With recent Folk Horror films like Midsommar and The Witch, will the trend last?
What do Apostle, The Witch, Wake Wood, A Field In England, Midsommar, Hagazussa, and Gretel & Hansel all have in common? Apart from being very well directed, having excellent casts and of course all being horror. These movies are all part of that elusive sub-genre known as Folk Horror. Some love it, others hate and then there are the few who have no idea what Folk Horror actually is.
The one thing genre fans can agree on is that Folk Horror is one of the most undefinable sub-genres in existence. And if it is undefinable, why is it making such a comeback? Before we get to answering that particular question first thing is first. What is Folk Horror?
Piers Haggard, director of what most consider the first true Folk Horror movie, The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) said that for him, “Folk Horror refers to an aesthetic and tone. Not plot.” This makes perfect sense; pastoral settings, a constant sense of something being off and more often than not, the story is secondary to everything else. Though, this doesn’t help us to define what makes something Folk Horror. According to Andy Paciorek of Folk Horror Revival, “Folk Horror is atmospheric… [with] no universal defining mark of its exact form.”
Defining Folk Horror
Okay, so it has no defining marks. But, it does have a series of common elements that can be used to link all the movies in the sub-genre. These are:
- A Rural Location: this can include but is not limited to a small country town, a farm, an island or anywhere considered remote or separate to civilization. Hårga from Midsommar, Sommerisle in The Wicker Man, or the farm from The Witch are prime examples.
- Isolation: For most people, especially those who were born and raised in a city, going to a remote location creates a strong sense of foreboding and isolation. That feeling of not belonging and fear of the other comes into play here. And this feeling is universal, all of us have felt it with some more than once and it is one of the most relatable emotions out there. Nobody likes going somewhere new and not know anyone or what they have to do to fit in. This is why we relate so well to Thomasin and Dani.
- Paganism/the Occult/the Spiritual: not a vital element, but generally Folk Horror will include either a Cult or some dark malevolent force. This adds to the feeling of isolation because as the old saying goes, “We fear that which we do not know”. And by including ancient rituals or beings from a time we no longer understand, the uncomfortability factor and a feeling of unease ramped up to top levels. Just look at the cults from Midsommar and Kill Liste or even the Witch herself in The Witch.
- Sacrifices: and with the previous element we come to the final part. I nearly all Folk Horror movies, you’ll never see any form of what could be called ‘Modern Violence’. No explosions or rampant mayhem. Guns or martial arts are almost always gone (Apostle doesn’t count so don’t fly that one at me). Instead, keeping up with the old world feeling, most of the violence found in Folk Horror comes in the form of torture or Ritualistic Sacrifice. Midsommar, Apostle and The Wicker Man are all prime examples. Of course when the previous element deals with the occult or supernatural, then the violence is shown as being more perverse and unnatural. Can anyone say The Witch with me?
Okay. Now that we have hammered down the more common elements of this unruly beast, how can we start to actually describe what Folk Horror is? Surprisingly, it is easy to do so, armed with the knowledge about the common elements found within the body of work, we can also look to Ben Myers for a proper definition.
“…body of work [is] concerned with conflict: past and present, physical and spiritual. [It] represents a fear of being governed by outside forces while exploring identity confusion.”
So What is Folk Horror?
Folk Horror is a subgenre of horror film which uses elements of classic folklore to derive fear from its audience. It takes rural, often historic elements to invoke fear of the old world. But it’s also so much more.
When you watch these movies, even Midsommar which is more of a smaller intimate tale, the main idea is always this battle between the collective and the single. The fight between the past and the present. The war between what we understand and empirically know and that which still eludes us. And it is this, for lack of a better term, an awakening that brings about the true horror found within this sub-genre. This is both the brilliance and the tragedy of Folk Horror.
Unveiling the unholy trinity of films
The original Unholy Trinity of The Blood On Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and The Wicker Man, was poised to usher in a new era of horror movies. But, for some reason, Folk Horror has always come and gone without much fanfare. There’ll be a couple of fantastic movies released close together and once more, the sub-genre is on the verge of being reborn. But then, like always, it vanishes back to where it came from.
Although, right now, it seems like we are in the middle of a Folk Horror renaissance. Since the early 2000s, there has been a steady increase in the number of Folk Horror related movies released each year. Starting in 2005 with Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, this movie takes a more fantastical look at the basic elements of Folk Horror and runs with them to the extreme (which is exactly what a Terry Gilliam movie does, but that is for a different discussion).
Then in 2006, we had the remake of The Wicker Man and Devilwood, with the next bunch of movies coming out in 2008 and 2009, Eden Lake and Wake Wood. Then nothing amazing comes out until we get to the 2010s with the ramp-up of releases. These included Kill List, The Wicker Tree (sequel to the original The Wicker Man), A Field In England, The Witch, Hagazussa, Apostle, Midsommar and Gretel & Hansel .
So Why Folk horror now?
So, why in the last 10 years have we seen the release of more Folk Horror movies than at any other time in the history of Horror? Well, if we look at the common elements discussed earlier, one of the prime factors could be the fact that we are all connected all the time, and because of this, we have lost a sense of ourselves. Our society is completely focused on the individual, not the collective. And this is thanks to the internet/social media/work culture and because of this, when we watch these movies, the fact that they show this ongoing battle between the self and the greater good, it makes us think about what matters most. Then as we are drawn into the tangled web of the collective and becoming part of something bigger than us, the true horror of that idea becomes painfully clear.
Which is precisely where Folk Horror’s power comes from.
So the question now becomes, will this boom of Folk Horror films last? Personally, your dear author believes so. There will always be a place for terrifying tales about the woods or those remote places people dare not go. It is ingrained into our very beings from a young age. And unless we become unfeeling robots, Folk Horror will always be here.