IN GENRE-VISION! Witchfinder General

IN GENRE-VISION!

 

Witchfinder General

Dir. Michael Reeves

 

Widely considered to be the first of the Folk Horror genre, Witchfinder General is an underrated watershed for modern Horror films. It serves as a brutal high-water mark for all of the films that follow in its footsteps.  It’s immediate successors, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man cannot hold a candle to the sheer unflinching heaviness of this movie. Witchfinder General unflinchingly shows the reality of one of the ugliest trends in English history.

But Witchfinder General (henceforth abbreviated as WG) pulls it’s grim tricks through manipulation of the historical narrative. Set with historical characters, historical events, and historical locales, WG can also serve as something of a warning. On display are all of the building blocks for Horror as a study in human character and the violence inherent in systems. WG is devoid of supernatural elements, instead relying upon reality for it’s palette.

Before the credits roll you are thrust into the world of the British countryside in 1645. England is in the middle of a civil war between Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary movement, and the Royalists, who serve King Charles I. During this period of upheaval, another movement is spreading across Europe: Witch Hunts. Goaded on in the previous century by books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches,” an early guide to the identification and punishment of witchcraft) paranoia about the presence of supernatural evil seems to be everywhere. By the mid 1600s, Witchfinders became a new fixture in society. Perhaps the best known of the time period in England is Matthew Hopkins, and his assistant, John Stearne. WG uses Hopkins and Stearne as it’s antagonists to brutal aplomb. Their historic personages offer perfect cinematic fodder.  Much of their lives is frankly unknown, and historical accounts of their actions are at least somewhat conjectural.  (A gifted screenwriter could just as easily take Hopkins and Stearne and turn them into heroes in a different script.) 

Everything needed for a grim 90 minute film is set in action within minutes of it’s run; a suspected witch is hanged, Parliamentarian soldiers engage in a skirmish with Royalist snipers, and a Witchfinder is set upon a small town to purge a suspected witch.  A collision course has been charted, and all the viewer can do is stand back in dread.  

Richard Marshall is a soldier loyal to Cromwell, and after the fight with Royalist snipers, heads to the East Anglian village of Brandeston. There he meets with John Lowes, a village priest, who gives him permission to marry Sara, his niece. Little does Marshall know, The Witchfinder Matthew Hokins and John Stearne have been dispatched to round up those suspected by their neighbors of Witchcraft. Here the plot unfolds, and our characters are set upon each other, though unwittingly at first. None of them can predict the brutal outcome, and like our audience, seem helpless to stop the falling dominoes it sets up.

None of the story, however, could have been properly told without it’s cast. They give an absolutely tight performance. The most obvious is Vincent Price’s portrayal of Matthew Hopkins. It’s done with the sort of deft wizardry that only Price was capable of, blending foppish propriety with sneering menace. Despite his polished veneer, Price portrays Hopkins as a corrupt opportunist, cynical and cold-blooded. Price is profoundly intimidating in this film. He is as happy to shoot a person at close range as he is to sentence them to hang or drown, all while looking one with seeming dispassion.  His assistant, John Stearne, is played by Robert Russell.  Russell is positively disgusting in his role, an uncouth Yang to Price’s debonair Yin. Hilary Dwyer and Ian Ogilvy portray Sara Lowes and Richard Marshall.  They serve as audience stand-ins in the most perverse way possible. Starting out as essentially innocents in the unfolding plot, they find their decency (not to mention health and safety) stretched to nearly unimaginable extremes.  Their sincere performances are the stakes the hold this film to the ground. And in a  prophetic cameo, Patrick Wymark plays Oliver Cromwell. Wymark would later go on to play The Judge in The Blood on Satan’s Claw.

 

Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.

