Folk Horror (genre)

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The mundane face of the ancient and eldritch power of Folk Horror (genre) in the modern era: the magician/cultist from Curse of the Demon (1957 film)...

Summary

Used here, "Folk Horror" refers either:

  1. specifically to a subgenre of horror dealing with an ancient horror lurking in the landscapes, forests, hills, and particularly the people of England, typically that of the witch-cult, which, having always been potent and present in the background, ultimately rises up out of the past and overpowers the feeble civilization of the present (or, at least, the 1970s when the form was codified in a series of British horror films of the era), or...
  2. more generally to this sort of horror, extended to examples from outside of England to the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, and to earlier prototypes such as some examples of the work of M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.P. Lovecraft, and others, or...
  3. even more generally to pulp-inspired horror concerning surviving and thriving conspiracies of witches, witchcraft, cultists, and satanists....

1970s British Film Genre

The British Horror of the 1960s and 1970s would increasingly pit a stoic, reserved, and moderate Britain against something darker, wilder, and stronger, a home-grown primeval power lurking in the heart of the English countryside, and the hearts of the British people: an ancient, unrestrained, secure, and potent force of the "Old Ways", tinged with psychedelia, wild and naked orgies, the corruption of entire towns and cities, and the hidden undermining of conservative British order. The genre might be seen as a metaphor for the grip that conservative Britain had held on itself was beginning to slip through the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. In this sense, a sort of folk paranoia - the anxious suspicion that the common people hold their own, alien values uniting them against the protagonist-victim in unwholesome conspiracy - might be said to be a defining characteristic of the wider genre.

Early examples of these films were distanced from the subject of their paranoia slightly by the use of period settings, but the genre would soon move to more modern settings. The films of the era that more or less codified classic "Folk Horror" include:

  • Witchfinder General (1968)
  • Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)
  • The Wicker Man (1973)

However, the roots of the genre must surely go a little deeper, and can be seen in British TV plays/movies of the 1960s, in the paranoid science-fiction and witchcraft dramas of Nigel Kneale, in such paranoid sci-fi stories as John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, and notably also in the stories of M.R. James and Arthur Machen (which can be counted among H.P. Lovecraft's favorite authors); carrying that thought further, in many ways the Folk Horror genre might be thought of as a cousin to the "Red scare" ("pod people") subgenre of Science Fiction, of the sort that substitutes alien "pod people" invaders for Folk Horror's witches, and tones down the more lurid aspects of witch-hunters and satanic rituals in favor of alien body horror, eerie UFO special effects, and other science-fiction-flavored tropes....

More General Folk Horror Genre

The apocalyptic triumph of gin (right) over paternal British order (left) at the intersection of Beer Street and Gin Lane by William Hogarth, circa 1751....

In a broader sense, this genre can be said to be characterized by a supernatural, ominous quality to rural areas and the wilderness, and a paranoia of the people who live there, with ancient religions and ancient ways resurfacing from hiding to cast a long shadow over the present; this is sometimes even extended beyond the rural countryside, and into the heart of cities, such as the New York or Rome of Rosemary's Baby in its original and remake, or the New York of The Seventh Victim. In all cases, there may be a power or potency to the witchcraft involved, but the main threat is that of more or less human witches and cultists, and their even more human puppets and conspirators.

Thus, the stricter definition might be extended to include earlier and/or non-English film examples such as:

  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • Curse of the Demon (1957)
  • Race with the Devil (1975)
  • Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Here, we can see the roots of the genre extending even deeper into horror film history into the low-budget American horror films of Val Lewton of the 1940s with their roots in turn found deep in the soil of Film Noir and the pulps, with even deeper origins passing through the hands of the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn drew inspiration from Nathaniel Hawthorne and his tales in turn inspired by the paranoia of conservative Puritan America, seemingly barely holding its grip in the face of the vast, shadowy, and unknown American wilderness just beyond their colonies, and the equally vast, unknown, and shadowy wilderness hidden within the hearts of the American Puritans themselves....

The print "Beer Street and Gin Lane" (Hogarth, 1751) is, perhaps, an early British example of the genre, in which a healthy, happy, orderly beer-drinking British working class on "Beer Street" gives way to the madness, death, illness, decay, and disorder of "Gin Lane"; it seems that, historically, the rise of the "foreign spirit" of alcoholic gin was attributed to a rise in the free market over paternal English control (pleas from middle and upper-class English men to the Crown to intervene in and ban gin sales would largely go unanswered for the decades between the 1690s and 1730s), with gin itself largely seen as a plague upon the English working class, spread by women, who made up a significant portion of the licensed sellers of the spirit, as well as a significant portion of the unlicensed sellers, and a majority of the sellers arrested for illegal sales. (One might simply replace gin with witchcraft to see the suggestion of a parallel....)

Arguably, there are even elements of Folk Horror to be found in such far-flung and surprising places as the paranoid science fiction movie, The Stepford Wives (1975), in which the titular wives find themselves the victims of a secret, and almost absurd conspiracy by the men of the town of Stepford to secretly replace them with physically perfect mindless robots... a sort of reversal of the undercurrent of sexual politics implied in more traditional Folk Horror, in which witchcraft seems to be a decidedly feminine and irrational force or - if you will - "hysteria" that threatens to overwhelms and subsume the more masculine, reserved British or Puritan societies.

