The Heathen Wilderness: A Tour of American Folk Horror

Folk horror was born in England, but many American horror films have melded the English tradition with a distinctively American vision of folk horror.

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Folk horror was born in England, but many American horror films have melded the English tradition with a distinctively American vision of folk horror.

American films such as Robert Eggers’s The Witch and Ari Aster’s Midsommar have been part of a wave of interest in the “folk horror” subgenre. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England continued the English folk horror tradition. The short stories, novels, television series, and films which would define the subgenre originated in England, but America has its own corpus of texts that adhere to the English tradition while crafting a distinctively “American” version of folk horror.  

Even though folk horror is a hot topic in the larger horror discourse, defining what exactly is “folk horror” can be difficult. Is any horror film with a field in it “folk horror”? Do folk horror films always feature occult themes? The “unholy trinity” of UK folk horror films may help us define the subgenre. The three films are Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973).   In Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Adam Scovell uses these films to formulate three criteria for defining a film as “folk horror.” To Scovell, the term applies to any work that…

  • “ uses folklore…aesthetically, thematically.”
  • “presents a clash between such arcania and…modernity”
  • “creates its own folklore through various forms of popular conscious memory, even when it is young in comparison to more typical folkloric and antiquarian artefacts”

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The Wicker Man (1973, dir. Robin Hardy)

Scovell’s three criteria can provide us a useful “lens” to examine America’s native folk horror films. While conforming to Scovell’s touchstones, folk horror films of the United States add in particularly American themes which integrate some of the more horrific elements of American history and culture.

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The Aesthetics of Folklore: The Devil in the Woods

Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) and Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1983) are two American horror films which are recognizable as folk horror in the English tradition. They both use actual folkloric belief systems and rural settings to establish an atmosphere of occult terror. Unlike the classic UK films, their narratives are built around colonialism and the relationship between European settlers and the wilderness. 

The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers)

Witch panics in England and Scotland were key influences on famous UK folk horror films like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.  Out of all the films inspired by the 17th century witch scares, only The Witch presents a picture of witchcraft that would be recognizable to 17th century Europeans. Writer-director Robert Eggers used actual testimony from witch trials as inspiration. The Witch is rife with images associated with 17th century witch panics: rabbits, broomsticks, and the graphic butchering of an infant. What makes The Witch distinctly American is its depiction of the wilderness. In Eggers’s film, the forest is the source of the malignant supernatural forces which besiege the family of colonizers.

Writing for the Maine Historical Society, Aileen Agnew notes that Puritans saw the Devil, Native Americans, and the wilderness as totally intertwined. They were different aspects of the dark forces which supposedly preyed on the bodies and souls of early white settlers. Before English Puritans arrived in America, European explorers and traders had introduced diseases which devastated Northeastern Native populations and created tremendous upheaval in Native communities. An incredibly volatile situation was made worse when English settlements encroached into Indian territory. The conflicts were incredibly violent and horrific. The physical and emotional trauma created by these conflicts lasted for generations. Many of the accusers and the accused involved in the Salem Witch Trials (one of the inciting incidents in the American folk horror tradition) were survivors of Native-English conflicts in what is now Maine. Court documents demonstrate that for early New Englanders, the forest was a source of terror and mystery.

Eyes of Fire (1983, dir. Avery Crounse)

Eyes of Fire uses the European settler interpretation of the American wilderness as the basis for a story of a group of religious separatists moving through the large forests of the midwest in search of a new home. The film blends elements from Irish and English folklore with Native American mythology. The new settlers find the “untamed” wilderness filled with homegrown American demons but also with the shades and fairies which followed them from the British Isles. What makes the use of folkloric imagery in Eyes of Fire special is the film’s use of low budget video effects. Rather than taking the viewer out of the film’s primeval world, the cheesy 1980s effects give the film a psychedelic, handmade quality which actually reinforces the folkloric power of the film.

Clashes with Modernity: The White Other

According to Scovell, films which present conflicts between “modern” forces and characters and events representing the “arcania” of a forgotten past may be considered folk horror. These conflicts form the central concept in many different American horror films. In Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), the conflict takes the form of middle class Americans finding themselves intertwined in the machinations of ancient death cults. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and other “hillbilly horror” movies show this conflict as a clash between affluent, young people and slobbering, cannibal rednecks.

