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Horror as Folk: Celia (1989) and the Horrors of Childhood

Is a child’s imagination folklore?

For a change, I’m not actually objecting to Celia’s presence in this set. Rather, I’m acknowledging that its inclusion presents some interesting questions that are worth addressing when it comes to folk horror – what we mean by it, and what gets included.

Courtesy Severin

Ostensibly, the element of this film that gets it inducted into the pantheon is that the eponymous Celia – a precocious and imaginative nine-year-old girl whose summer is filled with tragedy – is obsessed with a particular fairy tale, in this case that of the Hobyahs, a story originally collected in Perth and included in Joseph Jacobs’ 1894 book More English Fairy Tales.

There’s a version of the story from that book on Wikisource, complete with illustrations. The Hobyahs there are a lot cuter than the ones in this movie, which are dripping, blue-skinned pig-men reminiscent of the swine things from William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderlands. Crucially, the Hobyahs are an actual fairy tale, positioning them as real-life lore and therefore opening Celia up to inclusion in a folk horror collection.

Here’s the thing, though. While the story of the Hobyahs is central to Celia’s imaginary world and, therefore, to the plot of the film, they could actually be any monsters, from any story ever – including ones that are wholly made up. The structure of the fairy tale itself has very little bearing on the plot and, indeed, Celia is as likely to pull images from, say, a noir movie that she watches as from the storybook Hobyahs.

However, I’m not at all convinced that this makes Celia any less ripe for inclusion as folk horror. This is because many other elements feel fitting, even while they aren’t rooted in existing folklore.

Courtesy Severin

Ultimately, this is a movie primarily about two things: the tragedies of coming of age, and the rituals that children create to make sense of their world. It is these rituals that I think actually establish Celia as a folk horror film, and its inclusion in All the Haunts Be Ours suggests the questions I mentioned earlier; namely, are the rituals that we invent for ourselves as children any less “folk” than those handed down through generations?

There are several moments in the film that touch upon this kind of “folklore of childhood,” but the two main ones that struck me were a moment when Celia and her friends attempt to work a sort of hex on their enemies, creating effigies of them, sticking them with pins, and throwing them into a fire. These acts are ones that we’re all familiar with as ways to “put the whammy” on people, but what really drives home the idea of this as a self-created mystical rite is Celia hammering a pair of scissors into the ground before they work the spell – something that feels less pulled from specific annals of other traditions, but very much like something a child would make up.

The other moment is the mock trial and execution near the end of the film that seemingly cleanses the children of guilt. This, again, harkens to real-life folkloric practices of mummery and ritual, while also reflecting the childhood tendency to “play pretend,” partly as a way to begin to understand the world of adults. Knowing the motions of grown-up justice, the children can pass through them without actually enacting them and thereby achieve a ritual cleansing.

Of course, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in Celia. If it’s a folk horror, it is inclusively rather than exclusively that. Think of this as something like a proto-Del Toro film, where a young girl uses imagination to both process and escape the difficulties of her life. One of the key differences being that a Del Toro film would probably never let its protagonist be as cruel as Celia is capable of being.

Courtesy Severin

Set in the 1950s, Celia takes place against the backdrop of the rabbit plague that swept Australia. This comes up primarily because Celia, more than anything, wants a pet rabbit. The film opens with the death of her grandmother, and moves through a string of tragedies, including the loss of her friendly neighbors and the eventual, heartbreaking demise of said pet rabbit. Along the way, lots of other bad things happen, too, and plenty of themes are cooking in the background (or foreground) of the plot.

The friendly neighbors are communists, for example, which is what eventually forces them to move. Celia’s parents are having problems, not least because her dad wants to bone the hot communist mom, even while he’s forbidding Celia from playing with them and turning them in for their commie leanings.

Nothing really rises to the forefront enough to feel like a heavy-handed metaphor, though, which is to the film’s credit. Ultimately, Celia is a story about the pain and confusion of growing up, about how kids know more than parents ever let themselves believe, and how children use stories and rituals to process what they know and try to make sense of a world into which they have not yet been fully inducted.

Is that folk horror? Maybe and maybe not, but Celia certainly feels like it fits better than several of the other films we’ve already explored in this column, for whatever that’s worth.