Folk Horror – The Genre That Time Remembered

Where are we and where do we go?

Thus, although the term was first used as a definition of a ‘type’ by Mark Gatiss (in his 2010 documentary on the development of British Horror) to refer to three specific films, the ‘Holy Trinity’ of folk horror (or perhaps more accurately, the three-legged stool upon which all other elements balance) – ‘Witchfinder General’ (Michael Reeves, 1968), ‘The Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (Piers Haggard, 1971), and ‘The Wicker Man’ (Robin Hardy, 1973), it has since extended much further into the cultural consciousness. These films clearly all have something in common (beyond the mounting sense of fear and paranoia). They have a rural setting, a belief in otherworldly powers which sustains and drives the narrative and which operates in opposition to the protagonist, and in each instance the belief and conflict culminates in a penetration by those powers into the ‘present day’ (of the narrative), usually to the detriment of the protagonist. The setting is usually alien to the viewers’ perspective, who operates as the proverbial ‘fish out of water’, and most often the conflict is pitched as past vs present, or tradition vs progress.

This tension is already deeply embedded in the national consciousness of the British, and is inherent in the struggle between town and country which is every bit as much a defining factor in British psyche as that of class (note – there are, of course, many equally valid ‘folk horror’ stories that take place in other countries, and which draw their sensibility from other cultures, other histories, but for the purposes of this article I aim to deal exclusively with those definitions that took Gatiss’s documentary as a starting point, when the genre, somewhat self-consciously, was attempting to identify itself). ‘Quaint’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘traditional’ are just three of the (more complimentary) words routinely applied by town dwellers to villages and rural settlements, all of which carry the subtext of the strange, otherworldly and forgotten. (Since we all know that anecdotal evidence is extremely reliable, I’ll cite the example of my aunt, who as a young girl so disliked being evacuated to the Sussex countryside that she returned home to the bombs and sirens of the Blitz, refusing ever after to leave London. Now in her redoubtable nineties, she intensely dislikes exchanging her home in an East London high rise for visits to the bucolic surroundings of Kent – ‘it’s all trees’, ‘it’s boring’, ‘don’t know what anyone sees in it’).

The rural, it seems, comes with its own baggage, a resentment of ‘townies’, of those who make a habit of routinely misunderstanding perhaps a slower paced, more reflective, but no less important way of life. Where the pace of modern urban living carries little sway, but despite that all too often influences and dictates how those who dwell elsewhere must live. The hegemony of steel, glass, cars and money overrides the pull of the countryside, but does so at its peril.

It is this mutual distrust – the stranger in a strange land – that is at the very core of folk horror. What we don’t understand will fill us with dread, uncertainty and dislike – and the feeling’s mutual. The very word ‘panic’ derives from the unreasoning terror that comes upon one in the lonely wilderness, in the forest, or by the mist shrouded tarn far from civilisation, the idea that the ‘Great God Pan’ – he of wildness and nature – had drawn close, an amoral, alien presence whose only loyalty was to his charges, not the human waifs who might stumble, witless, into his realm.

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