Folk horror: a sub-genre of horror that draws on the roots of our cultures

Witches, demons and ancient gods… Folk horror feeds on the oldest popular myths and legends of our history, sources of fascination and deep fear buried in each of us. Imbued with enchantment and occultism forgotten in our modern society, lose yourself on a short journey into the heart of the folk horror mysteries.

Mykyta Martynenko | Unsplash

Before we begin our horrific journey, I think it is essential to reveal what characterizes the horror genre in film and literature, specifically folk horror. 

We all know it. We have all more or less experienced it in our short, insignificant lives. Horror films and literary works are primarily intended to arouse in the viewer a strong sense of dread, a feeling of fear, repulsion, or anguish in the spectator. It is not possible to define whether horror films are realistic or fantasy. It is essential to understand that the horror genre is an umbrella term that includes all sorts of sub-genres. Paranormal, found footage, slasher, survival, and the folk horror genre are what I will now introduce.

I might risk sounding a bit silly after having told you that we were going to discover together what folk horror is because this sub-genre of the horror film has no precise and established definition. 

Piers Haggard, a pioneer of British folk horror, describes it as “an aesthetic, a tone, not a plot”.

“One may as well attempt to build a box the same shape of mist; for like mist, folk horror is atmospheric… tearing no universal defining mark of its exact form.” 

— Andy Paciorek, author/illustrator

Indeed, in all these mysterious and fascinating films, we find ourselves immersed in a rural environment unaltered by time and removed from our modern society. A place that exalts the feeling of isolation as well as being a material fact: the protagonists always find themselves cut off from their average routine and find themselves embroiled, without control over the elements. This surrounds them in a society with different customs or even forgotten from their modernized culture. In these communities lie aspects of paganism, ancient religions preceding Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, which are considered hostile by the protagonists. Depending on the region and country where the story takes place, occult or even supernatural practices and elements such as witchcraft, rituals celebrating nature and its forces, black magic, etc., stem from these pagan religions. Thus the last essential ingredient in making a good folk horror film and in particular that which demonstrates that they belong to the horror genre: violent “supernatural” events. Supernatural in inverted commas because these films are also divided into two categories: realistic folk horror and fantastic folk horror.

One will not use non-existent elements to take the viewer out of their reasonable frame but will use the religious fervor of the characters belonging to the pagan community to create an atmosphere disconnected from reality. The other will use the fantastic elements more artistically or poetically to create a universe of its own, bringing back to life the ancient legends lost in time. It stimulates the viewer’s imagination by not showing any tangible manifestations of the supernatural, a kind of psychological manipulation exercised by the group effect of the pagan community. 

By drawing on all these myths belonging to different human societies throughout the world, folk horror builds its strange and enchanting imagination. 

And so, we begin our journey to Western Europe. This is the region of the world where all the foundations of our western and globalized culture are rooted. While researching the subject through various articles and documentary videos on the internet, I often found myself frustrated by the angle used in each of these sources. The creators of this content only focus on Western film and literature, or even just British culture. I couldn’t think that Britain alone could have produced folk horror content when so many countries have such a rich culture and even folklore and superstitions that are very much a part of their society. I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity by finding the content I was looking for and understanding the ins and outs of the history of folk horror in Western cinema.

One might think that “folk horror” was an English invention. Piers Haggard, whom I mentioned earlier in the article, was the first to use the term when he made his 1971 film “The Blood on Satan’s claw .”A film in which an entire village lapses into madness after a man claims to have seen the devil. Two other British films, “The Wicker Man” by Robin Hardy and “The Witchfinder General” by Michael Reeves, form, together with Piers Haggard’s “the unholy trinity,” the unholy trinity, considered pioneering works that gave concrete expression to the term folk horror. The concept was then taken up and popularized much later in 2010 by Mark Gatiss in his documentary “A History of Horror,” triggering a renaissance of the sub-genre in Western cinema after its first appearance in the 1970s. 

