Times, Issue 12: 2015.
Complementing Scovell’s and Paciorek’s insightful analyses of the genre are websites that offer lists of folk horror fiction, film, and television: the lists on the website “Folk Horror,” the extensive list of films compiled by Mighty Emperor on IMDb, and Kai Robert’s list of classic British folk horror stories. [i]
Folk horror includes several crucial components. It is located in (indeed, dominated by) a rural landscape. It is often set in a more agrarian past; if set in the present, it typically centers on a community that is cut off from the contemporary world. And it almost always involves pagan traditions or witchcraft—indeed, the climax of the narrative is typically the violent manifestation of occult beliefs. The endings of Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man in particular dramatically depict the pagan paroxysm that erupts at the end of classic folk horror.
Folk horror, as it has been defined thus far, is overwhelmingly British, but America has a strong folk horror tradition—exemplified in what must be one of its most perfect incarnations, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). Then there’s Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” (1977) and the 1984 film based on the story, The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010) and, I would argue, the first season of the HBO series, True Detective (2014), which takes us into the violent, pagan underworld of evangelical Louisiana.
While the most overt source of conflict in folk horror is religious—between Christianity and paganism—I think that the less overt yet actually much more important conflict involves humans and their natural environment. In folk horror, things don’t just happen in a (passive) landscape; things happen because of the landscape. The landscape does things; it has efficacy. Jane Bennett (a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University) puts this idea beautifully, describing the long tradition of philosophical materialism in the West, in which “fleshy, vegetal, mineral materials are encountered not as passive stuff awaiting animation by human or divine power, but as lively forces at work around and within us.”[ii] Folk horror is about these “lively forces”—the “fleshly, vegetal, mineral”—in their most threatening incarnations.
Folk horror is at bottom about humans’ profound and persistent anxieties about an untamed “wilderness” inimical to human habitation. But the folk horror tradition also expresses anxieties attendant upon the human domestication of the wilderness, as we have cultivated, carved up, exploited and destroyed the land first through settlement and agriculture and then industry. Folk horror, in short, is about all the fears attendant on the long history of the Anthropocene, which names the human as the dominant shaping force on environment, land, and climate since at least industrialism—although it has its roots much earlier, in the land clearing, farming, and sheep grazing of the medieval and early modern period. Folk horror expresses a dread of the natural world—a dread that is, crucially, not assuaged but intensified by human efforts to curb nature’s threat.
One recent and brilliant instance of folk horror, of the film of “eerie England,” which highlights the devastating power of nature, is Adam Scovell’s short film Salthouse Marshes (2015), which uses the superimposition of images to mark how humans get swallowed by nature.
The minimalist Salthouse Marshes, which follows a single man as he walks across marshland to a river, encountering a supernatural figure once he gets there, tellingly parallels the marsh (and the track through the marsh) to the supernatural figure—both dark presences haunting the landscape. Their blurring, merging, suggests it’s the landscape itself that’s haunted.
Another recent incarnation of folk horror is the utterly terrifying novel, The Ritual, by Adam Nevill (St. Martin’s Press, 2011), about four English friends as they undertake a camping holiday in the forests of Sweden. Some terrible things happen in the woods, but one of them is the forest itself, which is “dark” and disorienting,” a “dark and choking nowhere,” that seems to be directing and then “swallowing” the characters, exerting a pressure on them that suggests nothing less than its own (malevolent) agency. Like other folk horror, Nevill’s novel brings in occult forces—but the determining and destructive power of the forest itself is brilliantly evoked.
I’d love to hear from anyone who has their own favorite examples of folk horror. And look for a review of The Hallow next week.
[i] See also these useful lists: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/10-great-british-rural-horror-films
[ii] Jane Bennett, “Systems and Things: On Vital Materialism and Object-Oriented Philosophy,” in The Nonhuman Turn, ed. Richard Grusin (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 223. See also her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010).