 

Like the rest of the Folk Horror genre, WG explores paranoia and violence. In this case it seems to be implied less than shown.  None of the individuals accused of witchcraft are shown to be engaged in anything overtly evil or supernatural. A single line of dialogue from a passing character is often all that is needed to set a brutal killing in motion. As modern people it can be incredibly difficult to imagine how the paranoia or hatred of one’s neighbors might lead to such horrific events. It’s important to remember that witch hunts are not confined to the past. American history, for instance, is rife with events that essentially fit the bill.  The McCarthy hearings of 1954 was, ostensibly, to root out “communists” in the United States. Anyone found even mentioned in these hearings saw their careers or lives damaged, if not destroyed. When it was revealed tha

“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” – Matthew Hopkins, probably

t Sen. Joseph McCarthy had little to no evidence of any actual wrong-doing, he himself suffered public backlash, but it did little to repair the reputations and livelihoods of his victims.  Flash forward to the 1980s, and we see the McMartin preschool trial, in which a Californian preschool and its employees were accused of child abuse and, notably, Satanic worship.  In the end, employees of the preschool faced 115 charges of child abuse, one of whom served five years in jail, before all accusations were dropped. While the owners of the McMartin school may have been found innocent, they suffered financially and personally. Often not taken into account in this incident is the damage done to the children who attended McMartin. They were coerced by forceful investigators (and in the initial accusations, by a mentally unstable parent) into concocting some the most horrid and absurd accusations made against innocent people seen in American legal history. 

But What Is Witchfinder General Trying To Tell Us?

The witch-hunts of European history have come to be the template by which an entire phenomena has been defined. While modern people might not literally hang or burn at the stake outsiders or others at the social margins, it’s easy to see the similarity.  Human behavior does not seem to change much, century to century. Insular communities can easily demonize anyone not fitting into their established norms. There is always someone willing to wear the garb of authority to tell us the difference between Good and Evil. Worse still, that individual will always come along if there is money or power to be gained in that endeavor.  

Even though the film does play loosely with historical events, it’s grounding in reality does afford a place to explore witch hunts as a metaphor for mob mentality and the people who become involved in it. Furthermore it shows the dangerous effects that unfettered power can have on an individual. Matthew Hopkins is paid to perform his duty, and is more than pleased to use any method his imagination can cook up to punish those he judges to be witches. Here the director shows us the abuse of power. The camera simply lingers on the punishments of the accused, letting us see what these deaths mean, both physically and emotionally. WG is a bleak film in this regard. While it is several orders of magnitude less bloody than films made only a few decades later, WG is still shocking, if not nearly revolting.  

After filming, the British Board of Film Censors called for several cuts to be made to WG, regarding the film as being simply too brutal for most audiences.  Released in 1968, this predates the so-called “Video nasties” list, made a decade-plus later in the U.K.  Film censorship (and art censorship in general) might seem almost quaint at the time of this writing, but at the time there was a sincere public concern about whether or not depictions of violence and sexuality might have a negative effect on the public. These moral panics still continue to this day, much like and often accompanying, a proverbial witch hunt. It’s worth noting that WG still has a dedicated cult following despite its age and early attempts to cut down on it’s brutality.  

Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man form sort of an “Unholy Trinity” of early Folk Horror films.  The choices made by the film’s directors and crews helped to create a cinematic language and style that is coming to fruition in the modern era.  Without these early contributions, many of the films that will be discussed in this column could not have been made. Fear of “The Other,” of communities in isolation, or of a Past refusing to submit to the Present are on display.  Humans today still have ancient, primordial fears.  The distance experienced by modern urban living from an agrarian life is growing increasingly massive.  But it is still ready being explored now, as the next entries in this series will illustrate.  

 

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

 

IN GENRE-VISION! The Blood on Satan’s Claw

 

The Blood On Satan’s Claw

Dir. Piers Haggard

In the English countryside, a plow cuts a deep furrow into the earth. The farmer senses something amiss, dismounts, and runs forward to inspect the situation. Partially unearthed in the furrow is the remains of something humanoid, what appears to be a mostly decayed head, a single eyeball still intact in it’s socket.

So begins The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the second film in what is widely considered to be the genesis of Folk Horror in cinema. In comparison to The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not a subtle film. It’s only slightly more gore-soaked, and paints the isolation of the English countryside in two coats. The paranoia of outside forces is not only writ large, but also accented with more overt sexuality and disgusting body horror elements.

