Social, political and cultural influences on British folk horror, urban wyrd and backwoods cinema
The term ‘folk horror’ has been used to refer to horror that most frequently has strong rural, occult and sometimes folkloric elements. Whilst discussion has unearthed examples of ‘folk horror’ from numerous different nations, the designation is most strongly associated with a limited number of British films and other media in the late 1960s to mid-1970s. The aim of this chapter is to discuss the socio-political and wider cultural factors of this period within the UK and explore how they may have influenced and/or inspired this particular mode of cinema. From there we look at the revival of ‘folk horror’ and its growth in stature and status within the 21st century and again consider the influence that the contemporary social, political, cultural and perhaps environmental situation has had upon its resurgence. In this exploration we pay strong attention to films of both the psychedelic era and of the current folk horror revival but also consider folk horror in relation to sub-genres or modes like hauntology, urban wyrd and backwoods horror. We explore the cultural climate that the first wave of British folk horror arose in and question why it has again taken root and grown more vigorously now.
This chapter explores the regionality of folk horror and argues that the Celtic looms large in the English imaginary as a location for the rural. The chapter examines how folk horror evokes an ambiguous Celtic-ness, culturally, religiously, and aesthetically, to make strange what was once more prevalent across the British Isles more generally. In doing so, it highlights the dominance of an English lens both textually and extra-textually and questions the notion and usefulness of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Celtic’. Folk horror has an established history of exploring the rural through an urban lens. The rural becomes a site of difference, of fear, but also of hope and deliverance for the those entering its limits. But for the rural to be a site of contrast, those that enter both textually and extra textually, must be from elsewhere. With the creep of English suburbia, the rural is being forced further and further into other regions of the British Isles. Films such as Apostle illustrate the importance of the representation of Wales for maintaining these folk spaces in the face of Anglo imperialism, an imperialism shown to be deleterious to all. Apostle is demonstrative of an English protagonist marked by English religious proselytising as he enters a Welsh space of cultural and religious difference. Initially, this space is shown as oppositional to its English counterpart, offering escape and redemption for as long as Anglo creep can be prevented. Does the introduction of the English protagonist make clear underlying issues with these rural spaces, or is he the catalyst for them?
Lion Productions’ The Wicker Man can claim to be the archetypal folk horror film, with a considerable influence on the whole genre. This essay examines its inspiration, consisting of an image, a book, and a literary tradition. The image is that of the giant wickerwork figure in which ancient Roman writers accused the Druids of burning human sacrifices. This provided the main motif of the film. The book was Sir James Frazer’s Edwardian classic The Golden Bough, a massive compendium of real and alleged human belief and custom. This provided most of the folk rites in the screenplay. The literary tradition was the British one of a modern rural community secretly preserving an ancient (and usually orgiastic and malign) pagan religion. This furnished the setting for the story. This essay explains how each developed, and how the film itself both transcended and reinforced each.
The Wicker Man, contemporary Paganism and Dracula reversed
Often hailed as the quintessential Folk Horror film, the ethical cosmology of The Wicker Man (1973) contrasts sharply both with British horror films that precede it and with many later films overtly influenced by it. Neither demonizing pre-Christian British religion as satanic, as films such as Night of the Demon (1957; aka Curse of the Demon in the USA) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) explicitly do, nor using pagan ritual trappings to facilitate neo-colonialist Heart of Darkness polemics on human evil, as in Kill List (2011), The Wicker Man stands out for a curiously positive representation of contemporary Pagan worldviews. This chapter contrasts the Pagan cosmology of The Wicker Man, recognizable to, if not representative of, actual Pagan practitioners, with the conflation of non-Christian practices into the ‘satanic’ in other Folk Horror films. Such elision perpetuates Christian hegemony, its concomitant xenophobia, and censuring of sexuality. Despite the intentions of its creators to continue in this tradition, The Wicker Man instead follows a different trajectory, driven in part by desire to distinguish the project from Hammer gothics, especially Christopher Lee’s Dracula franchise. This difference also helps explain why, despite being hailed as a third of the ‘unholy trinity’ of Folk Horror, The Wicker Man nonetheless fits uneasily within the horror genre more broadly. Though packaged as a Pagan exploitation film, The Wicker Man can nonetheless be read, and has been read, by contemporary practitioners as an actual Pagan film.