Though there are similarities between Folk Horror and Gothic Horror, and the two genres can blur broadly where they meet in the middle, it should be noted that there tends to be a small but distinct difference between standard Gothic horror and Folk horror, in that Gothic horror may distance the subject by placing it into an imaginary setting, while Folk Horror tends to place the horror unambiguously into our reality; for Gothic Horror, the hidden witchcraft and witches take on a distant and bizarre quality: Gothic witchcraft and witches are from strange places and strange times, and take on unnatural and strange appearances and qualities, while in folk horror there's a peculiarly mundane, every-day quality to the witches and witchcraft, once the masquerade falls: they are your neighbors, your family, your government, and have been all along, you just haven't noticed before....

General Tales of Hidden or Resurgent Witchcraft

(TO DO - technically, not all movies about witches are "Folk Horror" stories, but a few such stories, such as many American made-for-TV movies from roughly the same era (1970s), hold similarities to classic British Folk Horror; for the purpose of this article, I'm generally extending "Folk Horror" very broadly to describe a number of subgenres relating to witches and witchcraft - as well as cults and satanism - as a malevolent and hidden force in the modern and period settings.)

The American TV movies tend to run closer toward the Gothic end of the spectrum, with modern survivals of witch-cults being somewhat less common than themes of possession or haunting by the ghosts of witches, usually shortly after moving into a mansion in Salem or other "witch-haunted" corner of America, the UK, or sometimes Europe. The haunting or possession generally lasts long enough to drive characters to solve a mystery and end the supernatural events. In a sense, the novel on which the film The Legend of Hell House (1973) was based, featuring an investigation into a haunted house by a team of scientists and psychics who resolve the haunting by solving its mysteries, might be seen as an ancestor for these American films - as well as one of the models for the prototypical "The Haunting (RPG scenario)".


Details


Film List

"Lovecraftian" Analysis

TO_DO:

Lovecraft tended toward the Gothic end of the spectrum, but inherited a slight tendency toward elements of what would eventually become Folk Horror by way of Nathaniel Hawthorne on one hand, with his hints of grotesqueries hidden just behind the stolid, sober facade of Puritan society and lurking in the looming forests of the American wilderness as inherited from the writings of witch-hunters and ministers such as Cotton Mather, and Arthur Machen on the other, with his hints of ancient and forgotten horrors lurking just below the British countryside, emerging by night to corrupt and pollute the surface world and mingle blasphemously with the local Anglo-Saxon populations of the surface world in the lonely, rural places where the two worlds meet....

Of course, Lovecraft could imagine hints of both influences lurking in the remote, sparsely-populated countrysides of rural "Lovecraft Country, but it's notable that Lovecraft could also, in his xenophobia, imagine such influences lurking within plain sight in the great cities of America, behind the decaying facades of houses now populated by waves of immigrants and whatever unutterable secrets they might have brought to America with them from "alien" countries and worlds, and thus Lovecraft may be said to have pioneered some aspects of those Folk Horror-style stories set within modern cities, though those stories rarely hold much obvious in common with Lovecraft's weird tales of ancient and forgotten monsters dragged into the light by modern science and strange alien gods worshiped in secret by unknown cults.

For the foundation of a Lovecraftian adaptation of the Folk Horror genre, one might begin with the work of Arthur Machen, with its hints of the survival of ancient and monstrous witch-cults thriving (literally) underground at the fringes of Irish and/or British civilization, led by subhuman and primitive "little people".

Additionally, the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne might similarly be mined for some basic ideas, with its hints of the secret nations of the devil at work within the American wilderness, threatening at any time to spill over into the hearts and homes of Puritan colonists, and spread from there by night and by secret as a hidden corruption throughout civilization by the devil's agents dressed as respectable members of society.

For Lovecraft's own work, see stories such as Dreams in the Witch House (fiction), Case of Charles Dexter Ward (fiction), Horror at Red Hook (fiction), Pickman's Model (fiction)....


Associated Mythos Elements


Keeper Notes

  • The Witchwood (setting) in development by members of YSDC and described in its wiki is meant to be a Folk Horror style setting flavored by subtle elements of Lovecraftian horror.


General Notes

Comments, Trivia, Dedication

Quotes

Black magic has risen in Witchwood
Their devilry takes place within our lonely woods
Such strange words & stranger visions
Forbidden hymns to summon things one never should
Our children leave to hear their song
Rituals to which they now belong
Black magic rites
Black magic, so long forgotten
What mysteries lay hidden in the Piper's song?
Ancient world, ever-nearing
It's much too late, there's no escape; we're far too gone
A woman stood at Witchwood Cross
And spoke to me, although a stranger
Of eldritch worlds once thought lost
And blasphemies that once were whispered
She said: you'll welcome us into your homes
We'll linger in your blood
Our ways are in your bones
From the Witchwood we rise and greet you at your door
The old ways remain and the ancient gods they live on

- Blood Ceremony, "Witchwood"


Synopses (SPOILERS)