Halloween Horror Movie Binge: Some Practical Considerations by Professor L. Yochum of the Villains Live University

To the student body of VLU…it’s nearly time.

As you know, it’s nearly October. And as well know, October is the month long celebration of all things spooky. Speaking personally,  I find it endlessly satisfying to spend the month immersed up to the metaphorical gills in horror. This time of year clearly gives us the best candies, best decorations, and most enjoyable music.

But a sincere horror binge is not something that can be done willy-nilly. While I might personally bristle at the thought of someone telling me how to GET SPOOKY, it does pay to have a plan. I therefore have a proposal. I would like to lay down some simple guidelines for the coming season.

Media binging is obviously not a new concept. Since the arrival of wide-spread on-demand media, many prefer to not absorb media in episodic format. Consider for a moment how many times you or a loved one have spent an entire weekend watching one show. Binging is applicable to film franchises, premier TV, even podcasts! But Halloween media is more than mere movies. Halloween media is multi-disciplinary, multi-platform media.  As such, our approach must be multi-faceted.  

 

Part One: Right Environment

When is it appropriate to watch a horror movie, much less many horror movies? Should the room be dark? And should you have your phone nearby? The greatest minds of the 20th and early 21st century have been debating this since the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (My intensive, evidence-based research of Google has shown that the first Blu-Ray of The Cabinet in 1955 caused quite a furor.)  A comprehensive recipe for optimal binge-watch environments is outside the scope of this brief lecture. However we should acknowledge some possibilities for this upcoming season.

For example: should a film prominently featuring daytime scenes be watched during the day or the night? Or whether or not snacks/beverages will improve a film going experience. Silly as such small contrivances may seem, they are questions worth addressing.

Many horror purists, such as The Scaredy Cats podcast, have put down the rules that horror movies must be watched at night, uninterrupted, without the presence of phones. And while I respect the expertise of the podcast’s hosts, I respectfully argue that this approach is ultimately incorrect. All of this is good for a singular film, but it is not feasible if you are planning on watching multiple films in a single sitting. I would argue that the film should match the environment as best as possible.  Black and White classics such as the original Night of The Living Dead are best absorbed at night, where the desaturated colors are easier on the eyes, and immersive in their tones.  Phantasm, on the other hand, lends itself to early evening on the account of it’s surreal, hallucinatory tone.

And to the point of refreshments, I wholeheartedly endorse their consumption during film during any film, and especially during a binge. The longer your experience goes, the greater your need for supplemental nutrition will become. Furthermore Halloween binging is a pre-written excuse for consumption of Halloween candy and themed cocktails or sodas. Again: multi-disciplinary and multi-media.

 

Part Two: Franchise vs. Curated List

So what are we watching? Astute students of horror will know the stress of attempting to have the right films for the occasion.  So should you give in to the simple desire to pick a pre-arranged franchise of films, or should you do something more personally intensive?

This decision seems to be largely a matter of the time you have available to freely dedicate. For instance, one could easily spend nearly half a month dedicated the Halloween franchise.  At 13 films, this offers you a seemingly simple guidepost.  Or if you want this time frame more compacted, there are 10 Hellraiser films.  That is an easy way to spread a massive dose of horror over a mere handful of days.

However, that approach has it’s flaws. Academic communities have raged with argument over whether or not Halloween 3 should be included in the canon of the Halloween franchise. And that says nothing of the religious schisms caused by the Hellraiser entries that de-emphasize Doug Bradley as Pinhead.  

As an alternative, curated lists of films are an option with profound flexibility.  One could easily create a list such as “Roger Corman Productions,” or “Slashers from the 70s and 80s only.” This list approach offers a profound degree of personalization options. The exchange, however, is in that it requires time and effort to create these sorts of lists, whereas film franchises have strict guidelines.

 

Part Three: 31 for 31

Arguably the greatest challenge available for horror fans is the 31 Days of Halloween, or sometimes called “31 for 31.” Put simply, the goal is to watch 31 horror movies in the month of October, potentially watching a single horror film every day of the month of October. Like the pre-hibernation eating of bears to the onset of Winter, this approach offers horror fans the ability to carry a dose of Spooky with them throughout the remainder of the year.

But 31 for 31 is a daunting challenge.  It requires dedication and grit.  Students of VLU are no doubt accustomed to the rigors of serious horror study. (See my maddening discussion of Folk Horror, if you have somehow shaken off the trauma of that initial experience by now…and stop emailing me to pay your therapy bills.  The Court’s Orders are clear in their rejection of your claims.)  The decision to watch this amount of horror is reserved for either the foolhardy or most iron willed.