One of the most masterful strokes employed in this film is it’s score. Composed by Marc Wilkinson, the score is genuinely unsettling.  Instead of drenching itself with Donovan-esque folk ballads, it opts instead to go fully out with strange sonic landscapes. Again, this film is not happy with subtlety, and would rather be weird than be respectable. Like so many other examples of genre films it was not a tremendous success at the time.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not even a cult classic these days. But it is absolutely a cornerstone of Folk Horror’s earliest days, and deserving of its position as a genre-definer.

But there is more to the backdrop of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (henceforth abbreviated TBOSC) than meets the eye. Set amid the monarchical upheaval of England in the 17th Century, TBOSC hits all the marks of Folk Horror and more. It seems to share most of the features pointed out in my previous review of The Wicker Man, but adds into the film a more “traditional” horror approach. Of the three “original ” Folk Horror films from England (The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General,) TBOSC is the only overtly supernatural of the bunch, and is unambiguous in it’s embrace of devilish forces as a metaphysical reality.  

The seemingly idyllic English countryside should not be a source of menace, but in the hands of director Piers Haggard, it becomes a source of seemingly extra-dimensional menace. The cinematography of TBOSC plays a neat trick; by use of camera angles and (frankly) by screwing with the perspective on-screen, the entire world becomes subtly threatening.  There is something of a straight line that can be drawn from this film to pieces such as The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers.) The true moments of horror are (at least until the film’s third act) are more implied than directly shown, keeping much to the traditional methods of storytelling seen in folklore. 

How do we know, sir, what is dead? You come from the city. You cannot know the ways of the country.”

At the heart of TBOSC is the conflict of inside vs. outside, modern science vs. old faith, the order of the city vs. the order of the country. The Judge (portrayed with sneering aplomb by Patrick Wymark,) thinks himself above the seemingly primitive belief of the village where the film unfolds. The Judge in many regards presages Sergeant Howie from The Wicker Man.  It’s frankly not difficult to see him trade his wig in for a modern police tunic.  He represents a sort of self-assured authority., But like most of the “modern outsider” characters common to early Folk Horror films (a subject that will likely require its own entry in this series) his authority feels self-referential.  Through dialogue we know he is a judge…but we never see anything outside of this claim and his behavior to that power. He is quick to remind the village’s inhabitants of his role, and to impose his authority on everyone. On the other side of the coin, however, is Angel Blake. Portrayed by Linda Hayden, Angel is an absolute raw power. Hayden’s performance drips with sinister sexuality and is, by the third act, positively reveling in being a menace. In the space of a single film you see her seduce, betray, mislead, and destroy.  She is more than a mere rebellious teenager bucking social conventions..  She is a source of moral perversion and degeneracy in a small community.

 

“This script is the weirdest sequel to Mean Girls I’ve read yet.”

As such, this film plays with ambiguity. Neither The Judge nor Angel Blake are especially likable.  Their polar opposite personalities are both equally  repellent. Unlike the inhabitants of Summerisle in The Wicker Man, there is nothing especially charming about Angel and her coven. The Judge might be a source of order in a seemingly lawless environment, but his order is one of absolutes. He is more than happy to directly condemn a young man’s choice in who he wants to marry, and will gladly insult a country doctor (the only person in the village who seems to understand what is starting to happen at the point he is introduced.) Angel Blake and The Judge are on a collision course and everyone in this village will be forced to reckon when this dialectic unfolds.

But What Is The Blood On Satan’s Claw Trying To Tell Us?