Joshua Newton | Unsplash

Let’s get deep further into the subject. Folk horror films from Western Europe draw their inspiration from Celtic and Druidic culture and traditions and the Greek and Roman ones that preceded the establishment of the Christian religion in this region. The religion of the Celts is transmitted orally and frozen in the caricatured representations of the 18th century. The mystery of this religion and the knowledge lost through the generations have aroused a fascination and a fear of the unknown. That has stimulated the imagination of European authors. Hybrid works between the Christian and the pagan fantasy, such as the Arthurian literary cycle, are also a significant inspiration for the religious framework of these films. These Celtic inspirations, altered by a Judeo-Christian vision, then mutate into a variant of Satanism, a recurrent element in horror films in general.

The films I mentioned earlier are largely inspired by Celtic mythology. The best example is Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man,” which references the Celtic rite of the same name (most certainly fantasized by Julius Caesar in the past, the only witness to this alien practice). This rite, supposedly Celtic, consisted of locking individuals in a wooden effigy of a giant and burning everything to offer human life as a sacrifice to the gods. It is thus possible to find in Western cinema, even outside the sub-genre of folk horror, many references to our pre-Christian culture, unfortunately, distorted by a blatant puritanism.

But the influence of folk horror does not stop at the borders of Western Europe, let alone Great Britain. You’ve probably already heard about Midsommar and its Swedish pagan inspiration. Ari Aster’s monumental folk horror hit reignited the genre’s popularity in 2019. Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa and its many references to central European mythology. Or, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, with its depiction of the witch across the Atlantic in the age of the Pilgrims and the colonization of the American continent. Even lesser-known regions of Europe produce this content, such as Errementari, a Basque film directed by Paul Urkijo, which takes up the old Basque legend of a blacksmith who sells his soul to the devil. The list could be endless. Although the British were the first to conceptualize the genre, many films, particularly in Asia (Japan, Korea, Indonesia, etc.) and the Middle East (Turkey: the Dabbe film series), have always used elements of their respective folklore to create a horrific atmosphere. Among others, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan transcribes on the big screen the stories of the most famous Japanese Yokai and spirits. Na-hong Jin’s The Wailing, which at first glance doesn’t seem to belong to this category, but which, as it goes along, borrows the codes of the “folk horror” atmosphere with its ancient shaman and Buddhist ceremonies.

I am aware that I am only at the surface of the iceberg of works in the folk-horror sub-genre. Yet, after this long research on the subject, I wonder. Why is folk horror so fascinating to me? What is it that distances it, in my opinion, from the rest of the horror film genres? 

In the same way as the more classic horror films (vampire films like Coppola’s Dracula or vengeful spirits like Colin Minihan’s Grave Encounters), I think that folk horror films stimulate my imagination and my thirst for creativity and originality in the genre. While I greatly appreciate the classic horror figures I mentioned earlier, the use of elements from our own (or our neighbors’) culture also drives me to learn more about them. As a history and mythology enthusiast, delving so far into our past helps awaken secrets buried in our civilizations. But also to reconnect with ancient literary works forgotten in time. The occult aesthetics of these films are almost fairy-like, subjugating, and produce fascinating mental pictures that leave a mark in my mind.  

I also know that for others, the appetite for such works results from their deep desire to escape from the current reality. Modern, technological society is at odds with an ancient, mystical culture. Some identify with the characters in these films (like Dani in Midsommar), who surrender to the occult world of folklore and let go of their reality under control. But these films do not hesitate to remind us of the dangerous aspect of nature and the beings it shelters. It is a sort of warning to naive idealists who want to have a good time before returning to their everyday life or to selfish and arrogant individuals who think they can take advantage of its strengths.

“Folk horror reminds us that in comparison to this ancient natural world in which we live, we are small and insignificant. We are surrounded by something bigger, older, and more powerful than us.”

— Mike Muncer, Evolution of Horror

Carole Alibert

Youtube – The Eldritch Archives; Folk Horror A Beginner’s Guide, Evolution of Horror; an Introduction to Folk Horror, Birth. Movies. Death

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