Midsommar (2019, Dir. Ari Aster)

In Hereditary and Midsommar, Ari Aster uses the “secret cult” horror archetype to represent the conflict between the modern and the archaic in two societies that American’s view as exemplars of progress: the American suburbs and the Scandinavian welfare state. Most of Hereditary takes place in a suburban setting far from the usual locales associated with folk horror, but its secret society of devil worshippers shows a strong influence from films such as The Wicker Man. Midsommar uses the visual language of the folk horror film while presenting the deadly encounter between American millennials and a pre-Christian Swedish religious group. Midsommar is an interesting example of a melding between the folk horror tradition and travelogue horrors like Cannibal Holocaust.

Whereas movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Eli Roth’s tribute film The Green Inferno build their horrors around the white middle class’s racist conceptions of indigenious peoples, Midsommar and the “hillbilly horror” film turn the “white gaze” towards other groups of white people. Anthony Harkins’s Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon chronicles how the hillbilly and mountain man archetype arrived as a way for middle and upper class whites to separate themselves from poor and working class whites. Harkins chronicles how, since the 19th century, many American artists and writers have asserted that inbreeding, poor diet, miscegenation, and wanton sexuality have transformed poor, Southern whites into a separate “cracker” race. In 1972, the depiction of bloodthirsty, lascivious Georgia rednecks in John Boorman’s Deliverance created many of the elements that would evolve into the hillbilly horror subgenre. Two years later, the modern hillbilly horror film would fully emerge from its slovenly shed with its first and greatest film, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper)

The hillbilly archetype is rooted in class tension between different groups of white Americans. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre expresses this tension in its grotesque tale of white, bourgeois college kids encountering a cannibalistic family of former slaughterhouse workers. In Splatter Capital, Mark Steven notes that the film’s young protagonists and the cannibal family serve as a microcosm to illustrate the much larger scale of predation which capitalism inflicts on the American landscape. Leatherface, his grandfather, and his brothers were essentialized by the cattle industry to function as literal “killing machines.” When the boom-and-bust cycle of the  markets causes the factory to close, Leatherface and his kin practice their trade on humans. As current events have shown, capitalism’s desire for fresh meat is insatiable. 

Exploitation of the American working class sets up the clash between modernity (represented by the free-spirited college kids) and the archaic (Leatherface and his family) in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The redneck cannibals of the film seem to be relics not only of the postwar economic boom, but to a more primitive state of humanity. Carol Clover addresses the hillbilly horror archetype in the “Getting Even” chapter of Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Clover uses the term “urbanoia” to label the prejudices of white urbanites toward rural whites in films such as I Spit on Your Grave, Pumpkinhead, and The Hills Have Eyes. In Clover’s analysis, the “rural other” adheres to all of the classic hillbilly characteristics but in our modern, liberal society the typical middle class audience knows that (like the chainsaw family) these white others have been victims of exploitation by the elites. For Clover, redneck slasher films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and rape-revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave resolve white liberal guilt towards the working classes by “justifying annihilation of the guilt-inducing party.” The brutal, primeval behavior of horror film ruralites legitimizes the violence which happens to them on and off the screen.

Clashes with Modernity: Burial Grounds

American folk horror often uses the culture and history of America’s indigenous peoples as a basis for Scovell’s “clash with modernity.” Another one of Clover’s insights into the rural horror film regards how depictions of homicidal hillbillies often share qualities of fictional Native Americans. Like racist caricatures of Native Americans, these rural characters are remorseless marauders, mutilating and maiming without compunction. These films also borrow visual elements from cinematic American Indians. Leatherface, the mutant family from The Hills Have Eyes, and other backwoods killers are adorned with skins, feathers, and bones. In the case of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the killers make elaborate seemingly pagan shrines out of bones and decaying corpses. One of the most common invocations of American Indians in the horror film is the “Indian burial ground” trope.