The central story of TBOSC deals with the nature of conflicting duality. The figures of authority in the village are seeing that their power is not absolute, and can be easily shaken. Characters such as the almost too succinctly-named Reverend Fallowfield get an up-close-and-personal brush with the evil radiating from Angel Blake and her cohorts, and nearly pays for it with his life. As the only ostensible educator in the village he seems to view himself as worthy of being obeyed by his teenage charges.  Moreover, being a church leader, he would in most any village in England during this time period, be one of the most formally educated people around. And here again we have to drift back to the ambiguity displayed in the film’s text. There is an evil rampant, but the forces of good are, at best, too weak-willed to effectively take control, and at worst, willing to bring down the hammer on anyone even remotely involved in this conflict.  It might be a battle between good and evil here but the film also doesn’t apologize for The Judge’s actions.  It is not interested in showing the elders of the village as morally right, other than that they are not demonically possessed.

The battle lines are seemingly clear. There can be no balance struck and no negotiation is possible. It’s impossible to deny the darkness that Angel Blake and her compatriots are spreading throughout their home village. The Judge, Reverend Fallowfield, and the other authority figures in the village are fighting to restore their vision of authority at all costs.  Early in the first act, Reverend Fallowfield hits the nail on the head with a single line of dialogue: 

“There is growing amongst you all an insolent ungodliness, which I will not tolerate!”

Like The Wicker Man, one can easily draw a “Youth versus Adult” narrative out of this film.  1971 was still smelling of the gunpowder used at Kent State, and the brutal economic turns of the 1980s were still too far ahead to be predicted.  If “The Establishment” was starting to feel that the turbulence of the 1960s was now in the rear-view, it was only narrowly so.  Youthful rebellion always sells, and if there is a legitimate malevolence involved, all the better.  

The Doctor: My lord, when I heard of Ralph Gower’s discovery, I was reminded of this old volume. Mock, sir, if you will. These sages had access to much wisdom.

The Judge: Doctor, witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?

The Blood on Satan’s Claw can easily be seen by the “respectable” film establishment as little more than a forgotten blip in the world of genre films, and a minor presence in Horror films specifically.  With so many offerings on streaming services and in the bowels of video archives, there are more flashy and expensively made films readily availability.  But Horror films have a strange quality of being periodically resurgent.  In an era where remakes and reboots are rampant, many of the less-sanitary pieces are less likely to be so mercilessly spit back onto audiences with a fresh layer of polish. For those audiences that The Judge might malign, a film like The Blood on Satan’s Claw requires no cleaning, no new cast or expensively produced score.  It’s power sits buried in the soil, waiting to be revealed, to once again cast it’s malevolent spell on new communities.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

IN GENRE-VISION! The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

Dir. Robin Hardy

While not the chronologically first of the films most commonly associated with the Folk Horror genre, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is by far the most influential and best-recognized. The Wicker Man is a masterclass in the slow build of tension, as well as exposing the madness and mania of zealotry, irrespective of its conceptual framework. Clocking in at just under ninety minutes, few films cram in as much brilliantly quotable dialogue and brilliant character into such a short space.

The premise of the film is fairly straightforward compared to The Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. A British constable, Police Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward,) is dispatched to the island of Summersle to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl, Rowan Morrison, who disappeared from the island one year prior. Police Sergeant Howie arrives shortly before the island’s inhabitants (who appear to have totally rejected the Anglican Church generations prior, in favor of pre-Christian Celtic pagan beliefs) are set to celebrate their yearly May Day fertility rituals. Police Sergeant Howie isn’t merely a fish out of water; he’s a man with a target on his back.

“Some things in their natural state have the most vivid colours.”

Much like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man is a study in “daylight horror,” set on a stunning landscape and loaded with seemingly out-of-place 1970s folk songs. It’s a film that is very much a product of its time, but also shockingly modern. Nearly bereft of night time scenes or imagery, The Wicker Man accomplishes in clear gorgeous light a level of atmosphere that many modern horror films must obfuscate to achieve. Unlike its predecessors, the film is set in the modern era achieving a sort of chronological asynchrony that only adds to it’s off-kilter, uncanny atmosphere. The isolation of the film’s setting contributes in large part to this  effect. Summerisle is a fictional island set in the Hebrides, a chain of islands off the coast of Scotland. It was filmed not only on the Scottish mainland, but also in  surrounding small island communities of the iIsland of Whithorn and others. The feeling of the island, even in broad daylight, is one of intense isolation.  Even in modern day attire, the feeling of Summerisle is one of intense history and age. It’s not entirely impossible to imagine that  the community where The Blood On Satan’s Claw takes place might have grown into a sort of town where The Green Man Inn (a recurring set-piece in The Wicker Man) might have eventually sprung up.

