IN GENRE-VISION! Post Mortem on Folk Horror

As a media creator I am always worried about what a person might imagine my intentions are regarding any subject I address. Thankfully, the majority of my work is closest to journalism. There is almost always a clear line between the facts I am presenting and my opinions.  “Missing the point” is often the most charitable way of describing my fears. At best it can be a stretch, reading intentions or messages into a piece of art that was never intended. At worst, it could be a reading that paints my intentions as destructive or cruel, something I never aim at.

Media Analysis is always something of a sticky subject for these reasons. Outside of very specific examples, I don’t imagine that most artists or creatives are especially interested in harming their audience, or others outside their audience. However, that does not mean that positive, constructive art cannot have darker subtexts. And few genres of art are so adept at this as Horror.  And what of Folk Horror? As a subgenre, we’ve talked now for a substantial stretch of time about the recurring themes of Folk Horror and it’s mechanisms, it’s tropes, it’s symbols.

What is the compelling power of Folk Horror? Why do the scariest parts of folklore persist?

There is a common idea that mythology and folklore serve the purpose of explaining the seemingly unexplainable. How many cultures can you think of that have elaborate stories, or tales of deities and folk heroes explaining natural occurrences? How many deities of thunder and lightning can you name off the top of your head? Myths and folklore persist in part because they are good stories, honed for generations by retelling and embellishment by people with long memories and a flair for the creative. These stories that existed in societies predating our own knew how to craft a narrative for their lives.

And what of our world today? Are we so enlightened that we don’t behave like our “primitive” ancestors? The answer is simple: our ancestors were not primitive in any regard.  We are not dissimilar from them. Case in point: how many urban legends can you name off the top of your head? Coca-Cola and Mentos (don’t eat them together, your stomach will explode!) Everyone “knows someone whose cousin had too many hits of Acid and now believes that they are a cup of water or orange juice.”  Everyone recalls the Satanic Panic of the 1980s; many of us remember the warning that Judas Priest and/or Ozzy Osbourne were putting “backwards subliminal messages” on their records causing suicide or Devil-worship.

“Christmas in July sales ads have gotten weird during the Pandemic of 2020.”

This is our modern Folk Horror. We all exist awash in folklore, modern or otherwise. So ask yourself…why do these sometimes absurd, often horrifying stories persist?

They are seductive. They offer a satisfying narrative. You can sympathise with at least one person in the story. From the Heavy Metal fan to the concerned parent, they offer something for everyone. Therein lies a power of Folk Horror films. For those who can relate to outsiders like Albrun in Hagazussa to Thomasin in The Witch, breaking free from a repressive life (or simply taking revenge on people have betrayed you) has a potent allure. Conversely, if you’ve lived with the moralizing condescension of an authority figure, one who you suspect (or can prove!) is hypocritical or corrupt, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man can offer a satisfying vicarious thrill.

One of the fascinating things about Horror as a genre is that it offers something unique: a universal applicability. Most people are scared of threats to their well-being, or some radical disruption to their lives. Violence might be rare in many people’s lives, but very few especially look forward to the thought of it being done to them. As such, Folk Horror offers it’s specific templates with seeming infinite applicability. Folk Horror can be used simply by plugging in pre-existing cultural symbols or phenomena into stories relating to outsiders, or the modern colliding with the beliefs of a more ancient time and place.

 

Sergeant Howie Your lordship seems strangely… unconcerned.

Lord Summerisle Well I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder here. We’re a deeply religious people.

– The Wicker Man

Incongruity is another power of Folk Horror. In theory, exposure to other worldviews or philosophies is supposed to be extremely good for people. There are nearly whole cultural movements (and subsequently, industries) devoted to the mind-expanding power of seeing another culture or people living with different lives than those of us in the Industrialized world. But what happens when to us when that culture is supposed to be similar or the same as our own? With the exception of perhaps The Witch and Midsommar, all of the films we’ve looked at in this series represent a conflict of in-group versus out-group. The feeling of incongruity arises from a willful rejection of cultural signifiers. Noroi: The Curse, is a perfect example of this.  Shinto, the native religion of Japan, should provide a cultural jump-off point for any Japanese person.  But if a particular village in one region of the country has a hyper-specific practice, literally not seen outside of one tiny area…how might you respond? Would that belief seem strange or scary to you?  Or look at Apostle. Even in the hotbed of political and social life of England in the early 1900s, there are certain elements of religious life one could expect from fellow Britons. It would be odd enough to encounter a Catholic in a culture steeped in the worldview of The Church of England, but what about a commune practicing something decidedly less Christian?

This encounter with the unexpected is one of the foundations of horror. A subversion of the expected, especially in terms of the metaphysical assumptions of a culture, can serve to be a brutal shock. Betrayal is the root of so many of our fears; betrayal of Worldview assaults our very assumptions of Life.

So as we close out the discussion of this genre, I still feel that there are questions left unanswered, fields left unharvested, as it were. What would modern American Folk Horror look like, for instance? Is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a sort of Folk Horror? Or would something more subtle, say Invasion of The Body Snatchers be better at smashing our assumptions? And for that matter, do films like November pack the same punch outside of Estonian audiences? I am convinced that the subject is not exhausted. Folk horror might lay as a fallow field for a time, but at any moment, it might spring forth from the Earth, growing strange compared to it’s contemporaries, ready to bare dark fruit.

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

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