The following essay is a chapter from Timo Hännikäinen’s new book Medusan kasvot. Kirjoituksia kauhusta (The Face of Medusa: Writings on Horror).
The term “folk horror” usually refers to those British horror movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s influenced by folklore and often set in rural areas in past centuries. The term was presumably first used by director Piers Haggard, as he spoke about his film Blood on Satan’s Claw in an interview. As a concept it was first used by actor and screenwriter Mark Gatiss, in his BBC documentary A History of Horror (2010).
Horror fiction has utilized folk stories throughout its history, and therefore it is difficult or impossible to isolate folk horror as a separate genre. Vampire stories of the romantic period originated from old folk legends of the Balkans, which became an object of common interest at the beginning of the 18th century. Greek-born cosmopolitan Lafcadio Hearn introduced Japanese ghost stories of the Edo period to the Western audience in his book Kwaidan (1904).
In cinema, the influence of folklore can already be seen in the horror movies of the silent era, and such well-known horror movies as The White Reindeer (1952), Night of the Demon (1957), Onibaba (1964), and Kwaidan (1965) can quite easily be categorized as folk horror. All these films share the same themes as the British folk horror classics of the 1960s and 1970s: sexuality and its control, religion as an instrument of power, and the return of long-forgotten myths to the present. Thematic and stylistic relations can also be found to many movies that are not usually categorized as horror, like Dreyer’s The Day of Wrath (1943) and Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). Furthermore, folkloristic horror did not by any means wither after the early ’70s; some recent movies like A Field in England (2013) and the much-praised The Witch (2015) are inspired by the tradition.
In any case, the British folk horror wave deserves to be dealt with separately, because the films that represent it are strikingly alike in both style and substance. There is also a new interest in these movies, and it has been also noted in the mainstream media. Some British columnists have seen folk horror movies as an expression of yearning for rural surroundings and traditional ways of life – which, infatuated with their own cleverness, they have connected to Brexit. In the online magazine The Quietus, Adam Scovell, who has written a book and several articles on folk horror, compared Brexit supporters to the islanders of The Wicker Man (1973), who burn an innocent outsider alive in an ancient druid ritual, because a wacky aristocrat has duped them into believing that by doing this they can prevent the crops from failing.
These kind of comparisons are a little comical, because earlier the progressives thought that the heathen island community of The Wicker Man was emancipated. They considered the sexual openness of the islanders exemplary compared to the stiff puritanism of the police officer who becomes their victim. In the eyes of today’s progressives, the same community has turned into a frightening lynch mob living in a barbaric past. The change reflects the disappointment that the intelligentsia has always felt when the hoi polloi has not adopted its ideals.
Altogether, to define the horror genre as progressive or reactionary, Leftist or Rightist, is politically tendentious and misleading. Both elements can be found in almost every remarkable horror movie. Many horror films reflect fear of the unknown and the unforeseen, but it is also common that something that is buried in history arises to torment the living. On the other hand, the invasion of the boogeymen of the past can also be interpreted as a critique of the progressivist myth; modern arrogance towards the cultural capital of the ancestors must backfire.
The Wicker Man, the most well-known and recognized folk horror movie, cannot be unambiguously politicized either. It yields itself to interpretations of the Summerisle community as a hippie paradise that has avoided bourgeois corruption. The character of Sergeant Howie is a parodic personification of restrained and joyless puritanism, and he sees blasphemy and immorality all around him. Howie also exemplifies colonialist attitudes: he believes his holy mission is to convert the ”savages,” whether are they satisfied in their own way of life or not.
But these interpretations ignore the fact that the Summerisle community does not pass the litmus test of modern egalitarianism. The community is based on patriarchal order that is maintained by the aristocratic Lord Summerisle. The sexuality of the islanders is easygoing, but aims at reproduction, not hedonistic fulfillment. The object of various sexual rites is to secure fertility, and their primary elements are phallic symbols. Such “heteronormativity” would not be accepted by today’s feminists.
Furthermore, The Wicker Man can also be interpreted from a Christian point of view. Despite his ludicrousness, Howie keeps his faith all the way and dies a martyr’s death, which is at the core of his religion. When he is burned alive inside a giant man-shaped wicker statue, he joins the martyrs and saints who have sacrificed their lives to spread Christianity. Perhaps Howie’s death is necessary to make the islanders turn away from their cruel practices and toward a new faith.