The common Folk Horror trope of isolated locations, close to nature, is played with both literally and symbolically. Lingering shots of coastlines and country roads create much of the atmosphere in The Wicker Man. You are called to contemplate the relationship of a people to their land and location, offering a materialist commentary before the actual spiritual practices are in any way revealed. However, this imagery begins to rise, literally and figuratively, from the landscape itself.  Phallic Maypoles and shrubberies dot the landscape. There are as many images of livestock seen as there are automobiles. You see one ruined church, but plenty of shots of stone megaliths and wooden ritual structures.

But What Is The Wicker Man Trying To Tell Us?

The film deals in shockingly direct criticisms of order and cultural uniformity. Sergeant Howie is a Highland Police officer, thus a subject of the United Kingdom, the same as Summerisle’s inhabitants. They speak the same language and wear the same clothes (sans the Sergeant’s uniform, but his garb is unmistakably modern.)  And yet the island’s residents and Sergeant Howie are not the same; Sergeant Howie is a devout Christian, and does not hide his complete disgust at the pagan religion practiced on Summerisle. And up until the third act of the film, the island’s residents tolerate his repulsion with a sort of bemused patience.

Sergeant Howie believes himself to be the representation of Order and Authority. He never hesitates throughout the script to flex his muscle as an agent of law enforcement, and when that fails to impress, he is quick to invoke his zealous religious beliefs as a sort of secondary backing to his power. He is external power, and in his perspective, not to be questioned or ignored. But his outsider status (and frankly arrogant bullying) does not garner much in the way of sympathy or cooperation of the people of Summerisle. They are quite content in their beliefs and way of life.  And prior to the final fifteen minutes of the film, they seem like a pretty content bunch. They have a seemingly thriving agricultural community, tight-knit community socializing, and religion that advocates acceptance of their bodies and sexuality. In many regards, the inhabitants of Summerisle are living a sort of Hippie Commune ideal.  Sergeant Howie, by contrast, is uptight, stiff, and starchy, an arch-Square seeking to kill the good time of an entire group.

This is one of the keys to understanding The Wicker Man, in my opinion. The film was released in 1973, at or after the twilight of the Hippie movement.  This is post-Charles Manson, and well into the Vietnam War. Worth noting is also the rise of Contemporary Pagan religions such as Wicca (a modern reinterpretation of Celtic and British myths blended with Ceremonial Magic practices) and Asatru (which venerates Norse deities and symbolism.)  This assemblage of conditions proved to be a fertile ground to use for illustrating the clash of the different cultures in the English-speaking world. The world was reeling from a number of upheavals and changes in worldview. More than its predecessors, The Wicker Man is rather ambiguous in who is supposed to be the protagonist.

In most horror films, the lines are quite clear who you are supposed to be identifying with, whose “side you are supposed to be on.” A single exchange brilliantly illustrates this point: Police Sergeant Howie is in a tense debate with Lord Summerisle (portrayed by the inimitable Christopher Lee,) the noble responsible for the island and its people.  In two lines of dialogue, the entirety of the film’s interior tension is summarized.  When arguing about the religious practices of Summerisle, the following exchange occurs:

Sergeant Neil Howie: But what of the true God, to whose Glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of Him?

Lord Summerisle: He’s dead. He can’t complain. He had His chance and in modern parlance, “blew it.”

The inhabitants of Summerisle are not just culturally practicing folk festivals while maintaining an ambivalent, “proper” sort of British Christianity.  They have abandoned Christiantiy in its entirety, leaving the local Chapel in ruins.  They jump nude over fires, wear animal masks on festival days,and  make love freely on the beach.  Their world is radically different, and radically older than what Sergeant Howie can fathom.  He cannot understand or abide their rejection of the “faith of their fathers.”  And they will not stand an outsider presuming to judge or disrupt this life they’ve maintained for seemingly a century.

