Exploring the terrifying world of folk horror films
In many ways, the fears of folk horror are those innate within the human psyche. The dread of the unknown, the ‘kindness’ of a stranger, our insecurities are laid to close study. In many cases, the last thing you’d want to see when you’re walking through the country, the wood or meadow, is another person. Worse still, a group of people. Stood at a distance, staring. What do they know that you don’t? You’re not in on it. But they most definitely are.
The fear of the ancient and unexplainable in an ever ordered world is a staple theme of folk horror. It’s a theme which underpins the pioneers of the genre, aptly named the ‘unholy trinity’, consisting of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). Each share an obsession with the power of place, of the vulnerability of isolation and the ignorance of the outsider in the face of an omniscient force.
At the core of all folk horror films is the fear of ignorance. Both the fear of individual ignorance to the ‘inside joke’ of the collective, as well as a fear that the collective are ignorant of their very actions. Appearing to operate through a higher power, or spirit, as opposed to moral reason.
The folk of The Wicker Man toy with Sergeant Howie, enacting a strange performance throughout the duration of his stay, where ignorance is pretended. The moment Howie steps on the island he is trapped, but he wouldn’t know it. He presumes free will when, in actual fact, he is in fact the protagonist in their latest play.
Such is also on display in Witchfinder General, just explored from a different angle. The mob of witch hunters would be quick to string up the townsfolk of Summerisle but are ignorant of their own deep-rooted paranoia. The fear of the other, the collective which you don’t understand, and feel like you never could unless you gave in and joined them.
This is typified by the lack of supernatural elements throughout folk horror. Whilst higher powers, demons or even the devil himself is often referred to, rare is it that they appear in their monstrous form; Though when they do, often they lift off the mask to reveal a familiar human face. To see the red-flesh of a dingy devil would in many ways be a relief, a reason. When, in reality, the evil is the sheer lunacy and hysteria of the individual, possessed by a ‘greater good’ that we could never understand.
For when you leave the safety of the city and enter the kinship of an isolated community, you’re also leaving the safety of structure, of reason and of law. You are surrendering your freedoms dictated by the government. New laws now apply, decided not by an elected party but an ethereal force, all seeing, knowing and powerful. Never physically seen, yet its existence mutually embraced.
This disorder and irregularity is perhaps the biggest fear of the modern world. As we find ourselves more connected than ever, the fear of disconnection becomes eerily more common yet increasingly more frightening. This would explain the recent revival of folk horror, from Ben Wheatley’s exploration of disconnection in the 2011 film Kill List, to the more traditional fear of the abandoned, overgrown and forgotten in the 2013 effort Borderlands. Whilst folk horror may be rooted in British tradition, it is American filmmakers who are currently pioneering the sub-genre. Robert Eggers’ The Witch, following English settlers in 1630’s new England recalls, the rural farmland of strict isolation and dread, desolation and hopelessness. Whilst Ari Asters’ Hereditary takes a more contemporary approach, suggesting that these ancient forces of disconnection can invade your ‘safe’ society. That the horror of the inexplicable isn’t on the fringes of society, in the recesses of the country, but instead within your bloodline, a plague handed down the generations. Within a contemporary society of individualism, the collective seems strange, uncomfortable and threatening.
Again, in Asters’ most recent release Midsommar, the film follows an American couple who unknowingly enter into a strange pagan ritual whilst attending a Swedish festival and looks to add to the increasing mythos of the folk genre. Ancient rituals inexplicable and bizarre, where contemporary rules no longer apply. It’s an attack on the individual from a forgotten world of a collective community. An attack from ancient powers once worshipped, now mocked, in a classic tale of folk horror.