European culture has its roots in ancient paganism, medieval Christianity, and the scientific rationalism of the modern period. Folk horror movies depict the collision of these three traditions, and the conflict culminates in The Wicker Man. Howie comes from a world that is built on the two latter traditions, and he cannot understand the older tradition of Summerisle. The spiritual battle between Howie and Lord Summerisle is unequal, because Howie is torn from his roots and thrown into a strange environment, but Lord Summerisle stands on his own soil with his own people. When an island woman says to Howie that he can never understand the true meaning of sacrifice, she suggests that Christianity represented by the police officer has started to slacken. After winning the war against paganism, Christianity itself has been trampled by the scientific worldview, and its ideas of sacrifice are only metaphors without true contact with reality. But finally Howie reproduces the most fundamental sacrificial narrative of his religion in a very tangible way, and the irony of the finale lies in the fact that the two very different religious traditions find a common ground in human sacrifice. And also in the fact that burning people alive was not an unknown practice to Christians either, who once burned heretics and witches in their mass repressions.
The idea of sacrifice is common to all three traditions, as I mentioned earlier. Animals and food were sacrificed to gods in European heathen cultures, and during hard times even human sacrifice was used. In Christianity, the death of Christ was the ultimate sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind, and after that no further sacrifices were needed. However, sacrificing oneself and suffering for one’s faith have remained as solid parts of the Christian worldview, and the history of Christianity is full of stories about martyrs thrown to lions and missionaries killed by pagans. And the concept of sacrifice is not alien to the secular ideologies, either: sacrifices are made in the name of scientific progress, no matter if they are laboratory animals or scientists who get killed in the course of their experiments. Marxist ideology, which considered itself scientific, proved its readiness to sacrifice millions of people to reach its egalitarian utopia.
Nietzsche, Émile Durkheim, and many others have found an inherent masochism and self-destructiveness in Christianity. It has been claimed that the early Christians intentionally provoked heathens to kill them, so that they would enjoy the delights of Paradise sooner. The death of Howie in The Wicker Man is in a way the most wonderful thing that a man of faith like him can experience – one cannot go further in following the example of Christ. It is a win-win situation: the islanders want to sacrifice, and Howie is ready to sacrifice himself – perhaps deep inside he even wants to.
In folk horror movies, encounters with different religions are violent, and an important theme is the connection between religion and violence. In paganism, there is inherent violence in the form of human sacrifice. Christianity, on the other hand, has to annihilate pagan ways of life with iron and blood, just like it did in actual history.
Of course the depictions of heathen traditions in these movies are not to be taken as historically accurate accounts. Robin Hardy, the director of The Wicker Man, was greatly influenced by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which emphasizes the importance of human sacrifice in fertility rites. Frazer connected almost every pre-Christian practice to “fertility,” and he also took the Roman historians’ depictions of Celtic sacrificial practices seriously. Julius Caesar has written that the Celts burned criminals alive inside wicker statues, but his account is based on secondary sources, and its validity is uncertain. But let us not get tangled in footnotes. In any case, human sacrifice was practiced, although it was rare; and Christians did burn heretics in the Middle Ages and witch suspects in the modern period, although the depictions of that in folk horror films are often grossly exaggerated.
A little-known but but interesting film, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, brings the variable of the Enlightenment rationalism into the equation of violence. When a group of adolescents revive a dangerous ancient cult in an 18th-century English village, a local judge does not believe the claims about witchcraft and evil spirits and thinks they are only superstitions that belongs to the past. But soon he realizes he has encountered forces so mighty that they can only be resisted with old means. Gradually, he turns into a kind of inquisitor who crushes the scourge with an iron heel. In the final scene, the judge is depicted as a sword-wielding warrior of faith, and his harsh face is seen through blazing flames.
Christian violence is shown in its most extreme form in Witchfinder General (1968), the first classic of the genre. The Wicker Man, for instance, includes a lot of comical elements, but Witchfinder General is a thoroughly gloomy and brutal depiction of the collapse of the social order during the 17th-century English Civil War. Its main character is based on a historical figure, a Civil War-era witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins, who is believed to have hung three hundred witch suspects in East Anglia with his henchmen. During his time, there were more people executed for witchcraft in England than in the previous hundred years.