Happy May Day!

The British film industry has contributed many memorable additions to the canon of horror. The world of horror films (and cinema in general, in my opinion) are indebted to the works of Hammer and it’s stable of regulars like Sir Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. But The Wicker Man is a genuine standout amongst the pack. Without so much as a speck of gore or labored jump scare, The Wicker Man is profoundly evocative, sometimes slyly sexual, and full to the brim with symbolism and subtle commentary. Despite being dialogue heavy, it opts to hint at the it’s horrors.

For those viewers who are more sympathetic to Police Sergeant Howie, it’s easy to view the inhabitants of Summerisle as degenerated or clinging to irrational traditions. They reject the forces of conformity to the outside world, and engage in practices that are completely out the bounds of “polite society.” But for cinema-goers who are more in line with the views of Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man is an assertion of the rights of a community to self-determine, and to interpret morality through their own lens. It’s difficult to view a character like Police Sergeant Howie as anything but a would-be usurper, an alien interruption to what has been a largely successful community with deep convictions. The opposing points ask audience to examine their own beliefs, all the while offering a profoundly enjoyable (and sometimes extremely absurd) cinematic thrill.

Modern Folk Horror arguably could not exist without The Wicker Man, The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General. For my money, the moments subtle dread exhibited in films like The Apostle and Midsommar were first exhibited in The Wicker Man. It serves as an ur-text of how to create brutal tension without spilling blood or creating some elaborate, utterly improbable scene.  Despite being alienated from the rest of the English-speaking world, Summerisle feels like a completely convincing environment. For those of us who are hopelessly modern and urban, the countryside is already a foreign environment with a sometimes foreign set of mores. It’s not impossible to conceive that someone like Lord Summerisle might be a majority landowner or guiding a small rural community here and now. We seem to be reaching another one of those cultural moments where people are finding their relationship to modern technology and cultural practices as alienating. It’s not impossible to imagine a group of people longing for a more grounded, nature-centered life becoming the dominant force in a single community.

In my next few installments, I want to explore a handful of modern outgrowths of Folk Horror.  Popular horror films like Midsommar and The Witch deserve obvious attention, but there are also some “dark horse” films from outside the mainstream. Finally, before I move onto another genre, I would like to examine a film or two that might not fit the Folk Horror Revival’s definition of the genre, but exhibit all or most the character traits that make this particular field so rich and fascinating.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

 

IN GENRE-VISION! Folk Horror (An Introduction)

IN GENRE-VISION is a new series dissecting and examining horror subgenres.  

There is a beauty in rural or wild environments that you do not find in urban centers.  If you are not surrounded by woods or fields on a regular basis, it can be easy to forget that this was the shape of the world prior to the rise of industry.  But the pastoral is not in and of itself good or pure, and to understand this, you must only wait until after sunset.  A quick walk through the woods at night, or drive through country roads in the hours before dawn can reintroduce (and reinforce) our most ancient human fears.

Living in a world drenched in electric light, it’s easy to forget the true definition of “dark.”   We forget that “the dark of the woods” was not a merely colorful turn of phrase, but a complete reality. That said, the daylight hours did not guarantee safety either. Wild animals, marauding people, injury, and sickness could befall our pre-modern ancestors at any time.  In a time where human settlements were spread apart by seemingly massive distances, the world outside your community could be extremely dangerous.

It is not surprising then that the folklore of so many cultures tell stories of trolls, goblins, malicious spirits, and “monstrous” humans from foreign lands. Folklore and mythology is often used to explain away mysteries, and offer a guidepost for life events in pre-modern communities.  Some of these stories have passed down the ages to us, as well as more recent stories of our world before the modern era.   It is in these stories that we find fertile ground for the genre of Folk Horror.