As such, your trusted professor has decided to undertake this challenge.  I set down some simple parameters for my attempt.

  • The films on the list must represent a broad stroke of genres and time periods.
  • The list should be a mix of familiar favorites and films I’ve never seen.
  • Roughly half of the list must be at the suggestion of my most esteemed colleagues.
  • No direct sequels. Thematic sequels are acceptable, but numbered/titled sequels are stictly forbidden.

As such, I present the Professor Yochum 31 for 31 Challenge of 2020.  This list is in a mostly random order, and presented as a way to cover as much ground in a month as is possible.

  1. Colour Out Of Space
  2. Midsommar
  3. Event Horizon
  4. Videodrome
  5. The Platform
  6. Audition
  7. Circle
  8. Suspiria
  9. Inferno
  10. The Spiral
  11. Halloween
  12. #Alive
  13. Castle Freak
  14. Nosferatu
  15. Mandy
  16. The Mummy (the Boris Karloff original)
  17. Dark Water
  18. The Ninth Gate
  19. Tigers Are Not Afraid
  20. Phantasm
  21. Chopping Mall
  22. The Autopsy of Jane Doe
  23. The Witch
  24. The Wicker Man
  25. Night Of The Living Dead (original)
  26. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
  27. As Above, So Below
  28. Ju-On: The Grudge
  29. The Changling
  30. Horse Girl
  31. Hell House LLC

So, to our dear students, we here at VLU look forward to hearing how you intend to spend the month of October.  Please remember to share your notes with fellow students.

IN GENRE-VISON! The Witch

A Puritan family is banished from their plantation community for an unstated disobedience, rooted in some religious dispute. The father and mother of the family, William and Karen, attempt to set up a homestead at the edge of a forest, appearing to fall under supernatural assault. They must struggle to protect not only their lives, but their souls.

Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut is so much more than a mere genre film. The Witch is arguably the Ur-text for modern Folk Horror. It holds on to much of the standard elements of the genre while adding doses of modern sensibility.  It questions not only the role of religious zealotry, but the social controls of isolated communities. It confronts the material conditions that create social tensions.  More than fear of the supernatural, it delves into the ways even the tightest and oldest of social organizations can snap under incompetence.

In order to understand The Witch as a genre picture, it helps to understand the mindset of Puritan colonists in the 1630s.  In a February 2016 interview for The Verge, Eggers commented that “When I discovered what the idea of the evil witch was — that the fairy tale world and the real world were the same thing in the early modern period; people really thought these women were fairy tale ogresses, and they needed to be exterminated.”  For modern people, this idea seems absurd, if not completely obscene. But in a world where people were limited in their source of information it’s not difficult to see how this might come about. Our modern sensibilities are formed in large part by our access to information. As such, it isn’t difficult to see how people might believe in something without being able to verify these details in a physical sense.

As a horror film The Witch is not typical. Lesser directors might rely on intense, overt gore to drive home the terror. They might leave out necessary character development or ham-fistedly drive exposition in an attempt to cut back on acting talent and directorial prowess. Compared to many of the horror films of the 2010s, The Witch is a subtle, cerebral film. Minus it’s slight use of jump scares and bloody violence, it is more comparable to a costume drama than a slasher. Eggers’ trick is immersion, not jarring alienation.By using obsessive attention to historical minutiae he draws us into the world of a small family all alone, stranded at the edge of a hostile frontier.

 This attention to detail is more than literal set dressing. It’s baked into the details of the plot itself. There has been a shocking amount of preserved historical record related to the belief of Witchcraft amongst early American colonists. The family’s crops are failing. Their livestock do not produce adequate milk or eggs.  Historical records suggest that these were all signs of witchcraft, of being cursed by some malignant entity. These “signs” of being under some devilish influence, for the record, are not unique to the Puritan experience. These sorts of accusations appear all throughout the time period. Rather like Witchfinder General, the use of historical detail serves to deepen our immersion and provides more than adequate fodder for madness and violence in the film. 

