My Problems with Folk Horror

“You must have patience, even while people die. Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed. You must let it grow.”

I’m a happy member of the ‘Folk Horror Revival’ Facebook group. I bought the ‘Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies’ book and I’ve contributed a poem to the up-coming ‘Corpse Roads’ anthology, but I have a confession. I’m not sure ‘Folk Horror’ is the best title for a genre. Originally defined by Piers Haggard, the director of ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, popularised by Mark Gatiss in his documentary ‘A History of Horror’, and then codified by Adam Scovell and Andy Paciorek in ‘Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies’, the term has certainly brought to the fore, and in some cases exhumed, a rich lode of movies that seem to be interconnected. The core trilogy of ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, are certainly thematically connected and share a similar approach to presenting on screen a dark vision of rural Britain and the power of the hidden mythologies that lie buried under its fields and hidden in its isolated villages. In many ways, the construction of these movies feeds off the same paranoia that gave rise to the original witch crazes of the 16th and 17th century, whilst the recent attempt to ‘historicise’ the genre matches the attempts by occultists and theosophists in the 20th century to demonstrate an unbroken chain of ritual and practice that connects neo-paganism with ancient Egyptian beliefs via a dark and submerged collection of agrarian cults and covens.

Much of the discussion I’ve read and seen on the internet seems to revolve around attempts to define the genre (on the internet this often takes the form of people posting atmospheric photographs and waiting for the administrators to decide if they’re relevant) and, connected to this, attempts to list examples of the genre. I’m not criticising this – the first step in gathering texts (in this case, movies) together into a genre is to work towards a definition by a ‘chicken-and-egg’ process: the genre is defined by the movies included, and the movies that are included defines the genre. My issue is that these discussions about folk horror rarely seem to get beyond the definition phase of the process. I believe one reason for this is that the title ‘folk horror’ is actually one that imposes limits (which is admittedly what a genre naturally does), but these limits also may serve to restrict or even block interesting discussions and analysis. For example, ‘The Wicker Man’ has at its heart a similar paranoid mode that is also found in the American Red Scare movies of the 1950s or even the Watergate conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, but the imposition of the term ‘folk horror’ narrows the field of comparison and misses a lot of what makes Robin Hardy’s film so interesting.

I believe that one reason for this is that the terms ‘folk’ and ‘horror’ are both conceptual. Horror is a broader genre formed from a tangle of subgenres which , by itself, doesn’t really define a film. Horror movies can be defined and arranged by content, style, themes, subtexts, actors and even, in the case of Hammer, studio. So the active term in the folk horror genre is ‘folk’, but again this is a slippery and unsatisfactory term. It suggests that these films should draw on folkloric sources for their stories, which is fine until the nature of folklore itself is questioned. In this way, ‘The Blair Witch Project’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and even the ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ movies could be classed as folk horror. They are certainly horror movies, and the plots in each draw on something mythic from the past returning to threaten the present. I spoke recently to a film academic who was an authority on the way genres work and on how the notion of genre can be a way of usefully unpacking films. He suggested that the term folk horror was reductive as it essentially either limited the collection of films to three, or expanded the collection of films to an unwieldy number across countries. In short, the concept of folklore is an enduring staple of the horror movie, so to describe something as ‘folk horror’ becomes rather pointless. We discussed the wider range of films and television that either wouldn’t usually be classed as horror, such as ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘Red Psalm‘, ‘Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors‘ or ‘Penda’s Fen’, and those which wouldn’t normally be classed as folkloric in the same way as ‘The Wicker Man’, films such as ‘Village of the Damned’ or ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’, but nevertheless seemed to have shared themes with Hardy’s movie. The term he suggested was ‘pastoral noir’, a prospective genre that balances setting (rurality, isolated villages, sparsely occupied islands, small town America etc.) with a style, the skewed and dark reality of film noir. The advantage of this term is that it addresses the feeling, style, setting and the narrative and thematic content of a film, rather than just the content.

Admittedly, this whole question is making a mountain out of a molehill, and the solution is one based on pedantry (welcome to my writing), but I would argue that the potentially fruitful analysis of this recently defined genre runs the risk of stagnating unless questions like this are asked. In short, there is a need to engage with why these films exist as much as there is a need to debate which films should be bracketed together.

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