In the film, Hopkins (Vincent Price) is an opportunistic social climber who takes advantage of old grudges which social chaos has brought to the surface. He goes from village to village to organize arbitrary witch trials and charges local magistrates for his services. He declares that he is doing God’s work, but he is driven by a lightly veiled urge to power, sex, and wealth.
Witchfinder General is an exceptional folk horror movie because it includes no real conflict between paganism and Christianity. The people Hopkins hounds and tortures do not really practice witchcraft or pagan rituals; they are only unfortunate instruments of Hopkins’ efforts to gain power. On the other hand, the common superstition that Hopkins utilizes in his work is very old and shows its might every time the official order is shaken. It can be used to incite people to atrocities, no matter how pious or enlightened they think they are. The actual source of horror in this and many other folk horror films is a brutal and agitated mob that cannot be calmed with rational arguments. It is like a force of nature, and anyone who happens to be in its way should abandon all hope.
At first glance, films like The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General seem to give a rather gloomy picture of European peoples and their beliefs. But it is impossible not to notice a certain romantic nationalism in them. The heathens of The Wicker Man seem to be sympathetic people with their songs, dances, and jests. They are perfectly content with their way of life, where nature is full of positive meanings. Therefore, the shock is even greater when their dark side is revealed.
All in all, these movies tell us that sempiternal rituals and beliefs have power, and simultaneously they suggest that mainstream society lacks this kind of power. The communities which practice ancient rites have secret knowledge, or at least a clearer understanding, of the true nature of things. They somehow represent more “authentic” folk than their modern heirs. The idea of secret knowledge has always been basic material for horror movies, but in folk horror this knowledge is not cherished by some occult cabal, but is within the reach of the simple common man.
But this common man is not any kind of noble savage. Respect for the powers of nature can turn into sacrificial cults; close-knit communality can breed violent mass hysteria. If there is a common message in folk horror films, it may be that the modern and the archaic ways of life are both imperfect in their own ways, and that they cannot be placed in rank order. One cannot choose either without paying a certain price – without sacrificing something.
But this choice is not for an individual to make. Established ways of life are products of cultures and nations, not anything that can be chosen or rejected with a conscious decision. The other clear message of folk horror is that in the heart of a nation, or technically any community, there is something deeply irrational. This is expressed perhaps in the most straightforward way in the opening scene of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, where a deformed human skull is found in a field — in other words, from soil and landscape. There is something so old that it is impossible to date. Its connection to modern man is magical rather than historical.
We cannot get rid of the pre-Christian and pre-modern past, and, what is more important, this past also includes precise understanding of the world and man’s place in it. In folk horror, modern man is inevitably a contradictory creature with an unstable relationship to the past and the present. The most fundamental element in these movies is the setting itself, no matter if it is a rural village or an isolated island. Practices, myths, and beliefs are born and formed in a certain limited region, among the people living there. Outside this area they lose their meaning. Milieu becomes a meeting place of eras: the past and the present meet, linear time shatters, and “here and now” disappears.
In a way, Europe lived this kind of blended time until the 19th or 20th century. Especially in the Medieval Age, Christian and heathen practices intermingled among the common people: old gods were called for help along with Christian saints, and faith in the heathen underworld lived side by side with heaven and hell. Even the later Protestant orthodoxy could not thoroughly annihilate this syncretism, and the church had to make many compromises with the older worldview and its customs, and also had to assimilate some older elements into itself. Traces of time immemorial started to disappear only with the advent of the scientific worldview and its practical adaptations – industrialization, urbanization, hygiene, and modern health care. Britain was the spearhead of the Industrial Revolution, and there the breach with the old folk culture was especially dramatic. Therefore it is no wonder that the folk horror wave started in Britain, although the subgenre has predecessors and followers in almost every other European country.
In the modern world, the elements of heathen folk culture live out of touch with their origins, as light versions. In fairy tales there are still goblins, leprechauns, witches, and magic. On festive occasions, old folk songs and dances are still performed, but many of them are not original folklore but later variations. Folk horror is based on an idea that there is also something dark and terrible in the original folk culture, and it is impossible to tame because the moral structure of the archaic world is so different from Christian humanist views. In the movies like The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the dark and the terrible rises to the surface, and because we cannot understand it, we cannot deal with it.