Colin Dickey’s essay “The Suburban Horror of the Indian Burial Ground” goes through several notable examples where the restless Native spirits are used to contrast the white modern world of suburbia with the ancient, supernatural world of the Native American. Dickey traces the archetype to Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror. In the forty three years following the book’s release, most of the book’s claims of demons and spirits have been debunked. The claim that the house’s demonic infestation was caused by the spiritual remnants of a Shinnecock Indian hospice for the dying is among the book’s spurious claims.

Pet Sematary (1989, Dir. Mary Lambert)

Stephen King used the burial ground plot device in two of his greatest horror novels The Shining (1977) and Pet Sematary (1983). Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation of Pet Sematary visualizes the cursed Indian burial plot as an eerily bleak pagan landscape in stark contrast to the bucolic New England town which surrounds it. The burial sequences in the film are reminiscent of scenes of pure Pre-Christian terror in folk horror classics like The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw. The book and the film uses the “Monkey’s Paw” plot device to bring modern white Americans into contact with the magic of the land’s original inhabitants.

Films like The Manitou (1978) and Poltergeist II (1986) use the old prejudices against Indian culture while embracing the more modern stereotype of the Indian shaman. In these films, good Indian magic is able to stop the evil spirits. Horror films which subject indigineous culture to the white gaze function in the similar manner to the hillbilly horror film. These films ask the audience to imagine a culture that would imbue a plot of land with such sinister energy that echoes of it affect “innocent” settlers hundreds of years into the future. The indian burial ground trope serves to assuage the guilt of a white audience living on land won by broken treaties and bloodshed.

Creating a New Folklore: Candyman, Candyman, Candyman

The third of Scovell’s defining characteristics of folk horror regards films which create their  “own folklore through various forms of popular conscious memory.” If we determine whether a not a film qualifies as folk horror solely on this criteria, then many American slasher films would fall under the folk horror banner. Films such as The Burning, A Nightmare on Elm Street, My Bloody Valentine (technically Canadian but it fits the mold), and Friday the 13th are tales rooted in campfire stories and urban legends, two of the most well known categories of “fakelore.” However, the slasher film which is most adept at creating its own folklore while integrating the other American folk horror traditions is Bernard Rose’s Candyman.

Candyman (1992, Dir. Bernard Rose)

Even though Candyman takes place in an urban setting, the horror is set within an American folk tradition. Like other American folk horror films, Candyman derives its thematic heft from the sins of America’s past. The “fakelore” of Candyman is born from slavery and centuries of racist imagery targeting African-American men. Before we learn that the Candyman is a real entity, he exists only as an urban legend, an inner city version of the “hookman.” Writing for Rolling Stone, Evan Narcisse explains how the film connects America’s racist past with modern “urban blight.”

In Candyman, Chicago’s Near North Side stands in for the Indian burial ground of Pet Sematary and the wilderness of Eyes of Fire. It is a place of “otherness” where the white heroine finds herself. The ghost of slavery literally and figuratively haunts the landscape. All of the films discussed so far have shown how the American landscape has been a breeding ground exploitation and horror. The tragic story of “Candyman,” the son of a slave murdered because of an affair with a white woman, places the film firmly within this context.

Narcisse’s essay ties the dark past of slavery and Jim Crow with modern day expressions of racism. He notes how the film (which is the product of white filmmakers) is sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans yet it still trades in the “morbid whispers” which have infected America’s soul. Candyman tries to go beyond the harmful myths of the “super predator” and “black-on-black crime” but it still uses the image of a black man stalking a white woman as the central source of its horror. Once again, an American folk horror film plays on the white liberal guilt of its audience while simultaneously indulging its darkest prejudices.


This tour has taken the reader from the forests of New England, to the late capitalism-era decay of Chicago’s Cabrini Green project. Along the way, we have encountered films which use folklore to re-create the early America first encountered by European colonizers. We have witnessed clashes between suburbia and the arcane. We have also witnessed the insidious myths at the core of the American story. Most of these films, either directly or obliquely, address the centrality of race in the American problem. Unfortunately, the films I have covered are (in varying degrees) products of a white imagination and carry with them the problems of the white gaze. Films such as Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reimagining, and Christopher Renz and Gerard Bush’s Antebellum will add much needed perspectives to the horrors of the North American continent.

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