Horror as Folk: Folk Horror (or Lack Thereof) in Lake of the Dead (1958) and Tilbury (1987)
Okay, so the question of whether or not a movie really counts as folk horror is one that has already come up a few times in the (brief, thus far) life of this column. We started off with an attempt at creating some sort of rubric for the subgenre and never really settled on a fully satisfactory set of conditions for what makes a movie “folk horror” or not. However, I think I can safely say pretty emphatically that Lake of the Dead is not folk horror.
Instead, this slow-burning Norwegian flick from 1958 is a murder mystery with a ghostly red herring, neither of which are folk horror. Even if we take the ghost story as literal, that would still mean that every ghost story ever tied to a specific place (which is, after all, most of them) is a folk horror story, which seems absurd on its face.
So, why did Lake of the Dead make it into Severin’s All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set? Obviously, I’m not the curator of this set, so I couldn’t tell you the actual reason, but the fact that it’s from Norway probably didn’t hurt. There’s a certain Anglophone tendency to regard as “more folk” just about anything from a non-English-speaking culture. There’s also the isolated cabin setting, which renders the ghost story-cum-murder mystery rural, at least. And there’s the titular lake, which looms large in both the film’s diegetic folklore and the actual plot.
Ultimately, as hygge as the film’s cabin is, it is probably that lake that comes closest to making this a folk horror film. That is a tie to the land, after all, and there’s a suggestion, at least, that the seemingly bottomless lake and its mysterious undertow had some presence in local lore even before the events of the ghost story. Again, though, if every movie that is heavily tethered to a sense of place counts as folk horror, we are going to be here all day.
If Lake of the Dead isn’t folk horror, then what is it? As I said, it’s a murder mystery that uses a local ghost myth as its thematic building block and basic red herring. In the decade before the 1950s, American studios were churning out countless films of similar vintage, though few of them were quite as atmospheric (or as lethargic) as this flick. Despite an incredibly slow burn for a picture that is only 76 minutes long, there’s a lot to like in Lake of the Dead, for those who have the patience for it. It’s just that none of it really qualifies for that “folk” appellation.
Tilbury, on the other hand, emphatically is folk horror, taking the folk belief of the eponymous, butter-excreting imp and transforming it into a metaphor for the British occupation of Iceland during World War II. Released in 1987 and set during the (comparatively modern) spring of 1940, this made-for-TV movie is a few minutes shy of an hour long, and it’s one of the weirder hours you’ll ever spend.
It starts with a voiceover explaining (in English) the folklore of the tilbury, an imp that can be created by women in times of hardship. The tilbury steals milk from the neighboring cows and then disgorges a unique butter, the unholy origins of which can be revealed if the sign of the cross is made above it. (In the movie, this involves the butter literally turning into rats and mice.) In return, the tilbury suckles from a nipple located on the woman’s inner thigh.
From there, we are plunged into the story of a young swimmer who goes to Reykjavik to work for the British army and try to find his childhood sweetheart, who, it turns out, is carrying on with a British officer who is also the eponymous tilbury. As you can imagine, the resulting concoction is a dizzying combo of criticism of the British (and later American) presence in the country during the war and coming-of-age anxiety about female sexuality.
There’s a lot going on in Tilbury’s brief runtime. The imp in question masquerades as an officer and vomits up grotesque green butter, which the other soldiers take entirely in stride. There’s an extended dance sequence and plenty of erotically charged moments, and some questionable politics where Nazis are concerned. There’s also some extremely pointed criticism of Cadbury and Hershey, specifically, who almost certainly did not sponsor this picture. Odds are, you’ve not seen very many movies as deeply weird – but still wholly comprehensible – as Tilbury.
It’s also a sharp deviation from a lot of the other folk horror that we’ll be watching in this column. It hits all of the necessary beats to count, drawing expressly and directly from folk beliefs, and there are moments in it that could have come from an A24 film. But in style and tone, it is more satirical than anything, with overblown performances that are treated as normal by everyone in the film. On Letterboxd, author Scott Cole compared it to the TV show Monsters, which doesn’t feel inapt, especially where the budget and aesthetics of Tilbury are concerned. At the same time, Monsters never did an episode as explicitly rooted in the political state of Iceland during the Second World War – for probably obvious reasons.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.