Doomwatch (1972) is infrequently cited in the burgeoning conversations on folk horror, but I argue that it is actually a key text. Not least, it is a clear influence on Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, The Wicker Man. It was, moreover, directed by Peter Sasdy, who also directed 1972’s The Stone Tape; the screenplay was written by Clive Exton; and the film was produced by Tigon British Film Productions, the company behind the folk horror classics, Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. The plot of the film follows Dr. Del Shaw to Balfe, an island off the coast of Cornwall, where he is investigating whether an oil spill has disrupted the island’s ecosystem. While there, Shaw must contend with unaccountably hostile locals, who do everything they can to get him off the island. Doomwatch thus exemplifies the familiar structuring dynamic of folk horror—the often-violent encounter between the local/rural/primitive and the global/urban/modern. However, Doomwatch fails to offer the expected ‘sacrifice’ at the centre of folk horror. Instead, with its emphasis on the dire effects of both military and industrial pollution, Doomwatch represents the island itself as a ‘sacrifice zone’: the land and the community that lives on the land are ceded to the inexorable processes of the globalising economy. Literally abandoned at the end of the film, the island is positioned throughout as already lost to global modernity – and while the islanders themselves (at least at first) appear to be the powerful and even threatening ‘folk’ of folk horror, they, like their land, turn out to be already lost, ‘wasted humans’ rather than generative ‘folk’. In the end, there are no rituals promising fertility in Doomwatch, only the life-destroying sickness of a globalisation that dooms land and people alike.
A discursive approach, with application to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves
Mikel J. Koven
Folk-horror should be characterized by a conflation of three discourses: the pagan (incorporating both witchcraft and satanism), the rural, and of course, the folklore itself. The folk horror film operates in the nexus of these three, and therefore should be analysed in light of these. Evoking a Venn-diagram, folk horror is where these three discourses overlap. This current paper seeks to re-evaluate The Wicker Man in its conflation of these three discourses: the pagan, the rural, and the folklore, and then to apply this discursive methodology to The Company of Wolves. And to this end, it will offer an alternative methodology, if not definition, of the term ‘folk horror’.
The term 'folk horror' has a become pervasive way of describing a wide array of films. The famous trilogy of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) associates folk horror with the cultural margins of 1960s and 70s Britain, and elicits a fear and fascination with its curiosu rural inhabitants. But although the term is now ubiquitous, few can specify any further what ‘folk horror’ actually is. This collection undertakes an extended discussion of folk horror by considering the special importance of British cinema to it. It defines folk horror as a cultural landscape which brings to the surface what British modernity has repressed. Understanding folk horror this way helps delineate its common stylistic features, its development in British cinema and its place within the wider field of horror. In studies of topics as diverse as folklore, nature, the countryside, drums, English and Celtic history this collection widens the corpus of folk horror, incorporating lesser-known works like the sci-fi Doomwatch (1972), the documentary Requiem for a Village (1975), women’s folk horror and films by more recent filmmakers such as Ben Wheatley. Considering also the cult critical status that continues to make it a living, changing organism, this collection argues for folk horror as a cultural phenomenon, thereby providing an expanded understanding of the genre’s characteristics through which to explore the tensions and contradictions it stages.
Focusing on The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General, this chapter explores the representation of ‘the folk’ and their community leaders in folk horror. The remote community is remote from centralised authority and power, and so the traditional beliefs and practices represented are not just survivals of the past but also challenges to centralised power. Whether these beliefs and practices are truly supernatural or not, these films present them as having power, power that in turn challenges the central belief system and structures of power of society. In other words, these films present the folk of the nation themselves as being powerful and possessed of secret knowledge, rather than the foreign aristocrats of the classical Gothic narrative. This in turn might suggest some of the particular relevance of the folk horror genre to our present, where notions of power, identity and responsibility have arisen in relation to Brexit, US elections, and populist movements across the world.
If folk horror can be defined as exploring the ‘potential darkness of rural landscapes’1, then the work of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) stands as an ideal representation of this theme. Machen explored the enchanted landscapes of his Welsh heritage while at the same time transposing the terror of ancient cultures onto the modern cityscape. Few adaptations of Machen’s writings appear on film but this paper will explore those that do exist; those that have been rumoured to be in preparation and my own film Holy Terrors: Six Weird Tales by Arthur Machen (2017). I will discuss the key elements of folk horror and map those onto Machen’s writings in order to reveal what the genre can offer future supernatural cinematic folkloric works. ‘The nearest woods are now stricken with holy terror’ (Jacques Réda, The Ruins of Paris).
This introduction places folk horror in the specific context of British cultural history and applies a framework offered by genre studies. This framework suggests the importance of defining folk horror through its central fear: that of the folk themselves. Defining the genre this way allows us to analyse the wider cultural tensions replayed by folk horror’s recurrent themes and stylistic features. In so doing the introduction positions folk horror in relation to scholarship on horror and on British cinema, as well as to traditions of representation of the folk and their cultural landscape. In particular, the introduction considers folk horror to be the expression of a tension surrounding the unearthing of what is usually repressed from more mainstream, official representations of Britain. This unearthing is seen to have a historical and an anthropological, as well as a geographical and an archaeological sense. This final point acts as a springboard to then explain the rationale of the book’s different parts and the summaries of its individual chapters.