Another key to the success of The Witch is it’s cast. By maintaining a small set of characters we can watch as they, one by one, succumb to the pressures of these horrific circumstances. Eggers’ reliance on a cast of lesser-known (but incredibly gifted) actors only deepens the story.  Our lynchpin in this story is Thomasin, the eldest daughter of William and Katherine.  She is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy. Difficult as it is to believe, this is her debut film. As a young woman who has recently come-of-age, she portrays her role of a young woman coming of age in a repressive environment with intense passion and profound nuance. Playing counterpoint is Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, her younger brother and the eldest son of the family. Caleb is less passionate than his elder sister, but no less serves as a moral compass of sorts in our drama. Much of the film centers on their experiences observing their parents (played by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both most popularly seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones) attempting to maintain order in their extremely troubled home. As well, a pair of twins, Jonas and Mercy, and an infant, Samuel. Surrounded by so few characters to maintain, all the action unfolds in a tight arena. 

Perhaps part of the power of this film is it’s relatability; in uncertain times, families struggle to make the proverbial ends meet. We modern folk may not face the terrors of agrarian starvation (or the more metaphysical worries of being cursed by a witch,) but we understand what it is like to worry about having mouths to feed and bills to pay.  This is more than some improbable serial murder in a mask with a grudge, this is an existential threat that many modern people face. Filmgoers who have struggled with the backtalk of a rebellious teenager no doubt understand the exasperation of  dealing with a teenager calling out a parent on their hypocritical behavior.  And every person recalls receiving an unsatisfying answer about the bigger questions of life from a supposed authority figure. And this says nothing of the crises of Faith that so many people undergo at various points throughout their lives.  This exchange between William and Katherine is a beautiful example:

 

William: I fear thou lookst too much upon this affliction. We must bend our thoughts towards God, not ourselves. He hath never taken a child from us. Never a one, Kate. Who might earn such grace? We have been ungrateful of God’s love.

Katherine: He hath cursed this family.

These social tensions underpin much of the film.  A secondary theme explored using the Folk Horror framework is the disintegration of the family unit. It’s possible to read their supernatural strife as merely emblematic of the traumas that all families undergo during unforeseen circumstances. A death in a family, or an economic downturn, can cause typically stable units to tremble to their core.  Previously mentioned films in this column essentially ignore or downplay the fears unique to domestic life.  It’s difficult to imagine Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, being overly concerned with whether or not his children love him or are being honest about their behavior when outside his observation. 

And you think *you* hate tense family dinners!

 

And what of our titular witch? Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that they do not make as much of an appearance as one might expect. The Witch has substantially less to do with the perceived horrors of witchcraft (though there is plenty of that, rest assured horror fans!) and more to do with the realities of an alienated life. But like the very best of horror, the less that is shown, the tighter the tension becomes. 

We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.

Perhaps the single greatest villain in this film is the environment itself. Our Puritan protagonists are not lifelong residents. They are colonists, still outsiders to an entire continent with it’s own people and landscape. The forests and countryside at this time period would still be largely unexplored, and not inhabited by entirely friendly faces. Here is where a unique trick in the Folk Horror genre is played; our protagonists are not outsiders dealing with an insular community. They are an insular community of outsiders. The forces invading their remote outpost are the very forces of the world around them..Whether Katherine and William realize it or not, they are under siege from their insecurities and failings as people and as parents, as well as being forced to deal with supernatural violence.  Compare this to The Wicker Man: Sgt. Howie is attempting to bring law and order to Summerisle, a seemingly happy community who is living with the realities of modern agriculture and social conditions.  Katherine & William are trying to bring a Puritan Christian vision of the world into a seemingly faceless world. It isn’t ultimately concerned with their particular philosophy.  They are fighting for their lives when we first meet them.  And by the end, they are fighting both forces from within and from without.

But What Is The Witch Trying To Tell Us?

Some films are only satisfying when read in terms of meta-textual narrative or symbolic interpretation.  Other films are best taken straight without much concern for symbolism, more a fast food than a home-cooked meal. And yet, The Witch is satisfying as both. It has enough atmosphere to satisfy the historian, enough genuinely disturbing acts to satisfy more casual viewers, and has layers of social depth to lend itself to exegesis.  At all levels, The Witch calls out to the viewer. The Witch is rare in horror cinema in that it does not offer us a simple choice of how to read the narrative. 

Ultimately, this film examines the function of tension on groups, large and small. Instead of focusing on the wild and wacky world of isolated religious extremes, it calls upon the very real fears of all societies. It does not shy away from realities of rural life during the 1600s. Instead it relates them to us without abandoning much of their actual historical couching.  The language is old, the clothes look uncomfortable, the food scarce, and the work appears to be backbreaking. The Witch is somehow both otherworldly and utterly without fantasy.

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