Our modern creative landscape is loaded with a seemingly countless number of genres and subgenres of every variety.   What distinguishes a Folk Horror film from a Slasher or “Creature Feature” type of film?  (For the record, there are examples of Folk Horror outside of film, but for the purposes of this discussion, we are going to limit ourselves to the cinematic.) Genre is something of a sticky subject in any regard.  If you’ve ever spent longer than an hour in a discussion with musicians or music “superfans,” you can appreciate the mind-boggling depths these conversations can reach. (What separates Speed Metal from Thrash Metal?  Can you tell the differences between a Trap producer from different parts of the United States?  Et cetera.)  To a casual fan these distinctions can seem absurd, but they do offer a common language to discuss themes or approaches.  And as Folk Horror seems to be resurgent in the cinematic landscape, it’s helpful to know the distinguishing characteristics.

This series of articles is not intended to be any sort of definitive list. Sources will be sighted and linked wherever possible, and there will be efforts made to not spoil any plot regardless of the age of the film.  At it’s best, Horror as a genre allows for a space to explore themes that are both pointed and timeless, sincere and sensational.  Folk Horror, at it’s best, digs deep into the soil for our fears, preconceptions, and taboos.

As such…let’s dig in.

There is no better repository of Folk Horror info online than the Folk Horror Revival (abbreviated FHR for the sakes of brevity in these articles.)  In their introductory article, From the Forests, Fields, Furrows and further: An Introduction by Andy Paciorek, they site Adam Scovall’s observation of four basic features of Folk Horror.  These elements are Landscape, Isolation, Skewed Moral Beliefs, and Happening/Summoning.  I don’t want to simply reiterate or repost their precise commentary on these points (for the interested, please go here to read this article: https://folkhorrorrevival.com/about/from-the-forests-fields-and-furrows-an-introduction-by-andy-paciorek/)  These four points serve as a good “hard and fast” set of standards to work with in talking about the genre.  It’s worth noting that the genre could also be simply described as a Horror genre film dealing with the past, specifically related to folklore.  By that metric, a vast number of non-English language films also fit the bill, albeit dealing with a sort of “horror metaphysics” outside the “norm” of the genre.   Whether or not we adhere to the FHR’s four-point scale cited by Adam Scovall or not, there is another element of Folk Horror that is important: Atmosphere.  The most common films described as Folk Horror may or may not be gory, may or may not be supernatural, may or may not be set in the distant past…but all of them lay down a thick layer of ambient dread.

The “normal” world outside of Folk Horror is governed by a predictable set of rules that most of us can follow without thinking.  The metaphysics of the Folk Horror world is often alienated from the modern, “normal” world as well as alienating its protagonists from their consensus life.  This alienation is another highly important factor in ramping up the ambient dread mentioned previously.  There is a sense that “normal rules” no longer apply, and could in fact be dangerous to attempt to keep following. Compared to other genres of horror (the aforementioned Slasher, for instance) Folk Horror does not usually allow for a simple resolution.  You might defeat the killer chasing you with a butcher’s knife, but if you can’t escape the environment where the horror is occurring, you are no safer than if you tried to cuddle with your would-be murderer.  The simple assurances of a return to normality are not guaranteed.

A curious element of Folk Horror as a genre is, for lack of a better term, a misplacement of time and culture.  If the film is set in the present, a common feature is the protagonist(s) entering a world that would have existed in years (or in some cases, centuries) before.  For films set in the past, the isolated communities or occurrences are not beholden to the standards of the day.

As a point of comparison, Folk Horror shares more in common with the nebulous genre of Psychological Thriller than it does any other genre. The difference appears to be one of scope. The terrifying world of Silence of The Lambs’ killer, Buffalo Bill, might end at the front and back door of his house. The difference? How much more oppressive and terrifying would the world of Buffalo Bill be if spanned across an entire suburban county?

In the next installment of this series, we will begin looking at the three most widely cited horror films of the genre.  And in later installments, we will examine modern iterations of Folk Horror.

For more information on the Folk Horror Revival, visit their website: https://folkhorrorrevival.com/

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show